As one of your addicts, I was delighted with the August/September 1986 issue of American Heritage. For one thing, I was once a Fuller Brush Man. For another, I went through the Great Depression (“The Big Picture of the Great Depression”) during my teens. For yet another, trying to make a new career as a writer, I found ironic solace in reading “The Blighted Life of the Writer, Circa 1840.” As for “Positively the Last Word on Baseball,” thanks, but I wish Elting E. Morison would furnish a glossary for sport fans residing outside the United States and Japan. But the high point of my reading of this particular issue was Richard Rhodes’s article, “The Toughest Flying in the World.”
I was a “Humpster.” In fact, 1 believe I was the first Humpster. As a 2d lieutenant in the then U.S. Army Air Corps, I piloted the first Douglas C-47 to leave MacDill Field, Florida, as a member of the HALPRO unit bound for the China-Burma-India Theater in March 1942 and went (with secret orders signed by the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson) to the CBI by way of the South Atlantic route mentioned by Mr. Rhodes, except that Ascension Island not being then available to us, we flew directly from Brazil to Liberia. According to my log, that transatlantic flight took fourteen hours and thirty-five minutes, made possible by doubling the plane’s fuel range when we installed four fuel tanks in the fuselage.
I had just turned twenty-three the previous month and was the oldest member of the crew, with zero command experience, having graduated only the previous October with the Class of 41-H from the Randolph-Kelly Fields Flying Cadet Training Progam. Needless to say, it was the most exciting adventure of mv life.
HALPRO, following me, was diverted to North Africa when Rommel’s Afrika Corps burst British defenses and reached Al-Alamein, so 1 lost my CO by pounding on to China, where I got “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, the top gun in the area. He was at Shwebo, in Burma, when I arrived, preparing to walk out at the head of a Chinese army. Acting for him was an Infantry colonel named Olds, the only American officer I found at a British RAF airport named Dinjan. It was the jump-off point from Assam into Burma and China and served as the headquarters for me and other transport crewmen straggling into the area.
We were quartered in a British tea planter’s house, a rambling structure built on steel rails ten feet above tea and mud. It was raining when I landed at Dinjan and it was raining when I reached “Dingleberry,” the name we gave the house, and, so help me, I never saw either place when it was not raining.
Checking the weather was a joke. Colonel Olds saw no reason for it so long as he could get around in a Jeep—and he gave me unshirted hell for stalling around about such a silly concern. He had loaded my plane with five-gallon cans of aviation fuel bound for Claire Chennault’s American Volunteer Group that was then flying out of a Chinese strip named Loiwing. It was not on any map, but I was told to goddamn well find it.
Maps were another joke. I was using one printed by National Geographic and another I had picked up at Karachi; it showed all of Southeast Asia. Burma bore white splotches marked “unexplored.” The colonel had nothing better except rough-and-ready estimates of the heights of the mountains surrounding Dinjan on three sides. North were the Himalayas- don’t go that way, they were big trouble. East was a spur of that range running north-south, marking the border between Burma and China. South was a range called the Naga Hills—only nine thousand feet, but populated by headhunters.
The first flight out of Dinjan was the hairiest experience of my life. Taking off in rain, I went on instruments all the way up to fifteen thousand feet before I broke out, circling and praying all the way. Sucking on an oxygen tube, I took my bearings from the fantastic mountain peaks to the north and simply flew east until I saw breaks in the overcast, then found Loiwing by landing at two other places to ask for directions.
I met Chennault that day and delivered the load of gas. When he asked how I had found his base, I showed him my map. I think that was the only time I ever saw him laugh. But I was not laughing; I had no idea how to get back to Dinjan. He sent me to Shwebo (to pick up Stilwell, who turned down the offer of a ride) and gave me a heading northwest over the Naga Hills that did the trick—right off the top of his head.
A year and a half later I made it back to the States after about a hundred such flights, plus others all over southern China, never knowing that I must have been one of the best transport jockeys in the world until my suspicion was confirmed by Rhodes’s article.