Thursday, June 05, 2014

WWII Dads - The Hump - Sam Sledge

One of several interesting aspects of doing the blog is to renew or sometimes establish an acquaintance with some of my earlier life, fellow travelers from our shared EH days.  Sherri, a prominent ’64 who in my memory I recall from sight only in those early sixties EH hallways, crossed my path recently.  I’m not sure if we ever exchanged a word at EH; she, being one of those little underclassmen and a Handley-ite to boot.  She was an attractive livewire who was a perennial favorite of her classmates…and she still is.  Only now she’s considerably more interesting than she was as an underclassman.

Some months ago, Sherri graciously shared a picture of her Dad, Sam Sledge, for inclusion with our WWII Fathers collection.  In his youth, Mr. Sledge was an Army Air Force Pilot, which wasn’t a terribly uncommon occupation within his generation…there were about 250,000 of them trained for service during the war and a few of our EH fathers had served in various WWII Air Force assignments, mostly in England.  The thing that was uncommon about Mr. Sledge was his line assignment after he graduated from flight school; Sam Sledge flew the Hump.

Most of us have heard about the Hump throughout our lives but, those brushes were mostly in brief snippets or in some corny old b/w WWII movies.  After learning of Mr. Sledge’s service and with Sherri’s gracious consent, I looked forward to delving further into the story of the Hump to determine if working up a credible piece might be possible.  At the very least, I could probably learn something I hadn’t known before.   

Flying The Hump and those doing the flying became somewhat legendary during their lifetimes and although a lot of anecdotal glimpses of their service have been documented in film and fable, even today it’s not a well-known story.  Known colloquially as the CBI (China-Burma-India) theater of operations, it was a backwater place where relatively few American forces were assigned to the 10th Army Air Force under the command of Major General Lewis Brereton, one of the very first 25 rated Army Pilots in 1913. 

There is plenty of history about flying the Hump to be found online so, I won’t attempt to construct yet another history here.  However, I’ve put 3 very good pieces by others in the archives, should one want to learn more of the detail.  My contribution will be a brief summary intended to simplify an intricate topic without burdening a casual reader.

Link 1:  A fine account written by a retired USAF pilot and published author.  Published in 1991 by the Air Force Magazine contains the specific details related to flying the Hump routes that clarify the job and its hazards.
Link 2:  A fact sheet written by the USAF that contains a treasure of detail information including locations, topography, peak names, canyon names, rivers, and much other specific detail very useful for coordinating with the aeronautical chart and with images posted to the Net.
Link 3:  An enlightening recollection by a pilot who flew the Hump.

The map below illustrates the location of the 16 numbered Army Air Forces activated during WWII.  Their locations were planned before the war by a pitifully understaffed Army Air Corps that had to struggle in order to keep active between WWI & II.  Activating them was a relatively simple matter of staffing up as needed.  The Hump operation ultimately came under the command of the 10th and 14th Army Air Forces based in India and China.

After the Japanese cut off access to the Burma and Ledo Roads in June 1942, President Roosevelt called on General Hap Arnold, Commanding the Army Air Force to establish an air supply route to keep the Chinese Army supplied so they could keep fighting the Japanese.  China was effectively occupying about 1-million Japanese soldiers, preventing them from being moved elsewhere.  

It’s always been somewhat difficult to comprehend the real scope of flying the Hump and visualize the terrain.  Most of the many pictures and recollections one finds in the public space tend to be disjointed, lacking a clear, cohesive thread.  However, the story is actually relatively simple…it was the very first application of aircraft to “airlift” supplies and personnel into a remote location while skirting enemy resistance.  And do it in a massive, sustaining manner so, in a sense, flying the Hump was an airborne freight train in nearly continual operation for about 42-months.

Although the airlift departure point in the Assam (or Brahmaputra River) Valley, some 900-miles north of the Indian port of Calcutta, was the site of a number of airfields, only the largest of them at Chabua needs to be recalled for clarity in understanding the operation’s large scope.

About 500-miles East was the destination area, also the site of a number of airfields but, only Kunming needs to be recalled.  It was the largest of them.  Kunming was the home field of General Claire Chenault’s Flying Tigers, a fighter force that had been operating from there since 1937, about 4-years before America declared war on Japan.

Between the two airfields was the Hump, a north-south extension of the main Himalaya Mountain range that ran south through northern Burma and western China.  On the very north end of the extension terrain exceeded 20,000 MSL in height. Average elevations lowered to the south but did not fall below 12,000 MSL for approximately 140 miles. 

Below is a rare 1944 (WAC – World Aeronautical Chart) in 1:1,000,000 scale showing the two main Hump flight paths, Charlie and Easy.  This chart was actually used for navigation by one of the pilots flying the hump; it contains terrain elevations and land forms, airports, waypoints, towns, and rivers. 

The Brahmaputra (Assam) valley floor lies ninety-feet above sea level at Chabua.  From this level, the mountain wall surrounding the valley rises quickly to 10,000 feet and higher.

"Flying eastward out of the valley, the pilot first topped the Patkai Range, then passed over the upper Chindwin River valley, bounded on the east by a 14,000- foot ridge, the Kumon Mountains. He then crossed a series of 14,000-16,000-foot ridges separated by the valleys of the West Irrawaddy, East Irrawaddy, Salween, and Mekong Rivers. The main 'Hump,' which gave its name to the whole awesome mountainous mass and to the air route which crossed it, was the Santsung Range, often 15,000 feet high, between the Salween and Mekong Rivers."

Severe weather existed on the Hump almost year around. The monsoon season, with heavy cloudiness, fierce rain and embedded severe thunderstorms with turbulence severe enough to damage aircraft, existed from around May into October of each year. The late fall and winter flying weather was better with many VFR days. However, heavy ground fogs, with ground visibilities down to zero/zero, occurred almost nightly during the early winter, and severe thunderstorms still occurred over the route on an irregular basis. Winter winds aloft were extreme, often exceeding 100 MPH.  Regulations required that oxygen be used above 12,000 MSL during daytime and above 10,000 MSL at night.

During the 42-months the Hump route was active, 594 planes were lost in the mountains taking with them 1,694 aircrew members, many of whom were never found.  It was some of the most dangerous flying undertaken during WWII.  Wreckage from the many downed planes came to be known as "The Aluminum Trail" and could frequently be seen below from the glint of sunlight reflecting off the metal debris.  Cause of the losses was frequently unknown; however, some of the possibilities were icing, turbulence, shifting loads, dangerous volatile loads, engine fires, engine failures that overloaded the remaining engine resulting in a failure to maintain altitude.  Japanese fighters were only rarely encountered over the Hump.

It was said, "There is no weather policy on the Hump. Be lucky or die.  And, "If you can see the end of the runway, you go.  Never mind icing, overloads, tired engines, and everything else that takes away your safety margin."  What an operation!

When General William H. Tunner arrived, pilots rotated out after 650 hours of flying time. Many pilots were flying as much as 165 hours a month in order to pile up the time and go home quickly. General Tunner's flight surgeon reported that fully half of the men were suffering from operational fatigue. Several accidents stemmed directly from such fatigue.  General Tunner immediately increased to one year the time a pilot would remain in the theater. He also increased the number of flying hours to 750.

"It didn't make the pilots happy," the General wrote later, "but . . . it kept quite a few of them alive."

The Curtiss C-46 Commando.  Known to the men who flew them as "The Whale," the "Curtiss Calamity,"  the "plumber's nightmare", and among ATC crews, the "flying coffin," the C-46 served a similar role as its counterpart, the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, but was not as extensively produced. At the time of its production, the C-46 was the largest twin-engine aircraft in the world, and the largest and heaviest twin-engine aircraft to see service in World War II.

It's 150-knot cruise speed was about 11-knots faster than the C-47.  Fitted with two, 2000 hp Pratt & Whitney R-2800 radial engines, the C-46 had a service ceiling of 24,500 ft.  With an average terrain height ranging from 12,000-16,000 ft. carrying a maximum load into turbulence, darkness, and bad weather, there was very little margin of safety.  These were very harrowing flight conditions.

Pilots were drawn from several sources; USA flight schools and commercial airline pilots among them.  Training before deployment was accomplished from a Reno, Nevada, AAF base.  Flying over the Sierra-Nevada terrain to Fairfield-Suisun Army Air Base in California (now Travis AFB), was very similar to that found in the Himalayas. 

A 1945 Chart showing the "Hump Routes" and all the facilities information is below.  Of interest is the essential information of all the various airfields in the area.  Chabua had an 8000' runway, was 370' MSL, with runway headings of 49º – 229º.....Kunming - had a 7218' runway, sitting at 6240' MSL. 

Living conditions in the Assam Valley were primitive. Personnel generally lived in tents or bamboo bashas.  The Flying Tigers had been operating in the Kunming area since 1937 and had received a lot of publicity. The following very rare color pictures were taken in and around Kunming in 1945 and show some of the contemporary scenes Lt. Sam Sledge could have seen while he was there.

Some interesting sidelights.  The employment of commercial airline personnel has long been a little known aspect of the Hump operation.  Although led by Pan Am, the foremost of the early airline operations, all the existing lines were represented in the C-B-I.  By the outbreak of WWII, the USA airline industry was still a fledgling enterprise.  Only a very small percentage of the U.S. population had ever flown and when the Hump operation started in 1942, Lindbergh's historic flight was only 15-years in the past.  One of the Hump commanders was a 42-year old Major General C.R. Smith, president of American Airlines and a Texas boy born in Minerva, Milam County.  He had been with AAL almost since its inception in 1928 and returned to the line after the war to lead it into the jet age.

Before starting this study, an amusing thought danced through my mind and was amplified by a picture of her Dad, that Sherri shared with me.  I really liked the rugged sound of Lt. Sledge's name, Sam Sledge.  My mind went immediately to Steve Canyon, a heroic Sunday comics character during my post-WWII childhood.  Canyon's character was an adventurer and a veteran who ran his own air transport business after the war.  Sure enough......

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