“The Hump” I

Art by Romain Hugault

The loss of Burma drove a Texas-sized wedge between China and India. Japanese forces inside the salient threatened offensives into both countries and severed the Middle Kingdom from overland supply. American leadership feared China would quit the war. Time and again in recent years, they’d been told what China could accomplish given modern means, often in personal letters from Madame Chiang Kai-shek written on “Headquarters of the Generalissimo” stationery, and a steady flood of Kuomintang propaganda sold the public the same story. China was America’s darling, the favorite ally—the United States’ intrinsic anti-European resentment always tempered its pro-British feelings—and popular opinion demanded action to help China immediately. Much civilian sentiment believed Chinese manpower wedded to American matériel and know-how was the easiest, fastest, and least expensive manner to hit Japan. Not surprisingly, considering their sensitivity to public opinion, China enthusiasm ran hotter in Congress, the White House, and the State Department than it did in the Department of War. Vermont senator Warren Robinson Austin publicly demanded that more be done to support China’s war effort.

Chief of naval operations Admiral King, the Navy’s top officer, deplored Senator Austin’s pronouncements. “If such conception [as Senator Austin’s] is seriously held by those controlling high strategy it is fatally defective.… China’s [lack of] offensive spirit, physical and political, and difficulties of transportation were continuously reported before the fall of Rangoon. The simple truth is that we will be well on [our] way toward defeating Japan by the time [meaningful] lines [of supply] can be opened.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General George C. Marshall concurred with the Navy’s assessment. The U.S. ambassador to China, Clarence Gauss, had been sending home sobering evaluations of Chinese capabilities and intentions, and an Army officer on a liaison mission in China had presciently surmised that the Nationalist Chinese would “shun offensive action, wait until their allies had won the war, and then use their jealously husbanded supplies for the solution to the Communist problem.” Despite their uneasy public alliance in the United Front, for both Kuomintang and Communists, the fight to control China was the paramount conflict.

However, the American people lacked such a subtle understanding. They believed in China, and so did President Roosevelt. A self-admitted Sinophile due to Delano family roots in the China trade, he and many influential members of the State Department expected China to play an important role in Japan’s defeat and, as a strong, stable nation, to help guarantee peace in postwar Asia. Besides, on the eve of Rangoon’s loss two months before, President Roosevelt had specifically promised Chiang Kai-shek that American support would continue to reach China regardless of whether or not Japan closed the overland route, and as recently as April 28, President Roosevelt had assured the “gallant people of China that … ways will be found to deliver airplanes and munitions of war to the armies of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.”

Burma’s loss left airlift as the only means by which aid could be delivered, but considering the horrendous intervening topography and the impending monsoon, it wasn’t clear whether an airlift to China was feasible. Given unlimited resources, no professional air officer would have shied from the challenge, but the same shortage of transport aircraft that had hampered the China National Aviation Corporation since 1939 dogged Allied logisticians in the middle of 1942. Transport aircraft were extremely valuable assets that significantly enhanced the combat power of the units they supported, and there simply were not enough of them to satisfy the demands of every theater. Committing to China a major portion of those projected to come available meant shorting the fight against Hitler, the most dangerous enemy.

President Roosevelt made his position clear in a May 5 memorandum that he wrote to Lieutenant General H. H. “Hap” Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Corps: “It is essential that our route [to China] be kept open, no matter how difficult.”

The memo stayed in the White House overnight. It was delivered to General Arnold with a note appended by Harry Hopkins on May 6: “The President is very anxious that you see Soong today sometime.”

General Arnold duly summoned the Chinese foreign minister. To balance Arnold’s experience, T. V. Soong wanted his own aviation expert at the meeting, and later that day, in carefully tailored suits, William Langhorne Bond and the rotund foreign minister presented themselves in the “temporary buildings” lining the National Mall that had been built to house the War Department during the Great War, twenty-five years before.† Uniformed aides escorted Bond and Soong to a situation room. Chairs semi-circled a wall-mounted map of Asia and the Pacific that illustrated a dismal story—the enemy had won a hemisphere in six months. Capping the gloomy mood, banner headlines across the morning’s New York Times and Washington Post announced the surrender of Corregidor, America’s last toehold in the Philippines. A flock of officers milled about at the back of the room, waiting to begin a staff meeting once General Arnold dispensed with T. V. Soong, which Bond interpreted as a reflection of the relative importance the Air Corps assigned China. General Arnold appeared, his remaining white hair sheared so close it made his ears protrude beyond stern, fleshy cheeks. Without pleasantries, Arnold hoisted two chairs over to the map, keeping one for himself and motioning Soong into the other. Bond hesitated, then took another chair forward and settled himself off the minister’s shoulder as Arnold began a lecture on the difficulties of getting war matériel to China, citing the lengthy voyage to India at a time when an agonizing shipping shortage was the single biggest damper on America’s ability to deploy combat power. Each round-trip to India occupied a ship for four months. Matériel unloaded in Calcutta, Bombay, or Karachi spent weeks mired in the Indian rail network before reaching Assam, and those were only some of the more serious frictions wearing at the logistic chain before supplies reached the beginning of an airlift. Arnold then sank his teeth into that topic, lamenting aircraft shortages, un- and underdeveloped airfields and facilities in India and China, and the region’s atrocious geography and meteorology. The highest summits of the eastern Himalayas soared into the middle reaches of the stratosphere, past twenty-three thousand feet, altitudes unattainable by loaded transports. Hundreds of peaks towered over fifteen thousand feet, none of the passes dipped below ten thousand, and the southwest monsoon blanketed South Asia from mid-May until mid-October, dumping constant rain. Violent thunderstorms plagued the area in the months before the monsoon. Only in late autumn and winter was the weather predictably clear, and those conditions were hardly benign—the cold at altitude was paralytic, invisible winds tearing over the mountains could actually move a plane backward, and there were no clouds in which to hide from marauding Japanese pursuit squadrons.

Bond found General Arnold remarkably well versed in reasons the airlift wouldn’t succeed, considering he’d never visited the area or flown the route. When Arnold railed on about how impossible it would be to fly across a region washed by five hundred inches of annual rainfall, Bond couldn’t contain himself any longer. “Sir, I’ve heard about these five hundred inches from lots of people, but I’ve never actually met anyone with direct knowledge. Supposedly, it’s just one place. We keep schedules in the monsoon without undue difficulty.”

General Arnold plowed ahead, deploring the state of radio navigation facilities on the Asian mainland. Bond noted that his airline was installing three-hundred-foot radio navigation towers at Kunming, Calcutta, and Dinjan, all of which would be in operation within ninety days.

Undaunted, the general soldiered forward. His discourse was generally accurate, but in Bond’s mind the data didn’t support the conclusion Arnold had obviously already reached—that flying a strategically significant quantity of supplies to China wasn’t worth the effort it would entail. Arnold seemed devoid of sympathy for China’s predicament, and his brusque condescension embarrassed Bond on Soong’s behalf. The Chinese foreign minister sat through it in stony silence, until Arnold stood and terminated the meeting. Soong barely spoke until they were outside the War Department. “You did your best, Bondy, and you were wise not to persist.”

“It’s depressing. He should realize we know more about flying over there than anybody else.”

“The interest isn’t there.”

After extensive lobbying in the War Department, the State Department, the White House, and the Lend-Lease Administration, which was headed by Edward Stettinius, father of Juan Trippe’s wife Betty, Bond, Bixby, and Soong had received assurances of airplanes for CNAC. The initial deliveries were to be DC-3 passenger liners stripped from domestic service and converted to cargo use, officially making them C-53s. Later would come C-47s, the military version of the DC-3 constructed specifically for carrying freight. “Dr. Soong, if you make sure we get those Lend-Lease planes, we’ll demonstrate so clearly the route can be flown he’ll have to do it,” Bond vowed.

The first of the promised planes had already begun arriving in eastern India, along with increasing numbers of Army airplanes, personnel, and equipment, but as the Army Air Corps stepped up its operational pace, its general level of competence failed to impress the professional aviators of the China National Aviation Corporation. There were scores of examples. Moon Chin had had trouble flying into Lashio because a raw Army radio operator could handle only one incoming flight. The airline’s Chinese radio operators, vastly more experienced men, routinely handled multiple aircraft simultaneously. An Air Corps pilot flying passengers from Chungking to Kunming had gotten so badly lost that he ran out of fuel and crashed 150 miles from Canton, closer to Japanese lines than to his intended destination. Chuck Sharp rescued one of the eight B-17 heavy bombers the Air Corps had managed to get to India after it made an emergency landing on a Hooghly River sandbar because the Air Corps was unwilling to undertake a high-risk, short-field takeoff from the soft surface, and AVG ground crews had had a series of near disasters attempting takeoff from Kunming in an Air Corps Douglas piloted by an inexperienced lieutenant. Finally—and barely—aloft, the volunteers demanded to return to Kunming and insisted that CNAC fly them instead.

Since Pearl Harbor, Chennault’s AVG—the Flying Tigers—had spent more time in combat than any other American pilots in the world, by far, and they’d been phenomenally successful, but they were also an extremely awkward outfit to fit into the overall war effort. Air Corps enterprises would soon dwarf the AVG, and Army morale couldn’t tolerate fighting alongside a band of highly paid civilians. However, Chennault, his fliers, and the Chinese government wanted to keep the volunteers operating as currently constituted, extolling their motivation, skill, and flexibility. What to do with the volunteer group, how to support and employ it, and whether or not to induct it into the U.S. military had been subjects of lively debate in China and Washington from the moment America entered the war.

Heading the Army’s aviation efforts on the Asian mainland was forty-six-year-old Brigadier General Clayton L. Bissell, commander of the Tenth Air Force, and one of Bissell’s many responsibilities was implementing, executing, and managing the China airlift, which President Roosevelt had required the Air Corps to undertake. A War Department favorite who’d compiled an excellent record as a staff officer, Bissell was expert in unglamorous but essential logistics. Chennault coveted his job, but Generals Marshall, Arnold, and Stilwell worried that Chennault’s extremely close, long-running relationship with China compromised his ability to act in U.S. interests, nor did any of them think he could handle the required staff work. On paper, Bissell and Chennault seemed an excellent combination: expert logistician and cunning tactician. In reality, it was an unfortunate pairing, because Claire Chennault loathed Clayton Bissell. Nor was Chennault’s opinion unique. Most people found Bissell extraordinarily unpleasant, but since he had responsibility for airlifting supplies to China, he was one of the officers with whom CNAC was required to work most closely.

Bond had promised that an airlift to China was possible; he hadn’t promised that it would be easy. A host of problems hampered initial efforts: shortages of airplanes, personnel, and spare parts; difficulties getting supplies to Assam for transport to China; muddy, underdeveloped airfields—Dinjan was improving rapidly, but its condition still dragged on performance; and the monsoon rains that had dogged the region since mid-May grounded Air Corps transports for eight days in late May and for thirteen days of June. Complicating everything was the terrain of the route itself—leaving India, the planes had to climb over the 10,000- to 12,000-foot summits of the Patkai Range on the Burma-India border, cross the trackless jungles of north Burma, and then surmount the 15,000-foot summits of the Three Gorges country, high, rugged mountains that had acquired a fearsome reputation, and a nickname—pilots were calling them “the Hump.”

Arthur Young was covering Bond’s responsibilities while Bond was in Washington, and Bissell summoned him to a meeting in Chungking because Bissell didn’t think the airline was using its airplanes efficiently or doing its best against the monsoon weather, and he implied CNAC was making no effort to fly out a large quantity of tin and tungsten waiting in Kunming for outward shipment. He demanded an explanation as to why two of the airline’s nine Lend-Lease airplanes were grounded. Young received the dressing-down with consternation, not expert enough to parry the attacks and, back at his office, Young wrote a letter to Chuck Sharp loaded with Bissell’s criticisms.

Sharp didn’t appreciate the condescension from a bookish economist, not one bit, nor the relay of criticism from General Bissell, the head of an organization that Sharp regarded as barely competent. In Sharp’s judgment, the Army had made very few flights into China relative to the quantity of equipment it had on hand. To him, it looked like the Air Corps was in over its head, which, in his eyes, was demonstrated conclusively—and tragically—in early June, when, intending to add an offensive nucleus to Allied airpower in China, the Air Corps sent a batch of B-25s to the Orient to replace those lost in the Doolittle raid. The first six had reached Calcutta as May turned into June, commanded by Major Gordon Leland. The major planned to fly to Dinjan on June 2 and then over the Hump to Kunming the next day, announcing his presence in-theater by bombing Lashio en route.

Chuck Sharp was at the airport while the Air Corps readied the crossing, and he offered to brief the Army pilots and navigators regarding terrain, charts, radio stations, routes, and procedures, sharing the wisdom of his ten years of Asian flying. Major Leland rejected Sharp’s advance, adamant that he and his fliers had all the information they needed.

Grossly overloaded with personal equipment, extra fifty-caliber ammunition, and full loads of ordnance—so much “essential” weight that they opted to fly without much reserve fuel—the flight left Dinjan and bombed the Lashio airfield, blowing up one Japanese plane. Two enemy pursuits jumped the six bombers immediately afterward. Four of the B-25s fire-walled their throttles and dashed for a cloud bank. The enemy mauled the two bombers that kept to cruising speed in order to husband their fuel supply, killing a radio operator. A few minutes after reaching the imagined safety of the clouds, three of the four escaping bombers crashed full throttle into a mountainside. The fourth was lost over unfamiliar, cloud-covered terrain. Panicked, the Army tried to get CNAC’s Kunming direction-finding station to give bearings to the disoriented plane—but with none of its own planes inbound, the airline’s Kunming staff had gone off duty. The lost bomber ran out of gas, and its crew bailed out near Changyi, where Foxie Kent had been killed in October 1940. Of the six B-25s, only two badly shot-up planes reached Kunming. The Army lost four bombers—and nineteen men.

Enraged, General Bissell blamed CNAC for the fiasco, at least partly. Chuck Sharp refused to bear one iota of responsibility. He’d come to China in 1933 because his one thousand hours of flying experience wasn’t enough to land him a job as a copilot in a domestic airline, and since then, he’d amassed some ten thousand hours of sky time. Most Air Corps higher-ups hadn’t flown in years, and as for the junior ones, Sharp didn’t think many of the three- or four-hundred-hour “experts” arriving in the Far East at the controls of multi-engine aircraft could tell an elevator from an earflap. The inexperience of the Army pilots was excusable considering the Air Corps’s astonishing expansion; the attitude of their leadership was not. Most mid- and upper-echelon Air Corps officers struck Sharp and the rest of the company’s people as amateur blowhards, hell-bent on showing the civilians how things were done, Army fashion—an extraordinarily unintelligent attitude, considering that the airline had five years of wartime experience. Sharp dashed off a letter and “jumped right down Bissell’s throat [wearing] hob-nailed boots and spurs,” laying fault where it fairly belonged—on Air Corps arrogance and incompetence.

Wonderful as it was to be in Washington with his wife, their two sons, and the extended relations, William Bond never felt completely comfortable at Hayes Manor. Events in Asia and the Pacific worried him too much. The complete loss of Burma made an airlift seem the only hope of keeping China in the fight. With the exception of the four Japanese aircraft carriers recently sunk in the waters off Midway Island, the war wasn’t going well, and Midway was many thousands of miles from the regions of Asia that concerned his airline. T. V. Soong had held Bond in the United States through April and May, using Bond’s practical expertise to counterweigh the Air Corps’ “can’t do” attitude with regard to a China airlift, but Washington’s commitment to the project seemed to solidify in late May and early June, and Soong decided that he could afford to let Bond return to Asia.

Bondy and Kitsi had dinner with Lauchlin Currie and his wife as part of his predeparture round of social engagements, both business and pleasure. The foursome had just sat down to dinner when they were interrupted by a telephone call from Stanley Hornbeck, ordering Bond to a morning meeting with General George C. Marshall, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the de facto commander of the entire Allied war effort. At the War Department, Marshall was upright and proper and immaculately uniformed, but he was also scrupulously polite and considerate, the picture of professional courtesy and mutual respect, all in marked contrast to the impression Bond had formed of General Arnold a few weeks before. Inside his office, Marshall explained that he needed an informal envoy to carry a message to the Generalissimo, and that Stanley Hornbeck had recommended Bond. Of course, Bond agreed without hesitation, flattered to have the confidence of the Allies’ top-ranking military man. Marshall summarized what he needed conveyed, acknowledging that the war hadn’t gone well since Pearl Harbor. Setbacks in the Middle and Far East had forced Marshall to divert Lend-Lease resources intended for China to help the British defend Burma, India, and Egypt. Burma and India had to be given higher short-run priority, since China couldn’t contribute as an active ally without India. Marshall knew that Chiang blamed Britain for those decisions, although Marshall had made them with no goal in mind but the quickest possible defeat of Japan. Marshall wanted his strategic thinking explained to the Generalissimo, but he couldn’t do it through official channels without provoking howls of formal Chinese protest and demands for return concessions.

Soon after the meeting, Bond began the two-week odyssey back to Asia, and he delivered Marshall’s message to Madame Chiang in Chungking. Madame received it politely and assured Bond that the Generalissimo understood entirely.

Unfortunately, Chuck Sharp had done much to sour the airline’s relationship with General Bissell and the Air Corps while Bond was in the United States. As Bond noted in a letter to Bixby after he’d reached Asia, “There was some justification for his wanting to do this, but no justification for him actually doing it.” Bond made General Bissell’s acquaintance, discussing needs for direction-finding equipment, and before long, he too was experiencing some of the aggravations that had unhinged Sharp. General Bissell challenged his every statement, apparently on general principle. Bond thought he enjoyed such conflict, and came to consider it typical of interactions with Bissell in particular and the Army in general. “However, CNAC is and will continue to cooperate one hundred percent,” he informed Bixby. “Whether it will be because of or in spite of the General remains to be seen.”

Part of the Army’s resentment seemed due to the statistically unarguable qualitative gap between the two organizations. The Army flew 106 tons to China in June 1942; the China National Aviation Corporation flew 91 tons, with one-third the number of aircraft. If the Army had kept the airline consistently supplied with cargo, it could have flown much more.

The two Chinese divisions retreating northwest from Myitkyina had spent the last half of May and most of June thrashing north-northwest through thick jungles and monsoon downpours toward the head of the Chindwin Valley, from which they could escape over the Indian frontier to Ledo, in Upper Assam. The increasingly wretched survivors were only fifty miles from safety when the Generalissimo changed their orders. He allowed one division to march out to Ledo, but he ordered the other to make a 90-degree eastward turn back to China across the jungles of north Burma and the rugged heart of the Three Gorges country, condemning the soldiers to months of indescribable misery in some of the world’s most punishing terrain.

Intermittently, U.S. Army planes flying under the monsoon cloud cover had dropped supplies to the unfortunate infantrymen, but not enough food was getting through. Chiang Kai-shek wanted CNAC on the job. The minister of communications passed the order to William Bond, and Bond went to see General Bissell, who blew up when Bond explained his instructions. It was a waste of effort, Bissell roared. The Chinese division was going to starve walking out to China instead of taking the shorter route to India.

Bond said he could understand why the Generalissimo wanted his army in China instead of India, even if the terrain was more difficult. All he wanted to do was help the Chinese soldiers.

Daily, for the next four days, the minister of communications telephoned Bond and asked why support wasn’t reaching the starving infantrymen. Over the Hump in Dinjan, Hugh Woods had airplanes ready to go, but the Army wasn’t supplying any food.

Bissell’s cussedness forced Bond into an untenable position: Either lie to a ministry of the Chinese government with which he’d been honorably conducting business for eleven years or tell the truth—that an American general so disagreed with Chiang Kai-shek’s policy that he was willing to let Chinese soldiers suffer when he had the means to alleviate their plight, which was sure to damage Sino-American relations at the highest levels. To the Chinese, Bond hemmed and hawed, citing imaginary operational difficulties. After the fourth day, he at last confronted the general. “I can’t assume this blame any longer. I’ve got to make an intelligent report to the minister. We’re ready but can’t get food. What can I report?”

Food appeared the next day, CNAC began making airdrops, and the Chinese infantry continued its awful journey to China. “That doesn’t sound reasonable, and it isn’t,” Bond wrote to Bixby, describing the imbroglio, “but it is far more reasonable than many things I see being done.”

Aside from the difficulties of dealing with the U.S. Army Air Corps, Bond’s biggest problem in the middle months of 1942 was pilots. Given the two-per-month rate of Lend-Lease airplane deliveries he and T. V. Soong had secured, the airline needed to add four to six aircrews every month in order to operate the new planes efficiently. Bond had lured a handful of pilots to Asia while he was in the United States, but he needed far more, and the Air Corps’ massive expansion was hoovering most qualified men into uniform. The airline’s obvious short-run solution was to sign on the pilots and ground technicians of Claire Chennault’s American Volunteer Group—Chennault had lost his campaign to maintain his pursuit group’s civilian-flavored independence, which the Army simply couldn’t tolerate, and the group was going to be disbanded when their yearlong contracts started expiring in early July. Ironically, the Air Corps needed the services of Chennault’s men, and it hoped to entice them to uniformed service, but unfortunately for the Army’s suit, General Bissell fronted its recruitment efforts, and his threats, bluster, and bravado could hardly have been better calculated to offend the volunteers. Aware of CNAC’s allure, the Army tried to prevent the airline from hiring any AVG personnel. Messages from Bixby in New York and from Army commanders in India and China expressly prohibited the airline from recruiting Chennault’s people, but the messages contained no threats serious enough to dissuade Bond, Sharp, and Woods from keeping quiet feelers out among them.

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