A collection of stories from conversations with Don McBride reminiscing about fellow pilots (2006 – 2007).
(Bold, my words; Italics, my additions; Regular type, Dad’s exact quotes)
(Dad flew 524 missions over the Hump from 1943 until the war ended in 1945.)
Several times you told me about two pilots who crashed and escaped from atop the mountains. Can you retell that? (This flight took place on April 7, 1943 and the crash, I believe, was near Naga Hills over the Hump.) On one plane, the boys were flying on instruments in icing conditions. The pilots were taking turns putting their hands on the windshield to keep a little area open so they could see out. They were at 15,000 feet. Suddenly, they saw snow ahead. They tried to divert, but didn’t quite make it, and plowed into the snow. Fortunately, the snow there was over 100 feet deep. Was this in China? Yes. Do you remember who they were? Ya. The copilot was (Captain) Charles Ridgley Hammell. His nickname was “Ridge”. Everyone called him “Ridge.” The pilot’s name was … oh, dam, it will come to me. My memory isn’t what it used to be. (Later he told me the pilot was Captain Camille Joseph Rosbert, who flew the Hump from 1942 to 1945.) Anyway, they plowed into the snow. Of course when the plane hit, they both had their feet on the controls. It snapped the rudders and broke the pilot’s ankle and very badly bruised Ridge. They had a Chinese radio operator (The radio operator was named Y. T. Wong.), and he was killed in the crash. He was standing in the companion way, right between the two pilots, and it broke his neck. Well, they sat there for 2-3 days, hoping that somebody would spot them, and drop food and supplies, but no one did. Did they consider cannibalism? No, not at that point. After 2-3 days, they were getting pretty hungry and so they decided to get out. Ridge stepped out of the plane first and sunk clear up to his waist in the snow. So they realized they could not walk through it, the snow was too deep. So they took off a door, I believe it was the paratroop door off the back of the airplane, and used it as a sled. Well they were going down the mountain and got along pretty well for quite a while. But the sled got going fast and they came to a big drop-off. They both rolled off the sled and it went right off into the air. That was the last they ever saw of it.
Anyway, they worked their way down to the snowline. Once they got past the snowline, there was timber there. They found some sticks and made crutches to help walk. They walked for several days down the mountain and came upon a straw building. They went to it. The doors were closed, so they kicked in the door. It was dark in there, but they went down a long hallway with rooms off to each side, checking each room. All the rooms were empty except the last room. They looked in there and there were three old women sitting around a fire pot, surrounded by a bunch of kids. It was obvious that the women were all blind. The women heard them and they assumed they would want food. They threw some corn into a pot. These men hadn’t eaten in 4-5 days, so they were pretty tickled to get something to eat. It turned out to be popcorn. That had to be the best popcorn they ever had. I suppose it was. Anyway, they stayed there that night, and slept inside. So the women recognized these pilots as Americans? No, they couldn’t see, speak, and wouldn’t have known. They were just trying to be friendly. They didn’t know who these guys were.
In the meantime, the fellows didn’t realize it, but a couple of the little boys slipped out on them. They didn’t see them go. The next day, here come the little boys with two men with them. These fellows had been out on the hunting expedition, and evidently the boys knew where to find them and brought them back. The boys were real worried as these guys were real tribesmen. They had heavy beards, and way up in this cold climate, they didn’t have on any clothes on above their wastes. They were tougher than the dickens. The first thing they thought of was: I hope they are friendly. Well, they were. When they came in, they made crutches and a sling and I think they carried one of the men down the mountain. The other they made crutches for and helped him along. They walked for about a week or two. Finally, they came to a British outpost. It happened there was a British medical officer there who examined them. They found out that one of the guy’s legs was broken and the other was very badly sprained. He took care of them for a day or two. Anyway, there was no other way, they were just going to have to walk out of there. They said it was painful as hell, to have to walk that way. They walked for about a week, and finally they came to a river where there was some transportation. The boys got a ride down the river in a boat until they could reach civilization. They were out there for weeks that way. Were they shipped back home to recover? They shipped them both back to the states to get them healed up. (One returned only to be killed a short time later.)
I know that sometimes that you were flying out soldiers and some of the pilots flew out Doolittle’s men after the raid. We had one pilot that did: Moon Fun Chin (Flew 1933-1946, according to CNAC website). When Doolittle made the raid, I forget how it happened, but Moon went in to fly them out. I recall they didn’t have enough fuel from the mission to fly out. They had to crash land the airplanes, and Moon went out to pick them up. He got Doolittle back to civilization. Doolittle and Moon became good friends.
Tell us about one of the times you got lucky when flying. Well, one particular time I got lucky by not flying. This was right after Wright and Cookie got killed. They had assigned me to fly with Mickelson (to replace Cook). We were flying 20 hours a day. Well, (since I was a newly arrived pilot) he was making me do all the flying. He would lie back and go to sleep. I couldn’t stay awake any longer. So when we landed in Dinjan. I said, “Micky, I have got to get some sleep. I’m falling asleep in the cockpit.” He said, “Fine, I’ll pick up a Chinese copilot, and pick you up on the way back.” Well, he never came back. We found the airplane seven months later. First, we found Al Wright’s plane. Wright was on an instrument landing and plowed right into a big cliff. Hit it head on.
Mickelson, it was hard to tell what happened to him. We found his plane in a ravine right over the edge of a cliff near the edge of a jungle. That’s why it took so long to find it. We were flying over it all the time, but just couldn’t see it. He had diverted quite a bit south from where we normally fly. It was Japanese territory so we avoided it. But weather had forced him south. He didn’t make it. We lost another one, Jimmy Fox. The boys saw that happen. They were going through a pass. The weather was bad and they were down low, going through the pass. He just didn’t have quite enough power to make it. He went into the mountainside.
There was a time you mentioned a Chinese copilot who ordered soldiers to jump out of their plane. I don’t remember who the pilot was anymore, but there was a CNAC plane full of Chinese soldiers. They were fully loaded and they lost an engine. They were over the high mountains and they were not able to maintain their attitude. And the Chinese sergeant who was in charge of this group came up to the pilot’s cabin. The pilot told him that he didn’t know if they were going to make it or not, that the plane was too heavy. He went back to the rear of the plane and pretty soon the plane was holding its attitude. The pilot put the plane on auto and went back to the back of the plane. No one was there. The sergeant simply had ordered the men to jump out. No parachutes? No parachutes. He simply ordered them to jump. The plane was considered more valuable than their lives. Planes were hard to come by over there. If that had been American soldiers back there, the plane would have gone down with all of them. Probably. We have a different mentality. Americans would have thrown everything out that they could have, but they would have stayed and gone down with the airplane.
Tell us about the time when you said wreckage coming down around you. That was a fellow from California. Tom Lumas. I was leading a flight of five planes into Kunming. These were DC3s? Ya, C47s. I happened to be the first one over the station at Kunming. Think I was at about 16000 feet when I got my clearance. I started down and had heavy overcast, but I broke out of that at about 11,000 feet. Just as I broke out, I was showered by burning metal parts all around me. Right about then, a wing came down on my left side, and the rest of the plane on the other side. A wing had blown off and the rest of the plane exploded. It hit and burned.
Since I had seen the accident, they appointed me as the accident investigation officer to dig the boys out. We found out what happened. Engine fire? No. The old C47s had jack pads under the wing, to boost their jack up - a heavy piece of metal under the engine. It was that wide and about that thick (3 inches), solid steel. Well, of course, that metal was valuable. The Chinese would steal those jack pads at night. All they had to do was take off four bolts that held it onto the wing. If you didn’t notice it, and it was easy to miss at night with just four bolt holes, you would walk right by it. Well, Tom didn’t see it. In the old C47s, when at high attitude and you reduced your power to let down, you had a rich mixture. There was a torch that would go back to the tail of the airplane right over the wing. This torch went right over the four bolt holes under the fuel tank and just blew the wing right off. Ya, there were a few hazards with those planes that you had to watch for.
Can you tell us about some of your fellow pilots? Do you have any stories about Captain Jimmy Stock? I sure do. I knew him real well. He was from Hollywood, California. His wife was a movie actress, one of the young ones. He was a real character. He talked kind of haltingly, and didn’t talk in a steady stream.
Jimmy got into trouble one day in an ice storm. He finally had to bail out. We got his crew out and then it was his turn to get out. In the old 47s, you had to go to the back to bail out. You had to push the door open. As long as there were two or three, they could help each other out. But Jimmy was the last one in the airplane and he was having a whale of a time pushing the door open. The airplane was going down, out of control with ice. He finally managed to squeeze it open, but it slammed shut his parachute. He was out there just banging and banging against the plane. He finally managed to twist around to get his feet up against the fuselage. He pulled and pulled and got his parachute out. He pulled the ripcord and got the chute open just before he hit the ground. (Stock survived the incident.)
Captain Snell? I flew with Snell a time or two. He was one of the old timers, one of the early ones.
Hank Smith? Ya, we had three Smiths. Gordon Smith. Melvin Smith. Hank Smith. Hal was the first one to get killed. He was up in northern China and hit a mountainside. Hank lived through the war. I saw him after the war a time or two. He was one of the older ones. And Melvin came back to the states the same time I did. He and I had flown together before the war. We were both flight instructors on the same field in Kansas. I went over first and a year later he joined us. Melvin Smith went over in 1944 and came back in 1945.
Captain Sharkey? I don’t know what happened to Charlie. He was killed after I left there. He went to “Hogy Taw.”
What does “Hogy Taw” mean? Way up high in the mountains, there was a little Chinese village, with only a footpath leading up to it. On the top was a little village that was on our map. I think it was spelled “h-t-a-w-g-a-h.” Everyone just called it “Hogy Taw” because that was easier to say. Bill Bartling got the idea that that was our final destination. When someone got killed, they went to “Hogy Taw.” From then on, any time someone crashed, we said they went there.
You lost a lot of good pilots. Ya, I lost a lot of friends over there.