Chapter Two

India

That's the way the cookie crumbles

The first place we landed in India was called Karachi. It is now the capital of Pakistan. I knew I had arrived in the "Far East" because the policemen wore turbans and had handlebar mustaches. Karachi was a kind of "East meets West" place with an enormous amount of air traffic moving through both ways. In the busy operations hangar we met an Army Transport pilot with a pet monkey on his shoulder. They had flown all over the world together. As usual we didnít leave the base and stayed only long enough to have the plane serviced and catch a night's rest. The following day, 23 February 1945, we made the 6 hour-long flight to our final destination, Chakulia. It is a small town about 100 miles west of Calcutta. The famous Taj Mahal was a checkpoint on the route. It was hard to realize we were actually looking at this beautiful marble monument we had seen only in pictures. It was just sitting out in the countryside by itself.

All the B-29's in India belonged to the 58th Wing in the 20th Bomber Command. They were organized into four Bomb Groups. Each one was based at a separate home field. We were assigned to the 25th Squadron in the 40th Bomb Group based at Chakulia. In India, all the planes belonging to the 40th Bomb Group were identified with 4 horizontal bars on the huge tail fin. Later, on Tinian it became the letter "S" in a triangle. All the planes in the 58th Wing (from India) carried the triangle marking on the tail. The first B-29's that went overseas arrived in India in the spring of 1944. They faced a host of difficult problems. For starters, every drop of gas, every bomb had to be ferried over the highest mountain range in the world to China. The fliers referred to this stretch of the Himalayan Mountains as the "Hump." Only then could they begin to organize a mission against the Home Islands of Japan. The B-29's were hampered with endless mechanical problems in their first year overseas. Eventually, improved maintenance procedures and revisions on new models made them much more dependable.

Doug Howell recalls that when we were on our way overseas we discussed what "name" we would paint on our new airplane's nose. However, when we got to Chakulia it was whisked away from us and we never flew our beautiful new airplane again. When we landed, some people walked out to our plane on the flight line and we thought they were coming to greet us. However, they were merely interested in the new airplane we were delivering. I think they needed a new plane more than a new crew. We learned later that combat units are slow to welcome replacements. They had been through so much together that we had to earn their acceptance. So in the beginning our crew was left alone and we depended on each other for company until we made friends with some other replacements. We didn't know that all the B-29 groups in India were going to move to the Pacific Theater soon. I don't understand why they sent us there so late. We must have been among the last replacement crews sent to the CBI (China-Burma-India) Theater.

General LeMay had recently left India to assume command of all the B-29 Wings flying from the Marianas but his procedures remained behind. We had ground school and frequent training flights. The weather was not bad at this time of year but it didn't cool off much after dark. We practiced landings one night until I was wringing wet with sweat. My new leather watchband, a souvenir of Mexico, was reduced to a piece of rawhide. Our crew flew just one combat mission from Chakulia. On 22 March the entire 58th Wing bombed a Japanese arsenal at Rangoon, Burma. It was a short 7-hour mission and the only excitement was trying to maintain the 30,000-foot altitude that our formation was flying over the target. We were flying an older plane that couldn't quite keep up. We saw a few flak puffs (anti-aircraft fire) but they were far below us. A short time later all the B-29's based in India were flown over to Tinian in the Marianas Islands.

There weren't enough planes to fly everybody over. Several new crews from each group and hundreds of ground support people had to wait on boat transportation. Because our crew was a late arrival to the Bomb Group, we were included in those who were left behind. It was a lonely time without much to do and we played a lot of cards, mostly poker. In India we were paid in Rupees. The bills looked just like play money on the card table and I didn't give them the proper respect. In a few days I realized I was a hundred dollars behind (half a month's pay!) By concentrating more on the game I won most of it back. One evening during the regular poker game, the air-raid siren sounded and the lights went off. All the players grabbed a handful of money in the dark and ran out of the room. We were supposed to seek shelter in trenches during an alert. I sat in the darkened room feeling foolish until I went outside looking for a safe place. I decided to wait for the bombs before I jumped into a slit trench but they never materialized; it was a false alarm. The next time the siren went off, I grabbed for the money in the pot just like everybody else.

After we left the States a nice young lady back home mailed me a box of homemade cookies. By the time they caught up with me, halfway around the world in India, they had crumbled to powder. Realizing they had cost the family dearly in butter and sugar ration stamps I never mentioned it until years later. When I finally did, she said, "Buddy, I was a terrible baker and they were pretty crummy when they left home."

The days got so boring that some of the guys used their .45 automatics for target practice. This lasted about one day until the M. P.'s came around and collected all the pistols. From that time on we had to have a good reason to check them out of the armory. Extra free time gave us the chance to visit the little town of Chakulia. There were a few shops that sold souvenirs, leather insignia patches and silver jewelry but little else of interest. The local folks organized frequent parades complete with costumes and firecrackers. They enjoyed a great time. Riding back to the base one day we passed a dead body in a drainage ditch. Nobody paid any attention. They said it was probably a disease victim waiting for a funeral pyre.

The Indian people around Chakulia were very dark with handsome features and quick friendly smiles. They would come to watch the outdoor movies after dark. I knew most of them didn't understand English and I was surprised to see them watching the show. They weren't interested in the story as much as just looking at the beautiful Hollywood stars. Young women paraded silently on a road next to our quarters all day long. They carried large jugs on their heads. At first I thought they were going into town to shop but they were simply carrying water from a nearby well to survive one more day. They were all so very poor.

We had our own army doctors and dentists to take care of our ailments and fortunately they were few. Electric power is not always available to combat units and this made a trip to the dentist interesting. He operated his drill by pumping a foot pedal up and down just like an old-fashioned sewing machine. It worked just fine to fill a cavity but I hate to think of anything more extensive.

Our crew was finally given a weekend pass to Calcutta. What can I say about Calcutta? We rode on this little rickety train for the 100-mile trip. The first thing you notice approaching the city is the haze in the air that hangs over everything. It must be centuries-old dust and the smoke from a million outdoor cooking fires daily. The smells of Calcutta remain in your memory long after you leave. Try to imagine the odor of several million people living very close to each other in a city with garbage rotting everywhere, open sewage in the streets and even corpses floating in the river. You may get used to it but you'll never forget the stench.

However, we welcomed the change of scene and enjoyed the hotel with its restaurant and bar. We hired rickshaws, two-wheeled carriages, to tour the city and visit the places the guides told us about. They included The Burning Ghats, a sort of public crematorium where families gather together to light a funeral pyre for their dead. The ceremony included scattering the ashes on the sacred Ganges River.

We spent the evenings at clubs and bars drinking too much beer. Some of us became over-friendly slobs who muttered phrases like, "Old pal, old buddy," over and over. Others like me, got grouchy and short tempered. Still others got falling down drunk and sick at their stomachs. We were a pitiful bunch of soldiers trying to forget the war for a while.

Back on the base we reported every day to the flight line for roll call, duty assignments, mail and news. One morning in mid-April word filtered down the ranks that President Roosevelt was dead. F.D.R. had been the country's leader since I was 10 years old. We were so accustomed to his presence in Washington that we never thought about anybody taking his place. Many people hated his social engineering and just as many loved him for providing strong leadership when Americaís economy faltered. It's a shame he didn't live to see (in his words) "the inevitable triumph." However, I'm sure he knew the end was near and rejoiced in his heart. Three weeks later the war in Europe was over. The fighting in the Pacific lasted four months longer - the four most exciting months of my life.