Air Supply on the Salween River Front
The Quartermaster Review
Airdrop operations in the first sustained Chinese offensive against the Japanese in WWII.
In the wake of the slow-flying green transport the parachutes billowed out, their bundles swaying pendulum-like from the shroud lines. Four, five, six of them mushroomed whitely against the brilliant blue sky before the plane had passed completely over the air-dropping target.
On the ground the tiny figures of Chinese soldiers and coolies dashed to and fro, collecting the bundles and dragging them to one side in order to clear the target before the plane could complete a lazy circle, to drop again.
Air supply has been a vital factor in the Salween Campaign – the first sustained Chinese offensive against the Japanese in seven long years of war. Fought in the Kaoli Kung Mountain Range (a spur of the mighty Himalayas), this battlefield above the clouds could be reached, on the ground, by only a few steep, narrow trails, in the initial phase of the offensive. Heavy monsoon rains turned the trails to glassy slickness, where a mis-step on the part of coolie or pack animal meant almost certain death at the bottom of a gorge thousands of feet below. Other paths became roaring mountain streams, or were churned into a mire of knee-deep, clinging mud. It was, obviously, utterly impossible to supply, by ground means, the forces required to drive the Japs from their strongly fortified bastions among the 12,000-foot peaks.
The idea of air supply was not new. Troops in the jungles of Burma had been supplied by plane. But whereas a dropping-space cut into the jungle was easily apparent from the air, a flat area in the rugged Kaoli Kung was a rarity, and difficult to locate among the jagged peaks.
The monsoon rains were about to begin, and a heavy fog lay over the Salween River almost every morning.
Some of the areas in which the battles were fought were never completely cloudless, and it was necessary for the pilot to find a gap in the clouds before he could locate his dropping target.
Only the planning stage for the air-dropping operation had been reached by the end of April, and the campaign was scheduled to start on the eleventh of May.
Two weeks was enough. By the time the Chinese Expeditionary Force and its Y-Force advisors and technicians crossed the Salween in their rubber assault boats, the Y-Force Air Dropping Detachment was prepared.
As the campaign progressed, the efficiency of the Y-Force Air Dropping Detachment improved. Ten thousand American raincoats, dropped to troops suffering terribly from a combination of monsoon rains and the high altitudes of the Kaoli Kung, saved thousands of Chinese troops from death by exposure and permitted them to continue the offensive.
Bullets and rice were the two principal items dropped. However, requests came in for all sorts of odd items, and each request was fulfilled, if at all possible.
The most difficult single items to deliver were the hydrogen cylinders for flamethrowers. Their odd shape, great weight, and slipperiness caused considerable difficulty in packing, until a system of wrapping in rope nets was devised. Because the cylinders are heavier than the average load, two parachutes were attached instead of the usual one.
Gasoline for various purposes was at first dropped in 5-gallon cans, with four cans in a three-foot-high wicker basket, packed with grass. However, experiment proved that a 55-gallon drum, about half-full and wrapped in a rope net, delivered more gas and saved equipment.
On one occasion toilet paper held first priority. Radio and other technical equipment has been dropped, as well as half-pound blocks of TNT wrapped in burlap, to be used for demolition purposes.
In one sector of the Y-Force area, ballots for the election were dropped in small parachutes to Americans a month’s pack-trip from the nearest post office.
Rice, salt, and beans for the horses are free-dropped. The rice and beans are wrapped loosely in three burlap bags. Even contact with a sharp rock is not likely to pierce all of the wrappings and allow the contents to escape.
Seventy-five pounds of salt, with two 12 ½ -pound cylinders to a bag, are dropped for each 5,000 pounds of rice. Experiments have demonstrated that the rice bags survive the shock of contact best if limited to 35 pounds in weight.
Three sizes of parachutes are used. The large 22-foot ‘chute, American-made, can carry up to 300 pounds, and is therefore used occasionally for heavy loads. The parachute used for most of the dropping is an 18-foot Indian-made cotton ‘chute, which carries from 120 to 150 pounds. The small pigeon-parachute, developed to drop pigeon cages, is only six feet in diameter and carries about 35 pounds. It is used principally to drop small items to American personnel.
All American equipment or supplies of any size or weight are dropped by ‘chutes daubed with blue dye, the smears of color being easily apparent as soon as the ‘chute opens. These loads are marked “U. S. Army Personnel” and, in Chinese characters, “Turn over to American Army.” Technical equipment for the Chinese troops which should be brought to the attention of Y-Force personnel is also dropped by spotted parachute. Originally the Air Dropping Detachment requested colored parachutes for this purpose, but upon discovering that they would have to be flown from the States they cancelled the request and began to dye the white ‘chutes.
Failure of a certain percentage of the parachutes to open is inevitable, but careful repair, packing, and inspection by the Y-Force air-dropping personnel has reduced the number of failures resulting from poor materials, entanglements, or tears, from an original ten per cent to a remarkable low of three per cent.
The Y-Force Air Dropping Detachment personnel was recruited principally from inexperienced men in various Y-Force units. The men who do the actual kicking of the bundles from the planes were brought over from India, where many of them had had experience dropping supplies over Burma.
Many of the men are Chinese-American soldiers, and their knowledge of the language has been invaluable in the handling of Chinese coolies who now do much of the ground work. Interpreters furnished by the Chinese authorities are also used.
Major Robert N. Wolfe, who is the commander of the detachment, states that the success of his unit is due to the considerable degree of cooperation between the men, and between the Y-Force unit and an American Troop-Carrier Squadron which flies the supplies to the dropping grounds. “We are willing to try anyone’s suggestion,” says Major Wolfe, “whether it comes from a buck private or one of the lieutenants. Kickers report directly to the packers their observations on ‘chute failures. On slack days we experiment with suggestions. We learn something every day.” So efficiently has this cooperative system worked out that orders from the front line are delivered the same day they are radioed to the detachment.
Orders generally arrive in the middle of the night by radio. Major Wolfe and his two assistants, Lieutenants Edward Chinn and Francis H. Sherry, begin work immediately, so that the supplies may be delivered as early in the morning as possible.
Their supplies come from various sources-ammunition from the tiny arsenals of Chuugking, British grenades from India, rice from local rice-paddies, and a variety of supplies from the United States. These supplies are brought into the warehouses by plane, truck, pack horses, and even by coolies.
All supplies must be repacked and their weight adjusted to the capacity of the parachutes. An example of the cooperation evinced by the detachment is demonstrated by the rice-packing warehouses. Here the rice arrives in 70-pound bags from the Chinese. It must be repacked into three 35-pound bags, and suggestions made by various members of the command have resulted in a speedy, efficient system. Chinese coolies, under the direction of Privates Wallace E. Choy and William F. Shea, fill huge hoppers from the large bags. A chute runs from the large hoppers to smaller ones, on the interior of which a black line marks the correct capacity for a dropping-bag. The bags are fastened underneath the small hopper, a sliding bottom is removed, and the rice pours rapidly into the bag. The bag is then inserted into another bag, and both are placed in a third, whereupon the rice is ready to be dropped. Similar techniques have been adopted for other types of supplies.
A minimum of fifteen days’ supply of rice is packed in advance, ready for any emergency call from the field.
After the radio order is received the supplies are packed in trucks at the warehouses, ready to move to the airfield the instant the planes are ready to take on cargo. Sudden emergency changes in priorities or orders create a flurry of activity, for the trucks must be unloaded quickly and repacked according to the later specifications.
If the weather is good the trucks are rushed to the waiting planes of the Troop Carrier Squadron. The planes are loaded, the Y-Force kickers swing aboard, and the plane takes off.
As the plane circles the dropping ground one kicker lies on his back with his feet toward the door, and two others station themselves on either side of the door. The pilot signals, the man on the floor kicks, the other two kick or push, and the bundles string out behind the plane, jerking as their parachutes open. Dropping completed, the plane returns to the air base for another load. The reloading operation has been so finely coordinated that a complete turnaround operation can be accomplished in less than ten minutes.
About sixty per cent of the parachutes are returned from the combat sector. Three-quarters of these can be reclaimed, twenty-five per cent needing only drying, inspection, and repair. Those which cannot be reused are salvaged as rags.
Originally the task of packing the parachutes for use was altogether an American function, but Sergeant Ernest D. Barnes, after only three weeks of operation, trained Chinese to pack, and now Y-Force Americans are used only as supervisors. Chinese workers under Privates Albert Baum and Frank A. Spenko also repair the damaged ‘chutes. Some of the necessary sewing is done by hand, with each worker averaging two ‘chutes repaired each day. Part of the repair job is done by Chinese on their own aged sewing machines. The Americans have never been able to judge how much they pay these men, for man and machine are hired together and remain inseparable, despite frequent attempts, by Y-Force, to buy the machines.
Chinese repairmen and packers are highly paid by Chinese standards, receiving from 180 to 250 Chinese dollars a day. The packers, who can pack as high as 1,700 new parachutes a day, are usually high-school graduates, although others with less education are hired if they show the necessary ability.
Ammunition and rice packers receive the lowest wages. After a week of work, under close supervision, an apprentice is either discharged or his wages are raised.
Parachutes returned from the combat sector, especially during the monsoon season, must be thoroughly dried to prevent rotting, and the Y-Force Air Dropping Detachment has arranged a special rig with a capacity of 2,000 ‘chutes a day. Parachutes are attached to a rope and pulleyed up about twenty feet from the ground. Then the bottom is stretched in order to expose the maximum surface to the wind and sun. This operation is also performed by Chinese, under the supervision of Private David S. Soloway.
In addition to packing supplies for dropping, the Y-Force Air Dropping Detachment prepares loads for air freight. The packing and loading procedures are identical, except that no parachutes are used in the latter operation, and the supplies are landed instead of being dropped.
At present the Chinese armies are operating in an area where food supplies are inadequate, and in order to prevent diet deficiencies the Air Dropping Detachment is planning to drop dried vegetables and cooking oils. These foods are packed in heavy cardboard mortar cases, returned from the combat sector, with the mouths of the containers sealed with adhesive tape, to prevent leakage; then secured by a metal cover.
While the technique of dropping supplies from the air has been developing for some time, there has never, according to Major Wolfe, been a manual of instruction on the subject, and Lieutenant Sherry, with assistance from other members of the Y-Force unit, is now engaged in writing a textbook for use in future training.
Many of the men of the Y-Force Air Dropping Detachment have been awarded medals, both for their services with Y-Force and for earlier service over Burma. Most of these men are kickers, for the kicker’s duties expose him most often to danger. For flying over ninety combat missions over areas in which enemy fire was expected and probable, and for extraordinary achievement in aerial flight, nine men of the Y-Force Air Dropping Detachment have been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Each of these men also holds the Air Medal, awarded for fifty combat flying missions and for meritorious achievement in aerial flight. Twelve other members of the unit have also received the Air Medal.