AN UNEXPLAINED INCIDENT
Date: December 7, 1944. Time: Early morning. Place: Hsinching Air Base, China. Occasion: General Briefing for a combat mission. One by one, the hazards we could expect to encounter on the seven-hour flight to the target at Mukden, Manchuria were ticked off by the Operations Briefing Officer. An early morning takeoff would be followed by a few hours of predawn flying in the company of other B-29s whose running lights would not be turned on. At daybreak, we would assemble into a formation and cross into Japanese occupied China where we could expect vigorous resistance from enemy fighters.
The bomb run would be made at 21,000 feet where the temperature would be extremely low, and the wind direction and velocity could not be forecast accurately. The Operations Officer's final admonishment was, "Men, be sure to wear your G.I. shoes. If you bailout, you'll have to walk to safety." Crew members, after making feeble jokes about hiring a ricksha following a bailout, agreed that the briefing was thorough but did not reveal anything extraordinary.
We were combat aircrews of the 40th Bomb Group flying early model, Boeing B-29 Superfortresses. In its first six months of combat operations against the Japanese Empire, the 40th Bomb Group bombed targets scattered from Singapore near the equator, to Manchuria in the frigid north. We had encountered many meteorological hazards and obstructions to safe flight such as cyclones (tornadoes), cold fronts, warm fronts, updrafts, downdrafts, heat, icing, dust, winds of incredible velocity, and even vagrant birds. The experience we gained when we met each of these adversities prepared us for trouble we would meet on future missions. Tested and battle-hardened, the B-29 aircrews of the 40th Bomb Group on this December morning were anxious to get on with the mission, cope with whatever came up, and fly back to Hsinching.
When all specialized briefings and other matters were completed, my crew went to our aircraft #579 -- the EDDIE ALLEN. After preflighting our plane, we took off and flew unable to see other B-29s flying with their external lights turned off. Shortly before dawn, we flew near Sian, a Chinese city in the Yellow River country. Nearby was an airfield held by General Chennault's Fourteenth Air Force. It was comforting to know that if the enemy attacked us, friendly fighters could quickly come to our aid.
We cruised on autopilot at 14,000 feet in clear, starlit skies while the scanners watched for other B-29s and enemy fighters. So far, the flight had been uneventful. Without warning, the plane swerved sharply to the left, the nose pitched down, and the autopilot disconnected. Copilot Winters and I struggled to level the wings and raise the nose. Severe vibrations shook the plane, and it pitched and rolled as if we were caught in a violent thunderstorm. An interphone check confirmed that all crew members were strapped in their positions. The gunners scanned the engines, wings, and tail surfaces and reported them to appear normal.
While the vibration and turbulence continued, I considered alerting the crew for bailout. Then my flight instruments became shimmering blurs and I reconsidered because I realized that the plane was shaking so much that no one could possibly crawl to an escape hatch. Suddenly, the frightening motions ceased. I made another interphone check and was relieved to learn that all crew members were O.K. -- shaken up, but O.K. The gunners scanned the engines, wings, and tail surfaces again, and reported that everything looked to be normal.
We waited to make sure we were out of danger, then safety belts were unbuckled and scattered equipment was retrieved. When we discussed the incident, someone asked, "How long did the turbulence last?" The Navigator, with admirable coolness, had timed it. His log entry read: Five minutes of STARK TERROR!
The bomb run and remainder of the mission had the usual enemy opposition, but we were not hit. At debriefing, my crew members were as anxious to report the wild ride we had as much as they were to describe the fierce fighter attacks we encountered over Manchuria. The Intelligence Officers who interrogated us compared notes with the reports of other crews who had been in the same area with us at the time of our experience. The officers became skeptical of our account because no other crew reported clear air turbulence in the Sian area.
Our EDDIE ALLEN was checked by its ground crew, and no stress fractures or other evidence of stress were found. On the flight back to India, we put our plane through aerial tests and it passed all of them. My crew, sensing that to talk about our unique experience would draw derisive comments and hints of battle fatigue, resolved to say no more about it.
A possible explanation for the turbulence emerged several days later when the survivors of a catastrophic earthquake in the Yellow River country streamed into Sian. The extent of the tragedy in terms of the loss of life and damage to property was never learned, but the time and place of the earthquake coincided with our crew's time and place when we experienced the severe turbulence. Was the heaving of the earth's surface under the EDDIE ALLEN responsible for tossing us so violently?
Members of the 40th Bomb Group who had studied physics and meteorology did not offer an explanation for our experience simply because they were too busy to consider it. December 1944 was a grim, desperately busy month for all of us.
I do not know the exact date, but sometime in the 1950s a DC-7 flying at 20,000 feet near Arequippa, Peru encountered severe clear air turbulence. The plane was badly damaged and several passengers were injured. After landing, the Pilot learned that he had flown over the site of a great Andean earthquake.
No other incident of this nature, nor any study of this type of phenomena, has come to my attention. So for those of us who flew over Northern China on that cold December morning long ago, this question remains: Are there laws or principles of physics or geology that explain the interaction of the earth's surface during an earthquake with the atmosphere directly above it?
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *