Who Was Fatty Pearson?
A World War II British foot soldier’s best friend in the air, and the man who rescued Ernest Hemingway.
- By Tim Belknap
- Air & Space magazine, November 2012
Imperial War Museum
(Page 4 of 5)
The concept: an air squadron that would help you out no matter where on the ground you were or what condition you were in. No longer did wounded men have to die in the jungle, “rotting under a tree,” as one soldier put it. A trusting C-47 crew, landing on a strip the commandos had cleared on a plateau and marked “Land here” with parachute silk, evacuated wounded Chindits to medical facilities. A Life magazine photographer was aboard that airplane. His photographs of the Chindits, picked up within 14 miles of a Japanese air base, show men so haggard and hollow-eyed they look like ghosts. Yet all have wide smiles.
A division of Chindits, including the Gurkha troops from India, was scattered around the jungle, waging a series of savage campaigns that disrupted Japanese supply lines and captured air bases. By late 1943, the Allies were gaining control of the skies. With the C-47s at their call, “the British and Indian soldiers knew that being surrounded and apparently cut off meant nothing if you had air power and air superiority,” Russell writes in his book.
Aerial ground support techniques were developed, and training was intense. Some radio operators in 194 Squadron learned to parachute down from a mere 700 feet, with Fatty there to congratulate the volunteers after their practice jumps. Since full-service support now included not only pinpoint relief operations but also, when needed, troop airlifts, ground crews focused on off-loading four tons of cargo in minutes.
In the spring of 1944, for the first time ever, an entire division and its gear were airlifted directly to the battlefield, with the C-47s of 194 flying 758 sorties and U.S. aircraft flying others to the strategic town of Imphal. That monster battle, lasting four months, relieved the siege there and marked the greatest defeat of Japan’s Imperial Army to date.
Under Pearson’s command, during the big offensives of 1943 and 1944, crews flew multiple times around the clock, with much of the flying low-level and stressful. Downdrafts could require the full strength of the pilot and sometimes a second man to regain control. Sweating crews flew shirtless; in May, as the monsoon season started, they confronted surprise icing.
Despite the arduous conditions, only three of 194’s airplanes were lost.
On the plains of India, the heat could top 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Without shade, the metal could get hot enough to cause severe burns, and it wasn’t always possible to work on the airplanes at night. Pearson had giant scaffolds with thatched coverings erected to shade the work. “Is it any wonder the ground crews held him in high regard and gave such loyalty,” former 194 navigator Peter Briscoe wrote me. (Briscoe is Canadian, as were many of Pearson’s men.)
Empathy with the lower ranks was not an RAF tradition. At other squadrons, non-commissioned pilots felt like second class citizens. But at the Friendly Firm, sergeant pilots such as D.W. Groocock were warmly welcomed by Pearson and assured that those who did their jobs would soon be officers. “In a few days time,” Groocock wrote me, “I found that Fatty’s personality and attitude permeated the whole squadron.”