Flying the Hump: A Veteran Remembers

One of many stories in the Library of Congress searchable archive of war reminiscences.

Among the veterans' stories archived at the Library of Congress are narratives of flying “the Hump” in World War II. The Curtiss C-46 Commando was a mainstay for those operations, conducted over the Himalayan foothills where there was no emergency landing strip. (NARA)
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The Library of Congress Veterans History Project collects the first-hand remembrances of U.S. military veterans and Gold Star Family members so their stories will be accessible to future generations. Individuals and organizations across the country are invited to contribute a variety of materials to this important archive: oral histories, original letters, photos, unpublished memoirs, journals or diaries, 2-D artwork, and other military documents of veterans from World War I through current conflicts. At the project website you can find more information and a searchable database of transcripts and oral history recordings.

A search for “China-Burma-India” in the World War II section turned up the account below. We were hoping to find experiences of pilots who had flown the treacherous supply route from India to China by which the United States and Great Britain supported China’s fight against Japan. The transports would take off from airfields in India loaded with food, weapons, and fuel, and fly across the foothills of the Himalayas. Crossing “the Hump,” as the pilots called the route, was some of the most dangerous flying of the war. The pilots saw few Japanese fighters; instead, they battled mountain weather and rudimentary navigation aids. So many crashes marked the 550 miles of the Hump that by the end of the war, crews were calling it “the aluminum trail.”

First Lieutenant Milton Buls flew the biggest airplane in the Air Transport Command’s fleet, the Consolidated C-87 Liberator Express, the freighter version of the B-24 Liberator heavy bomber. Most of the airplanes crossing the Hump were Curtiss C-46 Commandos or the ubiquitous Douglas C-47. The flights Buls narrates sound harrowing—and typical of the passage that took the lives of so many.

Over the Hump

First Lieutenant Milton Richard Buls — C-87 pilot, part of the Air Transport Command’s mission in the China-Burma-India campaign

“It was the monsoon season. Usually they would taper off just before we got to Luliang, which was the first radio beacon in China where we made about a 45-degree turn to go to Kunming where we delivered our fuel. Every route from India ended at Kunming. From there we would sometimes go up to Chengdu and Loeping. We had very little by way of navigation aides, but two low-frequency, low-powered beacons.

Near the end of the monsoon, we started getting very high tailwinds. Normally it was about a three-hour flight to Luliang. We flew for three hours, and couldn’t get anything on the radio but static. So we flew another hour, not knowing what our ground speed was. All of a sudden we broke out of the clouds and bright moonlight reflected on the water. We had gone all the way across China.

In the distance we could see a big island—Formosa [now Taiwan]—which was still Japanese-held territory. We made a quick turnaround and got back into the clouds. After a total of 13 hours and 10 minutes in the air, we finally got to Kunming. We were so close to running out of fuel that the number four engine quit as we were letting down, and when we got on final approach, number one quit.

We were not able to deliver any fuel at all to them; in fact, we had to take on enough fuel for a six-hour flight back to our base in India. We calculated that we had about 90-mile-an-hour headwinds.

We had very few instruments: primarily needle, ball, and airspeed. We had an air-driven gyroscopic compass and an artificial horizon. I think we had about 30 degrees of bank, and 45 degrees of pitch, and if you exceeded that, the instrument would tumble and become worthless. Once in a while, you would get into a thunderstorm that would spill all your gyro instruments. Then you had nothing but the needle, which gave you left and right, and the ball, which told you whether you were slipping or skidding. The airspeed was the only indication you had if you were going up or down.

If the airspeed increased, you knew you were going down, so you would pull back on the stick. At that point you were straight and level. This was really hard to do in the extreme turbulence of a thunderstorm. On one occasion, we actually felt as though we were in a dive on our back, and all we had was the airspeed indicator, which was really winding up. We knew we were in a dive; we didn’t know which way was up, but we managed to straighten out the wings with the ailerons and rudder, and then pull out, pull back on the stick until the airspeed started dropping off.

When we hit about the bottom of that loop, we broke out from underneath the clouds. It was night, and we saw what looked like four lights in a row. They were actually smudge pots, cans with rags and kerosene in them to give you light, to show the edge of the runway. We knew we were almost at Myitkina, which was an old fighter base. It had been in Japanese hands just a few days before. But we were so badly banged up we couldn’t have gone anywhere else.

The airplane was twisted completely out of shape and was almost uncontrollable. Anyway, we proceeded on to those lights and sure enough it turned out to be [Myitkina]. We landed and shut down the engines. There were a couple of Americans there who had just come out of the jungle. They said that a few days before, they had cleaned the Japanese out of there and wanted a ride home. But the airplane was unflyable; we had popped many rivets, and the horizontal stabilizer was twisted about 10 degrees off of horizontal.

Standing behind [the aircraft], you could see that [it] had been twisted badly. In the course of that dive we hit hail, and with the speed we reached in that dive, we lost the cowlings off all four engines. The next morning we contacted our base in India, and they sent a C-47 from the rescue squadron, which picked us up and took us back to our base.”

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