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Air Commando Hat

The Aerial Invasion of Burma


By General H. H. Arnold

Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Corps

Permission had been obtained by Eugene Rossel to reuse from the

National Geographic Magazine dtd August, 1944


In 1943 the late Major General Orde C. Wingate led a daring campaign against the Japanese in Burma.

He proved that Allied ground troops could operate behind the enemy's lines, cutting off his supply system and upsetting his schedule. General Wingate marched fast and struck hard. The enemy, never knowing where he was going to strike next, completely thrown off balance. Indeed , this British general's behind-the-lines operations in Burma brought to mind the brilliant cavalry maneuvers of Nathan Bedford Forrest in our own Civil War.

In 1944 General Wingate wished to lead another expedition into Burma on a larger scale. Previously he had to leave some of his sick and wounded behind his swiftly moving columns, but in 1944 he wanted to fly all of them to safety.

We promised we would do that-and more.

We visualized an Air Commando Force, the first in military history. Large number of Allied ground troops would be conveyed by aircraft deep into Burma and once there, they would be wholly supplied by air. General Wingate believed that, while the Japanese were excellent jungle fighters, well-trained Allied troops could defeat them at their own game, provided they were mobile, in sufficient force, and exploited the military value of surprise.

We would not only evacuate all wounded by air; we would replace them with fresh combat troops. Furthermore, none of the soldiers would have to make long marches through tough jungle to get inside Burma. They could start fighting in top physical condition. In the same project the AAF would gain airbases from which we could fight the Japanese at closer quarters and relieve the threat to our aerial life line to China over the Hump.

Obviously, the men to lead this unprecedented project had to be aggressive, imaginative, and endowed with organizational talent of a high order.

The Original of "Terry and the Pirates"

To AAF headquarters i Washington came two young men who were strongly recommended.

One was a 34-year-old fighter pilot who had shown remarkable leadership in North Africa, Col Philip G. Cochran, of Erie, Pennsylvania. In my office Cochran still wore his Natal leather boots with the trouser tops stuffed in. In North Africa he had originally headed a unit of replacement pilots, but before anyone was aware of it he had them up at the front fighting as a unit. Later he commanded a squadron of fighter pilots who were frequently so far ahead of our other forces that it was humorously remarked that they were fighting a war of their own.

At the time I did not know that Cochran was the original of the character Flip Corkin in the comic strip "Terry and the Pirates," but he sounded like a good man for the job. 

The other man was Col John R. Alison who had been an outstanding fighter pilot with the 14th Air Force in China and had also fought the enemy from England, Russia, and the Middle East. He was short, slender and self-possessed. He knew his business.

I told both of them that they were going to Burma. Cochran immediately protested that he wanted to go "where there was some fighting." I informed him that he would get all the combat he wanted. I explained the unprecedented mission and ordered them to carry it out. "To hell with the paperwork," I added. "Go out and fight."

Perhaps my last words constituted a personal whim, for systematic organization work is necessary in modern war, and I knew they could do it.

Cochran as commander, and Alison, as deputy, established their first headquarters in a Washington, D.C., hotel room in August, 1943. Their initial task was to select men to help them. They then flew to England to coordinate plans with the British. General Wingate was enthusiastic and said heartily, "We are going in this time to stay."

The aircraft Cochran and Alison selected for the mission were: transports and gliders to move troops, equipment and supplies; light liaison or "grasshopper-type" planes to evacuate the wounded; fighters ; and medium bombers.

The glider pilots were selected volunteers. Liaison-plane pilots were chosen for ability to repair as well as fly ships. An exhaustive training program was begun in America and concluded in India. Everything was loaded and unloaded endlessly. Army pack mules became accustomed to bamboo stalls in the gliders.

In India there were work-filled months of final preparations. Visitors to our installations were confounded by the lack of "rank."

Morale was high, and there was little paperwork. The men said, simply, "If Phil or John says we do it, then by God, we do it!

Officers and men, hot, dusty, and bearded, lined up together at the chow lines, ate quickly, and went back to work. They sweated shoulder to shoulder unloading freight cars. For security reasons native help was kept to a minimum. At one base the headquarters was a bamboo hut, and the men slept at night on hard charpoys, or native cots.

There were many obstacles.

At first, some cooperating Allied units were not sure that the AAF could do what it promised; so Cochran and Alison put on demonstrations and proved their points. At one base, until it could get equipment, Cochran's photographic section developed its photo at night, using water from a near-by well and posting a sentry so that no wandering jeep's headlights would spoil the print.

The Gurkha troops had never seen gliders before. They went through their training doggedly, but finally said, "We aren't afraid to go, we aren't afraid to fight. but we though to tell you-those 'planes' don't have any motors!"

The battle plan was as follows:

The C-47 transports would tow the heavy gliders carrying General Wingate's troops and equipment to the areas he had selected in north-central Burma. He would indicate the areas; the AAF would pick specific places where our gliders could land. The first troops to land would guard the fields while Airborne Engineers built an airstrip with airborne bull-dozers, scrapers, and other engineering equipment. C-47 transports could then land with antiaircraft guns and other field equipment so that any Japs attacking in force could be held off. Our fighter planes could also use the field for aerial patrol and offensive operations. 

Cooperating with the AAF in this project were a British Army unit under Lt. Gen W. J. Slim, the Indian forces under General Wingate, the tactical air forces under Air Marshal Sir John Baldwin and the Troop Carrier Command under Brig Gen William D. Old, of the US Army.

All would work together.

At the time, Lt Gen Joseph W. Stilwell was pushing down in northern Burma with Chinese-American forces. The Japs were threatening our airbases in India, just over the Burma border to the west. The Chinese were holding mountain positions against the Japanese in east Burma. If General Wingate could establish his men behind the Japanese in North-central Burma and cut their various supply lines, the Japs would be put in a difficult position regarding Allied attacks on three of their Burma fronts.

The fighting Begins

In February 1944, the fighting began. Fighters and medium bombers flew into Jap held Burma, blowing up bridges, destroying warehouses, supply centers, and supply trains.

General Wingate had indicated two areas where he wanted troops set down. Cochran and Alison had surveyed the areas in their fighters; then photo-reconnaissance planes mapped the areas thoroughly. The two open places were picked to set the gliders down in, nicknamed "Broadway" and "Piccadilly" to suggest the joint effort of the two nations. Once decided on, planes did not fly over these places again, to allay Jap suspicion.

D Day arrived.

The Japs had been repeatedly bombed and strafed. The weather was suitable. but on D Day Colonel Cochran, on a hunch, ordered a last-minute photo-reconnaissance of Broadway and Piccadilly to make sure that both fields were clear. The year before a C-47 had made a landing at Piccadilly to pick up some of Wingate's wounded; so the Japs might expect landing there. Their espionage must have warned them that something was up.

Transports, gliders, pilots, troops-all were ready for the great adventure of March 5, 1944.

The first take-off was set for 5:40 PM. At 5:15 the last minute photos of Broadway and Picadilly were rushed from the laboratory. Cochran's hunch had been a good one. The Japs had dragged huge tree trunks all over the open space at Picadilly and very possibly had mined it as well! No glider could possibly land. However, Broadway was clear and although the Japs might purposely have left it that way to draw us into an ambush, it was decided to land all gliders at Broadway.

D Day would stand.

The first C-47 took off at 6:12 PM, towing two heavily loaded heavy gliders. Others followed. From a green tea-garden valley they rose in wide sweeping circles to gain altitude, for they had to cross a range of 7,200-foot mountain peaks. 

The gliders carried cargoes of resolute men, armed with Tommy guns, carbines, rifles, pistols and hand grenades. The men knew that, because of the distance and the heavy loads, the gliders would have to land at Broadway. They could not be towed home even if the Japs disrupted our plans.

There was no turning back.

The sun was going down and its golden tints were gradually swallowed up in the jungle haze below. the men settled down in cramped positions for the 200-mile flight to their destination-and their fate. As Cochran had told his men, "Tonight you are going to find out if you've got a soul. Nothing you've ever done, or nothing you are going to do counts now. Only the next few hours. Good luck."

Mule Makes a High-altitude Kick

Some of the gliders held heavy bulldozers, tractors, jeeps, and pack mules. Most of the mules rode calmly enough, except one which kicked a hole in the side of his glider at an altitude of 8,000 feet. This must have been the highest mule kick ever recorded! But to the muleteers it was no joke.

As the gliders crossed Burma frontier the moon came out, but there was too much air turbulence over the mountains for the men to appreciate it. Some of the heavily loaded gliders were in trouble because of the rough air. The night had to be clear for the operations; the moonlight would reveal the aircraft to any Jap fighters who might be waiting for them. There was an enemy airfield close by.

The pilots and passengers anxiously searched the sky, but no Japs appeared. As they neared their destination, each man checked his firearms. They were now over Broadway; it was time to cut loose.

Colonel Alison was one of the first to land. He was signaled in by the crew of the pathfinder which landed under the hand of Maj. William H. Taylor. the big aircraft came down out of the darkness to the jungle glade that was Broadway. 

Unfortunately, the field had numerous ruts and holes covered with high grass which had not shown up in aerial photographs. Teakwood had once been cut in the neighborhood, and the logs had been dragged by elephants over the ground when it was wet and soft. 

Some of the gliders had their undercarriages torn of and landed hard on their skids. Some were wrecked. As soon as possible, a new landing strip was marked out with flare pots to avoid the crashed gliders. Landing a glider at night under ideal conditions is difficult, but here conditions were at their worst.

The first ground troops to land immediately fanned out to scout Japanese opposition. Photographs had showed that there were two places where the Japanese might mount machine guns. The first glider crews to hit the dirt went on the dead run to these two points-but no enemy machine guns were there. A green flare was sent up to indicate to gliders still in the air that the first ones to land were not being fired on.

There was no opposition. We had taken the Japs completely by surprise!

A second wave of gliders, on their way to Broadway, were recalled to their bases by radio. with no opposition, they were not needed immediately.

One glider in the first wave, which contained bulldozer, missed the landing area and slashed off both of its wings between two trees. The bulldozer had been lashed in the glider so that its first forward movement would lift the nose of the glider. It was a happy thought, for the bulldozer, torn loose from its fittings, keep right on going. It threw the glider nose up, pitching the pilot and co-pilot into the air. They landed unharmed, save for a broken thumb.

Gliders Bring in Bulldozers

Three undamaged bulldozers were enough to start building, with the first morning light, an airstrip on which our C-47 transports could land later with more troops and antiaircraft guns. The Japs might attack any minute. That first morning there was a burial of the 23 men who had been killed in glider crashes. A Burmese chaplain read the service, while overhead circled Allied planes, alert for any Zeros.

The Airborne Engineers filled in Broadway's holes and ruts and leveled off the humps. By evening the airfield was ready , and nearly a hundred C-47 transports of the Troop Carrier Command flew in and landed with thousands of armed men, enough to stand off any force the Japs could bring to bear upon them in that area.

In any large military operations there are bounds to be mishaps. A few gliders were released before they reached Broadway because of their heavy loads, air turbulence over the mountains, or the poor visibility met in descending. Some landed in friendly territory. 

Most of the crews landed in enemy territory escaped to safety. One medical officer, a glider pilot, and co-pilot, with 15 native troops, walked 85 miles to Broadway in ten days. Out of food at one point, they tossed a hand grenade into a pond and killed 60 fish. There was a soldier hero in one crew whose men were crossing a river in Jap-held territory. This man drowned rather than call for help and thus endanger the lives of his friends.

The plan for flying out the wounded in light liaison planes worked out as scheduled. To elude the Japs, they flew at treetop height, under the noses of enemy antiaircraft. A man could be wounded behind enemy lines in Burma during the day and be resting in a hospital in India that night. All troops received equal care: British, Gurkhas, Burmese, Yanks, West Africans, and Indian soldiers.

Gliders Confuse Japs

The Japanese did not realize what was up for a whole week, or could do nothing about it, and gliders that made forced landings before they reached their destination added to the Japs' confusion.

During the first six days, thousands of Allied troops, 175 ponies, over 1,000 mules, and 500,000 pounds of supplies were brought in by air. 

On the eighth day the Japs discovered the field.

Twenty Japanese aircraft came over, but our detection apparatus warned us they were coming and we were ready. Four Japanese planes were shot down by fighters, and one was destroyed by our antiaircraft.

The Air Commando Force discovered that the Japanese were bringing more airplanes into Burma. Twenty P-51 Mustangs promptly raided enemy airfields and destroyed 34 planes with a loss of two.

The same day nine of our B-25 medium bombers destroyed twelve more Japanese planes on the ground. 

The Japanese came over and shot up two of the three Allied Allied fighters at Broadway but did no real damage. Since that time the Japs have attacked Broadway repeatedly, but have hindered our operations on or from it only slightly.

Broadway and Chowringhee

A subsidiary airfield to relieve the congestion at Broadway was built near by and named "Chowringhee," after Calcultta's main street. After it had served it purposes, Chowringhee was abandoned. The next day the Japanese bombed it. 

In addition to establishing Broadway and other behind-the-line fields, the First Air Commando unit carried on the air side of Wingate's operations. A special task was to parachute needed equipment for river crossing to columns on the march.

In one such drop the Americans added precious cigarettes and extra food with a note saying they "wanted to do more than lip service" for their Allies. The British commander thanked them and apologized that he had no typewriter in the jungle to phrase a formal reply.

B-25 medium bombers aided Wingate's ground forces by dropping parachute fragmentation bombs on enemy troops and working out unique techniques for supporting ground troops in this theater.

Asked by the ground forces to break a telephone line between two jap-held towns, a P-51 do so by diving through the wires at five different places. However, most operations were more extensive.

On one occasion a British unit was on a hill two miles from a Japanese-held town. The enemy had machine guns and field guns and was using them very effectively. The British called for air support.

Smoke indicated Targets

The British would indicate with smoke the targets they wanted bombed, and then tell our bombers and fighters in the air just where the target was in reference to that smoke. The bombers worked from low levels without bomb sights. The fighters would follow, and dive bomb.

The conversation went something like this:

Ground Forces: "Do you see that building with the red roof in the center of town?"

Air: "Yes, we see it."

Ground: "Will you get it for us?"

Air: "O.K."

Lessons Learned of Glider Operations

The B-25, or fighter-bomber, would either bomb the building or hit it with 75-mm cannon. The Japanese nest destroyed, the Allied forces would go on to the next, until the town was stormed or captured.

At this writing, it is too early to estimate the military significance of this operation, except to say that its successful execution gave a terrific lift to all Allied operations in the China-Burma-India theater. Many lessons were learned that will be valuable in the future. The able General Wingate was killed in March of this year in an airplane crash, but his good work continues.

Supplies Come by Air

At this writing, we have aerial superiority in this part of Burma. By proper use of air power, the Japanese are denied freedom of movement. Every day by air, Allied troops are being supplied by the Troop Carrier Command with food, ammunition, and replacements.

One Japanese railroad line has been severed, and two main lines of supply cut off. The Japs now operate small supply boats on the Irrawaddy and Chindwin Rivers at night and hide them from our fighter planes by day. They do the same with their motor trucks on the road.

Red Tape Avoided

That the mission was carried out despite many uncertainties and obstacles is a tribute to the cooperation of all British and American units taking part in it.

Colonel Cochran and Alison carried out their orders: they went to Burma to fight and id not concentrate on their paper work that some officers confuse with winning a campaign. A statistician assigned to them at a later date was reported to be on the verge of despair.

It would appear clear that new weapons of war have not lessened the value of personal leadership; indeed, science has increased the effectiveness of the imaginative military man and made his operations more decisive.


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