Flying Quartermasters Bundles for Burma Boys
Quartermaster Training Service Journal
24 November 1944
(From the archives of the U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum, Fort Lee, Virginia)
The plane’s nosing over now. You’re heading down towards the jungle. As the plane circles lower, your eyes keep searching the unbroken green of the jungle trees and growth for a little white spot, the cleared area.
Suddenly, you see it — a tiny little patch in the solid field of forest. You’re heading toward it and you stand ready by the open door. Then as the C-47 swoops over the clearing you push out the loaded chutes.
Down they go–little white and colored dots sailing straight for the target. You see the first two or three hit. They were the heavier ones. A generator, parts for a truck motor, and an Army field range were contained in those bundles.
Looking back you hold your breath as you watch the wicker basket chutes settle. Wrapped separately in cotton, and surrounded by rice husks are delicate medical supplies and instruments, urgently needed by the jungle fighters below. Then the packs sit down nicely and you’re sure they’re OK. That’s because you also know that all those bundles were packed tenderly and expertly by men who really know their jobs.
Now the cargo ship heads for home and another haul and you settle back to take it easy ’til the next flight.
This trip is just part of the everyday experience you would have as a member of the CBI flying Quartermasters, self-styled “Bundles for Burma Boys.” (Recently, the CBI has been divided into the China and Burma-India theaters) These QM’s are members of a colored battalion on QM truck drivers, retrained in Northeast India to prepare and supply entirely by air men and installations in country inaccessible to all standard land supply routes.
The battalion has been, and still is, the basic organization conducting air dropping activity for the Services of Supply in Northeast India.
FROM PLASMA TO HOWITZERS Theirs is no routine supply job. In addition to supplying the standard cargoes of clothing and ammunition, they’ve been called upon to drop delicate medical supplies and instruments, bulky and heavy operating tables, blood plasma, fresh meats and vegetables, tons of highly sensitive wet gun cotton, dynamite, nitrostarch, and TNT. Along with food they’ve parachuted typewriters, radios and radio parts, motors, lights, generators, field ranges, rifles, machine guns, mail, tank and truck parts. They also packed and “pushed over the side” the first 75mm pack howitzers known to have been parachuted down in the theater–and all with an extremely low percentage of losses and in some cases no losses at all!
TRANSITION OF A TRUCK DRIVER But when these “parachute-packing poppas” landed in India late in 1943, they didn’t know a rip-cord from a chute rope. They were truck drivers and good ones, trained at Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi. And truck driving was the job they thought they’d do. But the exigencies of war make stange demands and soon after their arrival their CO, Lt. Colonel Abbot E. Dodge, was notified as to the nature of their new assignment. Preparations had to be made accordingly.
Training was largely a matter of experience. What information was available on air-dropping and related supply activities was crammed into a ten-day instruction period, within 30 days of debarkation the unit was packed off to drop supplies in the Northeast India sector.
TRIAL AND ERROR In the early days of operation everything was done by trial and error. Practically no manufactured equipment was available. What they used they improvised, experimented with, tested and improved.
For an air-dropping container a Chinese-American officer suggested the use of a bamboo “country” basket, not unlike a wicker clothes hamper. Natives were employed to construct the baskets and then they were covered with burlap (hessian cloth) and strengthened with rope ties to which the parachute was fastened. So well did this container work that today, in various sized and shapes, it is still the standard and most used container for packing supplies.
Recently, in addition to the country basket, standard British paratroop equipment, as well as that of our own Army, has been made available. It’s being used from time to time to augment the basket pack for special or unusual operations.
PACKING PROBLEMS Packing in the standardized containers, however, isn’t always the answer. Faced with the problem of dropping 55-gallon oil and gasoline drums, the truckers finally hit on the idea of lashing the drums together, padding them with sacks of rice husks as bumpers, an suspending them by multiple chutes.
Similarly, two wheeled ammunition carts were found to be too bulky to load and too large to drop through the plane door. Mechanics of the unit simply sliced the wagons into manageable sections, fitted them with bolts and braces for re-assembly by the receiving troops, and parachuted the carts over the side.
Sometimes the outfits get a little whimsical. When a Chinese or American unit wins a particularly tough fight, or when there’s a feast day or a holiday, parachutes blossom out all over the fighting units. These packages of pleasure bear gifts of beef or live ducks, chicken or pork on the hoof, and sometimes even crates of fresh eggs.
TURN-ABOUT The unit’s a classification officer’s dream come true. Almost everybody in the battalion can, on a moment’s notice , do the other fellow’s job. There’s a constant shifting of personnel within the organization so that men can “learn by doing” each of the specialized assignments in the outfit. The former truck divers are virtually operating a sub-depot, handling rail and vehicle unloading, warehousing, procurement, stock records, special packing, ammunition storage, and parachute folding and reclamation.
Native labor is used only on the less technical and less skilled work. This training and experience has also made the “Bundles for Burma Boys” valuable as teachers. The unit has instructed U.S. Army officers in their air-dropping methods as well as officers and men of the British Army. Recently, an additional QM Truck Company, not part of the original battalion, has been trained and now furnishes the men who ride the cargo ships and “kick” the cargoes overboard.
TWO-FIELD OPERATION When the North Burma Campaign opened, this high flexibility of personnel made it possible to start the operation of another complete air-dropping station and sub-depot with men form the battalion. Accordingly two companies of the battalion moved to another strip location, and with the use of an additional squadron of Troop Carrier planes, the new field was instrumental in nearly doubling the tonnage dropped.
CHUTE LOGISTICS Packaging the bundles and loading the planes must always be done carefully but with the utmost speed. The expensive and highly vulnerable equipment of the Air Force Cargo Squadrons cannot be allowed to remain idle, or long exposed to enemy eyes on the ground. In order to “pay off,” these planes must be in the air the maximum time possible. When a cargo ship glides in, the QM’s are ready. Rarely do the ships have to wait unnecessarily for supply loads.
Operational problems have, of course, arisen. As the volume of dropping increased, so did the necessity for increasing the payload of each plane. Experimentation and modification resulted in improvements in containers and methods. This work is still constantly going on with the ultimate goal of more supply tonnage and less packing weight to each load- all to arrive on the target in first class and usable condition.
for reasons of security, figures on actual over-all tonnage dropped can’t be given. According to Lt. Colonel Dodge, however, “supplies delivered have steadily increase over the period of the past nine months…and are listed in…four figures per month.”
COMMENT FROM THE TOP But the real evidence of air supply’s significance comes from a staff officer attached to the staff of the former commander of the CBI, General Stillwell. Says he, “Air supply has undoubtedly been on of the greatest single factors contributing to the success of the North Burma campaign to date. Conditions on lines of communication, particularly during the monsoon season, has resulted in almost total dependence upon air drops and landings for support of the entire force in forward areas. From a tactical standpoint, certain operations have been successfully accomplished, which without air supply, would have been difficult, if not impossible of achievement.”
QM TRAINED MARAUDERS HELP SAVE A TRAPPED UNIT
AIR SUPPLY MEN for Merrill’s Marauders were trained in parachute supply by Burma QM’s. That their instruction was good can be deduced from this story told by First Sergeant Dexera Brice and Staff Sergeant Robert Heise, two former Marauders now returned to the States:
“At Napumga, a village in Burma, we were trapped for 14 days, cut off from all supplies–even water. The village was on top of a hill, an area of only about 100 square yards. Japs were on all sides of the hill and we held the top.
“For all of those 14 days we were supplied entirely by air. The area was so small that the planes had to come down to about 75 feet of the ground to drop supplies. If they were any higher, they would miss the hilltop, and the equipment would fall to the Japs waiting below.
“There wasn’t any air-strip or cleared area. They just had to drop the equipment right among our foxholes while we crouched down to avoid getting hit.
“We didn’t have any howitzers with us, so we called back for some 75mm’s. We didn’t know exactly how they would deliver them, because those babies are plenty heavy. But, sure enough, they broke them down and dropped them right on the crest. With those pipes we gave those Japs hell and finally go out OK.”