THE NAGA HILLS
At one place along the India-Burma border, the towering Naga Hills drains water to the west past the town of Imphal, and east into the Chindwin River. An English explorer, with typical British logic, named these rugged mountains for a fierce band of head hunters living in the remote forests of the Hills. Northeast of Imphal, the mountains thrust upward to more than 12,000 feet above sea level. The 40th Bomb Group B-29s that flew over the Hump (Himalaya Mountains), normally climbed to a minimum altitude of 15,000 feet before crossing Imphal to insure safe passage of the Naga Hills.
A deadly competition developed within the 40th Bomb Group's three B-29 Bomb Squadrons to see which squadron could off-load the most fuel at our forward base at Hsinching, China. The fuel was stored and later used for combat missions against the Japanese Empire. Our Group Commander, Colonel William "Butch" Blanchard, often emphasized that certain Pilots left as much as 3,000 gallons in China. He never referred to other conditions that figured in each flight. He never mentioned the effect of winds aloft, icing conditions, and the weather at Chakulia, India, for the return flight. His emphasis was on the quantity of fuel left at Hsinching. Once, the Colonel publicly ridiculed a veteran Pilot who off-loaded only 600 gallons.
In September 1944, Colonel Blanchard elected to fly with our crew on a Hump tanker mission. He made a point of telling us we would off-load a record amount of fuel in China. Currently, the record was slightly more than 3,000 gallons -- but the average was less than 2,000 gallons. The Colonel made the heavyweight takeoff at Chakulia, and all was normal until we approached Imphal at an altitude of 7,000 feet. Thick, broken, rain clouds hung over the Naga Hills, however we could see the mountain tops between the clouds. As we approached Imphal, I suggested we climb to our minimum Instrument Flight Rules altitude of 15,000 feet.
Colonel Blanchard disagreed. He pointed to the breaks in the clouds, and informed me that we would hold 7,000 feet and cross the Hills by flying through valleys between rain clouds. At first, his plan seemed to work. Shortly after crossing Imphal, rain shrouded all openings between clouds ahead. When I lost sight of the mountains, I increased the power to climb settings and persuaded the Colonel to make a sharp turn to the south where we could maintain visual flight. The B-29 climbed slowly through 8,000 feet as we crossed the last ridge and came to the Chindwin River.
We broke into clear skies on the east side of the Hills, and turned back on course toward Myitkyina, Burma. The Colonel looked back and saw that the tops of the Hills were completely shrouded by rain clouds. We were climbing through 9,000 feet, and he estimated the Hills to be above our present altitude. Had we flown his hide-and-seek procedure through valleys, and became boxed in by clouds, we would have crashed while trying to climb the heavily-laden plane up to 15,000 feet. But we were safe, and we continued to Hsinching without any trouble.
Colonel Blanchard was going to remain at Hsinching for the next combat mission, and rather than go to his office, he stayed with our crew as we prepared a flight plan for our return to India. He obviously wanted to make sure we tried to set his record. The standard procedure was to leave on board the plane only enough fuel to return to India, and to off-load the maximum at Hsinching. Making allowances for forecast headwinds and a broad weather front existing in India, I suggested to the Colonel that we off-load 2,900 gallons, which was short of setting a record. He immediately disagreed
I went over the details of the flight plan with him. The plan showed the amount of fuel we needed to get home with enough remaining to fly to an alternate base in case we were diverted due to the current weather at Chakulia. He finally agreed to off-load 2,900 gallons, thus failing to set a record. Colonel Blanchard left us, and went to his Forward Detachment office to supervise preparations for the next combat mission.
On our return trip to India the next day, we encountered severe icing and strong headwinds that forced us to land for fuel at Dacca, India, more than 250 miles short of Chakulia. After landing, I went to my Squadron Commander, Lt. Col. Oscar Schaaf, to report the details of the entire mission. I emphasized the risks involved in Colonel Blanchard's attempt to fly across the Naga Hills at 7,000 feet to conserve fuel in order to off-load a record at Hsinching. I described how high those Hills looked from the safety of the east side. Lt. Col. Schaaf listened as I offered my opinion that flying through valleys, as our Commander proposed, could be the reason some B-29 crews disappeared while on a tanker mission.
Lt. Col. Schaaf agreed that my view was valid. Then he explained how important it was to deliver the maximum amount of fuel on each Hump tanker mission. Finally, he advised me that I should not disagree directly with Colonel Blanchard. He commended me for the way I handled the flight planning while being pressured by our Commander to off-load enough fuel to set a record. Having to land at Dacca was proof that I was right.
The 40th Bomb Group Commander, Colonel William "Butch" Blanchard, flew with our crew three times. He would not have been welcome to fly with us for a fourth time.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *