NOW IT CAN BE TOLD
Operationally the first two months at Sylhet, Assam, India were a nightmare. Tactical orders originated at Troop Carrier Command Headquarters, Comilla some 150 miles south-west. Communications over a network partly American, partly British and the balance Indian, were incredible. Comilla decisions made late in the afternoon reached us by radio usually about midnight. Decoding and degarbling took the rest of the night.
In the wee hours of a February morning the persistent jingling of the telephone on the basha porch finally pried the “old man” out of bed. Clad only in a pair of G.I. shorts, he shivered through the reading of a half page radio: “For Thursday’s Operation you will dispatch jeeps, refueling units, etc.” He looked at his watch. It was 0600 Wednesday morning. The damned radio didn’t say where – what airdromes – how. Just: “You will do it”. Somebody’s been reading too many novels” he muttered. But maybe this is the way battles are won. It is certainly method of testing the extra sensory perceptive powers of unit commanders.
By 0700 the local “high Command” sat down to appraise the problem of moving men and equipment – some of it not flyable – to an unknown destination, by an unknown route, for an unknown period and an unknown purpose. Repeatedly their high-powered logistical formula wound up by equaling “X”. The “high Command” stayed in session all morning “sweating out” a call through to Comilla. As usual the lines were out.
About 1600 communications were finally established. The “old man” poured out his troubles. The answer was a fit of uncontrollable laughter.
This was our introduction to “Thursday Operations” – D-day 5 March 1944. The date was 7 February 1944.
THURSDAY – From mid-February to mid-April, the weather was very clear and dry, the climate about like Miami. Our flights over Burma extended beyond the high mountain range, where we always found local thundershowers; but they didn’t begin to reach the low country until late April. Toward the latter part of February things began to burn. A lot of British rank appeared. Great lengthy strategic conferences were held in four colors and three languages. The late General Wingate moved in – beard and all. The airborne invasion of Burma was being born.
General Wingate was the oddest, keenest, most interesting personality I’ve ever met. Less than five and one half feet tall and weighing no more than 130 pounds, his physical appearance belied his agility and stamina. He had the high forehead of a scholar and the rusty brown beard of a “forty niner”. His pure blue eyes were deeply set. Their expression was often winsome – almost naïve. Outwardly he perfectly labeled his rare versatility of character and personality – a top flight intellectual with the burning zeal of a crusader and the forthright methods of a pioneer. Although practically an ascetic, he had an understandable predilection for Scotch. The few bottles I had nursed all the way from Puerto Rico paid handsome dividends. A couple of drinks at night in our little thatched roof basha would earn from him many interesting experiences and cogent observations. His speech was that of a typical cultured English gentleman. His manners were impeccable. But his interest and concentration were so intense that he disdained all controversial amenities. His thinking was direct and frontal. His strategy and his tactics were essentially flanking and enveloping. He had a way of suddenly asking the most unexplained and apparently irrelevant questions. When he relaxed, which was seldom, and discussed subject other than his plans to recapture Northern Burma, he might suddenly interrupt very learned and interesting discourse on the etymology of the various Indian languages and dialects, by asking if you really loved your wife. He gave the impression of mental virtuosity, which enabled him to consider and develop several trains of thought simultaneously. You wondered why the Lord had only given him one mouth. It was easy to understand the affectionate whispering campaign that he was half cracked, which grew with his legend as a military genius. He told many gripping stories of his Ethiopian campaigns. He seriously deplored the fact that he could not equip each infantry soldier in his Force with a pet hyena – to carry his pack, to warn him of enemy ambush and to forage for him. His regard for the polyglot people on the globe without one particle of civic or national pride.
At his Field Headquarters he had on the floor a huge map of the territory he was going to invade. Everyone padded about in his sock feet up and down Burma, as he outlined his strategy and tactics, even to the most minute detail.
On his first daring penetration into Burma the year before, Wingate, then a Brigadier, had proven the feasibility of two things: that a hit and run column could plan havoc with enemy lines of communication and that such a force could subsist for a limited time by foraging. Although forced to undertake the expedition with second and third rate troops, due to a minute change of heart in the High Command, and through scantily equipped, he brought back tow thirds of his men, and did inestimable damage to Japanese installations. The secrets of his success were mobility and tactical surprise.
From his experience be devised his famous “stronghold plan”. Miniature armies would be set down by glider at night in the natural jungle clearings he had found the year before. Defensible positions would be prepared and landing strips constructed for transport aircraft. In this way ammunition could be brought in and the wounded evacuated. Light planes would operate from the strongholds to his long range penetration columns. A system of roving perimeter guards would prevent any surprise attack in force. Stronghold Headquarters would direct and control the combat columns by radio. Pack train supplies would be supplemented by airdrops. The overall strategic mission would be to seal off the North and South supply lines behind Japanese Forces opposing General Stilwell’s Armies marching down the Huakswang Valley.
General Wingate took his dreams and plans to the Quebec Conference. Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill gave their approval – General Arnold provided the planes and pilots.
Twenty minutes flying time away COL. PHIL COCHRAN and COL. JOHNNY ALISON were putting the finishing touches to their miniature air task force, which was to furnish air support for Wingate. There was much shuttling back and forth, many midnight conferences and last minute briefings. Known all our flying during this campaign would be at night, each of us found time to practice a few short field night landings with full loads, and to brush up on our instrument flying. The moon less nights in this part of the world are absolutely black. The darkness is so heavy it almost has substance.
On Saturday night, March 4th, we got all the officers and enlisted men of the aircrews together in the officer’s mess to do a little “whistling in the dark”. All of us had already flown many times beyond the enemy lines, a few of us had been shot at – but this was something different. The very secrecy inspired all manner of confidential rumors; the tension was pretty high. It seemed time that everyone directly involved should know the whole story. We posted sentries around the building, unrolled the maps and went to work. At the end of an hour everyone had a better idea of his job and felt a good deal easier about the whole thing.
Sunday afternoon at 1600, our two squadrons took off for the secret strip, from which the operation was to be staged and where Cochran had been training. We flew a good tight formation to impress the “brass” which we knew had gathered for the “kick off”. Few of us will forget that Sunday afternoon spectacle for a long, long time. Camped around the edge of the strip were several divisions of Gurkhas and West African troops with their pack mules and artillery – all in full battle dress. At the take off end of the strip were two columns of gliders stacked nose to tail and extending in depth far down the taxi way. Some two hundred gleaming new Nylon towropes were arranged in neat rows on the grass; the equivalent of three million pairs of seamless Nylon hose (war is hell). Loudspeakers were blaring; jeeps were darting everywhere.
A mule eluded his tenders and frolicked up and down the trip. The invasion of Burma was postponed until six jeeps and a couple of dozen Africans rode heard on the loose mule. You get the same sort of kick out of watching a mule hold up a war as you used to when a stray dog took over the Duke Carolina football game.
and American generals were everywhere. It reminded you of a fraternity
reunion. A final briefing by Wingate and Cochran and we crawled into
our cockpits at 1730 hours. Each ship was to pull two capacity loaded
gliders nearly 300 miles, and across two mountain ranges. The first
three gliders were packed with shock troops to handle any ground opposition;
then came the airborne G.I. Engineers with baby bulldozers to carve a landing
strip from this jungle.
Of the total sorties planned for the night, half were briefed for “Broadway” and half for “Piccadilly”. These targets were some 50 miles apart, both east of the Irawaddy River. Although I was scheduled on the first ship, General Old ranked me out of my seat. At the last minute General Stratemeyer grounded him on the basis that it was a bit too adventurous for one of his importance. Meantime I wound up in the number two spot, with a captain in the other seat. He was “backover” especially for this “show” and was the guy who had flown 74 people out of Myitkyina in a DC-3 when Burma was evacuated in ’42. With our engines ticking over and waiting for the first ship to clear the runway, we watched a little knot of officers gather in front of operations tent a couple of hundred feet away.
Suddenly the word came over the radio to report there immediately. We found pictures of our targets taken by one of Cochran’s reconnaissance “peashooters” a couple of hours earlier – and a lot of excited conversation. In the jungle clearing arranged as obstructions to landing. These had not appeared on previous photograph. The implications of this news were stunning. Had the whole scheme leaked out? Were both spots mined? Was “Piccadilly” blocked in order to force all traffic into a trip at “Broadway”? The immediate command decision was to route all ships to “Broadway”, despite congestion and the possibility of a warm reception. Too late to back out now!
In five minutes Ship Number 1 was airborne with its two gliders. When we saw it clear the drainage ditch at the end we breathed easier. No one had known for sure that two fully loaded gliders could be pulled off a grass strip of this length. Three minutes later we were facing down the runway with our gliders securely hooked behind. The starter flashed a green light. We eased the throttles to 30 inches with the brakes locked. The ship quivered. As the brakes released, we pushed everything forward to the firewall. For an instant you had the sensation the damned contraption was never going to move. Then the props began to gain traction. As we passed the intersection the air speed indicator showed 60 and we knew we had it made. It required nearly an hour and three wide circuits to gain enough altitude to clear the first ridge to the east. The interphone crackled. It was Col. Alison flying one of our gliders. A couple of wise cracks and we went back to the grim business of trying to lick the problem of airspeed, lack of altitude, and heating engines. We heard Cherry, flying the first ship, call in that the sonofabitch wouldn’t climb; he was going to have to make another circuit. It was 1910 when we headed out on course. A rising full moon turned the whole landscape an eerie gray. We crossed the Imphal Valley at our maximum ceiling of 7,000 feet – 20 minutes later a streak of silver in the dark jungle we knew to be the Chindwin River.
The sky was cloudless, but the currents above the mountains quite turbulent. East of the Chindwin we flew into a thick patch of haze. The boys in the gliders were occasionally having a bad time staying straight. Our air speed would fall alarmingly to 80-85. Gas consumption was terrific. We had used half of our total covering a fourth of the mission. Our next check point was the big bend in the Irawaddy. After what seemed an eternity the river showed up ahead. We had drifted too far south. As we turned north on our final leg the Japanese Airfield at Katha was clear and distinct on the west bank of the river. We knew they had ack-ack there. We hoped there were no searchlights.
The gasoline item was becoming critical. Making it back was already questionable. If our navigation were wrong there were only two alternatives – abandon the gliders to their fate and save the airplane, or bail out ourselves after we’d found the target and they had been released.
Heading northeast up a broad valley about 1500 feet above the ground, we suddenly spotted a clearing that looked familiar. Nosing her down to 500 feet we heard the interphone click – Alison overboard. We’ll have the bar open for you by tomorrow night.” A moment later the second glider out. The entire crew of the ship let out a spontaneous, concerted cheer. Sartz finished the last of two canteens of water. We dropped the towropes and pointed her toward India. We had barely enough gas to taxi to our parking place when we landed.
Burwell, Lewis C., Jr.
Twenty Seventh Troop Carrier Squadron
N.B The two Squadrons referred to in Major Burwell's writ as joining the 1st Air Commando in the operation were the 27th and 315 Troop Carrier Squadrons.
Post War researchers have come to the conclusion that
"Picadilly" may not have been intentionally blocked, but rather the items
on the strip were teak logs laid out to dry, as was the practice in the