UNITED STATES AIR FORCE
ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM
Maj Gen John R. Alison
Maj Scottie S. Thompson
Date: 22-28 April 1979
Location: Washington DC
Edited and Transcribed by Beth F. Scott
Maj Gen John R. Alison, USAFR, was born in Micanopy, Florida, 21 November 1912. General Alison graduated from Gainesville High School in Florida and received his degree in industrial engineering from the University of Florida. He enlisted as a cadet in 1936 and completed flying training at Randolph and Kelly Fields in Texas.
General Alison was in intelligence and operations at Langley Field and Mitchel Field prior to World War II. He also was an assistant military attaché and advisor to the British Royal Air Force in London and advisor on the lend-lease program with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). At the time the United States entered World War II, he was assistant military attaché for air to the USSR.
Combat assignments during World War II include fighter pilot with the 75th Fighter Squadron in China where he is credited with six kills. General Alison helped establish the 1st Air Commando Group. In 1946, he resigned from active duty as a colonel and was later promoted to brigadier general and then major general in the Air Force Reserves. General Alison is a former Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Air and ex-President of the Air Force Association.
Entering the military
Thompson: You made application for the Navy?
T: Will you tell me the story, why you were not accepted in the Navy?
A: I didn't really want to go into the Navy. I had always wanted to go into the Army Air Corps. That had been a fixation. My two closest friends in college -- we had started together, and then when I changed from mechanical to industrial engineering, I was a year later getting out.
They both went into the Navy.
T: What were their names, sir, do you recall?
A: John Taggart. He was the son of the president of the university. The other one's name was Addison Pound. We were three close friends. Because they were in the Navy, I decided, well, why not? I will try to get in the Navy.
So I went to Pensacola, and I took the physical examination. I flunked. I wasn't tall enough. I could have easily passed the examination because when the chief measured my height I was just about a quarter of an inch short of 5 foot 6. Five foot six was the limit. He stood me up against the wall and put a ruler on top of my head and saw how high it came. All I would have had to do was raise up a little -- just raised my heels up off the floor, and I would have been 5 foot 6 or taller, but I didn't do that. I just stood flat. He reported it, I think, as 5 foot 5-3/4 inches. So this doctor said to me, "Well, you didn't pass the test."
I said, "Well, doctor, why?"
He said, "You are not tall enough."
I said, "I know I am just under 5 foot 6, but I thought I was close enough to it."
He said, "Oh, no."
I said, "Well, I will ask for a waiver."
He said, "Well, you won't get it. We don't grant waivers."
I said, "My friend, Pound, went through here last year. He and I are exactly the same height. There is no difference. I have known him all my life. We are exactly the same height. Somehow or another you let him get through."
He said, "Oh, I remember Pound, but he is a little bit closer to 5 foot 6 than you are." (laughter)
I said, "Well, I will ask for a waiver." So I did. I wrote to Senator Duncan Fletcher [Dem-FL], who was the Florida Senator. I told him the situation, I told him that I would like for him to request a waiver.
He turned it over to his staff, and they requested a waiver, and the Navy came back and said, "We don't grant waivers."
So, I said, “Well, okay, to hell with the Navy.” I went right up to Montgomery and took the physical examination. I don't know how this happened, but it put me late. I got to
Randolph two weeks late, and I missed the first two weeks of hazing, much to my delight. (laughter)
T: That was going to be my next question, General. Where did you take flight training and what class were you in?
A: I entered flying school in June 1936 at Randolph and took primary and basic there. I took advanced at Kelly.
T: What kind of aircraft?
A: We started on PT-3s. When we moved to basic stage, we had the BT-8s and the BT-9s. They were delivered to Randolph while we were there. They were the first modern trainers the Air Force had. If you remember, the BT-8 was made by Seversky, and the BT-9 was made by North American. I think on the whole they were very successful trainers.
After flying the biplanes, the PT-3s, we had the Douglas RT-l, which was just a larger biplane. It looked something like a large Jenny. To get in a low-wing monoplane with that little tiny wing on it and you look out there, you say, "What's going to hold this thing up?" The BT-8 ground looped. It was close coupled, and unless you were on it all the time, it would get away from the students and go upside down. You were lucky if it didn't go all the way over.
Sometimes it looked as though they just tumbled. There were quite a few of them damaged and some, I guess, major damage.
As soon as the airplanes came, the instructors began to check out in them. One of the cadets, Cadet Smalley, asked one of the instructors to let him ride in the back seat which he did. The instructor went up and was practicing his spins.
In those days, the Air Corps didn't know how to· instruct the way they do today. The difference in the way cadets are instructed today and the way we were instructed, there is no comparison. We kind of learned to fly all on our own.
This instructor put the airplane into a spin at, I guess, seven or eight thousand feet, and after a couple of turns, he recovered. The airplane would recover beautifully from a spin, but he just wouldn't wait long enough for it to get flying speed, and with that short wing, he started to pull out too soon and went into another spin. He, recovered again, and then he didn't wait until he got enough speed. I guess the third time he spun it in.
We lost a few cadets in the BT-9. The BT-9 had a bad wing-tip stall. On the last turn at 400 feet, turning on the final, a number of the cadets would just pull it in too tight. The wing tip 'would stall, and the airplane would roll over, and of course, at 400 feet there is not enough room to recover. One cadet lived through it. Then, I think, we had one or two more that were killed on the last turn. The airplanes were good airplanes, both of them. North American fixed the BT-9. They changed the angle of the wing tip so that the stall would occur inboard, and after that,. I don't think we had any more trouble with the BT-9.
T: But you had never flown until you went to--·- -
A: No, I had flown. When I was in college,- my mother and father realized that I was going to flying school. A friend owned an airplane, and he had an itinerant instructor who flew it around and gave people instructions. It was a lovely little biplane. I believe it was a lovely little Travel-Air, I can't remember, with open cockpit however. The airplane came to Gainesville.
The instructor set up shop there, but the instructor needed an automobile to go back and forth from the airport. My father was in the automobile business. He said, "Okay, I will give you a used car if you will give my son flying lessons." Somehow or another someone had told my mother and father that maybe if I tried it I wouldn't like it -- I would get sick. (laughter).
I think I had five lessons. I think I went up five times because each time I liked it more.
Then my dad got so frustrated, he said, "No more." He told the instructor, "You can have the car. It belongs to you, but no more lessons." I was ready to solo, but my dad said no.
He just said, "Son, it just makes me too nervous. I don't want you to do it."
So I said, "Okay, Dad, but you know, I am still determined to go to the service flying school if I am accepted."
They finally became reconciled to that. I didn't even make an application for an engineering job when I graduated because I didn't want to go out and have an engineering job. I wanted to go to flying school. I just said, "I am going to do it."
My family was so concerned that they went out and got me a job with the state as a surveyor with the state road department. (laughter) I think the job paid $125 a month. Of course, that's $50 more than the flying cadet got, but I wasn't interested in the money.
I was very disappointed when I didn't get in the Navy, not because I really cared that much whether I was in the Navy or not. I felt very badly that I just didn't make it.
T: What was the height requirement in the Army at that time?
A: In the Army it is 5 feet 4. It has always been. It still is. Five feet four is the requirement in the Air Force.
------Air Commandos -----
A: I was only with the 367th about a month when I received a message from General Arnold to report to him without delay. Those are the only kind of messages General Arnold wrote, "Report to me without delay."
T: You had actually met General Arnold before?
A: Arnold called Zemke and me in. We went out and had a visit with Arnold before we left on the initial trip.
T: He called a couple of other guys in, didn't he?
A.: No. As a matter of fact, General Arnold called me, and General Vandenberg [Hoyt S.] called Cochran. When I arrived in Washington, I walked into General Arnold's office, and Cochran was sitting in the outer office. I said, "What are you doing here?" He said, "I don't know. What are you doing here?" (laughter) I said, "I don't know. I guess we will find out." Arnold had met me when I went overseas and then, of course, because he had been receiving my letters--"Alison, because I know you, I called you in.
Cochran, General Vandenberg speaks so very highly of you that he suggested that I also have you in."
Then he told us the story of Wingate [Gen Orde C.], how he had these long-range penetration groups, and that he had fired the imagination of Mr. Churchill. He had become a favorite of Mr. Churchill's. That his operations were successful, but he had no way to evacuate his wounded. This created a morale problem. Wingate's forces depended on mobility. If they didn't move, they got caught and annihilated.
They would leave their wounded and leave some food and water and a rifle with him and walk off and leave him. That's an awful hard thing to do. Wingate said, "We just can't do it anymore. We have got to have some light planes to evacuate our wounded." Churchill took Wingate to the Quebec conference with him. That was in 1943, I guess it was. Churchill introduced Wingate to Roosevelt. Roosevelt told General Marshall to help him. Marshall told Arnold to help him provide the airplanes. That's how Phil and I ended up sitting in Arnold's office.
So Arnold said, "We are going to help him. We are going to get his wounded-out. One of you boys has got to take the job." I remember saying, "Well, General, I have spent a long time training as a fighter pilot. I have gone through l year of war as a fighter pilot. It's something that I now know how to do. I think I know how to do it well. I have a group in California, and I am getting ready to go to England.
If all you are going to have us do is to fly light planes and evacuate wounded, you have plenty of people who can do that. I don't think you need me, and I don't want to go."
Phil, in one of his few diplomatic moments--Phil was always direct and to the point. He didn't beat around the bush. This time he was quite diplomatic. He said, "General Arnold, I don't think he means that." I said, "Yes, I do." General Arnold said, "Look, I am going to tell you what I really have in mind ... This man has really done some remarkable things. He has walked through the jungles. He has carried his supplies on mules. It takes him about six weeks to get his men through the jungle, across the rivers, and in behind the Japanese lines. The next time he goes in, I don't want him to walk. I want him to go by air. I want to demonstrate that we can use ships in the air just like we use ships on the sea. I want to stage an aerial invasion of Burma. This is going to be the 1st Air Commando Group.
T: He named it?
A: First he called it Project 9. He named it first. We didn't name it.
He said, "Now, I am going to give you the resources to do it. Which one of you is going to take it?" Phil looked at me, and I looked at Phil. I said, or Phil said -- I don't remember who said it, but maybe we said it together, "Can we both go?"
He said, "Yes, you can both go." He was under the impression that I was the ranking officer of the two. He said, "Alison, you are the ranking officer. You will be the commander."
I said, "No, sir, I am not the ranking officer. Phil is the ranking officer."
He said, "Oh well, make it a co-command."
For a few weeks, we did have a co-command. Co-commands are really not made for the military establishment. You need to have a leader. You need to have someone who has assigned responsibility for the organization. We were just confusing the people in the Pentagon who were trying to help us get this organization together and get it on the road. It was hard enough naturally, and the idea of a co-command was just not understood.
So Phil and I resolved that. Phil was the commander. He was designated commander of Project 9, which became known as the 1st Air Commando Group, and I became the Deputy Commander. This worked very well. Phil and I went through the flying school about the same time. Phil was in my upper class. We were close personal friends. We had flown together in training. We were assigned to the same squadrons when we got out of the flying school. We had a high respect for each other. We had no command problems whatsoever.
We did have lots of problems trying to explain what we were doing because we were not permitted to explain it. General Arnold said, "I am going to give this a super-secret classification. I don't want you to tell anybody what you are going to do. I am going to give you an A-1 priority," or whatever they called a number one priority in those days.
We were allowed to man the organization with volunteers.
We had no table of organization and table of equipment because there was no precedent for a unit of this kind. Resources during the war were scarce. Everybody wanted them. When we figured out what we needed to do the job as General Arnold said he wanted it done, we were asking for high-priority materiel, and we were asking for experienced personnel.
There were other people who wanted the same resources. When we would go into the particular section in the Air Force that controlled the resources and we would say we wanted a squadron of P-5ls, the first question would be, "What do you want it for?"
The answer was, "We can’t tell you."
The reply to that, "Well, if you can't tell me, I can't give it to you." (laughter)
Then as tactfully as possible, we would say, "General Arnold set this program up: he directed that we not tell anyone. If they really wanted to know what the equipment was going to be used for, they should communicate with General Arnold." Then we would add, "He has given us an A-1 priority."
They would laugh and say, "He gives everyone an A-1 priority." (laughter) They said, "We have so many A-1 priorities there is no way we can comply with them."
In spite of all this, we did get a lot of help in the Pentagon, but we ran into problems. We ran into problems getting the kind of equipment we wanted. We ran into problems getting the people we wanted.
When we did and when we were turned down, we had a very simple procedure. We would go into the office, and we would type up a memo. The memo said, "You are authorized to assign to the 1st Air Commando group a certain number of P-5ls," or certain communications equipment or whatever item it was that was in contention and we felt we needed. Then we would type General Barney Giles' [Lt Gen Barney M.] name, who was the Chief of Staff, and we would take it in. General Giles had been told by General Arnold what he wanted done, and General Giles would sign his name to the piece of paper. We would go back to the procurement agency or whatever agency controlled the equipment or the personnel. With that piece of paper, we got what we wanted.
We did have lots of support, in spite of the complexity and in spite of the fact that -- we were limited because General Arnold wouldn't let us tell what we were going to do. We got great cooperation from the logistics people and the individuals in the logistics end of Air Corps Headquarters.
Without their help, we never would have made it.
T: You didn't actually call it Air Commandos until after you left the Pentagon, did you?
A: I don't know. General Arnold named it Air Commando, and I don't know when he made this public.
T: I think you called it Project 9 all the way through until you actually went operational.
A: I think so. That wasn't our name. We didn't dream up that name. We really had quite a unit, all volunteers, highly experienced people.
T: Everyone was multi-talented?
A: If you get people who 'have been in the Air Corps or the Air Force for a long time, they just automatically know how to do two or three jobs. As long as those people are functional and intact, you get along fine, but one of the things I learned is that there is a good reason for the regulations.
The people who wrote them knew what they were doing. We had a total of about 300 air vehicles. Our manning was a little over 500 people so we had less than two men per air vehicle. The Air Force doesn't man that way.
It is true that many of our vehicles were relatively simple -- the ambulance airplanes, the L-5. We had sergeant pilots. The sergeant pilots were also mechanics. The airplane was their responsibility. So you could get by almost on a one-on-one basis. We had 100 of those.
We had 100 gliders. We had 100 glider pilots and a certain number of glider mechanics.
We had to also have a certain number of administrative people. An experienced noncommissioned officer in the field of administration had no trouble with it.
Our trouble began after we had been in the field for about three months. A lot of our key people came down with malaria. Some of them were killed. All of a sudden it was almost impossible to do your job. As long as everybody was there, it was fine. We got replacements, but the replacements we had to take from the theater pool, and we began to get replacements who really had no experience. Then an elite unit doesn't work.
You start off with 500 and some odd elite people, and in the course of your operation, maybe 20 percent of them are lost for one reason or another, and you replace them with 20 percent of ordinary people, they just can't carry the load their predecessors carried. Then the organization begins to become inefficient.
T: Originally, he only wanted this thing to work for a year?
A: Oh, not that long. The object was to put them in and then move them out when the monsoons came because it's almost impossible to have large-scale resupply during the monsoon. We could do it today with the kind of airplanes we have developed that have the precision navigation and can be flown in minimum weather conditions, take off and land, but we didn't have that kind of equipment. Our basic transport airplane was the DC-3.
Back to getting started in the Pentagon. Goldsboro, North Carolina, was the base where we did our major assembly. There was some dispersion to other bases around Goldsboro where we practiced the glider operations. Our fighter pilots and our bomber pilots didn't need much practice because most of them were veterans. We didn't get our B-25 bombers until we got to the theater. We did get our P-5ls in the U.S., the earliest P-51. We had the P-51A, which had the Allison engine in it. We would liked to have had a later one, but the later ones were just not available. They were just beginning to come off of the line. We had to have equipment, and we had to go into operation before the more advanced P-51s were available.
T: It was still a good deal more of a platform than the P-40?
A: The P-51A had more range and endurance than the P-40. It had a little bit more speed than the P-40, but like the P-40, it couldn't engage Zeros in maneuvering air-to-air combat. As a matter of fact, the tactics you used with the P-40 were the same tactics that you used with the P-51. Our first engagement with the Japanese -- and we had experienced pilots, a few who had been in the European theater and had experience fighting the Germans. They thought the Japanese were going to be easy.
I think there were 12 P-5ls on a dive-bombing mission over the airport at Mandalay, and they had delivered their bombs. They were recovering, and they were at about three or four thousand feet when somebody looked up and said, "Here they come."
Here came the Zeros.
Phil was leading. Phil remembered the tactics that he used against the Germans, which was turn into them.
He shouted, "Turn!" He started the formation into a tight turn to go underneath them. Well, the P-51 was great, but like I said about the P-40, don't try and turn with the Zero. That day we lost two P-5ls. We didn't claim a Zero. Phil came back with his airplane all shot up.
R. T. Smith [Maj Robert T.], who was an AVG ace and really one of the outstanding fighter pilots, said, "Boy, it was hard work." He came back with most of one wingtip gone. They just got caught at low altitude turning.
The way Phil got away, finally he just put the thing on the deck and opened the throttle wide, and he ran away. The P-51, like the P-40, was strong enough to take it. Here again, if the Zero had had the six .50 caliber guns, we would have lost a lot more people than we did.
T: Back in the Pentagon, Colonel Cochran was already in the office before you got there, right? Had he talked with General Arnold?
T: He did go back and talk to him once without your being with him, didn't he? I have read in a couple of places that he told General Arnold you were the guy for this job, there was no doubt about it. He was trying to get out of it.
A: No. He really wasn't. Of course, I felt the same way. I honestly do believe Phil was the right one to command it. Phil has a lot of leadership personality. He has charisma. He has a way of saying things that inspire people. We had an outfit that believed they could do lots more than they really could. There just wasn't any job that these guys couldn't take on.
I guess Phil and I talked ourselves into believing the same thing. (laughter) This is an asset, but it also creates some liabilities.
The thing which I think is of historical interest, we took the first helicopters into combat, and very few people know that. Not with the greatest success, but it was a reasonable demonstration. When General Arnold said he wanted to move Wingate in by air, he said, "I want to make this an air operation completely independent of land transport. I want to demonstrate that you can use the air just like the Navy uses the sea. You can land and maintain a force and support it in battle. We will make available the resources that you need."
We said, "Well, what do we need?"
"Dick," Richard DuPont, at that time was the glider expert in the Pentagon. He was a sports sailplane enthusiast and a great believer that you could use the glider to transport and land people in unprepared areas. After discussing the utility of gliders with DuPont and after going to some of the glider training fields and having demonstrations of what they could do with the gliders, we decided we would use gliders.
We would use gliders to land in an area, secure it, prepare a landing strip, and then we would move in the bulk of the forces with C-47s. We had one C-47 squadron with highly experienced pilots, but we were using that for specialty jobs. We used them to take gliders in, then go back in, pick them up and bring them out again.
For example, we would take a patrol, land it on a sandbar, let the troops get out, and then we would come back and using the snatch technique, the reel on board the airplane, the C-47, would come down and with a long fishhook on a pole underneath the airplane, engage a loop in the nylon rope and actually snatch the glider back into the air and bring the glider home. We did this on a number of occasions, but really it was a specialized operation. It didn't have any value on a general scale, but it did help us in a number of cases where we wanted to put in a reconnaissance unit and bring it out again.
Our squadron was kind of a bellwether squadron. It would participate and lead, but we moved in approximately 12,000 men. Every one of them was a rifle toter. I say we moved in 12,000; we had 12,000 men behind the enemy lines that we supported. Three brigades we flew in, in the C-47s. Some of them went in gliders, but the bulk went in the C-47. One brigade, which was Brigadier Fergusson's [Sir Bernard] brigade, walked in. So we had a very good comparison of the effectiveness of a walk in versus the effectiveness of a fly in. We did move in 2,000 mules by air, and of course, this was their transport once they got down behind the enemy lines. They carried light field pieces, and the mules carried the mortars and other things.
T: I understand they took to flying without any problems?
A: Yes. We didn't have any trouble.
T: They had to shoot a couple?
A: The figure of two mules sticks in my mind. I know the first one they shot the first night. Unloading the mules, they just pushed the: mules out the door. The mules would I fall all over themselves. They didn't break their legs or anything, but one of these mules had gotten excited on the flight. There were British soldiers with the mules. They were the ones that were responsible for the mules on the march. They felt that it was the better part of valor to shoot the mule rather than to contend with him in the C-47. The first night they shot one, and they just pushed him out. When you get an 1,800-pound mule, or whatever the darn things weigh, on the ground and he is dead, he is hard to move. They said, "How are we going to move this mule?
We are right in the parking area."
Fortunately, we had these little airborne tractors. The airborne engineers had tractors, little bulldozers that we would use to make the strip. They put a rope around the mule and hooked it on the back of the tractor, and that way he was pretty easy to dispose of. The bulk of the transport and the resupply was all done by the Troop Carrier Command under Gen. Don Old [Maj Gen William D.], the US Air Corps Troop Carrier Command, and then the RAF Troop Carrier Command.
T: Did Colonel Cochran and General Old get along?
A: They were both strong personalities. Although Phil is my personal friend and I have absolutely the highest regard for him, and Don Old also I considered a friend, but just the personalities of the two, it wasn't easy.
Don was quite a bit senior to Phil. Phil was independent. We were really independent of the command. He had just a little difficulty accepting this. There were some personality differences but nothing major, nothing that we couldn't contend with.
I know onetime Don Old came on the base, and he looked at the guys, and they had all started growing beards, you know, kids. Kids want to grow beards. Whether they had a beard or not didn't seem very important to Phil and to me, but Old said, "This is a rabble. This isn't a military organization. Off with the beards."
That's when Phil put out his famous order. He said, "It's going to be like Saturday night in town. Shave them off." (laughter) I don't know whether you have a copy of that order. I think Lowell Thomas had-one in his book.
T: "Ain't it tough."
A: "Ain't it tough." Of course, when they read that letter, they all laughed, and the beards came off immediately. So there are lots of ways to get troops to respond. If Phil had put out a hard order and said really it was General Old's fault, everybody would have done it, but then they would have been talking about General Old, and in the language of the GI, they would have said, "We have a chicken shit commander." We didn't want that.
To go back to your question, there was no real problem. I got a little ahead of my story. I was going to tell you something that I thought was of significance on the helicopters. There were no helicopters in service. The Air Force had helicopters in flight test at Wright Field. Phil made an early trip to England before we went over, and then shortly after that, I made a trip over with General Wedemeyer [Albert C.]. General Wedemeyer was moving into the Southeast Asia theater. I guess he was the second ranking officer in the theater on Mountbatten's staff. We determined there were going to be some wounded we wouldn't be able to move with aircraft. We had seen how the helicopter was demonstrating the capability for getting into difficult places, and we decided that we would like to have some helicopters.
Phil approached Wright Field. Frank Gregory [Brig Gen Hollingsworth F.] at that time was the project officer for the testing and development of the helicopter into a practical military vehicle. He was just adamant. He said, "Look, these machines are not ready to go overseas. We haven't completed the flight test. We don't even know whether they are safe." He said, "You just can't take them."
Phil said, "Well, Frank, I am going to take them."
Frank said, "It will have to be over my dead body, Phil."
Phil said, "Well, so be it, it is going to be over your dead body."
About that time Phil went with the advance party to India, and I stayed back to clear up the details and be sure that the unit was on the water before I left. One of the last things Phil said to me was, "John, get those helicopters."
So I said, "All right, I will get the helicopters." I called, and I talked to Frank. I said, "Look, Frank, we have got the priority to get them. So why don't we make this a joint program? Another thing, we have the priority to take the helicopters from the Navy. Your test program is suffering because, at a late date, Admiral King [Fleet Adm. Ernest .J.] saw a helicopter demonstration and he said, 'Does the Navy have any of these?'
His aide said, 'No, sir. We are not in the helicopter program.'
So Admiral King said, 'See that we get in the helicopter program.'
So then the very limited production of helicopters at that time had to be shared with the Navy. The Navy got half of them, and the Air Force got half of them.
So I said to Frank, "Look, I will make a deal with you. I will take three helicopters from the Navy, and I will get three helicopters from you. You can send your test personnel and your pilots over to India, and you can actually run a service test in the theater.
If we do it successfully, you are going to do more for the helicopter program this way than you can do in any other way because you will get some extremely favorable publicity concerning what the helicopters can do. "
Frank said, "John, it won't work. If you go over there to India and you get in that dampness, we don't even know whether the blades will hold together. We just don't have enough information on these vehicles to put them into the theater."
I said, "Well, Frank, Phil is the commander, and he has told me to get them. Don't feel bad. Because I am going to get them."
Frank reiterated again, "John, you are not going to be able to get them."
I went to General Giles with a memo, and I asked him to sign it. This one they questioned. They said, "Do you really need it?"
I said, "Yes, we do. We can't do what General Arnold has told us to do in certain areas where we are going to have to operate without a vertical lift capability." So General Giles had me go talk to a general in the R&D [research and development] community. After I talked to him, he said, "All right, I will tell General Giles I think you have a logical reason to have them." I went back, and General Giles signed the paper, and we took six helicopters to India with us. We actually moved two of them behind the enemy lines and operated them.
Frank Gregory was right. They weren't ready for operations, and of the six we took over, we lost two of them almost immediately. One was in a C-46 being transported to our base, and it got, I think, 90 miles from our base, and something happened. The pilot ran into a storm, or something happened to the C-46. It went down into the jungle, and we lost the helicopter. Also, our senior administrative noncom was aboard that C-46 on the way from the U.S. to join us in India, and we lost him. That was a real loss. He was a fine noncommissioned officer, an expert in administration. I can't remember his name. I didn't know him. He volunteered. He was a very senior man. As a matter of fact, being young at the time myself, I thought of him as an old man. We thought this was a great loss. We could get along without the helicopter.
The second helicopter we lost, one of the helicopter pilots was flying it around the area after we had put it together, and he was doing very well. These were as experienced helicopter pilots as there were in the world at that time. One of the fighter pilots said, "Let me go with you." So he got in. The helicopter pilot said, "Where do you want to go?"
He said, "Let's go over and talk to Mr. Graves." He was the manager of a big tea plantation. He had this big house. So they went and landed in Mr. Graves' yard. They talked to him for a few minutes, and then they got in the helicopter, and they started up. They were up about 10 feet off the ground, and they were talking to the planter, and this pilot backed it into a telephone line. The helicopter fell about 10 feet. The rotor broke, came down, and killed the fighter pilot. So we lost our second helicopter. The other four we did operate.
I was gone by the time they really got into operation because I was only with the unit for about 30 days after the invasion. One of them we got late. Part of it arrived at our base, and the other part was lost. Finally, we found it at some other airfield. We located it, but it took several weeks before we could locate the second half of the helicopter. Apparently, it had been shipped in two transport airplanes.
We did get the men behind enemy lines, and the figure was reported to me that we evacuated 22 men with helicopters from places which we could not have moved them from if we hadn't had the vertical lift capability. The medicos felt some of these men would have lost their lives if the helicopter hadn't been available.
I just wish Frank Gregory had really sent a real good materiel program man with us because we would have had a lot better show, and there would have been a lot more justification for taking the helicopters.
T: Didn't Mr. Harry Hopkins help you on the helicopters?
A: No. We got the helicopters based on the priority General Arnold gave us, which most people said was no good because he gave everybody that priority. But he didn't. Apparently we had a real one.
We also had another instrument which was tremendously valuable, and this was a letter from General Marshall. It was just a short letter saying, "This is an independent unit which we have sent to Burma, arid it is to be used to support General Wingate." When we got in the theater, because of the priority which we had when we organized Project 9, we had equipment which nobody else in the theater had. Not only did we have equipment that no one else had, but we had a level of experience in our airmen that nobody else had.
This was, indeed, an elite unit. Everybody wanted it. General Stilwell wanted it particularly.
Merrill's Marauders were also sent over. Merrill's Marauders thought they were going to go in with General Wingate as a regiment or a brigade. That's what they thought they were going to be used for. Stilwell commanded the two Chinese divisions, and he had no American troops. Here was an elite infantry unit. Merrill's Marauders were great, and he did get his hands on Merrill's Marauders, and he put them right in with the Chinese spearheading the Chinese. Of course, if you had read Merrill's [Maj Gen Frank D.] book, he was just tremendously bitter with the experience. They were supposed to go in with Wingate and then come out before the monsoon.
Instead of that, they were put spearheading the Chinese drive. There was no way that Stilwell could relieve the Chinese. He was moving down on Myitkyina. If he couldn't pull the Chinese out, he couldn't pull Merrill's people out. They took terrible casualties. The unit should have been replaced, but there wasn't anyone to replace them so Stilwell just kept them there. That was understandable, but apparently it was a tremendously difficult campaign which Merrill thought was not completely necessary. This is all reflected in the book that he wrote on his experiences in
T: What did Colonel Cochran tell you about his initial meeting with Mountbatten and Wingate in late 1943?
A: He went to England, and this was August or September 1943 He went because he wanted to talk to Wingate. This was, in my opinion, absolutely necessary that the commander of the air unit that was going to support Wingate talk to him before we finalized our organization and the equipment that we were going to take to Burma. He and Wingate just immediately hit it off. Both of them were unusual personalities.
Wingate was just delighted with Phil. We didn't have anything at the time, but Phil told him what we were going to have. Wingate just said, "That's wonderful." I don't know whether Phil saw Admiral Mountbatten at that time or not. He came back. Phil always has interesting things to say about people, personalities, and things. His description of the man, who was Wingate, was most interesting. He just said, "This is going to be a most interesting campaign. This man believes we can do it for him so we are going to produce."
Although we had just about made up our minds on what was necessary to move and support a force behind the enemy lines, his meeting with Wingate was useful and gave him a better insight into what we were going to do and whom we were going to be supporting. I don't remember the details of the meeting or the details of Phil's report. I just remember that his reaction was favorable.
I went over with Wedemeyer shortly thereafter, and I had been in hopes we would arrive there before Wingate left, but we didn't. So I didn't meet Wingate until we got into the theater. I did have an opportunity to talk to British staff officers about what we were going to do. I don't think I learned anything in particular. I was in England a short time. General Wedemeyer's trip was quick. I guess the highlight was being able to travel with General Wedemeyer and get to know him because he was going to be the senior U.S. officer on Mountbatten's staff. From that point of view, it was productive.
T: Did you meet Mountbatten on that trip?
A: I don't know whether I met Mountbatten in England or whether I met him in India.
T: Did the British claim they didn't need the bombers that they were going to furnish them?
A: I don't remember that. I do know we made the decision we needed the bombers before we left the United States. We were told that we didn't need to take bombers from the United States, that we could get the B-25s once we got in the theater, and we did. We did take pilots.
A: The B-25s we got were the H model which had the 75-millirneter cannon which ran along the nose tunnel and fired through the nose.
T: Were they effective?
A: In a limited way.
T: I have read stories to the contrary is the reason I ask.
A: The problem was, unless you had a discreet target, there were other weapons which were better than the cannon. You were supposed to be able to get off about three rounds on a run. I think effectively you might reduce that to two depending on the kind of target that you were shooting at.
Certainly, the 75-millimeter round was not nearly so good for area targets as frag bombs. You could do a lot better with frag bombs on area targets. The gun was accurate, very accurate.
I know one day I was over in Burma and there was a railroad bridge. It had these timber pilings for support, and it went across some small gorge. Just to see what I could do, I backed off, and I picked a piling, and I hit it. The gun was very accurate. It was just as accurate as a machinegun. There was no opposition, and I just drove it down to about 500 feet slant range. When you fired it, it hit exactly where you pointed it. An illustration, once we were supporting the British in a village, and the Japanese had holed up in the village. We had pretty fair air-to-ground communication. The RAF had VHF [very high frequency] radio sets. Then they would designate the targets they wanted you to hit. They said, "See the house with the red door about a third of the way down the street? Will you get that for us?" You could actually put a round right through the red door.
In this particular instance, there was no heavy antiaircraft, and the B-25 would fly right down, and almost pointblank, you would let them have a round. If you wanted to put one through the window on the right-hand corner of the house, you put it right in there.
T: It must have been heartbreaking to find the damage to the first shipment of the P-51s?
A: I don't recall it.
T: One of the reports stated that one of the ships that had -5ls on board ran into a typhoon and darn near sank and the planes were damaged.
A: There might have been. We had enough airplanes.
T: General Stratemeyer [Lt Gen George E.] supported the commando unit?
A: Oh, yes. All the senior American officers did. General Old did in spite of what you might hear. The controversy between Old and Cochran was perhaps more talk than it was substance. Col John P. McConnell was on General Stratemeyer's staff. He later became Chief of Staff of the Air Force. There were some differences, but we didn't have any lack of support, and they all understood this was a special and an experimental unit. I would say they were interested in us, and we got the kind of support we needed.
T: What happened to Maj Robert T. Smith, the P-51 pilot that buzzed Mountbatten?
A: Oh, nothing. (laughter)
T: He thought it was Cochran?
A: I don't know who R. T. thought it was. (laughter) R. T. saw that crowd, and he had a great sense of humor, and he said, "Okay." He saw the guy standing on the jeep. Mountbatten was making a speech. He made it. He had a hard time getting it out because every time R. T. would come around the conversation would have to stop. He laughed. Mountbatten was great with troops. He had a way with him, and he would laugh and kid. This didn't bother Mountbatten at all.
T: Were you and Colonel Cochran as satisfied with your exercises prior to your departure as Wingate and Mountbatten seemed to be?
A: I think we were. We had some reservations. We had originally intended to bring the gliders in and cut them loose at about 3,000 feet above the landing area and then allow the pilots to come down into the area. After we had practiced a few of these exercises, we found it was going to be difficult for all of them to hit the precise area. Our glider pilots were full of spirit. Some of them, of course, were excellent pilots, but some were not. We were greatly concerned that the weaker pilots would miss the landing area and go into the trees and we would lose some people. So we developed a technique which in practice worked just great.
We figured the slant range of a glider if it were cut loose at 300 feet at 120 miles an hour, and the glider would go just so far, and then it would be on the ground. So we said, "Gee, if we can cut loose at so many feet before the designated landing spot, the glider is going to hit the landing spot every time."
So we set up a light at the calculated distance from the point we wanted the glider to touch down, and then the C-47 would line up on that light in the landing area, and he would fly at a constant 120 miles an hour. I believe 300 feet was the designated altitude. When they passed over the light, the glider pilot would hit the release, and then all they had to do was hold the stick and go straightforward and light in the spot.
This just worked great in practice, but we ran into a great problem in the landing zone at night. The woods surrounding the landing zone were jungle, and the guys couldn't get the light back far enough. They got back as far as they could, but because of the terrain, they just couldn't get it back far enough. So when the gliders were cut loose, when they got to the landing spot, they were all going faster than they should have been going. This caused us some problems. We had pileup after pileup, and the glider would land, roll along the landing area.
We had the gliders overloaded.
T: Everybody brought a little extra?
A: I think Phil and I both said, "Well, 4,200 pounds is the load, and if we can fly them at 4,200 pounds, we can fly them at 5,200 pounds." I think my glider probably had 6,200 pounds in it. It was heavily loaded. I hit the ground at 80 miles an hour, and the glider is supposed to land -- I didn't come in on the light. I was in one of the assault gliders, and we just came in and cut loose free. I cut loose free and picked the spot, and I put the glider right where I intended, and my glider rolled to a stop without any damage right in the wooded salient where we thought we were going to find Japanese, and thank goodness, there were no Japanese there. Anyway, I came to a stop, and the squad got out. There were ruts in the landing area which had been formed by the native teak loggers.
A teak log, in order to float, has to dry for about two years, I think. The wood is so dense that if it doesn't dry and you put it in the river, it sinks before it gets to the mill. They would use elephants, and they would cut these great teak logs, and they would cut a bow just like a ship. They would put a hole through it, and they would run a chain through it and hook this up to an elephant, and the elephant would skid the log out into a drying area. Then when the season was wet again, they would skid it across the field.
This had cut some ruts that really didn't show up in the photographs. They were covered over with grass. The glider would cross the ruts, and the wheels would drop into the ruts, and one wheel would come off. Then the glider is down on its belly; it's heavily loaded, and we had no machinery to move it, and it was too much for a team of men to move.
You couldn't get it out of the way, and in the dark, succeeding gliders would come and run into them. What we were trying to do was get the people out 'of the gliders just as quickly as we could so that when the collision came at least the glider that was stopped on the ground wouldn't have anybody in it to get hurt.
We had about 21 deaths around the landing area. Most of them though occurred in two gliders that hit the trees. We had lots of wounded. We had about 60 people that needed medical attention. Some with broken arms and broken legs. I don't think any of them were very seriously wounded.
The next morning Phil sent our ambulance planes in, escorted by P-5ls, and they picked up the wounded, and we were free of our wounded and went on with our business.
T: When did you finally tell the outfit where you were going?
A: We told them just before they embarked in the gliders.
T: I am talking about after you left the States.
A: When we embarked, they knew where we were headed, and they knew we were headed to India. I think they knew we were going there to support General Wingate's Chindits. They didn't know any of the details of how we were going to do this, and really right at the beginning, I am not sure we knew the details. These were all worked out with Wingate when we got there.
T: You were moved from the States in a real rush when actually you didn't jump off for Broadway until nearly 2 months after you were in country?
A: That's right. I arrived in India in December, I think, just before Christmas 1943. We flew into Burma 4 March, I believe the date was. One, you had to get everybody there and get all of your equipment there. You had to practice with the infantry that you were going to support. We had to get our airplanes all together at the ports and move them forward to our advance bases. We started operating right away. One of the very dramatic things that happened when I arrived there, the people in the theater didn't know what we were going to do. I remember talking to some of the staff officers.
They said, "What in the hell are you going to do with 100 L-5s?"
This was the Air Force talking pretty contemptuously about a small airplane like an L-5. They said, "We have a squadron here in the theater, and we don't know what to do with it." I said, "Well, we know what to do with it. What about giving me your squadron." Well, they didn't want to give me their squadron. They make awful good taxis. In countries like India where the road nets are inadequate, an L-5 is just wonderful to get around in. It beats riding down a dusty road with potholes.
We had just arrived in the theater, and we had just received our L-5s into the theater when the British launched a campaign in the Arakan, which is over Bangladesh. I say they launched a campaign, actually the Japanese launched a campaign.
Before this the British would be in their outposts, and the Japanese would move a force in and surround the British. Finally, the British would begin to starve. There was no way of really getting supplies and reinforcements to them, but about this time, it had changed. They got the C-47s. I guess the year before they did. They had dropped supplies. The British were still forming the old Kitchener box, the square, the British square. The Japanese were on the outside cutting off their supplies, and the British were on the inside. The C-47s would drop supplies to the British, which, of course, made it possible to maintain your square and continue to fight.
Until we arrived, they never had a satisfactory way to take care of their wounded. As a result, a lot of the casualties became fatalities just simply because there was no way to produce adequate medical care. When the British box was surrounded by the Japanese on this occasion, of course, the C-47s of the Troop Carrier Command could drop the supplies in.
They scraped out a little strip inside the square, and we dispatched one squadron of our L-5s, and they started making the mail runs. They would carry a fresh man in and bring an injured man out. If a man were hit or wounded, very often in about an hour's time, we could have him back in India in a general hospital where he could get proper care. Well, the doctors just thought this was the greatest thing that had happened to military medicine, and it was.
Not only being able to move the man, but if you move him by air, he has a much better chance of survival than if he had to be moved on the ground by an ambulance. The trip in an ambulance over a military road very often killed a patient.
If you put him in an airplane and he was comfortable, to get him from the British box back into the Arakan was no more than a 45-minute flight, and he landed right at a general hospital. They took the patient right into adequate medical facilities where he could get proper attention. As a result, the Japanese stayed on the outside, and the British stayed on the inside. The British had their mail and newspapers in the morning; their wounded were evacuated, and a fresh soldier was there to replace him the minute he was hit.
T: You were doing this in January and February?
A: That's right. Maybe it started as early as December. We got just a tremendous amount of publicity. I am not saying this was the first time this was ever done, but we did it on an organized basis. We gave the British something they had never had before. So, it hit all the newspapers in India, and of course, the PR people picked this up and sent it back to the States. Before we ever got into action, we were heroes. This surely changed the image of the L-5.
T: Did you have a tough time finding someone to head up the light plane section?
A: No. I don't know where we got him. The man who headed it up was Andy Rebory. He was an experienced liaison pilot commander.
T: Sergeant pilots worked out well.
A: Sergeant pilots worked out well.
T: They doubled as mechanics and a little of everything else that you needed. Fifty percent of them were college grads.
A: I suppose they were. Many of them were boys who washed out of flying school. One of my classmates at flying school showed up as a sergeant pilot flying L-5s.
T: Do you remember his name?
A: Hyland. But they weren't very experienced soldiers. We didn't lose any, but when we landed in Broadway, the British immediately put up the square, the fortified square, with the barbwire, the slit trenches, the foxholes, and supplies in the middle of the box looking out. This was a heck of a lot of effort.
We had L-5s based at Broadway. Our L-5 pilots were living it up. They set up little camps all out through the woods, strung their jungle hammocks between trees. This was a great picnic, and then one night the Japanese came. I will tell you, panic hit.
Somehow or another, with the British help, they got back inside the British box with the British soldiers who were very experienced at this.
T: They didn't string any more hammocks?
A: I will tell you. As Tex Hill said, “Nothing makes a man shape up quicker than getting shot at.” That attack occurred the night I left Broadway. I never slept outside of the wire. I had my sleeping bag inside the wire with the British commander. It was so peaceful at Broadway. We had been there about three weeks, and nothing had happened. Then one night they estimate 250 Japanese marched down the airstrip and did a column right and walked int9 the camp. (laughter) The reason they think there were 250 is because that's how many they killed before it was over, but it took about a week to kill them. They dug in outside the perimeter, and the British took care of this very methodically, and they were experienced in it. They had Gurkhas, and the Gurkhas were experienced. They had night fighters. They would send the Gurkhas out at night.
T: The things we have heard all our lives about the Gurkhas, are they true?
A: I think generally so. He was a professional fighting man and took great pride in his profession. They were sturdy little people. I never saw them. I saw the aftermath of some of the fighting. I think they were quite effective.
As Wingate said, "Each man has his effectiveness. The Gurkhas are just excellent, particularly at night. They are the world's worst in a water crossing. Somehow or another, the Gurkhas are just not prepared to cross water. We have lost a few. The West Africans are the best I have got defending a fortification. Once they get dug in, they are just almost impossible to get out." Of course, he had Indians, Gurkhas, West Africans, and boys from the British Isles.
T: His exercises were SO real----
A: His attitude was, "Every man is a good fighter if he is led properly." He didn't believe in the ethnic limitations, but he felt because of historical reasons some people fought better in a certain environment or mode than they fought in another. He was really a remarkable man.
T: Do you remember hearing the stories about the Gurkhas practicing for the gliders?
A: Yes. It is just hearsay. It may have happened; it may not. I don't know. We did have bamboo mockup gliders with the seats in them. The purpose was to illustrate to the troops how to load the gliders and when the glider landed how to get out in short order. The British officer was drilling his Gurkha troops on getting in and out of gliders, and one of the Gurkhas noticed that these gliders didn't have any motors. He thought he had an obligation to tell his officer. He said, "You know, I don't want to cause any trouble, but these airplanes don't have any motors." (laughter) I don't know whether that happened or not. It was a current story, and it could have been true.
T: If Wingate couldn't get what he wanted, did he threaten to resign or quit?
A: Wingate was an unusual personality. He had his views on how the war should be prosecuted, and his views were not only strongly held but strongly put. He was articulate, and he was critical. He would be critical of both his peers and his superiors. I think that created problems for him. I don't say he was wrong, but Wingate did have problems in his peer relations and with his relations with some of his superiors. I think that has been illustrated after the war.
The official British history downgrades Wingate and really undeservedly so. I know Wingate's associates, the people who fought with him, thought a great injustice had been done to a great man, historically. He was accused of a lot of things. Actually, Wingate was a great soldier. He wanted to fight in Burma, and I think the official British policy was not to fight to retake Burma. That may have made some sense too, but there certainly was a difference of policy or military opinion about what should be done in that theater.
T: He did attempt to take his life once, didn't he?
A: That's what I hear, and he did have a scar, a throat scar from one ear to the other.
T: One of the reasons that he grew the beard.
A: Oh, I don't know. While we were there, he always had his beard, but you could still see the scar.
T: You thought pretty highly of him, didn't you?
A: Yes, I did.
T: Didn't you fly him most of the time?
A: After we went into Burma, I flew him on most of the missions into Burma. He came in C-47s at night on the lift, but there were several occasions when I flew him in in a B-25.
Most of the time I used the little Noorduyn Norseman transport, which was a small transport. These were daylight flights. I preferred to use the B-25 on daylight flights because it was armed. He was killed, I guess, about 20 days after we landed behind the enemy lines in Burma. In that time, I flew him in two or three times in the daylight. I flew him into the blockaded area at White City. That's what we called it or Mawlu. It was the one where they cut the railroad bridge and established a block and stayed there for a long time. The Japanese had a hill fortification right over the bridge, and they were dug in. This was Calvert's [Brig J. Michael] first objective -- Mike Calvert — his troops took the hill, took the fortification, and then dismantled the bridge. I don't think the railroad trains ever ran at the end of northern Burma after that. The British went up the hill. They walked up. I understand they lost five officers in the charge.
Our question was, "Why didn't you call on us for air support?" This was a small hill. The Japanese were concentrated. They had no undercover fortifications or very limited fortifications. We could have come in there with six P-5ls and put napalm on the hill. I believe they probably could have taken the hill without a casualty, but they wanted to do it. This was the first time they had met the enemy, and they wanted to just go up and take it, and they did. I flew Wingate in right after the battle. It's the first time I had seen the aftermath of an infantry battle. It's a pretty bloody thing. The British were disposing of the corpses. In the hot weather in the jungle, the flies would accumulate immediately so the stench begins immediately.
The British would put ropes around the legs of the Japanese soldiers who were dead and drag them down the hill. There was a small stream there that had cut a small canyon. The sides of the canyon were sand. They pushed these bodies off of the little sand palisade, arranged them down at the bottom of the palisade, and when they got them all there, just for sanitary purposes, they put some dynamite in holes back from the edge of the palisade. When they blew it, there was an avalanche of sand that just covered all the corpses and got rid of the stench and got rid of the flies.
When I looked at that hill and I thought of men going up it in the face of enemy fire, being an infantry soldier was a pretty formidable operation. The British did it with spirit. They fortified a larger hill which was just adjacent, and they stayed there. The Japanese attacked their fortification for weeks, and a large concentration of Japs. I think the British estimated there were five or six thousand Japs killed in the woods. Most of these were killed by our aircraft. In order to get at the British, the Japanese exposed themselves and made themselves very vulnerable. We would drop bombs into the area, drop napalm into the area, and we would drop depth charges, and under the jungle canopy, a depth charge was a formidable weapon. It would just blast. It would break your eardrums and cause other kinds of discomfort. I forget just exactly what the casualty count was, but the British were able to count them, and they were exceptionally high.
This was the kind of situation where we provided the British with artillery which they couldn't carry.
On another occasion at this same fortification, the Japanese brought up about half a dozen field pieces, and they planted them out in the rice paddies, and they began to fire into the fortified area. The British immediately called for air support, and with the help of the British, we were able to identify every field piece and destroyed all of them in short order, the P-51s did.
T: You were the first to use rockets on P-51s?
A: Yes, the Air Force was in the process of putting the rocket into operational status, and I believe we did get the first ones. They were the old three-inch rockets that were fired out of -- it looked like a paper mailing tube.
We carried these long tubes under the wing on the bomb rack, and the rockets were carried in there. I forget, I think the P-51 carried three five-inch rockets on each bomb rack. I don't know how effective they were. It was just another form of firepower that you can carry on the airplane.
T: Were there efforts by the British to amalgamate the Air Commando units with the existing air tactical organizations as they existed?
A: There were no efforts by the British. I think the Air Force in India, when we first came over, would liked to have done that, but we pointed out that this was a special unit on a special mission and was really a test and experimental unit and that General Arnold wanted to keep it independent.
General Stratemeyer respected that. We really didn't have any trouble. When we first got over there, there was a body of opinion in the Air Force that felt strongly that we should become just another unit of the Tenth Air Force.
T: Would it have worked?
A: I won't say that it wouldn't have worked, but to work, we would have had to gone to General Stratemeyer and said, "Don't touch our resources."
We had better resources in our unit than the Tenth Air Force. If we had been part of the Tenth Air Force, the logistics people would have wanted to get their hands on our supplies. This way we kept the supplies we had requisitioned and brought with us separate, and for the purposes of the first expedition, I believe that was important.
T: Did you realize you were changing the concept of jungle warfare?
A: Well, I don't know whether I was smart enough to realize we were. We knew what we were doing. We felt as General Arnold felt that you could use air forces to land troops just as we did with amphibious forces. One of the things that we realized almost immediately was that we were limited by the equipment which we possessed. One of the things that we would liked to have had on the ground behind enemy lines was armor, light armor if necessary, but in some cases we would liked to have had heavy armor. We had no equipment that could carry it. When I was recalled, one of the first things General Arnold had me do was attend several meetings in the Pentagon and discuss with Logistics or Plans people or policy people the strength and shortcomings of the unit and what we could do to improve on this kind of warfare.
There was really no problem with the fighter. The P-51 was an excellent close support fighter. There was really no problem with the B-25, an excellent light bomber with the flexibility to support this kind of operation. Where we were limited was transport. I had rather not do it with gliders. Gliders not only have limitations, but in certain circumstances, they are more hazardous. We caught the Japanese completely by surprise. In Broadway it took them three weeks to find us. We had no opposition, but we didn't know that. We thought when we got on the ground the Japanese were going to be there waiting for us. The jungle was so thick around Broadway, it took Calvert's unit over a week to get the 40 or 50 miles to the railroad.
T: They should have let the L-5 drivers----
A: (laughter) Well, you can't carry mules in L-5s. If we had known we were going to have that opposition, I would have gone in in the daylight with C-47s. If the landing area wasn't suitable, I would .have just taken a half dozen C-47s in there and landed them gear up, rolled the bulldozers out, made the airstrip, jacked the C-47s up, and put the gear down again, and flown them out.
T: Could you have done that with the C-47?
A: Oh, sure. We would have bent the props. We might have had to change the engines.
T: It still would have been safer?
A: Oh, yes. Even if we had to salvage them for spare parts. In the field we went into, you could have landed the C-47 gear up without doing much damage to it. You would have landed it on grass, and it would have just slid in and bent the propellers. I doubt if it would have damaged the landing gear at all.
We recognized that we needed specialized assault aircraft. So they said, "What do you need?"
I said, "What we would like to have--I am not saying that this is practical at this stage of aircraft development--if we are going to support a land operation from the air, we would like to have an airplane that will carry the most effective army tank. We would like to have that airplane land and stop in 1,000 feet. We would like to have an ability in the airplane to do this without a prepared strip."
The reaction was, "Well, this is impossible."
I argued that it wasn't impossible. I said, "It may not be practical, but I know it's not impossible."
They said, "Well, how in the world would you do it, Lieutenant Alison?" (laughter)
I said, "Well, I know that you can land a big airplane and stop it in 1,000 feet."
They said, "Well, how do you know that?"
I said, "Well, I have seen a fully loaded glider with rockets on the nose land, and when the glider touched the ground, the rockets were fired. Not only did the glider stop, but it went backwards." (laughter)
I said, "It's a matter of arithmetic. You can put enough reverse thrust on an airplane to stop it, not in 1,000 feet. You can stop it in 500 feet and probably stop it in less. You may limit the airplane's ability to carry anything, but I know that you can land the airplane and stop it. All I am asking you to do is give some freedom to your imagination and see what's possible. Just don't say that it can't be done."
Here I am talking to my superiors. You know the engineer who is faced with the practical problem of implementing this can immediately see all the problems. That's one of the difficulties that people who bear responsibility have. They have to make it work. They know how difficult it is. There is no way you can float an airplane that weighs 200,000 or 300,000 pounds on unprepared soil. I said, "No, that's not true. I know you can float the airplane. Here again, I don't know whether it is practical, but if necessary, you can put tank treads under that airplane, and it will support the weight on unprepared ground. Maybe you won't be able to carry very much, but you can put multiple wheels, or you can put tank treads, and you can support the weight." They agreed that that could be done but that it wouldn't be practical.
The reason it wasn't practical is because we didn't have these marvelous modern jet engines that we have today that will lift airplanes like the C-5 into the air in very, very short distances. Actually, the C-5 has come very close to doing what we wanted. On the other hand, the C-5 wouldn't be practical for this kind of operation because of the exposure.
The C-5 is such a big investment and such a valuable machine that you couldn't afford to expose it in some of the forward areas. There are ways to do it, and of course, today, 30 years after World War II, we have the technology that will make this possible. We may not have the money to invest in the airlift force to do it, but essentially, the Air Force now has the capability that we were looking at back in those days.
T: You had regrets about accepting that assignment?
A: Not really. I hated to leave my group. This was the first fighter group which was my group and my responsibility, and I was going to England, and I had been in the Pacific war, and I had fought the Japanese, and now I was going to have a chance to fight the Luftwaffe. I wanted to do that. The Air Commando operation looked like it was going to be great fun. Working with Phil was always fun, and General Arnold wanted us to do it. That created a substantial incentive to go on this expedition. I don't regret it.
T: Do you remember Wingate's plan to bring Spitfires into Broadway and the confrontation between Colonel Cochran, Wingate, and yourself?
A: I don't know how serious the confrontation was. I do know Phil questioned it, but the RAF wanted to be part of the action. We had secured Broadway. We moved our P-51s in. So here was this new American outfit over there with their airplanes behind the enemy lines in Burma operating, and the RAF was sitting back in India. So the RAF wanted to get in on it, and I don't blame them. They put a detachment of Spitfires in, and this was led by a squadron leader -- I guess he was a squadron leader--who had fought in England in the Battle of Britain. Most of the RAF types that I met were real wonderful, ordinary, realistic guys about their business.
Well, this guy was very arrogant. He apparently was good. He just gave me the impression, "Look, the Spit is the best airplane in the world, and I am the best pilot, and I can whip the world." And by gosh, he could come pretty close to it! He had been fighting the Germans, and he thought fighting the Japanese was pretty easy stuff.
There was practically no warning in Broadway. I had left Hailakandi in a P-51, and I was going into Broadway. When I arrived in Broadway, I saw the columns of smoke rising. There were about three P-5ls on the ground burning. We had to crank our P-5ls. They didn't have starters on them.
We got warning that an air raid was coming, and we didn't have time to get any P-5ls off. We didn't even try. They strafed the P-5ls, but the British got two Spitfires airborne.
The squadron commander and a wingman. What the boys who were watching on the ground in the woods and from the slit trenches told me, these two Spits ran down the grass area and became airborne just as the Japanese fighters were coming over the field. The Japanese fighters were at relatively low altitude, and the squadron commander just pulled straight up right into them, and his wingman though went straight ahead underneath the Japanese. This British boy immediately began to turn, and they said he shot down two Japanese just one, two, and then they killed him. I think that was the end of the Spitfires behind the enemy lines. We just kept a few airplanes in there. You could react almost as quickly from Burma, not quite as quick.
T: What was the story behind Wingate's order not to fly over Burma?
A: There was never an order not to fly over Burma. We picked the landing areas at Broadway and Piccadilly. Once we had picked them, he said, "Don't go around looking at them and drawing attention to these landing areas because we want this to be a complete surprise."
T: Didn't someone fly over just a day or three or four days before you made the landing? Didn't General Old send someone down?
A: No, Phil Cochran did. There was a lot of talk about violating Wingate's order, and I don't think this is so. I think Phil just took the responsibility for doing it, and it was a very wise thing to do. Right at the last minute, he sent a B-25 over that took the pictures. "Charlie" Rushon was in the airplane. When we took the picture of Piccadilly, we discovered the loggers had drug the logs out into the landing area. They were just lying row after row of trees. The initial reaction was that the Japanese had done it to block the landing area. I think you had to assume that.
So if you assumed that the Japanese had done it, then the next assumption was, "They are on the ground waiting for us.” Broadway hadn't been blocked, and that's when Wingate made the decision we were going to put 40 gliders into Piccadilly and 40 gliders into Broadway. Piccadilly was going to be our headquarters. I was going to land at Piccadilly, and that's where we would have set up forward Air Commando Headquarters. We got the pictures, and we examined them.
Wingate said, "What do you think?" I remember there were some small areas where you could have put a glider into.
I said, "Well, General, I can get a glider in there." I really wasn't thinking because, although I might have been able to get my glider or one or two in there, it would have been a disaster to go into a landing area which was obstructed, particularly to try and do that at night. Because Broadway was unobstructed, we decided that we would put all the gliders in there, and that would become our central point of operation.
It worked. We had some problems, but when the dust cleared we were there. We built an airstrip, and we brought in thousands of troops.
T: What were your feelings about the lack of RAF participation in the CBI theater?
A: Well, I didn't really see any lack of participation. The RAF Troop Carrier Command participated in the airlift just like the US Air Force. As a matter of fact, I think it was--well, I guess it wasn't a combined--but General Old was the senior airlift commander, and as a result, the RAF airplanes came under his direction, but the RAF provided a large contingent of C-47s, and the US Air Force provided a large contingent of C-47s, and they were the ones that did the work of transport and supply. As far as combat support for Wingate's troops, none of the British airplanes were configured for air-to-ground like ours.
T: Strictly air-to-air?
A: Well, the Spitfire was strictly an air-to-air airplane. They may have had some air-to-ground airplanes, but I just think we had far better equipment. We really didn't need the RAF. The one time we asked the RAF to support us, they tried, but they were not successful for reasons which were beyond their control. That was when our fighters had been down over Mandalay. I guess they had been on a bombing mission, and they were on the way home.
I never will forget, I was in the operations shack, and we had excellent radio communications. We had a radio that we kept tuned to the tactical frequency. As the boys were coming back, we were listening to them talk. Finally, one boy said, "What in the world is that down there?" They were passing over the airport at Shwebo.
Another one said, "That's the Japanese Air Force."
Grant Mahony was leading, and I heard him say, "Forget the fighters; get the bombers." The bombers had landed and were in the process of refueling, and the Japanese fighters were still circling the airfield. I guess there were probably 12 P-51s. They went in and strafed the bombers on the runway and the gas trucks. The gas trucks exploded, and the bombers exploded. They just had a field day.
I don't know what happened to the fighters above. We lost one pilot, and we have to assume that one of the Japanese fighters killed him. We had gun cameras on these airplanes, and in the development one P-51 on one pass set five Japanese bombers on fire on that one pass. When the P-51s left, I called the bomber squadron and requested that they load the bombers with frags. Phil came down. We said, "Load the bombers with frags." We waited until the fighters returned because R. T. Smith was the bomber squadron commander, and Walter Radyvich was the deputy bomber squadron commander. Both of them were flying fighters that day. They were out with the fighters.
T: Did you switch like that?
A: Yes. We let anybody fly anything that they wanted.
T: That sort of kicks the theory of being a one-airplane type pilot.
A: Specialization is probably the best, but morale isn't as high if you specialize to that degree (laughter)
T: They returned?
A: Yes, and I announced to R. T. that his airplanes were bombed up and we wanted him to go out and drop frag bombs because we felt maybe the fighters had landed by this time, thought the fighters would land there. Sure enough the fighters did.
R. T. complained, "I have been flying for four hours. I am tired."
But finally, we prevailed, and he got in the airplane. I forget the number of B-25s that he took. I think there were six. R. T. knew exactly where the field was -- one of the reasons we wanted R. T. was because of his experience, because he had already strafed the airport. He knew where the field was. He came back over, and the B-25s spread out into a tactical formation. At about 1,000 feet, they opened the bomb doors and let their whole load of frag go as they crossed the airfield.
Apparently, the fighters had landed because they started lots more fires. We had alerted the RAF and asked them to also strike it. They did come down there, and I believe they had Hurricanes. When they got there, it was just about dark. R. T. went over; it was about dark and very difficult to see anything on the airport because of the smoke and the haze from the bombers and the fuel trucks and everything else that had been burning.
The RAF said that the smoke was so dense over the entire area that they were not able to find the airport. Then the next day, the RAF took pictures and reported that they could count 100 burnt airplanes.
That was the Japanese air force in Burma. What happened was they were staging forward, and they were going to run a big raid on us the next day.
T: You got lucky and got them first. You broke their back.
A: It was just pure luck. As I just said on the other half of the tape, this was just luck, and it was a great piece of good fortune for us. I don't know what their intended target was the next day. The Japanese were getting ready to launch a four-division invasion of India. Their target might have been Imphal.
It might have been us. We don't know what they intended to hit. Getting these airplanes out of the way, really ensured the success of our operation into Burma because it removed a formidable threat. There were times when we were exposed.
We had our transports all over Burma. I flew over Burma during the daytime in transports by myself and never had any real fear of being intercepted. First of all, there is a lot of airspace up there, and second, we had wiped out a good part of the Japanese air force.
T: One character if you remember him. Broadway, do you remember a character by the name of "Fatty," a bulldozer operator? He supposedly operated his machine for 42 hours without sleep. He finally collapsed; his machine continued to roll. Did that really happen?
A: I don't know whether it happened or not. I don't remember it. (laughter)
T: In my research I ran across that.
A: Phil probably told you about the famous glider accident, the last glider to get into Broadway. When the gliders began to pile into each other, one on top of each other and it was dark, and we had wounded and a few dead, things seemed just terrible. Although it wasn't panicsville, it was pretty tense in the landing area. I had run until I just couldn't run any more. My muscles in my legs were knotting up. I was carrying my carbine with me. I had fallen so many times that the muzzle of my carbine had dirt packed all the way up to the breech. (laughter) Finally, they said, "What do you want to do?" I said, "We are not under attack. We have all the gliders in here that we can possibly take. If the radio station is in operation, stop the gliders." So somebody carried the message way over to the radio station which had hit on the other side of the landing area. It was reasonably intact. It had been damaged slightly, and the radio gear had been shaken up, but the radio operator was good. He got it working to the point where he broadcast with two code words.
The code word for success was "pork sausage." They chose "pork sausage" because all the British had to eat was a synthetic sausage made out of soybeans, which they called soya link and which they didn't like. "Soya link" was the code word for disaster; "pork sausage," which was the real McCoy, was the code word for success. I really didn't know we had such a limited vocabulary. I had always expected that I would be able to pick up the microphone and talk to Phil, but it didn't work that way.
The radio operator got out on the air, "Soya link, soya link, soya link." It didn't get back to India, but it was picked up by the C-47s that were pulling the gliders in. So the C-47s then radioed back to India and said, "We have got the code word for disaster; bring the gliders back."
They did turn quite a number of gliders back, but many of them had already gone so far they couldn't carry them back. They brought their gliders on in and dumped them on us anyway.
Phil and Wingate were just absolutely distressed. They could imagine all kinds of terrible things. They knew we were under attack. They didn't know what was happening in the landing area. They knew we were having great difficulties. We were having difficulties, but of course, they weren't catastrophic. We just wanted a little bit of relief. As a matter of fact, we needed the relief badly.
Finally, the airplane activity overhead ceased, and Mike Calvert said, "Let's go to bed. It always looks better in the daytime."
At that time, we were all discouraged because it's always worse at night. You imagine that there are a lot more people dead than there really are. You are thinking about the dead people, not all the healthy ones that are still walking around and have already gone to bed in the woods.
So we walked over to the salient and rolled out our sleeping gear and tried to get some sleep. I know Calvert was about 4 or 5 feet from me in his blanket. I had my little sleeping bag that I was sleeping in. Charlie Rushon was there.
Charlie was our photographer. He is the one who took the famous photographs of the trees on Broadway. Charlie flew in with the gliders. Charlie didn't want to miss any action. He always wanted to be where the action was. All of a sudden we hear the sound of a C-47 off in the distance, and it's coming to Broadway. Now where in the world this C-47 had been, I don't know. He comes overhead, and thank goodness, he has only one glider in tow although we don't know it at that time.
I tell Rushon, "Rush, can you still walk?"
He said, "Yes, boss, I can walk."
I said, "Run out there and tell them to put out all the lights." We had used little flare pots to try and give the glider pilots some perception of the landing area.
I said, "Go out and tell them to put out the lights. I don't want that airplane to land. I want him to take that glider back to India."
Well, it was a glider with a bulldozer in it. So he runs out on the field and disappears. The C-47 goes overhead, and then all of a sudden we hear this glider whistling down on the wind. Then like a thousand kettledrums, just blooom! (laughter)
I said, "Oh, God, it hit the trees."
I remember Mike Calvert toting his blanket and saying, "Oh, my God."
I know what he was visualizing -- 13 soldiers all just smashed to bits. So was I. Really my heart sank when that thing hit. There was no use to go up there; it was somewhere out in the jungle.
About half an hour later, Rushon comes back.
I said, "How many people were killed?"
He said, "Nobody."
I said, "What do you mean nobody was killed?"
He said, "You won't believe it but wait until you see it. Nobody was killed."
I said, "How many people were in the glider?"
He said, "There were only two. There was a pilot and a copilot, and there was a bulldozer behind. The way we rigged it, we had a cable. The cable, if you pulled on it, raised the nose of the glider so that the load could go out the front. Well, this cable went back over a pulley in the back, and they hooked it onto the bulldozer."
What had happened, this glider headed into the jungle. The fuselage went right between two trees, sheared off the wings. The bulldozer, of course, broke its moorings and started forward, but fortunately, the cable was hooked onto the back. The cable broke the latch on the nose. The nose went up in the air; the bulldozer shot out underneath; the pilots fell back in place, and one of them broke his thumb. That's the only thing that could have happened. They were two lucky guys, and so were we.
The bulldozer was damaged beyond use. We couldn't use it, but it was a good source of spare parts.
The next morning we began to count noses, and we had an engineer company, airborne engineer company with us. The commander was Captain Casey. Casey was missing. We finally found Casey. He had been killed. He was in one of the gliders that hit the trees. We had a lieutenant who was the second in command of the engineer battalion. He was an impressive fellow, but he wasn't very impressive looking. We walked out on the field as soon as it got daylight, and we looked at it. I looked at it, and it just looked discouraging.
There were holes and big clumps of grass. I said to the lieutenant, "Do you think you can make an airstrip here?"
He kind of shook his head and said, "Yes, I think we can."
I said, "Well, how long is it going to take you?"
He said, "Well, if I have it done late this afternoon, will that be soon enough?" (laughter)
I said, "Go to work."
About 9 o'clock in the morning, we finally got our radio gear operating, and we established communication with Phil and Wingate back in India. Calvert and I went over to the radio glider. Of course, we just talked to them in the clear.
They said, "John, how is everything?" I said, "Well, Phil, we are here, and we are on the ground.”
He said, "Are you going to be able to build an airstrip?"
I said, "Yes, we will be ready for you tonight." They said when Wingate heard that he just started dancing. The night before he wept because everything was a disaster. The next morning we could get it on the radio, "Nothing has happened." I said,
"We have about 60 wounded here, and we need to get them out right away. Mike Calvert is concerned. If for some reason we are attacked by the Japanese, he certainly would like to be unencumbered."
Phil said, "We will have ambulance planes in there in about 2 hours." Sure enough, they came over, and we got all of our wounded out.
The bulldozers, the little scrapers, and the soldiers got to work. By that evening, we had an airstrip that wasn't very long. I don't think it was 3,000 feet long, but we had lights on it. I had an improvised control tower, and we were ready to receive the C-47s. I had told Phil, "Now look, we really need to get organized on the ground. Just don't send me more than one or two C-47s in the first hour.
Let me work out the procedure." Well, just as soon as it got dark, and I looked up, and I could hear the sound of a motor, and here comes a C-47. Right behind him is another one, and right behind him is another one. I think he sent in 12 C-47s the first hour. (laughter) It's a good thing he did. That night we landed 100 C-47s. At 10 an hour, of course, that's 10 hours of landings and takeoffs. That first night we got in about 500 troops in the gliders. The next night they put in probably 1,000 to 1,400 troops in addition to mules, equipment, supplies. By this time we were beginning to feel secure. Just as soon as the troops hit, Mike Calvert started them off, and they headed for the railroad. We had to get out and get our work done so Mike left us. He left Colonel Roan to command the fortification there at Broadway, and we began operations.
T: The glider operation had to be termed a success?
A: Well, it was an education. Yes, it was a success. We got the bulldozers in. We made the strips. It was a shame that we lost any lives. If we had known--well, we didn't know. One, if we had really realized we had crippled the Japanese Air Force to the extent that they weren't any threat, we would have gone in there in the daytime.
T: A piece of cake?
A: I don't think we would have lost a man. We would have busted a lot of gliders, but it really didn't make any difference. We busted most of the gliders anyway. I think we put 52 gliders into Broadway, and of the 52, only three of them were completely intact. All the rest of them had been damaged to some degree. Some completely, some with just a wheel off, some with a damaged wing. We thought of trying to move them out. We pulled out the ones that were in good shape, but most of the gliders we just left right there, and they became housing, storage areas.
T: You didn't go to the CBI without a doctor?
A: The British had doctors. I had never flown a glider, but it had always been my belief the commander of an outfit ought to fly with his outfit. This glider thing was the biggest thing. Phil and I said, "We will send all the rank."
Phil said, "Well, I want to go."
I said, "No, you can't go. Somebody has got to mind the store. You are the commander. You have got to stay here with General Wingate."
So I said, "I will go." I went, and I flew one of lead assault gliders. We had six assault gliders. Three were going to go into Broadway. Three were going to go into Piccadilly. No, we had eight assault gliders, I guess. I think that's the number. Four were going to go into Broadway and four into Piccadilly. The assault troops were specially picked and instructed in what needed to be done on the ground when we first landed.
I had Dr. Tullick as my copilot… Tullick was sitting in the copilot's seat calling off the airspeed to me as we came into the field. I never will forget. He kept saying, "80, 80, 80," and I would look down at the instruments, and he was right, it was right on 80. I knew that I couldn't get that glider any slower. The reason it was coming in at 80 -- and it should have been coming in at 60 something -- was it was just overloaded. I hit the ground and rolled straight ahead into the salient. I didn't hit a pothole or a trench. I knocked down a lot of bushes, but the glider just rolled right to a stop and right into the salient. The troops were out in the woods immediately. Of course, that was the plan. If the Japanese were anywhere, they were going to be in this salient.
So the assault gliders were supposed to go for the salient. I had planned my approach so that I would go right to it. Well, it had to be luck. It wasn't any skill because the afternoon before I had them take me up and drop me three times in an empty glider. I glided the empty glider down and got the feel of it, and then the next evening, I took off with a heavily overloaded glider at night and landed behind enemy lines. It was not easy. It really was a very demanding flight.
T: Did you ever hear that term, the "Doodlebugs"? I took this from the unit history of the 1st Air Commando force, and it said, "Commanders and advance party leaders noted and remarked to some of our boys about the increased inspiration and high morale since they knew the ‘Doodlebugs' from the States were handling their men. They knew they would not be left to die if wounded but carried out in short order to a hospital."
A: That had to be the L-5s, but I never heard them referred to as "Doodlebugs" before.
T: That was a quote taken from the 1st Air Commando history. Do you remember bringing the C-47 out with gear down? I think it was an RAF C-47.
T: That was when you were recalled?
A: Yes. These C-47s landed at night, and two of them ran together in a taxi accident. The damage was not major to either, but this one was damaged so much that the pilot left it. The leading edge was bashed in and cut open … to the main spar. There was a section of the leading edge maybe two or three feet that was bashed in. I guess the spar is about a foot behind the leading edge of the wing.
One aileron had been crushed so bad that it wasn't effective. I don't know how it got hit on the leading edge and the trailing edge at the same time, but it did. The aileron was still secure on the airplane, but it was badly deformed. I looked at it, and the hinges were still intact to stay on.
I carefully inspected the leading edge, and I couldn't see any damage whatsoever to the main spar so I felt the airplane was safe to fly. I sent a message out to the RAF to send in mechanics and some sheet metal, and I told them about how much, to cover the hole in the leading edge and to bring in a new aileron and fly it out.
Instead of sending in the parts that I had asked for, they sent in a repair crew to make an estimate of the damage. I didn't want the airplane on the ground. It was just an open invitation to the Japanese to come over and burn it up.
Finally, I said to the flight sergeant, "Why in the world didn't you bring in the material to prepare it?"
He said, "Well, sir, I don't know. They sent me in to make an estimate, and I am supposed to tell them what parts they need."
I said, "Well, I have already told you what parts. I am a little bit upset because I don't want the airplane here. Pull it over in the edge of the jungle and cut down some trees and try and camouflage it, which they did. We waited.
I guess the airplane was there three or four days, and nothing happened. I kept asking the repair crew under the supervision of this flight sergeant, "When are we going to get parts for the airplane."
We didn't want the RAF crew in there or the airplane.
He said, "Sir, I don't know." When Phil called me on the radio, he said, "John, you had better come out tonight. I would like to see you. I have a message here for you that I think you ought to read."
This was around the middle of the afternoon. So I told the flight sergeant, "Take the shrubbery off your airplane. I am going to fly it out."
He said, "Sir, you have no authority to fly it out."
I said, "Flight, here I am the boss. I am in command of all air operations on this airfield. I control your airplane. I am going to fly it out."
He said, "Sir, I can't let you do it."
I said, "Flight, you don't need to take any responsibility. I will take full responsibility for the airplane." Finally, he found out or he decided that there wasn't any use arguing with me. I said, "The airplane is safe to fly."
He said, "Well, I can't be sure."
I said, "I am sure that it is."
So they pulled the bushes off, and they backed it out of the edge of the woods where it had been hidden. I climbed aboard, and Rushen, the photographer, said, "I am going with you." He was everywhere. He said, "I want to go with you."
I said, "You know, I have never flown this airplane before." He said, it doesn't make any difference. Let's go."
So we got in, and I started it up, and I took it off and flew it to India. Just as I had predicted, the airplane flew quite well. On an empty C-47 with half a load of gas in it, one aileron is plenty. The airplane has enough wing if you lose the effectiveness of maybe two or three feet of it, it really doesn't make any difference. I really didn't notice any problem with flight characteristics whatsoever.
The only concern I had, I got the gear up because there was a placard that said, "To raise the gear, pull up on the handle." (laughter)
I was not sure of the instructions for lowering it because it had a great big hydraulic gauge on the side, and the pressure went up. It was on the other side of the cockpit, and I couldn't read it carefully. I was just concerned that I had the gear down and locked. So, as I approached Hailakandi, which was our airfield, I called the tower, and I asked them to get a C-47 pilot in the tower that I had some information I wanted to check with him. I forget who the pilot was, one of the guys I knew.
I said, "Say, I have got this gear down, and I just want to double check that I have it locked." I told him what I had done.
He said, "You're safe; come on it."
So I brought the airplane in and landed it. I got out, and I gave it to one of our crew chiefs, and I said, "You've got yourself a new airplane."
Then I think they took some spare parts off of it and then gave it back to the British. (laughter)
T: You had two messages?
A: When I saw Phil, I said, "What's the message?" He said, "You have two now." I had two almost identical messages. I forget the exact wording, but one of them in essence said, "Report to me without delay," signed Arnold. Then the second message that came in was, "Report to me without delay," signed Eisenhower [Gen Dwight D.].
Arnold was my boss so I sent a message to Arnold, and I said, "I have received your message, and I have also received a message from General Eisenhower asking me to report to him. Am I authorized a delay en route to see General Eisenhower?"
The message came back immediately, "You are authorized a two-day delay in England."
I left India and flew to England. I went out to General Eisenhower's headquarters, and I reported to his office. His adjutant or exec was sitting in the outer office, and as I recall, he was the only person in the office. I went in and said – I identified myself--that I had received a message from General Eisenhower to report to him and said, "I am here."
He said, "Fine, come on in." I went in and saluted and reported to General Eisenhower. I was most impressed. General Eisenhower was a true gentleman.
He said, "Oh, Alison, I am glad you are here. The reason we wanted you, we are planning to cross the Channel, and we are going to use gliders. You have had a brand new experience, and we would like to understand the problems that you encountered."
I said, "Well, sir, I will be very happy to discuss it with anyone that you want me to."
He said, "Well, I want to take you around and introduce you to General Spaatz."
I said, "You don't need to do that. I know General Spaatz quite well. I can find his office."
He said, "Oh, no, I want to take you." I knew General Spaatz because he was a major at Langley Field, Virginia, when I was stationed there as a second lieutenant, and I knew all of Spaatz' children and Mrs. Spaatz, and I knew the general from those days.
He said, "Oh, no, I want to take you," and his headquarters were in this old hospital unit which was just corridors spread out over several acres. He walked from his section of the headquarters down a long corridor and over to another section, took me into General Spaatz and said, 'Tooey,' this is Lieutenant Alison. He has come here to tell us about gliders."
T: You were a lieutenant colonel by then, weren't you?
A: That's right. I should have been a lieutenant. (laughter) I just forget that during the war I got promoted so rapidly. (laughter) I was a lieutenant colonel. He said, "This is Colonel Alison." He stayed and chatted for a few minutes. I was very impressed that this five-star general would get up from his desk and escort me a quarter of a mile over to see General Spaatz. He couldn't have been more cordial. He chatted all the way over.
I said, "Well, here is a five-star general that the world can't help but like."
That was true about General Eisenhower. That's one of the reasons for his great success in the European theater. His personality and his temperament were such that he was able to mediate between the conflicting philosophies, opinions, and desires of the Allies.
I talked to General Spaatz for a few minutes, and he said, "I want you to talk to General Vandenberg. General Vandenberg is going to head up the tactical air, and he is very anxious to know about your experiences in Burma."
T: General Vandenberg had been associated with the outfit when you first began.
A: That's right. General Vandenberg was the reason Phil was with the outfit.
T: You thought you were going to go to Washington for a few days?
A: I didn't know. Arnold didn't explain it in the message. (laughter) Vandenberg got me together with the -- I believe Mike Kelly was the glider expert in the Ninth Air Force. He was a very famous acrobatic pilot. I told them that I thought our biggest mistake was trying to pull two gliders with a C-47. It would be much easier on both the airplane pilot and the glider pilot if you had one glider. That was General Old's recommendation. He didn't want us to pull two gliders. We felt that our C-47 pilots were a cut above all the rest. If the rest could pull one, ours could pull two without any difficulty, and they did quite well. Even so, we broke quite a few towropes that we would not have broken if we had had one glider behind the C-47s instead of two. The second error was that we did not have any careful load control. The gliders were heavy. This increased the drag, and made it even more difficult for the C-47 to pilot.
We would have had a disaster if our pilots hadn't been very skilled and very seasoned and also very experienced in pulling gliders.
The glider is on two ropes. If you are flying in perfect formation and as close to each other as you can, the drag was tolerable, but we began to hit rough air. When you hit rough air, the C-47 would drop. This would give the gliders a spurt ahead. As you went ahead, you would run into your ropes. So then you had to move the gliders out and allow a big loop to come into the glider rope. The C-47 would then begin to pick up speed because the gliders are no longer exerting any drag. In order to keep the C-47 from jerking the ropes, which would pull the fittings out of the glider or the C-47 -- most of the time they would just pull the fitting right out of the tail of the C-47 -- the glider pilot would then have to move his glider way out and allow the tension to come back into the rope gradually. If you didn't do that, you would either break the rope or pull the fitting out of the airplane.
I must say our glider pilots did very well. I am an experienced pilot, and this was a difficult flight. At times it was a little frightening. Here you are up getting close to the C-47 and you have a rope looped over the top of your wing and way back beyond the rear of your glider. Now you have got to take the slack out of that rope without a jerk. You could do it, but when you did it, all of a sudden you had another big drag load on the C-47. When the airplane and the gliders got out of phase and started going back and forth, you broke the ropes. This happened to us. We lost 12 gliders before we ever got across the enemy lines. Surprisingly, I don't think we had a casualty in any of those gliders. They went down in India. Then I believe we lost eight after we crossed the enemy lines. This was something that caused great confusion with the Japanese.
We didn't realize it, but this was the greatest diversion. We had no sooner crossed the Chindwin when the airplane pulling the second radio station -- we had two radio stations-broke the ropes and lost its two gliders just after they had crossed the Chindwin. In the airplane that had the communications station in it, Arvid Olson [Col Arvid E., Jr.], who was a pilot -- he was an AVG squadron commander--was the director of operations in our organization. Olson was in that airplane.
In the airplane on the other wing, "Dick" Babel [Capt John S.], who was our chief administrative officer, was flying in that airplane. We had the deputy commander, the deputy for operations, and the deputy for administration all in the assault mode because Phil and I both felt this was the most dangerous thing we were going to do in that entire operation. We were not going to have the rank sitting back on the ground pushing the kids out ahead of them. We had most of the rank in the 1st Air Commando Group in the gliders on the invasion.
Olson and Babel went down and landed right in the middle of two divisions of Japanese. I believe there were two divisions there. Anyway, Olson's glider went down right near a Japanese division headquarters. They weren't out of their glider before the Japanese were firing at them. There were three Gurkhas in the glider, a glider mechanic, the glider pilot, and Olson. They got out and ran. The Gurkhas went back to set fire to the glider.
I don't know what ever happened to the Gurkhas. I presume they escaped. They are very resourceful little guys and particularly in the jungle, but the three Americans made it to the Chindwin River, and they got down and hid on the bank, and the glider mechanic couldn't swim. So Olson and the glider pilot started out to swim the Chindwin. The Chindwin is so broad that although it was moonlight they couldn't see across, but they took a sight on the moon, and using the moon to guide them, they started to swim across the river. Olson and the glider pilot were fairly strong swimmers, but before they got across the river, the moon went down, it set. I don't know how long it stayed. They must have been several hours in that river trying to get across.
Olson said, "We really didn't know which way to go. We had to kind of feel the current and keep going." They eventually got across.
It was almost a week before they were picked up by friendly troops.
T: What happened to the mechanic?
A: They left him on the bank, and he hid. I am sure the Japanese captured him. Then in the other glider, there were 13 well-prepared British troops. They stepped out of there. These were all guys with rifles and machetes, and they knew how to take care of themselves. They started off. They set their compass, and they started back to the Chindwin.
They got to the Chindwin, and they decided to swim it. The glider mechanic--I can't remember whether it was the mechanic or the pilot -- was not a strong swimmer. Babel told him, "If you have trouble, let me know so I can give you a hand."
They all stayed together and swam that river. Somewhere across they lost one of the Americans, and he drowned in the river. They never found him. He never uttered a sound.
As Babel said, "He may have been concerned about alerting the enemy, but he just never said a word." He just disappeared in the night in the river. I think there were 13 men in the glider, plus the crew, 15 men. So they lost one. Fourteen of them got back across.
One of the gliders broke loose, and there was a major town the Japanese occupied on the Irrawaddy. This was Katha. One of the gliders broke its rope right over Katha. The pilot put the glider down on a sandbar in the river right at the edge of the town. They stepped out, and the water was shallow across to the mainland. They put some debris in it, set the glider on fire, waded through the water over to the riverbank, and walked off. About 15 days later they showed up in Broadway, every one of them. They were a little hungry, but they made it. When they ran out of rations, they were very lucky. They came on a good stream, and they threw a couple of hand grenades in a pool, in an eddy, and they got plenty of fish. They ate the fish, but they were hale and hearty when they walked into the camp. One of our other doctors was aboard that glider. That was a doctor who had one of life's experiences. (laughter)
T: After you left Eisenhower, you reported to General Arnold?
T: What did General Arnold want?
A: General Arnold was so enthused about the success of this operation -- we had received some tremendous publicity, maybe some that we didn't deserve. Well, it was a unique operation.
Wingate was a unique person, and Phil Cochran was a unique person. Newspaper people liked to write about both of them. This was an ideal combination. We had moved 12,000 men behind the enemy lines. We were supplying them, and they were fighting. This was exciting news. This was all reported back to General Arnold, aria he was just delighted.
I came back, and he was real enthusiastic, He said, "Alison, this has been such a success. I have given authorization to form four more Air Commando groups and the necessary transport. I have already implemented the organization of two of them." I said.