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“Flying the ‘Hump’ Lifeline to China

“Flying the ‘Hump’ was the foremost and by far the most dangerous, difficult, and historic achievement of the entire war. ”General Albert C. Wedemeyer, Commander, US Forces—China

A primary objective in the China-Burma-India Theater (CBI) was resupplying Allied forces fighting the Japanese military in China. With materiel support, the Allies could prevent Japanese victory and keep their forces from shifting elsewhere. Until mid-May 1942, the Burma Road had been the access route for supply delivery. However, with the Japanese pushing west through China to the border of India, taking Burma along the way, the Allies looked for another way to keep the more than 50,000 American and 200,000 Chinese soldiers well-equipped in China.

Despite being the closest point for supply distribution, the Assam Valley in India was still 550 miles from China. To fly the "Hump," transport aircraft would take off from just 100 feet above sea level in India and climb at a drastic rate of 300 feet per minute until they reached 18,000 feet to navigate the Himalayan Mountains. The descent into the mountains of China at roughly 6,000 feet completed the route.

The first cargo-carrying flight over the Hump flew in April 1942, hauling gasoline for the Doolittle Raiders. Throughout the rest of the year, Tenth Air Force faced a shortage of reliable aircraft, facilities, and personnel. When Air Transport Command (ATC) took over from 1943 through 1945, they flew 456,977 flights transporting 685,304 tons, nearly sixty percent of which was gasoline.

Terrain and weather complicated operations over the Hump, creating a flight path as dangerous as any bombing mission over Europe. From northeast India, across northern Burma (modern-day Myanmar), and into western China, CBI airlift pilots navigated a course over impenetrable jungles and swamps to some of the world's tallest, most isolated snowcapped mountains.

With good weather, a typical flight lasted three hours. Often as the elevation changed, so would the conditions, and this could extend flight times by up to ten hours. Turbulence from 100-mile-per-hour winds, monsoons, dust storms, or Himalayan blizzards could be disastrous for a crew. By the end of 1945, ATC records account for over 500 crashes and more than 1,300 crewmembers lost.

Communication between flight and ground crews was a significant problem. A lack of adequate power and radios restricted navigation, and overused channels delayed the reception of information. In early 1943, there were only nine Army Airways Communications System stations located across the entire CBI. By May 1944, more than a hundred stations like this one in Burma assisted flight crews in many ways, including personnel-directed takeoffs and landings.

Whether over the mountain peaks or dense jungles, the survival rate was low if a bailout became necessary. Beyond injury, aircrews had to contend with enemy encounters, disease, insects, and a lack of food and water. This Airman was fortunate to be rescued by a member of a friendly indigenous tribe after crashing in the Naga Hills region of Burma in 1942.

The Curtiss C-46 Commando was considered the workhorse for flying over the “Hump.” It was sturdy and could carry nearly double the cargo of a Douglas C-47 Skytrain. However, as a two-engine plane, if one failed, it lost 50% of its power, earning it the nickname "Ol' Dumbo." Only a skilled pilot could complete their mission in these circumstances over one of WWII's most treacherous flight paths.

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