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

 

4th Combat Cargo Group

Combat Operations

     Sylhet had changed little since the 3rdCombat Cargo Group had left for Upper Assam, and the 2nd Combat Cargo Group had moved to the Imphal Valley.  The jungle that surrounded the airstrip still swarmed with thousands of green parrots and the trees were still full of screaming monkeys.  It didn’t take long for the newly arrived 4th Combat Cargo Group to get settled in.  They as the previous occupants soon employed natives to do take care of their basha’s.

    The 4th Combat Cargo Group original orders placed the Group under the command of Headquarters, AAF, India-Burma Theater of Operations. However, soon after the Groups arrival they were reassigned to the Combat Cargo Task Force whose headquarters was in Comilla.  The purpose of the Combat Cargo Task Force was specifically "... to support the British XIV Army with provisions, equipment and ammunition, reinforcements and evacuation of casualties...." This project became a "first" in aeronautics; an army completely dependent on air-support for its very existence.

     Immediate plans for the 4th Combat Cargo Group called for a two-week period where the Groups aircraft were to be overhauled, and men indoctrinated about the CBI Theater.  It only took three days to scrap these plans, when 15 C-46’s of the Group were sent north to Ledo and Sookerting in Upper Assam to haul barrels of tar down to Myitkyina, Burma.  While these 15 aircraft were on this detached service mission, the 4th Combat Cargo Group also suffered its first combat fatalities.  One plane, returning from Burma to the staging area, was lost and never found. The crew members were listed as "... missing in action...."  At the same time these detached crews were hauling tar, the rest of the 4th Combat Cargo Group began hauling war materiel and troops into the Imphal Valley.  Tons of supplies were stockpiled to serve the British XIV Army, which was now fighting south of Imphal, across the Chin Mountains in the Arakan-Chindwin River region.  This was not an efficient operation because Sylhet was not a British supply terminal.  The standard procedure called for aircraft to leave Sylhet very early in the morning, and fly empty to Comilla where the plane was loaded, and then haul the materiel over the high mountains to the airstrips on the Imphal Plain. From Imphal the aircraft usually flew back to Comilla for another load unless they transported casualties or passengers to another destination.   After the last sortie of the day, the 4th Combat Cargo Groups aircraft would returned to Sylhet, empty.  They would then repeat this procedure the next day.   On December 13, 1944 the 4th Combat Cargo Group started following the British Army Advance and began transporting large amounts of materiel and men into a new jungle airstrip at Yazagyo which was 150 miles south of Imphal in the Kawbaw Valley.  This airfield was close to Kalewa where the British XIV Army was engaging the Japanese.   To aid in the British XIV Army advance toward Mandalay and Rangoon, the 4th Combat Cargo Group’s bases would have to be somewhere in India, roughly in line with their advance.  So beginning on Christmas Day 1944, the 4th Group loaded all of their belongings into their C-46s and moved farther south to the recently deserted British airfield at Agartala.  The British XIV Army was composed of two Corps, the 33rd and the 4th, and both engaged in the fighting at Kalewa.  After claiming a victory the British XIVth Army split.  The 4th Corps continued down the Kale Valley while the 33rd Corps crossed the mountains to the Chindwin River Valley and the Great Plain of Burma.  At Indainggale, south of Kalewa, the 4th Combat Cargo Group landed tons of combat materials almost to the point of oversupply.  The Group was now operating at almost full strength, with the return of 9 of the 15 aircraft on detached service.   The six remaining C-46’s were needed to help move the 1st Combat Cargo Group to it’s new China bases.

     Early in January, the monsoon rains pounded away at the dirt landing strips in Burma.  The airstrip at Indainggale became impossible to use and supplies were needed there.  While the C-47 had proven itself as good aircraft for airdrops, the C-46, which was larger, was also harder to handle at slow speeds, almost to the point of being unstable.  However, an airdrop was considered for the field at Indainggale.  Capt. Clayton Doherty of the 15th Squadron and the 4th Groups Operations Officer Capt. Steve Ehrhardt made the first test airdrop, which was successful.  The next day the 4th Combat Cargo Group dropped many bundles on this flooded airstrip.

     As the British Army advance continued, the number of forward airfields increased. A hastily built airstrip at Ye-U was used, while nearby villages were still burning from the bombing and strafing of the P-47s and RAF Spitfires.   As the roads improved, the 33rd Corps was able to advance at a greater speed.   Their next major battle was at Swebo, a road and rail terminus above Mandalay.   Airstrips at Agartala and Swebo soon became a standard run for the 4th Combat Cargo Group transports.

     The next airstrip that was used during the British advance was at Kan. This airstrip was soon almost overstocked.  Later the supplies at Kan were moved to even more forward airstrips.  As the battle line moved farther South, the runs from Agartala became longer and longer.  The airstrip at Ye-U was abandoned and the airfield at Swebo abandoned soon after.  A new airstrip built at Budalin, only stayed operational for two weeks.  After Budalin, came the airstrips at Alon, Monwya, Allagappa, and a just a few miles north of Mandalay, there was the airstrip at Ondaw.  Ondaw became a major supply point and was the first airfield where the 4th experienced the concussions of battle.  As the C-46s approached the airstrip, the pilots could see the smoke belching from the Japanese artillery firing from the hills along the banks of the river.  The projectiles exploded all around the area and some were directly targeted on the landing strip.  The British fought hard, but like at Myitkyina, it took several weeks to clear the enemy’s big guns from the hills along the Irrawaddy.

     As the distance from Agartala to the front increased, the time in the air between loads increased.  To keep up with the British advances, the 4th Combat Cargo Group was ordered to move again.  This time the Group was sent it to Chittagong, a large city on the coast of the Bay of Bengal at the mouth of the Ganges Delta.  Chittagong was served by the Bengal-Assam railroad, a passable highway from Comilla and Dhaka to the north, as well as by sea; it was a good staging area.   Geographically, the city was nearly due west of Mandalay.  Chittagong's proximity to the sea and the surrounding jungle made it a paradise for the mosquito’s and it’s associated diseases, malaria and dengue fever.  Chittagong was the chief seaport on the Bay of Bengal where the British had, long before, established a Royal Air Force base and a Royal Navy base. The ground echelon of the 4th Combat Cargo Group moved into Chittagong during late January 1945, and the flying section began operations from Chittagong on February 1, 1945.  Operations never stopped during this move as the 4th Combat Cargo Group continued flying sorties into Ondaw, Swebo, and other strips close to Mandalay.

     During the last two weeks of February, and early in March, the Group went on a round-the-clock flying schedule.  Extra co-pilots, radio operators, and crew chiefs were conscripted from B-24, B-25, and P-47 Groups to relieve the strain on the 4th Combat Cargo Group crews during this 24 hour a day operation.

     While what appeared to be the main force of the British Army was crossing the Irrawaddy north of Mandalay, the British XIVth’s 4th Corps soldiers pushed south, at night, bypassing Mandalay to Meiktila. Here they crossed the river and turned north. The river crossings were made in rubber boats flown in by the 4th Group’s C-46s and some C-47s from the 12th Squadron of the 3rd Group.  A Bailey bridge, transported in by the 4th’s C-46s, was soon in place across the river.   Now the British Army had surrounded the city and the stage was set for the final battle for Mandalay. An airstrip was built at Meiktila, which was behind the Japanese lines, this airstrip was to be the main objective for the 4th Combat Cargo Groups C-46s for the next couple of months. This was the first time that the 4th Combat Cargo Group pilots were actually flying behind the enemy lines, they accepted it and suffered little loss except from small arms fire from the ground.  Constant skirmishes at satellite fields often closed them for air traffic.  The Japanese overran Meiktila each night.   Before the Japanese did manage to close the field in the daytime, a number of the 4th’s C-46s were off-loading their cargo while the enemy was shelling the field. The 4th Combat Cargo Group continued to stockpile bombs, food, ammunition, gasoline, Bailey bridge pontoons, and other necessities of the war.

     The Indian 17th Division now joined the British, and again the British began to move south.  The first Japanese resistance met during their retreat south was at Pyawbwe some 27 miles down the Irrawaddy river.  Here the Japanese had dug in for a fight.  After a three day battle, where they lost 3,500 men and many guns, the Japanese were finally driven out of the area.

     Following this battle the 5th Indian Division took the lead, and in 16 days they drove south 180 miles toward Pegu.  Pegu was an important rail and communications center.  Here, as at Pyawbwe, the Japanese were dug for a fierce fight.  In the meantime, supplies were still being flown to British units west of Mandalay where a mop-up operation was going on. C-47s from the 12th Combat Cargo Squadron and C-46s from the 4th Group supplied these units.  These British units now turned south and advanced down the Burma Railroad to Satthwa.  Here the British 4th Corp split into two columns.  One column moved toward the southeast. And then, east to join the Rangoon-Mandalay Railroad at Pyinmana; while the other column continued heading south toward Prome.  This split of the British 4th Corp column now resulted in three columns of advancing British-Indian fighting units in Burma.  All three of these British spearheads were solely supplied by air, with the 4th Combat Cargo Group doing the most flying.  Airstrip after airstrip was carved out of the fertile valley and before long, an airstrip, which was built at Pyuntazi, was over 400 miles from the group’s home base at Chittagong.  Which made the round trips total over nine hundred miles.  While the shortest run was to Maida Vale, which was on the third column’s course, was only 260 miles away.

     The Japanese defeat was almost complete.  Pegu fell and the British 33rd Corps accelerated its advance down the Rangoon-Prome Road along the Irrawaddy River to Prome.  This split the Japanese forces and thousands of the enemy were cut off from any means of escape.  As the British - Indian units advanced, 4th Combat Cargo Group C-46s participated in a final surprise move.  On May 2, 1945 the 4th Combat Cargo Groups C-46s appeared over Rangoon where they dropped hundreds of 15th Corps paratroopers just south of the city at Elephant Point.  By June of 1945 the Japanese was finally driven out of Burma.  In early June, the 4th Combat Cargo Groups C-46s were once more loaded for a move.  This time north to Namponmao in Burma where, as the 1st and 3rd Combat Cargo Groups, the 4th Combat Cargo Group was reassigned to the Air Transport Command to carry gasoline, troops, and supplies over the Hump into China.’

     There was one more mission to be flown by a small detachment of men (eight pilots, two navigators, four crew chiefs and three radio operators) of the 4th Group. Toward the end of August 1945 these men were temporarily relieved from duty and sent to Ondal, India where they picked up four C-47s.    From there they flew back to Rangoon, there to work with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in the evacuation of prisoners of war held in Thailand and Indo-China.

      No specific POW camps were listed, but these crews were involved, along with a small detachment from the 1st Air Commando Group, which was operating out of Ledo.  This mixed detachment of crews, returned internees from Prisoner Of War camps on the River Kwai, (made famous by Sir Alec Guinness and the movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai).  In November 1945, this detachment returned to Pandaveswar, India, where they stayed until January 15, 1945.  On January 15, 1945, the 4th Combat Cargo Group moved for the last time.  They now moved to Panagarh, India, and remained there until February 9, 1946, when the 4th Combat Cargo Group was inactivated.

     The overall activities of the 4th Combat Cargo Group can be recorded in two sets of figures: (1) the number of hours flown was 465,302:55, and (2) the total number of tons of cargo and passengers flown to the fighting front was 133,832.6.  Someone once calculated, that in miles flown, they had the equivalent of 550 round-the-world trips.


   This short History of the 4th Combat Cargo Group, no way tells the entire group history.  It's sole purpose is to give one an idea of what the Group endured during it's time during the Second World War.  For a more detailed report on the the Groups History, one needs to access the records of the 4th Combat Cargo Group and it's individual Squadrons at the            U.S. Air Force Historical Research Center at Maxwell AFB, Montgomery, AL.  These records are available in microfilm.

Bill Bielauskas Part 2 rev 2. 4/12/99

References:                                                                                                                                    

 IT BEGAN AT IMPHAL, The Combat Cargo StoryJohn G. Martin, DMV,  1988


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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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