Best Life
Sixty years after their final mission, a cadre of WWII pilots from across the nation gather for one last time to talk about the war – and about finding peace.  These are their stories.
February 2006
By Donovan Webster
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark

William McKarns
First Lieutenant
C-46 pilot
90 round-trips

Wilkie McFarland
C‑46 Pilot
26 round‑trips


It lay twisted and smoldering, its engines and silvery skin scattered across the spongy rain‑forest earth of north Burma. In its wake, the crash had ripped open the thick jungle canopy, allowing grayish‑black smoke to drift skyward through the same hole that brought rare rays of sunshine filtering through the dense trees.

"I woke up," M.C. Thomas is saying, "and I was still strapped into my pilot's seat. I was sitting there ‑ outside the aircraft ‑ looking back at my tore‑up airplane. At first, it didn't make sense. I kept thinking, 'I'm outside the plane?' So eventually I got my wits around me, and I felt this awful pain in my neck and my right leg. I unstrapped myself from the seat harness and stood up, and I had these staubs ‑ sticks about the size of pencils ‑ that had been driven into my flesh as I'd tumbled across the ground after the crash. One had gone deep in my leg; one was sticking out my jaw. Man, pulling those out really hurt. I walked over to the airplane and looked around, searching for survivors. There weren't any. Every other man on that flight was dead. I started to put the details together. I was crash‑landed and alone in the jungles of north Burma. It was October the i8th, 1943."

Thomas is a codger: 86 years old, with a heavily lined face and a jaw frosted with white beard. He has strong‑looking hands, and ‑ in a grudging assent to his age ‑ he wears hearing aids.

"I'd been returning to my base in India from Kunming, China, flying over the Hump in a C‑46 [cargo airplane]," Thomas says. "I was aircraft commander. Then, over north Burma, we got jumped by five Japanese Zeros. We saw 'em coming, so I got low and tried to hedgehopdropping from about 12,000 feet to treetop level ‑ hoping they'd leave us alone. They didn't. We were unarmed. They began shooting; they put a lot of bullets in my airplane. Both engines quit... Next thing I remember, I woke up still in my seat, having been thrown from the aircraft during the crash. A tree must have taken the roof off my side of the airplane, and I got pitched out with the impact. Once I knew I was alone, I went to this small stream about 50 feet behind the airplane and waited. late berries off bushes. It was a week before natives found me and took me to Fort Hertz Ian Allied airstrip in north Burma] so they could fly me out. I stayed a month at the hospital back in India... Nowadays, every once in a while, I think about how lucky I am."

They are perhaps the most unsung heroes of World War II, and they call themselves "Hump pilots." From April 1942 to November 1945, they flew gasoline, weapons, goods, and troops from a dozen Allied airfields in remote northeast India over the Himalayan "Hump" to China, a nation being strangled by millions of Japanese soldiers ‑ forces that since 1938 had captured and closed all of China's seaports and rail lines.

Starting with a paltry 27 aircraft‑DC‑3s converted from U.S. passenger airliners ‑ the Hump pilots and their Air Transport Command, or ATC, flew in all weather, and 24 hours a day, their single goal was to keep China supplied and fighting in World War II.

Before dawn each morning, the Hump pilots awoke in narrow canvas bunks saturated by the humid air of jungle India. Then they gathered up their shearling jackets, boots, and overtrousers (cabin temperatures would plummet to ‑40'F as they crossed the highest Himalayan ridges) and trudged off to pickup their crews, orders, and cargo manifests. The region's maps were inaccurate, and the pilots relied on navigational radio beacons that broadcast in only a 30‑to go‑mile radius. Monsoons poured from May to October, and winds as high as 300 mph would sling their aircraft up or down thousands of feet in less than a minute. Viewed from the perspective of today's cushy skies‑with jet aircraft that fly above weather, GPS navigation, computer‑modeled weather forecasts, and radar ‑ these flights appear easy. Back in the early 1940s, they were a nightmare.

"Those guys flew day and night, in all kinds of weather," says Dik Daso, curator for modern military aircraft at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, in Washington, D.C. "They didn't have radar altimeters, so they never knew how high above terrain they were. They flew dead reckonings through mountain passes using sometimes inaccurate charts. The weather was unpredictable: Thunderstorms, hail, and icing could get you at any time. It was seat‑of‑the‑pants flying in the most basic sense. And yet the whole idea of an airlift as a show of airpower came from that effort."

It was not always successful ‑ or pretty. At night, they navigated by wristwatch and compass, sometimes piloting their ships into mountainsides. Occasionally they collided in midair. On some runs, gusts would literally flip airplanes over as they skirted the highest peaks. Today, to a man, the Hump pilots admit to having had regular episodes of airborne terror. Before long, they were calling their project "Operation Vomit."

"I remember once, I crested this ridge and‑bam!‑I got blasted by a huge gust coming over the ridge from the opposite side. I looked out my window, out over my left wingtip, and all I could see was the ground below me. No sky. Nothing. The aircraft was 90 degrees or more to the earth. I didn't know which way was up. That's why, always, the first thing you'd do when you climbed into the cockpit for a Hump run was to cinch down the leg and chest straps of your seat harness until they were so tight you could hardly breathe. After especially rough flights, my shoulders and legs would be bruised from the pressure of my seat harness against them. And we did that every day, the way people these days get in and out of cars."  ‑Chuck Linamen, 30 round‑trips

Despite these perils, the Hump pilots played gamely along, sometimes flying two or three 560‑mile round‑trips to China a day. Youthful, ragtag, and loving it, they flew out of Indian (and later Burmese) airfields with unpronounceable names like Chabua, Sylhet, Sookertang, Myitkyina, and Mohanberi. They drank homemade whiskey or local rotguts called Carew's and Bullfight Brandy; the latter was rumored to be laced with marijuana. To amuse themselves, they kept monkeys, sun bears, and jaguars as pets. They hunted tigers with Garand carbines and cultivated a rumpled yet specific style, staying unshaven and unpressed, crushing the starched crowns of their flight officer's caps flat, and keeping their .45‑caliber pistols stowed beneath their left armpits in shoulder holsters.

By 1945, the operation consisted of 622 cargo aircraft‑ a plane was said to touch down in China every minute of every day ‑ moving 70,000 tons of goods, fuel, troops, and food into China each month. These payloads eventually had a crushing impact on Japan's occupation of China, a fact that prevented the Japanese troops there from helping defend their homeland against American forces "island‑hopping" their way across the South Pacific.

Between the weather, the dodgy navigation, the attacking Japanese Zeros, and the antiaircraft fire ‑ which hurled up gardens of flak explosions the crews called "black roses" ‑the Hump operation's success came at enormous cost. Across 1943 and early '44, an average of eight Hump flights crashed each week. As the routes became better established, the number of crashes lessened but still averaged almost 16 a month. (More than 630 Hump flights went down in the effort's 42 months, and 81 were never recovered.) Typically, the Hump pilots made light of these dangers, joking that should navigation go awry, they could always pick their way between India and China by following the "Aluminum Trail" of shattered planes along the ridgelines.

To mark 6o years since the end of World War II, as well as the 6oth consecutive Hump Pilots Reunion, 176 of the Hump pilots convened last fall in Nashville for one last official wingding, trading stories, shaking hands one more time, and buying each other a few drinks. Some of them knew one another, having stayed in touch over the decades; others showed up having been MIA since the end of the war. What came from listening in to those conversations was a crash course in life lessons, observations earned in sometimes harrowing circumstances and often overlaid by the Hump pilots' collective sense that each of them was lucky to have survived World War II at all.

"In the war, I grew up fast: I was 19 years old, and I had a $250,000 airplane to look after and a crew that was looking to me to keep them alive. Luck played a big part of that. There were a lot better pilots than me over there, but a lot of them weren't as lucky as I was. When you were flying the Hump and if you ran out of luck before you ran out of skill, well, you were in big trouble." ‑J.V. Vinyard, president, Hump Pilots Association, 87 round‑trips

[Bold Quote]: "India there," the guide said pointing west. "China there," he said, pointing east. America there," the native finally said and then he pointed to the sky.

"We were somewhere over a base in China with a load of gasoline, trying to land, and our airplane had two compasses, and they disagreed, which isn't such a good thing when you're carrying a load of gasoline. A gas‑hauling plane crash makes a big boom. So the tower sent another aircraft up to us, to try and help us down. But, well, the weather wasn't so good ‑ there were lots of clouds and fog ‑ and we lost them in the soup. We were out of fuel and didn't have any choice. So I got the airplane nice and level, and we bailed out. We got to this little village; these local men had heard the airplane crash and had gone to investigate. They took us back to see it. The airplane had flown in perfectly level. It slowly lost altitude, so as it came to the ground, it had taken the tops off the closest pine trees; then it kept whacking off the pine trees lower and lower until it was taking trees out by the roots. Funny thing was, the whole plane was intact... but the fuel barrels were gone and the cargo door was up. One of my flight crew had left his gun in there, and [the locals] hadn't taken that, but 8,000poundsofgas was gone. Man, when they saw something they wanted, those Chinese were fast."  ‑Wilkie McFarland, 26 round‑trips

"One time, we were flying Chinese troops back to India, preparing to retake Burma. These soldiers were all peasants. It was the first time any of them had ever been on an airplane. And after we took off, the plane began to feel a little tail heavy. Then it got heavier still. So Isaid to my copilot, 'Go back there and have a look.'  And he did. And those Chinese back there, well, they'd gotten cold, so they'd started a little charcoal fire in the tail and had a tea kettle on the fire. Can you imagine? I still thank God there weren't any aviation fuel fumes trapped back there... we'd have exploded in midair." ‑Ernie Chester, 8o round‑trips

"On the 26th of December, 1944, I encountered the granddaddy of all thunderstorms. We were following another plane. He was a little higher than we were and just ahead of us, and we saw him go into the storm... and no one ever saw or heard from him again. He just disappeared. Then we went in, and we were tossed from the bottom to the top of that storm many, many times. Our instruments were spinning so much you couldn't read them. Ice caked on everything. You couldn't steer. You had no idea of airspeed. The thrust and turbulence seemed to be tearing that airplane apart. It was all I could do to keep the wings level. It was like being in a high‑speed elevator going up and down. I still don't know how that aircraft held together. But that experience taught me a lesson I've always remembered: Sometimes things are bigger than you, and the best you can hope for is to keep your wings level and have patience and a little luck." ‑Warren L. "Wally" Simpson, former president, Hump Pilots Association, more than 5 round‑trips >

Harry C. Bayne
Brigadier General
C‑109 pilot
80 round‑trips

Roy E. Ladd
C-87 pilot
30 round-trips

J.V. Vinyard
First Lieutenant
C-46 pilot
87 round-trips

Peter A. Cerrata
First Lietenant
C-46 pilot
20 round-trips

James J. Zandstra
Staff Sergeant
C-46 pilot
15 round-trips

PUSHED TO SUPPLY CHINA by the fastest possible means, American mechanics and airfield engineers sometimes paid laborers in opium, which the laborers would use themselves, trade for food or goods, or give to their elephants to treat the animals' nervousness. In the mess halls, bottles of antimalarial tablets called Atabrine sat on every dining table; the pills turned everyone's skin slightly yellow and made their freckles green. When taking off from India or making final approaches on return flights from China, Hump crews often scanned the broad, spreading Brahmaputra River Valley of northeast India, where wild rhinos and elephants could be seen wallowing. On the ground, cobras could be found staying warm near water heaters on winter nights, and a tiny, poisonous snake called a krait was the greatest source of reptilian anxiety. The soldiers nicknamed these "10‑step snakes," because if you were bitten by a krait, the old wives' tale said, you'd get only 10 steps before you died.

Sometimes when flying at night, the jumping sparks of St. Elmo's fire would turn an airplane's propellers into spinning orbs of blue light; other times, the fire's spidery charges would scramble and jump across the windshields, arcing between the steel window frames. Huge blue explosions of "ball lightning" would blast the aircraft with positive electrons, interrupting all radio and navigational connections. At night on the ground, jackals searching for easy meals would boldly go into Hump pilots' tents or huts, leaving the darkness punctuated by blasts of the airmen's. pistols. And there were always leeches: small, brownish or greenish parasites that would latch on to skin beneath a soldier's clothes, not announcing their presence until, having gorged on a blood meal, they became as large as small sausages. If a startled soldier ripped a leech off, its head could snap off beneath the skin, where it would then fester and rot, often leaving infections that penetrated to the bone.

At Shingbwiyang, a forward airstrip in Burma, the runway pavement ended a half mile before a 4,000‑foot, rain‑forest‑cloaked mountain rose steeply into the sky. The only way over it was to take off, immediately make a hard right turn, and begin along, corkscrewing climb out of the valley, sometimes while taking fire from the enemy. Some nights, the pilots and crews from outlying airfields would get together and have parties at Chabua (the largest base); the pilots would fly to supply depots and hospital bases as far away as Calcutta to collect musicians and Army nurses for the festivities. In 1944, a plane filled with party‑bound nurses crashed into an Indian hillside, killing everyone; recalling that shock still leaves the assembled veterans silent.

In 100 round‑trips, a pilot could expect to fly 40 or more different aircraft and carry loads of gasoline in 55‑gallon drums, thousands of pounds of 6‑inch gasoline pipe from Bethlehem Steel, shipments of grenades, mixed ammunition, jeeps, jeep trailers, Chinese troops, canned tomatoes, small arms, canned beans, mortar shells, loads of aircraft engines and spare parts, and 100‑pound bombs. Some pilots talk of loads of chili powder and laxatives. Everyone seems to smile .t the 8,000 pounds of steel trash‑can lids that once flew the Hump, though nobody can generate a good explanation for why they needed airlifting. American‑made GMC transport trucks were cut in half in India, flown over the Himalayas, and then welded back together in China. Once, a grand piano intended for Madame Chiang Kai‑shek, wife of the Nationalist Chinese leader, had to be "sacrificed" and pushed from a plane's open cargo door when the aircraft was said to have trouble gaining altitude.

Another pilot recalls that because refrigeration in the jungle was impossible, someone rigged up parachutes for live pigs, and the Hump pilots were soon flying low and slow over advance units of American, British, and Chinese forces and air‑dropping planeloads of the pigs to them.

Many of them wincingly remember the local peasant laborers who maintained the airfields in China and were always scattering across the runways just ahead of aircraft. Believing the propellers chased off evil spirits, the Chinese would try to get as close to them as they could. Through the plane's windshield, a Hump pilot would watch the human silhouettes in the distance move into his path, which was too often followed by a sickening thud. "Uh, we got another one," the plane's radioman might have remarked.

"BY HOOK AND CROOK, that Hump airlift succeeded," says Dick Park, a Hump pilot who flew 20 round‑trips. "We all had skill, we knew our jobs, and we operated as teams ‑ but luck played an enormous part in both our succeeding in the Hump and our getting home at all. Far as I'm concerned, if you're a little bit lucky and you have earned people's trust, well, you've got it all."

In the end, that luck helped win the war in China. As the Hump airlift grew in scale and breadth ‑ with its supplies and weapons grinding down China's occupying Japanese ‑ the pilots and their mission grew famous across South Asia, even if their efforts went unnoticed across the larger world. In August 1943, print and radio correspondent Eric Sevareid and two dozen others had to bailout of a malfunctioning Hump flight, only to parachute down near a headhunter village along the border of Burma and India. For the next 22 days, Sevareid and his "bailout group" were hosted, housed, and fed without harm. When finally rescued and led 80 miles back to civilization on foot across the jungle, one of Sevareid's native guides explained the Hump in a way that captured its astonishing breadth perfectly: "India there," the guide said, pointing west. "China there," he said, pointing east.

"America there," the native finally said, and then he pointed to the sky.