Winter 1990 Issue
Those of us who served in the CBI Theater know it has generally been ignored by WW II historians. This is a shame because some innovative tactics and methods were developed that have continued to prove themselves during subsequent periods of tension. One of these was the use of air-lift for logistic support of combat fighting units. Even before "Combat Cargo" became a recognized terminology for this support, the 1st Air Commando Group air delivered the majority of materiel for General Win-gate's second Chindit campaign and Merrill's Marauders recapture of the airfield at Myitkyina, Burma. The operation proving the viability and effectiveness of using air-lift to totally sustain rapidly advanced ground forces, however, was the campaign to recapture Burma by the British XIV Army. This continuous aerial supply action was conducted during the fall and winter of 1944-45 and the spring of 1945. To accomplish this unheard of mission, the Combat Cargo Task Force was created. This Task Force was composed of American C-47 units, Canadian and Australian Dakota (C-47) aircraft and the US 4th Combat Cargo Group. The 4th Group contained four squadrons, each assigned 25 Cur-tiss C-46 aircraft. These were the only C-46s in the Task Force. I was a member of the 13th Squadron in this 4th Group. The C-46, depending on trade-off between fuel requirements and cargo load, could carry almost three times the pay load weight of the C-47. The 4th Group's exploits and activities in contributing to the Japanese defeat in CBI are interesting enough to chronicle here. Some of these mostly unheralded accomplishments have yet to be equalled.
4th Combat Cargo Group Establishes a PrecedentCompiled by Stan Miller
Old Pueblo Basha, Tucson, Arizona
4th Group Activated The 4th Group was activated at Syracuse AAB, NY, during June of 1944. Initial aircraft assigned was the Douglas C-47. About the time training was completed in the C-47s, the Group moved to Bowman Field at Louisville, KY, and converted to the larger C-46 aircraft. The Group deployed to CBI during November. An interesting note is that War Plans in Washington knew the unit's ultimate mission and destination at the time of its activation. The crews and other personnel, however, didn't find out until they were enroute to CBI and had passed the "point of no return" between West Palm Beach, FL, and Borinquin Field, Puerto Rico. Then they were allowed to open sealed, secret orders specifying the destination of Sylhet, India. Upon arriving at Sylhet, initial flying consisted of air-lifting tar and other airport construction materials from the upper Assam Valley to recently recaptured Myitkyina in northern Burma. About the middle of December the Group was formally assigned to the Combat Cargo Task Force. The goal of the Task Force, a first in the annals of combat, was to provide the total logistic support of ground fighting forces; an army being completely dependent on air support for its continued existence. 4th Stockpiles Materiel As a part of the Task Force, the 4th Group started moving supplies into Imphal, India, to develop stockpiles of materiel for the XIV Army's imminent drive south. Return trips consisted of transporting wounded and passengers to Calcutta or Commilla. Commilla, India, was the headquarters of the Task Force. Sylhet was not a British supply point so the air crews had to go first to Commilla to pick up the loads destined for Imphal. It was not a very efficient operation because of the wasted, dead-heading flying time required of the crews and planes. Christmas 1945 was spent at Sylhet. To help celebrate the Season, four or five of us sharing quarters in the same building chipped in and bought a bottle of Scotch whiskey from our British compatriots. They were not as full as the Holiday spirit as we had hoped because after serious negotiation we settled for $25.00. At that time a fifth of Scotch in the States was about $5.00. On Christmas Eve, after sipping on our expensive Scotch for awhile, the single drop cord light in our room seemed to sway back and forth and a slight tremor was felt. We all looked at each other but nobody would mention this phenomenon because we didn't want the others to think we were affected that much by the whiskey. The next day we found out that there had been a slight earthquake? At the end of December, the 4th Group moved to Agartala, a supply point south of Sylhet. During this period, the XIV Army had progressed south to the Kabaw Valley and supplies were air-lifted over the 10,000 foot mountains to dirt airstrips quickly hacked out of the jungle. When the XIV Army reached Kalewa, heavy Japanese resistance was encountered. The British forces prevailed and the bridge allowing access to the central Burmese plain was secured. The XIV Army's two Corps split at this time, the 33rd turned east, heading towards Mandalay, while the 4th Corps continued south following the Myittha River.
C-46 in Burma
|Dirt Strips Turn to Mud January 1945 was a busy and eventful month for the 4th Group. Much effort went into smoothing out its scheduling and loading activities and refining forward area operational procedures. In early January there were three days of unseasonably heavy rains, waterlogging the forward area dirt strips. Since the landing strips were unusable, the 4th Group started its first air-drops of supplies. The C-46 was not impressive as a bundle dropping aircraft even though several records were established in the tonnage dropped on one pass. (Subsequently, C-119s and C-130s have far exceeded any tonnage dropped by the C-46s.) During this period, both day and night drop missions were accomplished. The Japanese quickly figured out the number of passes a plane would make to drop its total load. During these passes, the Japanese in the jungle surrounding the drop zone would hold their fire. After the last pass, however, small arms fire was directed at the C-46s, resulting in occasional bullet holes being discovered. No planes or crews were lost. Our intelligence people surmised that the fire was held during the drop passes because the Japanese needed and hoped they could capture the supplies that were dropped. The 33rd Corps, pushing southeast from Kalewa, secured the foothills and proceeded on towards Mandalay. We began rolling into dirt strips at Ye-U while nearby villages were still burning from the strafing of P-47s and Spitfires and 33rd Corps artillery fire. Beyond Ye-U, capturing Shewbo was the next successful operation of the 33rd Corps. Shwebo was on the main north-south railroad and highway and the 4th Group used the strip there for a longer period. Move to Chittagong At the end of January, the 4th Group moved from Agartala to Chittagong, India. Chittagong, a large cosmopilitan city on the Bay of Bengal was a major port, rail and highway terminus. This move was accomplished without reduction of the cargo flights to Burma. The day we moved, I took a load from Agartala to Burma, returning to our new location at Chittagong. All of us crew members carried our personal belongings in the C-46 belly compartment so we were ready to set up "housekeeping" when we finished our day's flying. During early February, the Task Force was supplying the 4th Corps as it moved south with Kan on the Myittha River being a major re-supply point; and the 33rd Corps further east at a constantly changing set of dirt strips. Some of these quickly developed airfields were in use less than a couple of weeks. On one of my missions to a forward dirt strip, a wing flap follow-up cable broke during the landing sequence. With the broken cable, the left wing flaps would not retract, grounding the plane. It was going to be the next day before another plane could bring in the required repair parts. The British Army forces offered us a place to stay with them but someone had to stay with the plane for security reasons. After some discussion, we decided that all four of us crew members would stay with the plane. Part of the load we had hauled consisted of canned mutton stew (Ugh!). We appropriated a few cans of the stew to supplement our emergency 'K' rations. To heat our dinner stew, I drained some of the plane's gasoline, mixed it with some dirt which I then stacked up around the sides of the cans of stew. When I got ready to light the fire I noticed some local Burmese people watching from the high grasses just off the parking area. As I touched a match to the dirt and it burst into flame, there were many surprised looks and excited chatter among the Burmese. I felt I could have been their medicine man as long as my gasoline lasted! The fire effectively heated the stew and we did return to Chittagong the next day.|
Field is Shelled
As the 33rd Corps moved closer to Mandalay, Shewbo became less important and Ondaw became a major supply point. Ondaw is north of Mandalay and was the first place the 4th Group encountered 105mm artillery shells hitting the field during off-loading operations. It took several weeks to neutralize these gun emplacements in the hills along the west bank of the Ir-rawaddy River. No casualties resulted from this shelling.
During the latter part of February, the 4th Group went on an almost constant flying schedule. Copilots, radio operators and crew chiefs were rushed in from B-24, B-25 and P-47 units to help support the 20-hour daily operations. Some planes would return to Chittagong after the fourth trip of the day only one hour before they were to take-off on the next day's missions.
In the last week of February, the XIV Army's 4th Corps made a spectacular tank break-through to stand behind the Japanese lines at Meiktila. Now the Task Force, including the 4th Group had to routinely fly over and land behind enemy lines. Some ground fire was experiened during these missions but no crew injuries or aircraft losses occurred. The first field to be used behind the lines was operational for one week when the Japanese retook it. The Japanese wanted to re-group and increase the size of their forces in an attempt to smash the now isolated forces of the 4th Corps. They were unsuccessful.
Airstrip Overrun at Night
In the first week of March the main strip at Meiktila was opened. The Japanese usually overran the airstrip every night. The control tower and all other personnel withdrew before dusk to a perimeter of tanks a half mile west of the airfield. (Reminiscent of our wagon trains during the movement across the western plains.)