In early 1943, USAAF transport pilot Lyndon Raff, the hero of If My Heart Had Wings, finished his training and found himself whisked off to northern India. His assignment: flying the Hump, that is, piloting a slow clunky C-47 transport plane loaded to the max with gasoline, food supplies, ammunition and sometimes even bombs, straight over the Himalayas (the Hump) to China.
What was the point of this crazy, dangerous assignment? The year before, in 1942, Japan had successfully cut off every single supply route to China and was systematically starving the Chinese out. Once China fell, Japan was ready to scoop up Chinese wealth, natural resources and troops, which would make it almost impossible to beat in the war in the Pacific. Thus, a major Allied priority had become keeping China strong. Since the only remaining way to get supplies to the Chinese was by air, that task fell to the USAAF.
To this day, flying the Hump flying is considered the most dangerous assignment ever given to air transport personnel, and with good reason. Winds roared up and down the sides of the Himalayas at speeds of 100 – 200 mph, causing fierce turbulence that could shoot a plane straight upward one minute and down the next, or even flip it over.
Because radio and navigation tools didn’t work in mountainous areas, Hump pilots had to “eyeball” their way around the peaks, relying solely on landmarks. But when massive cloud formations settled in, which was often, the pilots were flying blind. Taking the plane above the clouds wasn’t an option because ice would form on the plane’s exterior that could cause sudden drops of 1,000 feet or more, or even worse, send the plane into a nose dive.
Another big problem was the sudden appearance of Japanese Zero fighter planes. The Zeros were twice as fast and much more agile than the clunky transports, so the Hump fliers’ only choice would be to duck into nearby cloud cover, if there was any, and hope they didn’t run into the side of a mountain.
For 42 straight months until the end of the war in August, 1945, USAAF transport crews braved the dangers of flying the Hump and almost single handedly saved China from falling to Japan. But victory came at a price. Some 700 Allied planes were lost and nearly 1,200 Allied airmen were killed while carrying out this perilous mission. The glittering remains of planes that didn’t make it lay atop the mountains all along the Hump route – a grim sight that the air crews nicknamed “The Aluminum Trail.”
As for Lyndon Raff, in spite of all of these challenges, he managed to fly his C-47 over the Hump and back again at least eighteen times. Eventually, he was transferred to another supposedly safer assignment. Unfortunately, it would seal his doom.
If you enjoyed this article, you’ll also enjoy my book If My Heart Had Wings: A World War II Love Story — the true story of the life and death of a WWII pilot and the tumultuous life of the young widow he left behind. Available on Amazon!