A LONGEST NIGHT IN BURMA
ALLENDER, Howard F. - First Lieutenant U.S.A.A.F.
In the unknown war of Burma in World War II, a background should be set forth. Modern armies had never fought under such conditions as prevailed during late spring and summer, when an inch of rain fell daily and rising rivers would inundate the lowlands. In April, 1944, downpours grew more frequent. Instead of tapering off operations, the Allied and Japanese forces summoned up their reserves to win what both hoped would be a crucial decision by summer. Military forces on both sides were agonizingly extended in Burma. Each adversary had strategic objectives. The Japanese were to seize easternmost India as well as open the Burma Road to enter the back door of China to open a Second Front. The Allied Forces needed to seize the Japanese airfield of Myitkyina (Mish-e-naw) in northen Burma. Japanese fighter planes, launched from this airfield, forced allied cargo planes to fly through the Himalayas to China, an extended and expensive route.
The Japanese, driving through the Chin Hills into Manipur state of India had surrounded the British IV Corps at Imphal and the British garrison at Kohima, both of which were sustained by air supply at the cost of reducing shipments China over the foothills of the Himalayas – known as the “Hump.”
I had reached New Delhi, India, at the end of almost 4 years with the Royal Air Force 208TH Night Torpedo Bomber squadron in England and North Africa. In March, 1944, I transferred to the U.S. Army Air Corps, and was sent immediately to Chabua for operations to supply British General Orde Wingate’s guerrilla fighters in northern Burma.
Flights were in the black of night, with no lights or geographic features on the ground as aids. Celestial navigation was the only recourse to reach a target, which had to be a precise location – and time. At the sound of the aircraft engines the guerrilla fighters on the ground would light bonfires to a code configuration of the day. The ‘kickers” in the aircraft would work in a frenzy to dump the cargo in one pass over the target.
With the need to increase the flow of supplies with greater efficiency, landing strips were prepared for the delivery of cargo. On one long and unforgettable night, a small number of heavily-laden C-47's approached the landing strip, to land without lights on an unknown ground. Only the flickering reflections from the bonfires aided in the perception of depth and distance. The British guerrillas apparently located and eliminated the mortar positions, and signaled to continue the landings. By a freak of fate, the next five or so aircraft to land each hit a tree or another aircraft – and five left wings were damaged.
The air crews collected in the middle of the make-shift runway, their grim faces made more taut in the flickering light of the many bonfires. None of the aircraft on the ground appeared salvageable, and the Japanese Army was somewhere out in the blackness. Each crew member carried a 45-caliber pistol in a shoulder holster, but a bag full of rocks would have seemed more effective.
Then a particular Captain entered the group of airmen, and indicated that he had been studying aeronautical engineering before studies were interrupted by the war. He was a “Steve Canyon” appearance (an invincible cartoon character of the time), wearing a battered peak cap and clenching a straight-stem pipe in this teeth. Like a modern pied-piper, he led the air crews to each damaged aircraft. They watched as the Captain ran is fingers over rivets in the damaged wings and studied cracked sections. He seemed indifferent to the anxiety pervading the air craws, that the Japanese could attack the air strip at an time.
Finally, a quiet selection was made of the least damaged
aircraft. With Captain “Steve Canyon” at the controls, the crew members
clambered aboard and lay on the floor, each in his own method of prayer.
We cleared the tree tops without being able to see them and found our way
back to India.
Somewhere in central Burma today there must be the decaying remains of 5-or-so flying machines from an ancient battle – frozen in time. The forest may have covered the landing strip as a shroud, so the event exists only in the minds of those who escaped
ALLENDER, Howard F.
First Lieutenant U.S.A.A.F.
20 November 1990
Harry A. Blair
Twenty-Seventh Troop Carrier Squadron
La Crosse, Wisconsin
15 December 1990