Imphal, The Hump and Beyond
U.S.A.A.F Combat Cargo Groups of the Second World War
3rd Combat Cargo Group, 10th Combat Cargo Squadron
INCIDENT AT MU-SE
Sgt. Aloysius 'Al' M. O'Neill Jr.
| This is as I remember it after 49 years; in recent
years Norman Stewart and I have compared recollections, and he remembers some details
differently. It's possible both of our memories are a little faulty after all this time.
At about noon on April 26 1945, C-47 #800 of the Tenth Combat Cargo Squadron (also known as 10th COM-CAR) arrived at Mu-Se Burma, to participate with other aircraft from the Tenth in transporting a large force of Chinese troops from Burma to China. Our destination was one of the airfields near Kunming; I don't remember which one.
(It wasn't until about 1979 that I discovered the reason for this move. From a biography of Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander in Southeast Asia, I learned that once the Japanese had been cleared out of North and Central Burma so supplies from India could reach China over the Ledo-Burma Road, the Americans and the Chinese considered that the Burma campaign had been successfully completed. However, as a point of national pride, the British could not consider the campaign ended while the Japanese still occupied part of the Empire. The Supreme Commander decreed that if the Chinese were no longer going to contribute to the fight, they were no longer to continue to consume supplies in Burma. Hence our mission of April 26, 1945, to move them out of Burma back to China.)
Mu-Se is just south of the Shweli river which forms part of the border between Burma and Yunnan Province, China. At the time of this account, its airstrip was known as the "Million Dollar Airfield", not because of construction costs but because of the number of $100,000 C-47's smashed up all over the field. This story tells how the thirteenth came to be there.
At that particular time in the history of 10th COM-CAR, the only crew member permanently assigned to a particular aircraft was the Flight Engineer, or Crew Chief. He was responsible for one particular aircraft, on which it seemed he worked all night and then flew all day. (Crew Chiefs did have assistants, who worked with them at night, and alternated flying days with them.) The Pilot, Co-Pilot and Radio Operator were assigned by a process which remains a mystery to me, but which must have resembled a lottery. Crew schedules for each day were posted the evening before, and were, of course, of great interest. It didn't take a newcomer long to learn, either via the "grapevine" or from experience, which pilots were capable and responsible and which were not. Of course even the best of our pilots had limited experience and faced terrible weather with less than minimum facilities.
Our crew for April 26, 1945 was: Pilot, M. F. David; Go-pilot, Robert Wilson; Crew Chief, Norman Stewart; and Radio Operator, myself.
As usual I skipped breakfast; I couldn't handle powdered eggs, french toast, bitter grapefruit juice plus the ride in a six-by-six truck without springs over an Indian road to Dinjan's airfield. (A recipe for air-sickness before takeoff.)
A surprise that morning was finding that the aircraft had been fitted with cargo doors. This was a first for me. We usually flew without doors to facilitate loading and unloading at our numerous stops during a day's activities, and of course if an air drop should be scheduled, doors would be an impossible obstruction. I now know that it was because of the planned trip to China and the altitude at which we would have to fly that the doors had been installed.
I mention the doors because their presence gave me a bad scare later in the day.
The plane was always loaded before we got to it; take-off was usually at 0700. There was only a very short, simple "briefing" for the radio operator, consisting primarily of picking up a package containing such things as maps marked with coded coordinates, the current code words, etc.
One important pre-takeoff chore was selecting K-rations for lunch. If one got to the case of "K's" early, he might be lucky enough to get a "Dinner" carton; next best was "Lunch". Unhappy was he who, arriving late to the selection, found only "Breakfasts", whose main course was "Chopped Pork and Egg Yolks"! (To be eaten cold, of course!)
After take-off that morning, we entered Burma through Pangsau Pass. I don't remember what our cargo was. We went into Katha, perhaps the only time I was there. There were tall trees close to both sides of the runway; this was not the case at many fields that I remember. I thought that we re-fueled at Katha. (Norm Stewart, who was responsible for re-fueling, doesn't think Katha had fueling facilities.)
Next we flew over to Mu-Se and had lunch there. Although it was only a little after noon when we arrived the log (which was my responsibility) showed an even five hours of flying time; a good day! At Mu-Se we had lunch; we hadn't needed the K-Rations after all.
We were assigned nineteen Chinese. They seemed to be carrying with them an unusually large number of big cooking pots. Whether or not they were a field kitchen unit I don't know. They also had a medium-sized dog on a leash. He may have been the evening meal, for all I know. To complete the cargo, they were carrying an iron bed, from who knows where, which they erected in the cabin right behind the forward bulkhead. Several soldiers were sprawled on it when I went through the door to the crews' section of the aircraft.
In the standard operating procedure, the pilot occupied the left seat, the co-pilot, the right. There was a bulkhead behind the pilots, behind that a small space, then another bulkhead, behind which was the navigator's position on the left and the radio operator's on the right. Since we almost never had a navigator on board, the crew chief usually rode in that position, and did on this occasion. The crews' positions were separated from the cabin, where either passengers or cargo, or both, were carried, by another bulkhead with a door which could be closed.
On this particular flight, the pilot occupied the co-pilot's seat, and allowed the co-pilot to fly the aircraft.
I believe we were the first, or one of the first, of the Tenth's planes to taxi out for takeoff. As we began our take-off, I picked up my pencil to log the departure message I would send Bicycle, our ground station back at Dinjan. Then I felt the aircraft swerve to the right, as a cross wind caught the tail, then to the left as the co-pilot fought for control and it gathered speed. By now the tail had lifted up, so that when I stuck my head around the edge of the bulkhead, I could see the terrain ahead between the pilot and co-pilot.
Ahead I saw trees and tents, coming up fast. We were off what passed for a runway, heading downwind. Then I saw the pilot (sitting in the co-pilot position) put the flaps down, felt the plane leave the ground and thought "Just another rough takeoff!". That thought was short-lived, and my sigh of relief was cut in half, for almost immediately the right wing dropped, then the left wing, then the right wing again. I was thrown out of my seat by centrifugal force when the right wing hit the ground and caused the plane to spin sharply to the right. I landed in the aisle between the navigator's and radio operator's position, on top of Norm Stewart. The door to the cargo space where our passengers were had disappeared, and as I picked myself up I saw the entire right side of the cabin dissolve in flame. I had lost a tent-mate in an accident only a few days before and the thoughts flashed through my mind "This is what it was like for Curt Schner" and "We're going to die". On a practical basis, I got a mental picture of the latched cargo doors and of nineteen Chinese crowding them without knowing how to open them, and the crew members at the rear of the mob , and all of us probably roasting together. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw both pilots rising from their seats-I still don't know if I'd have tried to rescue them if they hadn't- flames were also coming in the cockpit windows- and I yelled "Let's get out of here!" and headed for the cargo doors. The cabin/cargo space was covered with prone Chinese with bloody faces. I crawled over the top of them to the doors to find, to my inexpressible relief, that the fuselage had broken at the doors, and the doors had sprung open!
When I went through the doors I fell on a pile of about three Chinese. Now that I was out of immediate danger of burning alive I got a grip on myself and began helping others. I more or less threw the Chinese out from under me to get them clear of the plane (fortunately the fire took a while to get to the left side of the plane, where the doors were) and under them I found the dog, yelping. I threw him away also. If he was smart he left the company he'd been with; they meant him no good, I'm afraid.
Norm Stewart had come out right behind me, and now he and I reached into the plane and pulled out some soldiers near the door. We saw the pilots outside the plane at about this time. They had escaped through an exit from the cockpit. All of the Chinese soldiers were now out of the burning aircraft, but some of them began running back into it to salvage their equipment. At this point Norm and I washed our hands of them, and a sort of delayed reaction made the two of us begin to laugh. Also at about this time the fire reached our 45 caliber automatic pistols and extra ammunition clips, which we had abandoned in our rush to escape.
So the first jeeps to arrive on the scene, some containing our squadron mates, found Norm and me laughing like crazy beside the burning carcass of #800, to the accompaniment of exploding ammunition. I became conscious of something in my hand; I was still holding the pencil, but the point was broken. It didn't matter; nobody was ever going to send a takeoff message from C-47 #800 again.
The rest of the story is anti-climactic, but it contains two nuggets of information: one illustrates the all-encompassing bureaucratic mind; the other the type of wild man found occasionally among our pilots.
Some authority, I don't remember who, organized the evacuation of the crew and passengers from this disaster. One of our planes, with crew, was diverted from the airlift and detailed to carry the crew of #800 back to Dinjan, and to drop off the less seriously injured passengers at Myitkyina for treatment. I understood that more seriously injured passengers were transported overland to Namkham, where Dr. Gordon Seagraves, the "Burma Surgeon" had his missionary hospital. I also heard a rumor later that one of them had died there, but since no one ever told us anything official about anything, I have no idea whether that is true or not.
Among the crew, most of our injuries were superficial; lumps on heads, bruised knees, etc. I believe both pilots received slight burns. The most seriously injured of the crew was the pilot, Lt. David, although it was not obvious to us at that time. It developed that he had received a concussion, and as a result lost his reflexes. He was sent home shortly thereafter, as I recall.
As the plane returning us to Dinjan and taking our injured passengers to Myitkyina headed down the runway toward our still burning wreck, one of our pilots, just arriving at Mu-Se, decided to inspect the accident site, which he did by flying across and perpendicular to our course, right down on the deck. I saw this happen and I could visualize the cost of #14 and #15 being added to the value of the air strip right then and there!
As soon as we were airborne the radio operator called Bicycle, our ground station at Dinjan, and passed on information about the accident. After a few minutes the word came back that we needed the names of the Chinese soldiers! After a hurried consultation Bike was advised that all of the Chinese had dispersed, and that we only had a few of the injured with us so that what was being asked was impossible. (We didn't say so, but we felt it was up to the Chinese commander on the scene to record the fate of his men.) Back came the word,"D0 IT!"
So back down to Mu-Se we went. Someone found a Chinese officer who could speak and write English. He wrote down 19 Chinese names for us. Where he got them, and whether they were the correct names, who knows? All I know is that somewhere in the CBI that night slept a happy bureaucrat!
We four, pilots, crew chief and radio operator, were met by Major Walter Duch, Squadron Commander. This is bound to have been one of the worst moments for Lt. David, the pilot, who said simply "I'm sorry about the plane, Sir." Duch replied, "We can get more airplanes; glad you guys are OK." This reaction was at odds with Duch's reputation.
Finally, I was grounded for four days, to get over my bumps and bruises. End of incident.
A. M. O'Neill, Jr.
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