Soon after the January 2003 surprise visit to the Indian embassy in Washington DC by three US Presidents and Laura Bush to sign the tsunami condolence book, I received a buzz from the receptionist that some Americans had arrived at the lobby in connection with the tsunami and that they wanted to meet me. The receptionist said they were insistent on only meeting the Military Attache, and no one else. A little annoyed but intrigued too, I walked down from my third floor office to meet the visitors. Two elderly gentlemen got up to shake hands, supporting themselves on their sticks. And what followed were some remarkable stories from the past.
April 1942. America had just entered World War II. China was under tremendous pressure from the invading Japanese forces. Chiang Kai-shek’s military critically needed supplies but there were no viable land or sea supply routes. Burma was also occupied by the Japanese and Allied Forces were hard-pressed to stop this war machine. Aid for the Chinese military would have to go by air from India and it was the Americans who would have to do that. With the threat of interception by Japanese fighter aircraft, there was no other option but to fly a treacherous route over the eastern Himalayan uplift, nicknamed the ‘Hump’ by the American pilots of the Flying Tigers and the Tenth Air Force. This was the China-Burma-India Theatre, also called the “Forgotten Theatre”.
And these two gentlemen, then dashing 25-year-old pilots, became part of this gallant band of brothers who volunteered and flew and saw many comrades never come back.
Flying over the ‘Hump’ through such inhospitable terrain and climate was extremely dangerous, compounded by acute shortages of trained personnel and support equipment. A large number of overloaded planes crashed on takeoff. Exhausted pilots often flew as many as three roundtrips every day. The ‘Hump’ route became known as the “Aluminum Trail” from the number of aircraft that crashed en route. More than 1,000 men and 600 planes were lost during these missions.
I listened in fascinated silence as the two recounted their stories about their daredevil missions, of being attacked by Japanese planes, about India and short leaves at Calcutta and the warmth of the Indian people. So strong were their memories that on return to America, the surviving veterans formed a China-Burma-India Veterans Association to meet every year in various parts of the US and reminisce about their days in India, flying the ‘Hump’ and to honour their dead comrades. With sorrow in their voice, they told me that 2003 would probably be the last time that the Association would meet as those few still alive, now in their late eighties, did not have the health or energy to continue any longer.
As they got up to go, with trembling hands, they took out a cheque for $1,500 — “General, this is all that we have. India has suffered due to the tsunami. We love your country and we want you to send this back for the people of India as a token of our love.”
Emotion overcame me as instead of the wrinkled, weather-beaten faces of these two veterans, I suddenly saw the smiling faces of two young boys in leather jackets, flying helmets and goggles, giving a thumbs-up before climbing into their flying machines. It saddened me immensely. The last of the ‘Hump’ aviators would soon be gone forever.