3d AIR DEPOT GROUP



THE THIRD AIR DEPOT GROUP IN WWII

Recalled & Compiled By:  D. O. Robinette

The artifacts which you see here are intended to call attention to the WWII service of a group of Army technicians who were organized and trained at Kelly (then Duncan) Field and who, in most cases, returned to civilian life in San Antonio. Despite the undramatic nature of our service, we all took pride in accomplishing the essential task that was assigned to us and in the comradeship involved in this unique event in our lives. Before continuing the personal story of the 3rd ADG, let's look at the big picture of this depot in WWII.

In March of 1942, only three months after that "Day of Infamy", the 3rd ADG was on its way to Agra (Taj Mahal), India - exactly one half way around the world from Kelly Field - to build from scratch a major air base with full maintenance and repair facilities. So, much earlier, while politicians and commercial interests were still supplying scrap iron to Japan, "someone" in the military had done some planning ahead, mostly after '39.

In 1941 the concept of forward, highly mobile, trailer-mounted repair facilities (3rd echelon) which might have been suited to WWI, had been displaced. It was becoming clear that a bigger, farther from the front, depot (4th echelon) would better serve the longer range but more complex planes of WWII. A cadre of skilled, we11-trained craftsmen had been assembled even before conscription began.

Throughout most of the war, from early '42 when the Japanese cut the Burma Road until '45 when the Stilwell connection was completed, the only source of outside supply to China was the "hump" airline. The first and always a major engine overhaul and repair depot for this operation was at Agra, the geographical center of India, and by the 3rd ADG and attached units.

Historians are uncertain of the whole CBI effort on the outcome of the war against the Axis powers, but the importance of the lessons learned and the first proof of the ability to supply a large scale military effort entirely by air was clearly established. A total of 650,000 tons of cargo was delivered. This was the origin of the Air Transport Command. Neither the heroic efforts of those involved in Stilwell's, Merrill's and Wingate's struggle to eject the Japanese from Burma Road are diminished by these facts. The hump airline was the single tie to China for most of the war and also carried more than three times the monthly tonnage of that tortuous road when it was reopened. Even if China's presence in the war was not decisive to the outcome, many Allied lives were spared in other areas because of it. We fretted when Chiang's efforts against the Japanese were reduced as his attention was diverted by the rise of an even more serious enemy. Years later we too learned some costly lessons about this enemy which Chiang recognized in '44 and Churchill called attention to in '46.

For those of us involved in this exotic experience - a mixture of excitement and tedium (English of "hurry up and wait"), it started when we moved from San Antonio to our port of embarkation at Charleston, South Carolina, in March of '42. We were the 47 officers and 871 enlisted men of the 3rd ADG and attached units. It is not practical to recite here the names of all personnel, but a roster is a part of the artifacts. The initial leadership and part of the subsequent changes and initial detachments are cited.

The USAT Brazil had been hastily converted from a 553, all first class, passenger liner in the South American trade to a troop ship for 5085. We were both the earliest and the slowest (60 days) convoy to make the passage to India.

We traveled on a 13,000 mile zigzag course, crossing the equator twice, convoyed a 10 knots by WWI aircraft and a naval escort. There were stops but no shore leave at Puerto Rico and Sierra Leone (westernmost bulge of South Africa). Two much appreciated stops with shore leave were made in South Africa. After existing in bunks 4 high to an 8 ft. ceiling with closed portholes at the equator, eating 2 stand-up meals of hard boiled eggs, oatmeal (no milk or sugar) and mutton (often overripe), we were amazed to be treated like valued guests in Capetown. They were reacting from a recent visit by ANZAC infantry and sought to save their city through super hospitality.

In '42 the east coast of India was not considered a safe place to dock a ship nor to build an air base. We landed at Karachi in mid-May on the northwest coast. For nearly a month we tarried at a new multinational holding camp, New Malir, on the edge of the Sind Desert. We slept on a stone floor and were nightly covered with the ever blowing sand. The area was treeless but cool at night, and this was a blessed improvement over the ship. But on a moonlit, midnight walk to the outhouse, every deep shadow had an imaginary garrote-wielding Thug - as in Gunga Din.

On the way to Agra, our home-to-be, we took the indirect route about 300 miles north of a nonexistent direct rail to Agra. We had our round WWI metal hats and bolt action Springfield rifles ready because some trains had recently been assaulted by sword carrying Huq bandits. The only real problems we met were the desert heat (119 degrees F), and having to transfer equipment (including hangar steel) whenever the width of the track changed. India had very few roads or railroads, especially West to East, and the few rail lines were afflicted with 4 different gauges of track. Transport from west coast ports was a problem in '42. On first arrival at Agra in June, we lived in tents amid existing shops inside a walled subdivision of the British-Indian cantonment area. Some of us, like machinists, were able to practice our trade immediately. We worked on small scale equipment along side Sikh craftsmen who were proud of their metal cutting lathes, operated by foot treadles - as sewing machines once were. So urgent was the need and so concentrated the effort (7 days/week, 3 shifts/ day) that by August 1, '42 even engine overhaul was ready to go. There were no hangars and no pavement, but depot operations had begun! And so had the monsoon rains! These created one more job - that of frequently moving by massed manpower (U.S. and Indian) our crates of full-scale machinery to ever higher ground as inundation threatened.

Meanwhile, another group, the 50 men of the "steel gang," became overnight structural steel workers with the challenge of building two 100' x 120' hangars and fourteen 40' x 80' permanent shops in on open field about two miles from town. According to records available at the Air Force Library at Maxwell A.F.B.n the Third ADG was the only ADG who had to erect their own buildings in order to perform their mission. Company "D" of the 45th Combat Engineers assisted in the erection of the buildings and poured the concrete floors in all 16 buildings. They were in Agra for several months on their way to assist in the construction of the Ledo Road. The steel gang felt the maximum impact from the Indian sun, and we all felt the humidity. Agra is at about the same latitude as the southern tip of Texas. There are three seasons: very hot and dry, very hot and very wet, and a chilly 50 degree winter.

Our brick barracks and the airport runways were built with Indian peasant labor, hired by the entire village - men, women and children. Men dug the foundation with a hoe-like tool and hand placed the stone in decreasing sizes, Macadam style. Women carried earth and stone in straw baskets balanced on their heads. Wood-fired, steam-driven rollers compacted the layers of stone.

India is about 1/3 the area of the USA, but it had and has about 1/5 of the total world population which is nearly 3 times that of the U.S. Most of the people are marginal, primitive farmers spread over all of the arable land. So marginal is the average yearly food production above the minimum required to sustain the large population that any upset is a catastrophe. In '43 while we were there a major famine resulted in 2 million deaths in Calcutta and the Bengal areas.

With our personal autos we can practice "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". With an airplane you fix it before it is broke if you want to survive. This is especially true when that airplane must fly over the world's highest mountain chain and may be the target of enemy action. Periodic preventive engine overhaul was the 3rd ADG's reason for being in Agra. Almost as important was the repair, modification and adaptation work that fit between what could be done in forward bases and what had to depend on replacement via the long thin supply line from the USA. For this purpose a comprehensive repair and overhaul capacity was developed in Agra. By January, '43, runways were paved, permanent barracks and shops were built, and full scale capacity was in use. Engines were completely disassembled and magnofluxed for otherwise invisible flaws. All of the functions of a major depot were in operation including: salvage, blueprinting, foundry, welding, machining. sheet metal, armament, communications, parachute rigging and medicine.

The original "Brazil gang" was augmented in December of '42 by the arrival of the 82nd Supply and Repair Squadron (the latter becoming a permanent attachment), and in October, '43, the depot organizations were reinforced by the arrival of 600 more enlisted personnel. Even so the total American presence was insufficient for the job undertaken. Indian civilian employees were an important supplement, not only in janitorial and mess hall capacities but also in substantial numbers in shop, working along side GI's. At least 2700 were so engaged.

Some indirect measure of the size and growth of the operation is available in the statistics on:

a) Plane traffic, arrivals/mo. - start up Aug. '42 to 1,320 July '45
b) Hump tonnage/ mo. - 1227 Dec. '42 to 71,042 July '45

That the job was done with dedication and ingenuity is attested by the award of Bronze Stars and Service Designations. Individuals thus cited are recognized in the artifacts.

Despite the heat, heat rash, threat of malaria and the universal affliction of dysentery (in India cow dung is burned and human feces is fertilizer), no one shot at us. We suffered few lasting casualties. In fact after the Japanese navy met its critical defeat at the Battle of Midway and the high tide of their island conquests was finally reversed at Guadalcanal in '43, the supply line to India became ever stronger. Even amenities were possible. PX supplies were greatly expanded, sport facilities were built, and a week per year in a Himalayan foothills rest camp was a real treat. In March '44, 46 men passed the aviation cadet exams, were willing to give up non-combatant status and ready to start the war over as pilots. They were sent to Bombay for return to the United States. Then after 2 weeks of waiting, they were sent back to Agra. "Someone" had recognized that using trained technicians from Agra as cadet recruits was no way to help the war effort.

The reduced pace did make an opportunity for touring the India around us, mostly by bicycle. Very close to our base, located on the banks of the Jumna River (a Ganges tributary), is the huge Agra red fort and that world renowned gem of architecture and stone masons' art, the Taj Mahal. At long bike range there were other artistic and structural shrines. The walled capital city and the tomb and memorial to the greatest of India's moguls, invader-emperor Akbar, was one of these.

In September of '44 came that most anticipated event! 315 old-timers from the Brazil received orders to return to the USA. The last of the Brazil gang stayed a while longer, until January of '45.


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