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U.S.A.A.F. Combat Cargo Groups of the Second World War

 

4th Combat Cargo Group

4th Combat Cargo Group Established a Precedent

compiled by Stan Miller

Old Pueblo Basha, Tucson, Arizona

as Published in the CBIVA Sound Off

Winter, 1990


     Those of us who served in the CBI Theater know it has generally been ignored by WW II historians. This is a shame because some innovative tactics and methods were developed that have continued to prove themselves during subsequent periods of tension. One of these was the use of air-lift for logistic support of combat fighting units.

     Even before "Combat Cargo" became a recognized terminology for this support, the 1st Air Commando Group air delivered the majority of material for General Widget’s second Chindit campaign and Merrill's Marauders recapture of the airfield at Myitkyina, Burma. The operation proving the viability and effectiveness of using air-lift to totally sustain rapidly advanced ground forces, however, was the campaign to recapture Burma by the British XIV Army. This continuous aerial supply action was conducted during the fall and winter of 1944-45 and the spring of 1945.

     To accomplish this unheard of mission, the Combat Cargo Task Force was created. This Task Force was composed of American C-47 units, Canadian and Australian Dakota (C-47) aircraft and the US 4th  Combat Cargo Group. The 4th Group contained four squadrons, each assigned 25 Curtiss C-46 aircraft. These were the only C-46s in the Task Force. I was a member of the 13th Squadron in this 4th Group.

     The C-46, depending on trade-off between fuel requirements and cargo load, could carry almost three times the pay load weight of the C-47. The 4th Group's exploits and activities in contributing to the Japanese defeat in CBI are interesting enough to chronicle here. Some of these mostly unheralded accomplishments have yet to be equaled.

4th Group Activated

    The 4th Group was activated at Syracuse AAB, NY, during June of 1944. Initial aircraft assigned was the Douglas C-47. About the time training was completed in the C-47s, the Group moved to Bowman Field at Louisville, KY, and converted to the larger C-46 aircraft. The Group deployed to CBI during November. An interesting note is that War Plans in Washington knew the unit's ultimate mission and destination at the time of its activation. The crews and other personnel, however, didn't find out until they were enroute to CBI and had passed the "point of no return" between West Palm Beach, FL, and Borinquin Field, Puerto Rico. Then they were allowed to open sealed, secret orders specifying the destination of Sylhet, India.

     Upon arriving at Sylhet, initial flying consisted of air-lifting tar and other airport construction materials from the upper Assam Valley to recently recaptured Myitkyina in northern Burma. About the middle of December the Group was formally assigned to the Combat Cargo Task Force. The goal of the Task Force, a first in the annals of combat, was to provide the total logistic support of ground fighting forces; an army being completely dependent on air support for its continued existence.

4th Stockpiles Materiel

     As a part of the Task Force, the 4th Group started moving supplies into Imphal, India, to develop stockpiles of materiel for the XIV Army imminent drive south. return trips consisted of transporting wounded and passengers to Calcutta or Commilla. Commilla, India, was the headquarters of the Task Force. Sylhet was not a British supply point so the air crews had to go first to Commilie to pick up the loads destined for Imphal. It was not a very efficient operation because of the wasted, dead-heading flying time required of the crews and planes.

     Christmas 1944 was spent at Svlhet. To help celebrate the Season, four or five of us sharing quarters in the same building chipped in and bought a bottle of Scotch whiskey from our British compatriots

     They were not as full of the Holiday spirit as we had hoped because after serious negotiation we settled for $25.00. At that time a fifth of Scotch in the States was $5.00. On Christmas Eve, sipping on our expensive Scotch for awhile, the single drop cord light in our room seemed to sway back and forth and a slight tremor was felt. We all looked at each other but nobody would mention this phenomenon because we after didn't want the others to think we were affected that much by the whiskey. The next day we found out that there had been a slight earthquake.

     At the end of December, the 4th Group moved to Agartala, a supply point south of Sylhet. During this period, the XIV Army had progressed south to the Kabaw Valley and supplies were air-lifted over the 10,000 foot mountains to dirt airstrips quickly hacked out of the jungle. When the XIV Army reached Kalewa, heavy Japanese resistance was encountered. The British forces prevailed and the bridge allowing access to the central Burmese plain was secured. The XIV Army's two Corps split at this time, the 33rd turned east, heading towards Mandalay, while the 4th Corps continued south following the Myittha River.

Dirt Strips Turn to Mud

    January 1945 was a busy and eventful month for the 4th Group. Much effort went into smoothing out its scheduling and loading activities and refining forward area operational procedures. In early January there were three days of unseasonably heavy rains, water logging the forward area dirt strips. Since the landing strips were unusable, the 4th Group started its first air-drops of supplies. The C-46 was not impressive as a bundle dropping aircraft even though several records were established in the tonnage dropped on one pass. (Subsequently, C-119s and C-130s have far exceeded any tonnage dropped by the C-46s.) During this period, both day and night drop missions were accomplished.

     The Japanese quickly figured out the number of passes a plane would make to drop its total load. During these passes, the Japanese in the jungle surrounding the drop zone would hold their fire. After the last pass, however, small arms fire was directed at the C-46s, resulting in occasional bullet holes being discovered. No planes or crews were lost. Our intelligence people surmised that the fire was held during the drop passes because the Japanese needed and hoped they could capture the supplies that were dropped.

    The 33rd Corps, pushing south from Kalewa secured the foothills and proceeded on towards Mandaly. We began rolling into dirt strips at Ye-U while nearby villages were still burning from the strafing of P-47s and Spitfires and 33rd Corps artillery fire. Beyond Ye-U, capturing Shewbo was the next successful operation of the 33rd Corps. Shwebo was on the main north-south railroad and highway and the 4th Group used the strip there for a longer period.

Move to Chittagong

     At the end of January, the 4th Group moved from Agartala to Chittagong, India. Chittagong, a large cosmopolitan city on the Bav of Bengal was a major port, rail and highway terminus. This move was accomplished without reduction of the cargo flights to Burma. The day we moved, I took a load from Agartala to Burma, returning to our new location at Chittagong. All of us crew members carried our personal belongings in the C-46 belly compartment so we were ready to set up "housekeeping" when we finished our day's flying.

     During early February, the Task Force was supplying the 4th Corps as it moved south with Kan on the Myittha River being a major resupply point; and the 33rd Corps further east at a constantly changing set of dirt strips. Some of these quickly developed airfields were in use less than a couple of weeks. On one of my missions to a forward dirt strip, a wing flap follow-up cable broke during the landing sequence. With the broken cable, the left wing flaps would not retract, grounding the plane. It was going to be the next day before another plane could bring in the required repair parts.

     The British Army forces offered us a place to stay with them but someone had to stay with the plane for security reasons. After some discussion, we decided that all four of us crew members would stay with the plane. Part of the load we had hauled consisted of canned mutton stew (Ugh!). We appropriated a few cans of the stew to supplement our emergency 'K' rations. To heat our dinner stew, I drained some of the plane's gasoline, mixed it with some dirt which I then stacked up around the sides of the cans of stew. When I got ready to light the fire I noticed some local Burmese people watching from the high grasses just off the parking area. As I touched a match to the dirt and it burst into flame, there were many surprised looks and excited chatter among the Burmese. I felt I could have been their medicine man as long as my gasoline lasted! The fire effectively heated the stew and we did return to Chittagong the next day.

Field is Shelled

     As the 33rd Corps moved closer to Mandalay, Shewbo became less Important and Ondaw became a major supply point. Ondaw is north of Mandalay and was the first place the 4th Group encountered 105mm artillery shells hitting the field during off-loading operations. It took several weeks to neutralize these gun emplacements in the hills along the west bank of the Irawaddy River. No casualties resulted from this shelling.

     During the latter part of February, the 4th Group went on an almost constant firing schedule Co-pilots, radio operators and crew chiefs were rushed in from B-24, B-25 and P-47 units to help support the 20-hour daily operations Some planes would return to Chittagong after the fourth trip of the day only one hour before they were to take-off on the next day's missions. In the last week of February, the XIV Army's 4th Corps made a spectacular tank break-through to stand behind the Japanese lines at Meiktila. Now the Task Force, including the 4th Group had to routinely fly over and land behind enemy lines. Some ground fire was experienced during these missions but no crew injuries or aircraft losses occurred. The first field to be used behind the lines was operational for one week when the Japanese retook it. The Japanese wanted to re-group and increase the size of their forces in an attempt to smash the now isolated forces of the 4th Corps. They were unsuccessful.

Airstrip Overrun at Night

    In the first week of March the main strip at Meiktila was opened. The Japanese usually overran the airstrip every night. The control tower and all other personnel withdrew before dusk to a perimeter of tanks a half mile west of the airfield. (Reminiscent of our wagon trains during the movement across the western plains.')

     During this period, the first morning flights to Meiktila would check in with the control tower at Ondaw on the way south to see if the air strip had been cleared of land mines. Occasionally we landed there to wait for a "safe" field at Meiktila. Before the Japanese finally succeeded in closing the air strip during daylight hours, a number of C-46s off-loaded at Meiktila during 75 and 105mm shells attacks on the field itself.

     The advance of the 4th Corps of the XIV Army was stalled for a short time in the Meiktila area, but they did finally manage to secure the airfield. While they; were stalled, the 4th Corps established a bridgehead on the river's east bank. The Japanese destroyed the bridges, effectively cutting off these advance forces. Our C-46s flew in Baily Bridging one night and by morning the bridge was erected and troops poured across to relieve the cut-off forces. While the Japanese were busy in the Meiktila area, the 33rd Corps was successful in taking Mandalay. Within two weeks, five air strips were built of which three were retained as supply points for the 33rd Corps. All the 4th Group aircrews continued to make many daily trips and log long days of flying hours.

Cheap Thrill for Crew

    Late one afternoon after our third trip, we headed our C-46 west into the setting sun enroute back to Chittagong, The plane was on; autopilot and all four of us crew members dozed off. When the fuel tank being used for the left engine ran dry, the resulting engine backfires and aircraft yaw brought everyone wide awake. You never saw three sets of hands reach for fuel tank selector valves so fast. About the time the left engine came back, the right engine ran out of fuel. All of us stayed awake for the rest of the trip!

     One interesting mission at this time was in support of the Chinese forces fighting northeast of Mandalay. Four of our C-46's were tasked to move U.S. Army personnel and four Bofors anti-aircraft guns to a remote area where the Japanese were threatening to overrun a Chinese unit. The Bofors guns had proven very effective when firing white phosphorus shells horizontally into the jungle. The white phosphorus would scatter like shot gun pellets inflicting many burn casualties. The place we landed our C-46s was a large grassy meadow where an occasional tree had been removed. White flags marked the corners of the landing area. The operation made us feel like we were barnstorming in the early days of flying.

Burmese "Manufacture" Gems

    April was our busiest month when the 4th Group logged the most flying hours and delivered the most cargo of any period during the Burma operation. Meiktila reopened and a strip was established further- south at Myingyan. Both of these fields were put on a 24-hour operation. Frequently the runway lights would be inoperative which added an element of chance to the landings and take-offs. The lights would be out because the Burmese would take them for tile colored lenses. They would break the glass into small pieces and melt it just enough so when it cooled, tile pieces looked like small gems. Many of us unsuspecting crew members traded cigarettes and candy for these "rubies and opals."

     The macadam road and more open terrain going south: towards Rangoon greatly facilitated the XIV Army's advance. During a twelve-day period, when armored columns pushed south from Meiktila, the Japanese lost 3,500 men and much material. After 20 days, the XIV Army had covered 180 towards Rangoon. This rapid push increased the length of our flights from Chittagong and the total logged flying hours.

     The 4th Group flew a total of 18,412:35 hours during April. Personally I logged 117:05 hours flying time. When loading, unloading and ground turn around times are added, the result was some very long days. Considering the group had about 90 or so planes at this time, each one had an 190 hours flying during the month! Each plane also had down time for the required 50 and 100 hour inspections. The maintenance personnel did a superb job keeping the planes in the air. March was the second highest flying hour month which was 1200 hours less and April.

     In early May, the last field to be opened specifically for the Task Force use was a Tooungoo, north of Rangoon. The rout of the Japanese forces was almost complete. Except for a few strategic points, they were in full retreat. The two pincers of the 4th and 33rd Corps continued south cutting off all means of escape for the Japanese.

Paratroops Dropped

   Another surprise for the Japanese occurred on May 2nd when Task Force planes dropped paratroops just south of Rangoon at Elephant Point.

     As May came to an end, so did the requirement for round the clock support of the XIV Army. During the first eight days of June, the 4th Group ,did haul 5,192 tons of supplies, logging 3822:40 hours flying time. The 4th Group's support of the XIV Army ceased at this time.

Baily Bridging Poor Cargo

    Of all the priority items moved by the crews of the 4th Group, Baily Bridging was probably the one most disliked by the aircrews. It consisted of large performed metal sections resembling huge erector set pieces and way too large to throw out if the plane lost an engine. Crew members would have had an impossible job getting back to the door if a bailout was required. We also hauled bombs, gasoline, food and all the myriad items required to support and maintain an army.

     As the Burma war took its place in history, it marked a new phase in the annals of warfare. Its success had depended solely on air-power, and more specifically, that part of airpower known as Combat Cargo. It established for the future the viability of air logistics support for both static and fluid combat situations.

     During this time the 4th Group supplied the British XIV Army 456,302:55 flying hours were logged and 133,632.6 tons (267,665,200 pounds) of material and personnel was moved. A quote from an article about the 4th Combat Cargo Group in an official British publication "Phoenix" published in Calcutta dated June 16, 1945, states, "In the past twelve weeks the 4th combat Cargo Group has doubled the tonnage carried by all other cargo groups and now hauls more in a day than could be moved to the front by trucks in a month.

     The flying was accomplished day and night, many items in extremely adverse weather with minimal navigation facilities. Credit and many thanks mut be given the British for their voice direction finding equipment. All of us called for a "DF Steer" occasionally. The 4th Group backup personnel did a marvelous job in keeping the planes flyable and in providing all the other support requirements. The aircrews delivered the loads, but it was the concerted effort of all personnel that made it possible. (The above information is from a 4th Combat Cargo Group report, 4th CCG S2, 13, Sept. 1945)

Move to Myitkyina

     When the Burma campaign was finished, the 4th Combat: Cargo Group moved from Chittagong to Myitkyina, Burma (a strip built from the material we had hauled in during the past December.) We were assigned to the Air Transport Command and began flying the Hump. The Group retained its designation and command personnel but its flying hours and tonnage hauled is buried in the ATC records.

     The 4th Group aircrews continued to log a lot of flying hours in support of the ATC missions. During September 1945, I logged 101:45 hours flying the Hump. One mission we were part of was the moving of Chinese troops from Eastern Burma back to South China. Most of the troops were flown from Lashio, Burma to Nanning, China. There were some interesting, if unpleasant incidents associated with this operation.

     One Chinese soldier decided he wanted to go back to China ahead of his assigned flight. He climbed into the wheel well of a C-46s main landing gear. Even with the wheels retracted, the engine heat and fumes and the lack of oxygen, he survived the trip over the Hump to Nanning. When the landing gear was lowered, one of his hand became caught in the mechanism. When the plane came to a stop, the soldier was dangling, unable to fee himself. Even though war action gunfire could be heard in the distance, the plane was jacked up and the soldier released. After all this effort the Chinese Military Police marched him over to the side of the airport and shot him for deserting his unit.

     Some of the C-47s also used in this operation were missing their paratroops jump doors. The story is told that enroute to China, a soldier would get up to look out the door and another one would push him out. The rest of the soldier passengers would laugh because the pushed out person would have to walk home.

     The Chinese troops were considered cargo and did not have parachutes. In the C-46, there was a crawl space under the cockpit with access doors in the cockpit and out under the right wing. We kept our crew parachutes in the cockpit and were briefed to bail out through this avenue of escape in needed.. There had been reports of crews trying to bail out through the rear doors but the Chinese would not let them

     After the war ended, some units of the 4th Group were moved to Shanghai, China. There they assisted in moving Chinese troops to areas in northern china where the communist were beginning to rebel. In February 1946, the 4th combat cargo group was moved back to Panaagarh, India, where it was ultimately inactivated.

4th can be Proud

    All of us can be proud of our contributions to the successful of WWII. The 4th group has a special niche in the history of the war for its contributions to the total war effort. The group was awarded three battle stars and individual crew members were awarded many Distinguished flying crosses and Air medals for heroism in combat flying. The viability of combat cargo support as established by the Task Force and 4th group has subsequently been proven again during the Berlin Airlift, the Korean war and during Vietnam


 

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   I am looking for former members of the 3rd Combat Cargo Group,  1st, Combat Cargo Group, 2nd Combat Cargo Group and the 4th Combat Cargo Group.  In fact I would like to hear from anyone who flew over the Hump during WW II, or flew any Combat Cargo Missions at any time (Berlin Air-Lift, Korea, etc) 

Please e-mail comment, suggestions, corrections,etc to: bill@comcar.org

Imphal, the Hump and Beyond  Copyright 1999 Bill Bielauskas  All rights reserved.

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