“Your husband Lieutenant John A. Dallen has been reported missing.” Flying the Hump in World War II: Part I

John Dallen on first solo flight as a member of the Army Air Corps in early World War II.

Dressed up in his pilot’s gear and ready for his first solo flight, Peggy’s dad, John Dallen, climbs into the open cockpit of a Boeing Stearman PT-17 biplane. With World War II raging and the need for pilots desperate, John would become an instructor pilot within months of his fist solo flight.

 

My friend GP Cox has finally reached the point in her massive blog history on the Pacific Theater during World War II where she is discussing the heroic efforts of American pilots who flew across the Himalayan Mountains (The Hump) in an effort to keep China’s fight against Japan alive. Peggy’s dad, John Dallen, was one of the pilots. In honor of G’s efforts at capturing WW II history, I’ve decided to republish a series of three blogs I posted on John in 2014. I was privileged to spend a fair amount of time with John in his last years, picking him up at his senior residence in Sacramento every Wednesday and taking him for a walk on the American River. We became good friends and he shared many of his stories. I think you will enjoy this story of how he survived a crash in the jungle.

 

In the age before instant communication, the quickest way to reach someone was by telegram. One of the most frightening messages that people received at home during World War II was that a loved one was missing in action:

World War II telegram to Helen Dallen informing her that her husband, John Dallen, is missing in action while flying over the Hump (Himalaya Mountains).

“The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your husband Lieutenant John A. Dallen has been reported missing…”

John was Peggy’s dad, my father-in-law. He lived to reach the very respectable age of 92 and became a good friend. But when Peg’s mom, Helen, received this telegram on February 16, 1945, his future was very much in doubt. John was a Hump pilot, and this meant that he flew perilous supply missions from India across the mountains into China. It was likely that the C-109 he was flying had crashed— either on the icy, snow-covered slopes of Himalayan Mountains, or in the steamy jungles of Burma or India. Both areas were remote, basically uncharted, and filled with danger.

This is a post about how John hiked out after parachuting from his damaged plane, but it is also the story of what flying the Hump (over the Himalayan Mountains) was like, and what resupplying Chinese troops meant to the World War II effort.

Peggy and I are fortunate to have copies of several letters that John wrote to Helen immediately after he had walked out. We also have an oral history that John’s granddaughter and our niece, Jennifer Hagedorn Mikacich, recorded that described the crash.

And finally, there are the stories he shared with us. He was particularly forthcoming with his son, John Dallen Jr., and our son, Tony Lumpkin, both of whom also had wartime military experience. John Jr. graduated from West Point and fought in the Vietnam War. Tony graduated from Annapolis and flew helicopters for the Marines in Iraq. Tony now flies helicopters on rescue missions for the Coast Guard off of Kodiak Island, Alaska.

Both John Jr. and Tony have been enthusiastic contributors to this post. Tony has contributed his flight expertise. John Jr. has dug into the flight logs and followed up with Internet research. We now realize that John Sr. flew into many more sites in China than we were aware of. We also have a record of the various planes he flew. The sheer number amazes me. Prior to his deployment to the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater he had flown the PT-17, the BT-13, the AT-17, the AT-9, the AT-7, AT-18A, the C-60 A-5, the AT-11, the B-24 (D, E, G, J, and H versions), the C-56D, the UC-45F, the BT-13B, the UC-78, and the Link trainer— some 18 different planes considering makes and models. It’s small wonder that he was an Army Air Corps instructor before leaving stateside.

I have had this post in mind for over a year. My recent trip to the Air Museum in Tillamook, Oregon inspired me to write it now. I was walking through the vast hangar, originally built to house blimps in World War II, when I came upon a flight simulator for the C-46, one of the main airplanes used to fly across the Hump.

A sign on the simulator reported that the trainer had opaque windows to force pilots to rely on the instruments for landing in all kinds of weather conditions. In flying the Hump, weather was considered more dangerous than the Japanese. Monsoonal storms created dangerous turbulence with winds up to 150 miles per hour. Severe up and down drafts in the mountains could send planes tumbling for thousands of feet.

“Planes would come into base beat up and barely able to fly,” John reported. “I’d watch pilots stumble out of the planes, throw down their helmets and walk away, swearing that they would never fly again.”

Weather also meant that pilots were often faced with close to zero visibility for take offs and landings. Weather forecasting was primitive. “If you can see the end of the runway,” they were told, “it’s okay to fly.” Except it was more like, “you have to fly.” Numerous crashes took place at the beginning and ending of flights. Use of instruments was critical. But it was not a given. Flying by instrument was relatively new going into World War II. Many of the pilots recruited from civilian flying jobs at the beginning of the war had depended on landmarks to tell them where to go. They had to be trained to use instruments— and to trust them.

I couldn’t resist. I climbed into the C-46 simulator to get a sense of the cockpit and its instruments.

Flight simulator for a C-46 at the Tillamook Air Museum in Oregon.

With my hand on the tiller, I checked out the instruments on a C-46 simulator. The C-46 was originally designed as a passenger plane by Curtiss Wright. When it was converted and brought in to fly over the Hump because of its high altitude and large cargo capabilities, it was still close to being an experimental plane. Its many bugs were worked out in action, sometimes with disastrous results. Hump pilots referred to it as the flying coffin.

Flying over the Hump saw its beginning in the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942. Five years earlier Chiang Kai-shek, long time leader of the Republic of China, had utilized some 200,000 peasants to build a road to the border of the British colony of Burma. The purpose of the road was to supply Chinese forces with the arms, munitions and other supplies necessary to wage war against Japan. By 1941, the Burma Road was the last remaining supply route into China.   The Japanese invasion in 42 eliminated it.

The only choice left was to fly supplies in over the Himalayan Mountains. China was an important ally in the fight against Japan. But even more important from a strategic point of view was the fact that Japan’s war with China tied up some one million Japanese troops. If the Japanese defeated China, these troops would be available for Japan’s war against Allied forces in the Pacific. The decision was made to move ahead with the massive supply effort. Until the Berlin Airlift, it would be the most extensive, sustained airlift in history.

When the Japanese took Burma, their conquest included the airfield of Myitkyina in the northern part of the country. This forced the Allies to move their supply routes further west if they were to avoid Japanese fighter planes. While the effort was successful in eliminating most attacks, it meant that pilots had to fly at much higher altitudes to climb over the Himalayas. They found themselves flying between mountains over high passes at elevations up to 16,000 feet. “It was like flying between giant ice cream cones.” John reported. In addition to the turbulent weather and navigational challenges, severe icing and a lack of oxygen were added to the list of dangers faced by Hump pilots.

As one pilot put it, “Imagine flying 25 tons of metal, gasoline and high explosives under these conditions at 250 miles per hour through an unknown sky.”

Next Blog: Further information on flying the Hump with a focus on the crash of John’s airplane in the jungle and his eight-day hike out. Note: Because of Christmas, this blog will be delayed for a week. There will be a Christmas Eve blog, however. Think snow.

John Dallen on an Indian Motorcycle wearing his Lehigh sweater just prior to World War II.

One of my favorite photos of John, proudly perched on an Indian Motorcycle prior to World War II. The L on his sweater stands for Lehigh University, where he received a degree in engineering.