November 5, 2001
Veterans Day brings forth memories of World War II
by Lisa Allen
Valley View Editor
"The updrafts and downdrafts were so severe, I often wondered if the wings would stay on the plane," recalls Seattle resident Hank Reverman, one of thousands of pilots who were assigned to fly transport planes over the towering Himalayas during World War II. "In some of the downdrafts, the plane lost altitude so rapidly that all you could do was hope you hit the bottom of it before you hit the mountains."
Based in Calcutta the last year of the war, Reverman made dozens of trips over the Himalayas, which veteran pilots referred to as "the Hump." Reverman, like most pilots in the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater, was a member of the Air Transport Command, a branch of the Army Air Corps assigned the duty of transporting supplies from India to China a four-year effort beginning in 1942, when the Japanese cut off the last land route to China.
The massive air campaign kept Chinese and other allied forces supplied, thus preventing Japanese troops from making any further headway for the remainder of the war.
But the success of the supply operations came at a terrible price. The Hump was also referred to as "the aluminum mountains," because of the hundreds of planes that found their final resting places on those snow-covered peaks.
Danger lurked everywhere from Japanese warplanes that patrolled the skies to the infamous weather, considered to be the worst in the world for flying. Trips over the Hump were considered to be more dangerous than bombing missions over Europe. Severe storms caused headwinds so fierce that aircraft often ran out of gas before reaching their destinations. Planes were often pushed off course by sidewinds. Many pilots never even saw the mountains, flying their entire trips on instruments. By the end of the war, 500 aircraft and over 1,000 of their crew had been lost over the Hump.
Planes pressed into service were mostly C-47s, C-46s and C-87s, a transport version of the B-24. They hauled everything, but mostly war materiιl gas, troops, ammunition even mules to carry it all through the mountainous jungles where much of the actual fighting took place.
"You could tell which airplanes were used to carry the mules," Reverman recalled. "The sides had been all kicked out."
Reverman never had to transport any mules. But he was requested (you didn't say no) to ferry a group of Chinese youths, conscripted into the army, from Xian in northern China back to Kunming in the summer of 1945.
"They were just teenagers," he recalled. "The Chinese soldiers in charge of them were brutal, hitting and kicking them."
And that was only the beginning. Airsickness was common with the Chinese soldiers, so big metal tubs were placed down the center of the plane, while the young conscripts sat, unbelted along the sides. They all threw up on the trip, but the air was so rough that most of the vomit missed the tubs and ended up covering the inside of the plane.
"When we got back the plane smelled so bad we traded it in," he said.
Unlike many of the pilots sent there, Reverman had the benefit of years of experience. Early in the war, he instructed Army Air Corps flight cadets, later qualifying as a Flight Officer in the Air Transport Command. For a few short months, he ferried new B-17s from Boeing Field to Great Falls, Montana before getting his orders to go to Calcutta.
Now retired from a long career of flying, Reverman often thinks back on those days, remembering them as both scary and adventurous.
"I was in Nashville, Tennessee, when I got my orders," he said. "I had heard about the Hump and didn't want to go there. I wanted to go to England."
But the Army had other plans. Reverman was given a brand-new twin-engine C-47 for eventual delivery to Chengtu, China, and a crew that included a co-pilot, a "terrific" navigator and a flight engineer, whose job it was to transfer fuel from the extra tanks installed in the cabin to the regular fuel tanks.
Crews flying to Asia during the war followed a standard route that took about three weeks. Miami was the first stop, then Colombia. Crews then flew over the Amazon River to Belem, where they proceeded on to Natal on the east coast of Brazil. From there, they headed east over the Atlantic, making a fueling stop at Ascension Island a small dot of an island off the southwest coast of Africa.
Reverman and crew landed at Ascension Island on Christmas Day, 1944, where they received Red Cross Christmas packages. Continuing on, they flew low across the breadth of Africa and skirted the southern part of Arabia, before arriving in Calcutta.
With two more legs of the trip to go, their first flight over the Hump would take them to Kunming, then on to Chengtu.
The night was deceptively calm as the C-47 lifted off from the airfield at Calcutta and headed east toward China. The weather was good the crew was having it easy. Or so it seemed.
Then the plane began its descent to the airport at Kunming.
Reverman remembers that night like it was yesterday.
"They (the enemy planes) came from the right, under the airplane," he said. "I could see two, maybe three of them, even in the dark. I called the tower and said, 'Hey, there's somebody up here flying around without their lights on.' The tower told me not to land that the runway was being bombed."
Nerves by then on edge, he was forced to circle the field for about an hour, waiting his turn behind other aircraft, while the runway was repaired. The crew finally landed around midnight and headed for their barracks to get a much-needed night's rest. But the excitement wasn't quite over.
"Just as I went to bed, I heard terrible screams coming from outside," Reverman recalled. But he didn't venture out, so it wasn't until morning that he learned what had happened that the Chinese, apparently catching one of their own stealing food, had dispensed their own and irreversible brand of justice, by chopping off the thief's hand.
When the crew's mission was finally complete and the plane had been delivered, Reverman discovered he was without a way to get back to his base in Calcutta. He was told that if he really wanted to fly back, though they wanted to keep him there, to pick a plane, any plane just not the one he had delivered.
"All the airplanes there were pretty beat up," he said. "So I picked the best one and headed back to Calcutta," he recalled. "And in all the months of flying over there, it was the only time the weather was so clear I actually saw the mountains."
So began almost a year of flights all over India, Ceylon and a large part of China, during which he experienced no shortage of hair-raising trips and close calls. Most flying was on instruments in monsoon-like weather. On one dark and stormy night the navigation instrument was tuned accidentally to the Flying Tigers frequency, causing him to miss the marker beacon that would have told him when to turn. He didn't realize what was wrong until he felt the plane hitting the tops of some trees.
"It was pitch dark and the raindrops were as big as dinner plates," he said. "You couldn't see a thing."
Quick evasive action on his part saved not only him and his co-pilot, but a planeload of soldiers in the back.
The pilots and crew also had to learn to deal with the bitter cold of the unheated cockpits and the rarified air at 18,000 feet. Some planes carried oxygen masks, but Reverman remembers only a tube of oxygen was available to puff on if needed.
"When the instruments got blurry, we would take a puff of oxygen and things would clear right up," he said.
Once, he remembered, a co-pilot, who apparently thought scaring the pilot was fun, lit a cigarette and then took a puff of oxygen.
"Flames came out of his mouth," Reverman recalled. "I told him not to do that again."
Although the war ended in August 1945, Reverman and many other pilots stayed in India for several months moving equipment and men out before being sent home. He earned three Bronze Stars for his service there.
Returning to Seattle, he decided to put his flying experience to good use and opened up Lake Union Air Service where for decades he trained thousands of flight students, many of them future airline pilots.
Because of its location close to downtown, the seaplane base became a magnet for airplane buffs and even some local journalists. Many who knew him then were surprised to learn that his first business had been a tavern in the University District, which he had opened in 1934 at the age of 21. It gave him great satisfaction in later years to see the business, the Blue Moon Tavern, achieve almost historical status.
Note: Hank Reverman is the husband of Valley View Editor Lisa Allen.