“The Hump” II

Art by Romain Hugault

In service the Curtiss C-46 Commando proved reliable and able to carry much greater loads than the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, and the large-diameter cabin allowed awkward items to be carried. The cabin floor was strengthened to allow the airlift of light vehicles and artillery, The C-46 entered service in mid-1942 and was used initially on local duties, Its operations were soon extended to cover the South Atlantic routes supplying the Allied troops in North Africa but it was in Europe and the Far East that the aircraft was used extensively, its most famous route being over the ‘Hump’ between India and China. This consisted of mountainous passes and treacherous makeshift airfields, the cargoes often consisting of ammunition and fuel.

The American Volunteer Group disbanded on July 4, 1942, having compiled one of the best combat records of any fighter group in history. They’d “raised hell on a shoestring,” as one AVG pilot boasted to Life magazine, and Madame Chiang Kai-shek honored the volunteers with a party on the last night of their official existence. Bond attended, and he greatly amused Her Eminence by taking two turns through the receiving line, joking on his second pass that he “couldn’t resist the opportunity to pay his respects twice.” Inside, Bond dipped into Madame’s nonalcoholic punch, the stiffest tipple she served, and glad-handed among the AVG personnel. Madame Chiang made her guests play musical chairs, an unanticipated diversion for hard-carousing fighter pilots on bellies full of virgin fruit juice, and she made a formal ceremony of presenting Chennault with an oil portrait of himself standing with the Chiangs. The party ended early, its only mercy. At 11 P.M., Bond’s chauffeur drove him through steady rain to the Methodist compound.

Predictably, the Air Corps wasn’t yet prepared to assume the AVG’s responsibility for the air defense of China. Chennault asked for volunteers from among his volunteers to hold the fort for the two additional weeks it would take the Air Corps to get a pursuit group combat-ready. Eighteen AVG pilots agreed to serve the extra time, including Camille Joseph “Joe” Rosbert, a black-haired, blue-eyed, middleweight Philadelphian who’d signed on with Chennault in 1941 to escape the tedium of flying Navy patrol planes. It wasn’t light duty: One of the holdovers died in action over central China on July 10. When Rosbert finished his extended service, he went to talk to CNAC in Calcutta. Unlike the Air Corps, Bond, Sharp, and Woods pitched it straight and level. Starting salary would be eight hundred dollars per month, for sixty hours of flying, they said, with ten dollars an hour for hours between sixty and seventy, and twenty per for hours above seventy. He would stay in Calcutta for a week or two, then go up-country and fly until he got his hours in, then back to Calcutta. One of the things that had really stuck in the AVG men’s craw was that the Army wouldn’t give them the home leave promised in their contracts. The airline couldn’t send them home right away, either, but it was receiving an average of two DC-3 types a month in the States and needed people to fly them to Asia. Based on the delivery schedule, the company promised to send the AVG men home two at a time for three months’ leave and have them each fly a plane back at the end of their furloughs.

Good pay, continued flying, home leave, organizational competence, freedom from uniformed annoyances, luxury living in Calcutta, the hope of postwar employment with Pan Am, and, most important of all, an honorable and important way to contribute to the war effort: Joe Rosbert had heard enough. “Give me the papers,” he said. “I’ll fly for you.”

For Joe Rosbert, it was a fateful decision, one that would cost him untold agony, and very nearly his life, but the airline was hard to resist, and when the dust of disbandment settled, the Army Air Corps got five pilots from the American Volunteer Group. The China National Aviation Corporation got sixteen.

The tussle did nothing to ease relations between the U.S. Army and the airline, and considering how closely his company was working with the military, and the perils of the relationship’s becoming overtly adversarial, Bond wanted to cultivate a favorable impression with Lieutenant General Joseph Stilwell, the Army’s top man in Asia. There were a number of operational questions he hoped Stilwell could resolve, and Bond arranged to meet him at the general’s Chungking headquarters, a flat-topped, modernist villa overlooking the Chialing River originally built for T. V. Soong that in its ascetic design meshed well with Stilwell’s Spartan proclivities.

Stilwell had walked out of Burma five weeks before, and he looked as thin as barbed wire, and about as spiny, tinged pale yellow by jaundice he’d contracted from defective yellow fever serum. The day before, his doctor had diagnosed blood worms, and his debilitating physical ailments compounded the grinding frustrations of his job. Although the airline’s allotment of Lend-Lease airplanes came from the highest echelons of the American government, Stilwell wasn’t pleased, feeling that all military equipment sent to the area should be subject to his command. He demanded that Bond justify the allocation.

CNAC was a Chinese company, explained Bond, organized under Chinese law, and most of its officers were Chinese. Lend-Leasing those planes to the airline told China it hadn’t been forgotten when most Allied decisions sent the opposite message.

Military considerations outweighed diplomatic ones, Stilwell countered.

“General, I’m going to be frank. You’re a West Pointer and you’re not going to like my explanations, but I can back everything I say with facts. Point-blank, there is no officer of any rank, nor any unit in the United States Army, capable of operating over the Hump as well as the China National Aviation Corporation. None of the Air Corps officers in the Far East think it’s feasible. They won’t attempt it wholeheartedly unless they’re forced. You need us to have those airplanes so we can prove it’s possible.”

Bond left the meeting without having gotten his operational questions answered.

The rains of the southwest monsoon soaked Assam and Burma through the summer, as they’d done since the middle of May, and the steady downpours turned unimproved roads and runways into quagmires. Water condensed in fuel tanks and carburetors, and it was instrument flying most of the way from Dinjan to Kunming. The vile weather near-grounded the Tenth Air Force’s newly formed India–China Ferry Command—the unit with which it intended to prosecute the Hump airlift. CNAC flew regardless, carrying much heavier payloads. General Stilwell noted the difference in his diary: “No attention to capacity. CNAC 4,700 lbs., USA, 3,500 lbs. CNAC flying regularly when weather keeps us grounded.” Ferry Command had 35 planes, and it flew 73 tons into China in July; CNAC flew 136 tons, using 9 aircraft.

Despite the initial efforts of the airlift, a few hundred tons delivered were but a drop in the ocean of Free China’s need. Hemmed into poor western provinces and juggling for power, prestige, and position with Mao’s Communists and various regional warlords, Nationalist China was under immense pressure, and the stress manifested in the value of its currency. Prices in September of 1942 were running thirty to sixty times higher than they’d been in mid-1937, and the inflationary pace was quickening, accelerated by the monetary policies of His Excellency Dr. H. H. Kung, Kuomintang minister of finance, whose primary answer to paucity of revenue, fiscal deficits, and the arbitrary, enormous, unbudgeted sums the Generalissimo lavished around China was to print more paper money to cover the shortfalls—which, of course, did little but devalue the paper and render increasingly worthless bank deposits, bonds, and the small quantities of cash squirreled into the walls of peasants’ hovels. In distant Chinese history, the Sung dynasty and the Mongol Empire had collapsed in inflationary whirlwinds. By the summer of 1942, another such storm was beginning to batter the supports of Nationalist China. Practical Chinese saw two ways to safeguard their wealth: hoard commodities and own gold—the Central Government made both illegal. Regardless, black markets sprang up like weeds: for medicines, clothing, rice, milk powder, and other foodstuffs, cosmetics, toothpaste, jewelry, cigarettes, nylon stockings, perfume, flashlights, Parker pens, wristwatches, typewriter ribbons, envelopes, gasoline, tires, spark plugs, and scrap metal—any tangible commodity seemed certain to hold value better than Nationalist currency. CNAC had about thirty qualified or soon-to-be-qualified pilot-captains on its roster in September 1942, by far the most it had had in its thirteen-year history, and with their unique ability to get in and out of China, the company’s flight crews and mechanics were the men in Asia most perfectly positioned to exploit extracurricular fund-raising opportunities. The corporate leadership hoped its generous salaries were sufficient to dissuade employees from smuggling, and sometimes they were. There were less scrupulous men who reached for ever more lucrative opportunities, however, and for them, the excellent pay provided a tidy amount of venture capital. In the late summer of 1942, an intrepid airman could buy an ounce of gold in Calcutta for 180 rupees, fly it over the Hump, sell it to a Kunming gold bug for 6,300 Chinese dollars, and use that wad to purchase 406 rupees from any black-market currency trader. In simple financial terms, an airman buying gold in India and selling it in China earned a 125 percent return on invested capital per successful trip, a market inefficiency with the power to quickly turn small fortunes into large ones.

On September 2, 1942, the Kunming Airport Inspectorate stormed aboard a flight piloted by Captain J. A. Porter and found 410.8 ounces of gold—twenty-five and a half pounds—stashed under his seat, worth more than two and a half million Chinese dollars on the black market. For the single flight, Porter stood to profit approximately 14,500 U.S. dollars, a year and a half’s salary (worth about $180,000 in modern dollars). Customs confiscated Porter’s gold; Hugh Woods terminated his services. Three Chinese mechanics had exposed his scheme—Porter must have treated them badly, or else refused to cut them into his profits, both dangerous courses of action, considering mechanics controlled the flightworthiness of the airplanes.

Later in the month, inspectors found twenty-two pounds of gold hidden under a C-53’s washbasin in the lavatory at the rear of the airplane. The crew denied knowledge of it. The gold probably belonged to Dinjan mechanics sending it across to Kunming coworkers. Attempting to stifle the smuggling, William Bond prohibited his flight crews from wearing new clothes, more than one watch per man, or any gold jewelry besides wedding rings. He barred them from taking bedrolls, sleeping bags, or blankets on ordinary flights, and no crew member other than the flight captain was allowed to carry a fountain pen.

There were other irregularities. Left behind in a Hong Kong bank, the airline had 148,000 U.S. dollars that Bond hadn’t been able to evacuate (worth about $1.85 million in modern dollars). He presumed it lost for the duration. Much to his amazement, the money “turned up” in Chungking in mid-September. Obviously, it suited the company to have access to the cash, but its return stank like a Chungking sewer—someone, somewhere in the upper echelons of the Nationalist government, was doing business in enemy territory. Bond wondered what quid pro quo had been provided.

In continuation of the tungsten freight-flying business conducted from Namyung prior to Pearl Harbor, minister of economic affairs and chairman of the National Resource Commission Wong Wen-hao had pledged to supply fifteen thousand tons of tungsten to the United States in 1942—a point of leverage applied to the United States government when the Chinese were trying to persuade it to commit airplanes to the China airlift. At the time, America’s tungsten shortage was so acute that the U.S. Army was detailing soldiers to work in stateside tungsten mines. Bond had helped deliver the message. But in mid-August the National Resources Commission claimed that tungsten supplies were “temporarily exhausted,” and pressed the Americans to fly out tin instead. Bolivia supplied the bulk of American tin, however, a much less logistically complicated source that didn’t bamboozle the United States into buying metal at an artificially inflated price by insisting on a twenty-to-one “official” exchange rate while actual currency values fluctuated from eighty to one hundred to one. Not wanting to set a precedent, the U.S. Metals Reserve Company, a quasi-corporate government entity established to coordinate the supply of metals to the American war machine, didn’t want to fly tin in tungsten’s stead. Only a handful of Americans realized what caused the tungsten shortfall. Colonel Frank Dorn, one of General Stilwell’s closest associates, considered it indicative of the state of China’s belligerency—or lack thereof. “There exists what amounts to an undeclared peace,” Dorn wrote, “with mail and a considerable trade going back and forth between occupied and unoccupied China. That is why tungsten shipments have not been as large as had been expected. The Japs pay a little better.” The Metals Reserve Company solved the shortage by raising the price it paid for tungsten.

Most Americans operated under the mistaken assumption that ridding their country of invaders topped Chinese priorities. Only extreme realists like Stilwell, Dorn, and Ambassador Gauss perceived that expelling the Japanese didn’t head the policy agendas of either the Nationalist or the Communist factions vying to control China, no matter how loudly they each rattled the anti-Japanese saber. Japan’s bid for Far Eastern hegemony had given China powerful proxies. Both Communists and Nationalists were quite content to allow the United States to crush Japan. They were already looking beyond Japan’s defeat, maneuvering to amass the military, economic, and political capital for the fight for what was, to them, the greatest prize—the right to unify and rule China.

The monsoon began petering out in October. Solid overcast and steady rain fragmented into broken skies and intermittent downpours, becoming more widely scattered as the month progressed. Bond, Sharp, and Woods knew the better weather would bring the return of the Japanese, and as far as they could discern, the Army Air Corps and the Royal Air Force hadn’t made any meaningful efforts to upgrade the Assam air-warning net while they’d had the monsoon’s protection. Predictably, a Japanese raid caught Dinjan by surprise on Sunday, October 25, but the airline took no damage because all of its eleven Lend-Lease C-53s had left at daybreak and weren’t due back till dusk. On Monday, Hugh Woods got ten of the planes away at dawn. One pilot was refreshing his flying procedures in the eleventh, making practice landings on the Dinjan runway, when he saw the gray-black plumes of bomb-burst eruptions on the field. He hammered his throttles, hauled his wheels, and roared out of Dinjan at minimum altitude, not having caught sight of the attacking planes, nor of the three Japanese Zeros diving onto his tail.b An Army P-40 pilot swooped to his aid and shot down the lead Zero, only to be shot down and killed by the other attackers. The airline pilot escaped and flew his empty airplane over the Hump to Kunming, where he learned how close he’d been to death.c An airline work gang recovered the body of the P-40 pilot who’d died saving their pilot’s life and returned it to the Air Corps. Although inexperienced, there was nothing wrong with Army pilots. Most were uncommonly courageous. It was their leadership that left so much to be desired.

CNAC suffered no losses in the three days of raids, but the Air Corps lost two fighters shot down in the air and four other fighters and ten transports destroyed on the ground, and the attacks rattled the Army command in Delhi. They instructed their military mission in Chungking to determine CNAC’s intentions. A telephone call summoned Bond to Army headquarters, where a group of excited officers huddled around the airline executive, eager to ascertain if his company intended to keep operating.

“Yes, I suppose so. Why do you ask?”

“Well, it looks like this war has finally started,” gabbed their spokesperson, telling Bond to keep his chin up, to soldier on against the difficulties, and assuring him they’d win through in the end.

“For us it started five years ago,” Bond monotoned icily. As politely as he could manage, he thanked the Army officers for their concern. Their breathless arrogance would have been so much easier to tolerate if they were getting their jobs done.

Neither had the Army yet paid anything for the use of CNAC’s Lend-Lease planes. Bond was negotiating an operating contract for their services, and although he knew that his company would get paid eventually, the Army’s glacial accounts payable were wreaking havoc with the airline’s cash flow. The only thing keeping the Lend-Lease planes in the air was Standard Oil Company’s very generous agreement not to make the airline pay for gas and oil until the Army settled its bill. A reprieve came in the form of Mr. Kusminsky, the Soviet Union’s trade representative, who’d bought eighty tons of mercury in China. He asked Bond to fly it to India.

“Why don’t you have the Army fly it?” Bond asked. “They’ll do it for free.”

“So they’ve been telling us for two weeks, but they haven’t moved a ton.”

Sensing opportunity, Bond arranged to fly the quicksilver for five hundred U.S. dollars per ton, and his airline got all of it to India in four days. The Soviets immediately wired payment to New York. Two weeks later, the airline flew three hundred tons of Russian tin, and the Communists paid just as promptly, keeping the airline solvent while it waited for the Army to make good on its promises.

On the other side of the Hump, in Assam, to house the pilots serving their up-country rotations, the airline had established a hostel in a tea planter’s bungalow a few miles from the Dinjan airfield. Like every other structure in the region, it stood on eight-foot stilts to protect it from monsoon floods. It was a hundred feet wide with a roof of steeply pitched thatch, and steps rose to meet a wide veranda stretched across the building’s entire front. Tall, leafy trees cast pleasing shade into the compound. Compared with the atrocious living conditions to which the Army Air Corps subjected its Assam-based personnel, the CNAC employees were living high on the hog, but the airline was still dogged by the same pilot shortage that had hampered it since the Lend-Lease planes started arriving early in the year. Trying to draw experienced fliers to Asia, the airline had feelers out in all corners of the aviation world.

One man who heard the whispers was Pete Goutiere, who, since Pearl Harbor, had been flying for Pan American Airways–Africa, a Pan Am subsidiary formed to ferry planes and supplies across that continent, which he’d joined because the Air Corps considered twenty-seven-year-olds too venerable for military flying. The Army had revised its opinion in the last eleven months, but so had Pete Goutiere, and he’d spurned their ham-handed attempts to recruit the Pan Africa pilots and traveled to Assam hoping to catch on with Pan Am’s China partnership. An inch or two shorter than six feet, with a leather flying jacket draped over an arm, and a studiously smushed flying cap perched on his head when he pushed through the hostel’s rough wooden gate in late October or early November, Goutiere positively dripped casual pilot glamour. Out back, he discovered Hugh Woods playing badminton with his fiancée, Maj. She’d been hired by the airline to manage the hostel.

“I heard you were looking for pilots,” Goutiere said.

“I don’t believe it,” Woody said, chuckling. “We’ve been looking all over for pilots, and here you come, slouching out of the tea patches.”

Woods inquired about his experience, and Goutiere gave a quick verbal résumé: about eight hundred hours, the last three hundred hours as a DC-3 copilot.

“You’ll do, but I warn you, this ain’t what you’re used to,” Woods cautioned. The airline had lost its first plane on the Hump recently, missing without trace. Woody summoned Suklo, the hostel’s Indian housekeeper, and asked him to show Goutiere to one of the bunks inside.

And Goutiere proceeded to ask Suklo, in fluent Hindi, if Suklo would be pleased to draw him a hot bath?

Woods nearly dropped his racket.

“Sahib,” mumbled the astonished servant, “Hindi you’re speaking almost like a native. How come you’re speaking so good?”

Goutiere answered in Hindi, grinning slyly. He’d learned the language taking pretty little Hindu girls to bed.

Suklo roared with laughter and hurried off to draw the bath and share the story with the other servants. Pete Goutiere had spent his childhood in India, and now, after fifteen long years in America, he was ready to renew his love affair with the Orient.

Woody had Goutiere flown to Calcutta to formalize his employment, and Goutiere started making Hump trips as copilot to the airline’s more experienced fliers. Off duty, Goutiere began palling around with Jimmy Fox and Charles Sharkey, two other recent arrivals. Six feet tall and tomato-pole thin, swarthy, and sporting a small mustache, Fox was from Dalhart, Texas, where he’d learned to fly as a teenager and been president of his high school class. Before the war, he’d earned a degree from the University of California at Berkeley and he’d migrated to the airline from Pan American Air Ferries.e Charles Sharkey, of Lawrence, Massachusetts, had joined the airline a month before the other two, and although Goutiere didn’t think Sharkey looked old enough to drink, let alone pilot an airplane, he’d recently checked out as captain, making him the new clique’s veteran. At only twenty-two years old, Sharkey was the youngest pilot-captain in the China National Aviation Corporation by a long measure, but he’d been flying since his early teens, when he’d saved enough spare change and allowance to pay for flying lessons, then for gas and aircraft hire to build his experience.

He’d come to Asia from Canada, where he’d spent 1940 and 1941 teaching flying to Commonwealth pilot candidates, and he absolutely refused to let anyone call him Chuck, or Charles, for that matter. He insisted on “Sharkey,” and with his pockets full of airline money, he’d built himself a reputation for wild gambling and carousing on Calcutta’s Kariah Road.

Goutiere, Fox, and Sharkey all did one or two flying rotations in the late autumn and, as most of the airline’s new hires did before they settled into permanent Calcutta accommodations, when they were downcountry they stayed in the Grand Hotel or the Great Eastern, opulent constructions of the British Raj. The Grand faced onto Chowringhee Street and the Maiden, central Calcutta’s long, thin park running along the east bank of the Hooghly River. The Great Eastern was a few blocks away, at the intersection of Old Court House and British India streets. Sharkey, Goutiere, and Fox were off duty for the holidays, and they gravitated to the Grand’s lavish Christmas banquet. Civic leaders blacked out the city to confound Japanese bombardiers and navigators, but behind lightproof curtains, the Grand Hotel was spectacularly lit for Christmas. American, British, Canadian, Australian, and CNAC uniforms clustered against the bar. Brass insignia gleamed from the turbans and white caftan coats of the servants bustling through the hotel, their midriffs wrapped in red and blue cummerbunds. Right on the stroke of eight o’clock, the uniformed and liveried majordomo stepped into the bar and announced, “Gentlemen, dinner is served.”

More than a hundred guests filtered into the dining room and stood behind their seats, contemplating tables heaped with turkeys and hams, salads and side dishes, towering plum puddings, candelabras, and holly twigs. The majordomo gave the order to sit, the orchestra struck up a Christmas carol, and deep booms outside the hotel interrupted the band’s second stanza. Then came whistles and yells: “Air raid! Air raid!”

The banquet room disintegrated into a chaos of fleeing servants, fear-stricken band members, and military men dashing off to join their units. The electricity failed and the hotel went dark, leaving the gentle glow of the dining room candles illuminating the CNAC men and the two dozen assorted uniforms who’d stayed at their seats. Engines droned, sirens wailed, and more bomb detonations echoed over the city.

“What the hell,” said a voice, “let’s help ourselves before dinner gets cold.”

A British officer found a carving knife and set to work on a turkey, loading plate after plate. Another Englishman poured brandy over a plum pudding and lit it up, the flames quickly subsiding to a blue glow. Sharkey vaulted the bar and liberated an armload of whisky bottles. After dinner, one of the Brits played Christmas carols on the hotel piano as the men drank and sang into the wee hours.

Downstairs the next morning, British Boxing Day, Goutiere picked a path through the prostrate bodies sprawled among the festive debris. Thirty woozy steps beyond the dining room and through the foyer and onto the sidewalk, Goutiere came face-to-face with the hard poverty of Calcutta’s streets. A naked woman lay motionless on the sidewalk, her thighs wet with her own menstrual blood, attended by a cloud of fat, hovering flies and two gaunt dogs. Beggars accosted him. The contrast with the genteel colonial splendor of the Grand Hotel couldn’t have been more extreme.

A few blocks away, Goutiere checked the airline’s flight schedule posted on a board outside the bar in the Great Eastern. Another pilot asked him if he’d heard about Privencal and Lane, two other recent hires.

Apparently, James “Skippy” Lane and Al Privencal had finished their flying on Christmas Eve and were enjoying a booze session in the lounge of the Dinjan bungalow. Soon, they were feeling no pain, and Privencal prattled on about how he’d become a crack shot testing pistols for Colt Firearms before the war. Eventually, Skippy Lane couldn’t stand it anymore. “Okay, Pri, let’s see how good you really are,” he called from the other side of the lounge. “I got ten rupees saying you can’t hit my foot.”

And so twenty-nine-year-old Albert Joseph Privencal from Mount Tabor, Vermont, whipped a Colt 1911 automatic from his flight holster and blasted a .45-caliber hole in Skippy Lane’s foot.

The strain of the Hump flying was beginning to tell.