There are many people unaware of some of the daring missions that American and other Allied airmen had to make countless times during the course and aftermath of World War II. This Memorial Day is an excellent opportunity to learn about some of dangerous flights made by pilots in the military, some who may have been relatives. Remember air flight was still young during the 1940s, the Wright Brothers had only flown the first powered plane in late 1903.
American airmen of the USAAF’s Air Transport Command were now in the early years of the 1940s flying over the tallest, most rugged and isolated mountains in the world, the Himalayas. They were coming from India, crossing Burma to fly into China, bring supplies and personnel for the Chinese troops and American bases fighting the Japanese. Being so dangerous a flight, the airmen named the flight route ‘The Hump’. Besides the high elevation of each flight to cross the mountains the winds could exceed 150 mph at times causing major problems for the flight crew. Many planes never completed the flight or were not able to return on the flight back into India, with about 700 planes crashing into the mountains. These flights started in April 1942 after the Japanese blocked all land routes into Burma and China and ended in November 1945.
It is fascinating to investigate a relative who was part of such an operation. One such example is my mother’s cousin’s fiancé, Vernon ”Lefty” Leffler, a 28-year-old Air Corps gunner pilot from Pennsylvania. In mid-1944 he was sent to the China-Burma-India outpost to be a rear gunner on a B-25 plane that flew relief and supply missions over the Himalayan Mountains, also called the "Humped Flights“. It was during one of these flights that his plane crashed into the mountains in August 1944. Lefty was among the survivors of the crash, but his back was split to the bone by a casement when the plane crashed. He had to be carried down out the mountains on a stretcher made from poles and blankets by the other surviving airmen from the plane. It took the men three months to slowly walk back into Indian Territory. Once at an Indian hospital his wounds were cleaned and he was put into a body cast. Lefty remained there for another three months before a British military plane was able to fly him out to the nearest American base hospital. When the body cast was removed and his wound cared for it was then realized that he was paralyzed from the neck down. He remained in that paralyzed state for the rest of his life. Lefty did marry the family cousin and they had a productive life together. Unfortunately, many airmen never returned.
The following is a recent news story from Fox News about “Clayton Kuhles, a self-described “professional adventurer” from Arizona who has made it his cause to seek out crash sites and bring closure to the families of the lost fliers.” He has been doing this for nearly 10 years, locating some 22 crash sites and helping identify personal items (shoes, dog tags, etc) for the descendants of these airmen who never returned. Read the details of what a challenging mission it has been for Kuhles. There is also a web site where he provides additional details of his efforts to bring closure to any surviving relatives and the descendants of these brave airmen who made the attempt to cross ‘The Hump’.
Photo: C-46 flying over the Himalayan Mountains (HyperWar Foundation - Army Air Forces in WW II)