THE INDIAN WRESTLING MISMATCH
In late 1943, carpenters were completing the gymnasium at Pratt Army Air Field, Kansas, when a howling, winter blizzard hit the base. Since outside activity was canceled, Major Oscar Schaaf, Commander, 45th Bomb Squadron, ordered his officers to report to the gym for exercises. We spent several minutes warming up by stretching, running in place, doing side straddle hops, sit ups, and finally, push ups. Many of us did not fare well with the push ups -- few could keep pace with our muscular Commander. After the exercises, he told us to pair off with the officer in the next row, and commence Indian wrestling.
That is when I met Captain J.W. "Jay" Woodruff. Before coming to Pratt, Captain Woodruff earned many decorations while piloting 11th Bomb Group B-17 bombers in the South Pacific Theater. While Japanese forces were advancing past New Guinea and Rabaul toward an invasion of Australia, Nippon fighter aircraft shot down many 11th Bomb Group B-17s. Captain Woodruff was not shot down, but he ditched a B-17, at night in a typhoon, with Commanding General Nathan Twining on board as a passenger. The General and all aircrew members survived the ditching and five days in life rafts. This incredible incident offers clear proof of Captain J.W. Woodruff's skills, courage, and leadership qualities.
When Major Schaaf had his officers form into pairs in the gym, my partner was Captain Jay Woodruff, a tall, rugged man, with at least a 75-pound advantage over me. We introduced ourselves, and when we shook hands, his vise grip made me feel like a small boy about to wrestle his father. He was a real sport as I pushed, pulled, and tried to throw him off-balance. No luck. He simply took a firm stance and remained rock steady as I vainly struggled to move him. He had no trouble moving me. I was glad when Major Schaaf called off the exercises, and told us to go to our scheduled B-29 ground school classes.
In early 1944, the 40th Bomb Group, with all its personnel and aircraft, moved from Pratt, Kansas, to Chakulia Air Field, India. Captain Woodruff was assigned duty to ferry gasoline in B-29 tankers from Chakulia, over the Hump (Himalayas), to our forward base at Hsinching, China. During a ferry mission, while over the Hump's highest mountains, an engine failed on Captain Woodruff's B-29, and its propeller could not be feathered. It windmilled out of control causing the plane to lose altitude. This was an emergency because the heavy fuel load in a B-29 tanker could not be jettisoned.
Captain Woodruff elected to land his plane on the nearby emergency field at Sichang, China. Since the grass strip was only 4,500 feet long, and the field elevation was 5,000 feet, he ordered his crew to assume their crash-landing positions. He made an exceptionally smooth landing, but the B-29's heavy weight and high touch down speed prevented it from stopping on the grass strip. Unfortunately, the plane skidded off the runway and into a construction crew killing nine Chinese workers. Despite collapse of the nose gear and major damage to the nose section and flight deck, no one was injured. Once again, the skill and courage of Captain Woodruff saved his flight crew from harm. Following an investigation, the 40th Bomb Group Commander absolved him of all blame.
In view of his illustrious combat record, Captain Woodruff was transferred to a C-87 Transport Wing that carried supplies and troops over the Hump. He continued to fly the Hump missions until World War II ended. Then he was employed by TWA as an airline pilot, and soon became a Captain flying four-engine Constellation type aircraft. Later, he flew TWA multi-engine jet airliners until his retirement in 1975.
It was my good fortune to sit next to General Nathan Twining during a 1947 Christmas Eve dinner party at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. When the General learned that I had flown B-29s in the China-Burma-India Theater, he asked if I knew Captain Jay Woodruff. I replied, "Yes, sir," and then I heard the General's vivid description of the January 1942 ditching in a South Pacific typhoon. He remained sincerely grateful to Captain Woodruff for saving lives that stormy night in a crippled B-17 aircraft.
NOTE 1. Some readers might question why Captain J.W. Woodruff was transferred from B-29 combat duty to transport duty. I believe a statement made by Winton R. "Wimpy" Close might apply. Wimpy said, "Flying the Hump was like a student on his first day in college taking a senior's final exam."
NOTE 2. I extend my belated thanks to Captain J.W. Woodruff (at this writing 47 years after the event) for not slamming me to the gym floor during our Indian Wrestling Mismatch.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *