Flying the Hump 1945

William Bond stayed in the United States through Christmas 1944, the first time he’d spent the holiday season with his wife and sons in six years. The war had forced so much hardship on his family; he was so tired of the long separations. Pan Am president Juan Trippe invited Bond to dinner at the house he kept on F Street in Washington, D.C., intending to discuss the looming contract negotiation and chart the course of CNAC’s future. Trippe was amazed with what Bond had accomplished, and he was delighted with Pan Am’s prospects in the Orient. The China National Aviation Corporation was ten times bigger than it had been before Pearl Harbor. In the United States, it would have been among the five largest carriers. Like most industry observers, Juan Trippe expected it to dominate Asia’s aerial commerce after the war, paying excellent dividends on Pan Am’s dozen years of investment and encouragement.

In light of what had happened to M. Y. Tong, William Bond now held exactly the opposite opinion. Tong’s execution had convinced him that Nationalist China was doomed, that CNAC would share its fate, and that right now was the time to extract whatever return Pan American could get. Ironically, it was a near-exact reversal of the positions they’d held during their fateful Cloud Club conversation in the summer of 1937, when Trippe had been prepared to write off Pan Am’s investment entirely and Bond had been determined to salvage it. Now, eight years later, Trippe wanted to retain all of it. Bond felt that Pan Am should sell most of its 45 percent share to the Chinese. True to form, the two men batted arguments back and forth without budging the other’s position. Unable to sway Trippe with reason, Bond played his last card. “Mr. Trippe, maybe you’re right, but you can’t make a success of something you don’t believe in. I’d be criminally disloyal if I didn’t oppose this with everything I’ve got. I’ll have to resign.”

Trippe scrutinized his China man for signs of bluff. “You feel that strongly about it?”

“If I didn’t feel that way, I wouldn’t say so. I like working for Pan Am and I need my job, but I’m not going to agree to do something I know will lead to disaster.”

Bond left dinner with permission to sell 35 percent of the airline for 2.5 million U.S. dollars, retaining a 10 percent stake in the reorganized company for Pan Am.

When Bond returned to Asia in early 1945, the Allies had essentially won the wars in both Europe and the Pacific. All that remained was the grim task of crushing the last fires of resistance from fanatic enemies, final bloodbaths in which tens of thousands would lose their lives. Hitler’s remaining forces were being crushed between armies advancing from east and west. In the Orient and the western Pacific, the Japanese fought with a tenacity that defied Western comprehension. Eventual victory seemed secure but still distant. Conventional wisdom expected Japan’s end to come sometime in 1946. President Franklin Roosevelt didn’t live to see either enemy’s defeat. He died on April 12, succeeded by Harry S Truman, and on the last day of the month Adolf Hitler committed suicide. A week later, on May 8, 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally, ending six years of European war. British general Sir William Slim’s Anglo-Indian Army had spent the first half of the year ousting the Japanese from Burma, recapturing Mandalay and Rangoon. Overhead, the Air Transport Command delivered more than forty-six thousand tons to China in May, and the quantity was still growing. The Army had finally mastered the Hump—with airline-style operating procedures implemented by Brigadier General William H. Tunner, who had been installed in charge of the airlift in the middle of 1944. Every person in CNAC wondered what the Army might have accomplished if it had employed such commonsense techniques from the beginning.

Like Bond, Charles Ridgley Hammell, survivor of the epic 1943 trek out of the Mishmi Hills with Joe Rosbert, had spent a sizeable chunk of 1944 at home, and Hammell made good use of his time, romancing and marrying an attractive woman named Jean. Duty called, however, even to civilians working for CNAC, and Hammell returned to Asia, bringing with him a modern hunting rifle. He was working through the North East Frontier Agency to get it to the Mishmis who’d saved his and Rosbert’s lives. On May 9, 1945, the day after Germany’s surrender, Hugh Woods assigned Ridge Hammell to take a C-47 to China.

For the last three years, company freight pilots had been left entirely to their own devices from the time they were released from Dinjan control until they came under the command of the traffic controllers at Kunming. They picked their own routes and altitudes, flying alone or in loose company with one or two of their brethren. Not so in the spring of 1945. The skies between Assam and Yunnan had become so jammed with transport aircraft that the brass hats in the Air Transport Command established prescribed airways to contain the traffic, and they insisted that CNAC flights join the general pattern. To get into it, airplanes leaving Dinjan actually began their flights heading west, away from China, passing at prescribed altitudes over radio beacons that guided them through a long, climbing U-turn and into the proper air corridor. The new procedures required the radio operators to switch frequencies shortly after takeoff, and as usual, the airline was shorthanded. The freight pilots were rationed either a Chinese radioman or a copilot, and they preferred the radio operators, who were well trained and spoke passable English. Not so the Chinese copilots the airline enlisted late in the war. Woefully undertrained, most weren’t fit to do much besides respond to commands like “Wheels up!” and “Flaps down!” and Ridge Hammell had one such “hydraulic secretary” in his right seat on the morning of May 9. After takeoff, he circled the field, climbed to three thousand feet, and set the autopilot, not trusting his right-seater with the controls. Hammell clambered out of his seat into the radio compartment to tune in one of the upcoming air-traffic-control stations. It was all hunky-dory until one of the engines failed. A well-trained copilot would have handled the emergency, but Hammell’s wasn’t, and didn’t, and the airplane tipped into a spin. Centrifugal force pinned Hammell against the wall of the radio compartment.

Pete Goutiere and the other pilots on the Dinjan airfield doing preflight checks stood paralyzed by the high-pitched whine of Hammell’s plane. It whoomped into the ground a few miles from the airport and burst into flames. Goutiere couldn’t bear to visit the crash site. So many of his friends had died. He buttoned the agony and kept flying. They all did. Ridge Hammell had flown the Hump more than four hundred times. Joe Rosbert got word in Los Angeles, California, where he’d parlayed the Hollywood connections of his actor uncle, Elmer Goodfellow Brendel, known onscreen as comic actor El Brendel, into a job at Paramount Pictures advising development of a motion picture about the Hump. He was working on one of Paramount’s Marathon Street soundstages when someone got his attention. “Ridge went in.”

Rosbert grimaced and heard the particulars. “That’s a damn shame,” he said, blowing out a long breath. There wasn’t much more to it. He was a pilot, and it was 1945. Friends died all the time.

Hammell’s mascot Elmer the bear came to an end just as ugly. Fearing foul luck, few pilots would fly her after Ridge got his. They kept Elmer chained to a pole outside the airline’s Kunming hostel, and the bear grew so much that her metal collar dug into her neck. Discomfort made her ornery, and she lunged at those who dared approach. One day, the bear disappeared. That night, the men ate a delicious sweet-and-sour dish vastly more meaty and satisfying than their normal Kunming fare. A pilot asked the cook what it contained. “Elmer,” the cook said with a grin. The pilots pushed back and digested the information, put off their appetites. On second thought, it seemed a shame to waste the bear’s last service. Most cleared their plates.

#

When Ridge Hammell was killed, William Bond was in China, in the thick of contract negotiations. Like much Chinese business, many of the exploratory maneuvers were social, and he was invited to a party with CNAC’s Chinese directors by General Yu Fei-peng, Chiang Kai-shek’s porcine cousin and rapacious “chief of supply,” newly installed as Kuomintang minister of communications. Copious alcohol consumption was de rigueur at such events, and General Yu and the others ganged up on Bond. “Gom-bey, gom-bey”—“Bottoms up”—they toasted Bond in succession, each iteration requiring Bond to empty his glass. To do otherwise would be to lose face with his corporate peers. Unless he could divert their purpose, Bond had a face-first date with the floor. He saved himself with a matchbox drinking game remembered from his younger years. Taught the rudiments, Yu Fei-peng roared with delight, and Bond’s meticulous flips stood the matchbox on end time and again. Minister Yu howled and guzzled the required whisky. Before long, Bond had the minister pie-eyed, and he focused on his other companions. Most were soon just as soused. When it was over, Yu Fei-peng’s aides had to summon four coolies and a sedan chair to get their “old water buffalo” downstairs. Bond’s hangover seemed a small price to pay for the great face he’d made with his fellow directors, the very men with whom he was negotiating the reduction of Pan Am’s stake in the airline, and the means by which Bond envisioned getting Pan Am’s investment—and himself—out of China.

After breakfast, Bond met with T. V. Soong and General T. H. Shen, a relatively new managing director. It was a delicate dance. For years, the Chinese had made clear their expectation that the 1945 contract renegotiation would make the airline “more Chinese” by reducing the American share. Bond put on a façade of great regret and reluctance, stressing everything Pan Am had done to nurture the company since 1933 and the aviation community’s expectation that CNAC would become exceptionally profitable after the war and that it would be grossly unfair to squeeze out Pan Am on the verge of such success. General Shen gave his estimate of the company’s value. Bond examined Shen’s asset and liabilities sheet and pointed out several omitted items. Shen raised his appraisal. They went back and forth over a few other aspects of the valuation until Dr. Soong cut in and ended the dispute—Bond had been met more than halfway. Bond uncapped his pen, leaned forward, and signed. He pushed the papers across to General Shen and watched him do likewise. They forwarded the signed agreement to Minister Yu for approval, and with Dr. Soong’s sponsorship there was little doubt that it would be accepted. Bond smiled reluctantly. Inside, he backflipped with joy. The exact mechanics of the sale weren’t yet settled, but the deal was shaping up to be much better than the one Juan Trippe had authorized him to negotiate. All Bond needed to finalize the sell-down was for Pan Am’s corporate attorney to come to Chungking and sign the contract. He’d been promised the lawyer’s prompt appearance. He pestered Bixby, but he heard nothing in return, and the silence had him sick with worry. Days ticked by, then weeks, and the Chinese started chiseling on price. Bond was terrified that the deal would collapse. Fully a month passed without word from Pan Am. A persistent cold nagged Bond’s throat and sinuses. Stomach troubles stopped him from eating. He couldn’t sleep.

Bond never did hear from New York. Another ventricular tachycardia attack waylaid him instead. He was in Calcutta, unconscious for more than an hour, and the attack derailed his work on the new contract. He recuperated slowly, and it remained unsigned. The July 8 expiration date came and went and the airline continued operations without a formal arrangement between the two partners, a state of uncertain flux that did little to lessen the strain on the airline’s indispensable China man.

China’s economic malaise had continued to worsen, black-market exchange rates ballooning to three thousand to one. To help quench the inflation, the United States had promised tens of millions of dollars of financial assistance. The Chinese government continued to insist on a large chunk of it in gold. The Treasury Department had dithered since the Cairo Conference, frustrated with China’s war effort, internal corruption, and hard-line official/unofficial exchange rate bargaining for payment of American incountry construction costs, but Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., finally authorized gold shipments in May 1945. The United States dispatched an oceangoing freighter from New York with a generous allotment of precious metal in a secure hold. It docked in Calcutta on July 17, blanketed by heavy security. Armed guards escorted a gold-bearing truck convoy to Dum Dum Airport. The gold came stowed in little barrels resembling beer kegs. CNAC employees rolled the kegs into ten transports and lashed them in the cargo cabins in two rows on either side of the center line, three tons of it per plane, each load worth about $2.5 million (some $96 million in modern dollars). Pete Goutiere and nine other reliable pilots flew the gold to Dinjan, refueled inside another tight security curtain, and took it over the Hump to China, required to make position reports every thirty minutes. They landed at Ku Long Po, the dusty military airstrip outside Chungking where a near-collision had come close to killing the Generalissimo in 1943. There was no security at all in China, nothing. Coolie gangs rolled the gold-stuffed barrels to the airplane doors and dropped them onto receiving beds of worn-out tires. Other teams rolled the barrels up ramps into the beds of open trucks. Pete Goutiere sat on a fuel drum, watching dust whip from the truck wheels as they drove the gold off the airfield. It looked to him like the Chiangs had just conned the United States out of thirty tons of gold. “Americans,” he muttered, “the rubes of Asia.”

Goutiere climbed off his perch and flew back to India. Since the end of 1942, he’d flown the Hump more than 650 times.

In August, the maharaja of Bamra invited several airline personnel and some Army officers on a hunting expedition in the forests of his princely state in central India. Chuck Sharp and Pete Goutiere were among those who attended, along with two generals in the Army’s Service of Supply. They hunted antelope and sambars from tree stands, but they weren’t bagging much game, and after about a week of hunting the group was enjoying an afternoon soiree in the raja’s palace garden, trying to fathom the nature of the atomic bombs just dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. President Truman said they were powered by the same force that fired the sun. A plane buzzed low overhead and dropped a packet, trailing a small parachute. Bearers fetched the package, which contained a note. Chubby General Hackett peered at it through spectacles and looked up. “Gentlemen, the Japs surrendered,” he announced, beaming. “The war is over.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.