This is part II of my story about when Peggy’s dad, John Dallen, was forced to bail out of his plane on a pitch black, stormy night into a Burma jungle while returning from a flight across the Himalayan Mountains during World War II.
On February 10, 1945, my wife Peggy’s dad, John Dallen, began an adventure that would become an important part of our family history. At the time, he was serving as a World War II pilot for the Army Air Corps, flying fuel, ordinance, and troops from India into China to support Chinese and American efforts in the war against Japan. His 15th mission across the Hump began as routine. It would end with him parachuting into a raging storm, a pitch-black night, and an unknown jungle as his plane crashed in a ball of flame.
The briefing that morning would have been straightforward: Fly 900 miles from his home base of Kurmitola, India (near what is now Dhaka, Bangladesh) to Chengdu, China, deliver several tons of airplane fuel, and fly back to Kurmitola. (The fuel was used to support B-29 bombers that were based in Chengdu.)
The Fine Print:
John would be flying a C-109 tanker, an airplane that had been converted from a B-24 bomber by removing all of its armaments and adding extra fuel tanks. John was an experienced B-24 pilot from his training and instructor time in the US. While the B-24 was never known for its ease of flying, the converted C-109 was even more difficult to fly, especially when loaded. Landing at high altitudes with a load of fuel, as he would be in Chengdu, was particularly dangerous.
He had never flown this particular C-109 or with any of his crew, which was normal when flying the Hump. His crew members on this flight included a co-pilot (Ronald D. Anderson), an engineer (James E. Hatley), and a radio operator (John D. Beach).
His route was known as one of the most difficult anywhere. He would be flying over trackless jungles in Burma and the rugged, uncharted Himalaya Mountains, the highest mountain range in the world.
The only thing predictable about the weather was that it was unpredictable. He could have a relatively uneventful flight, or it could be filled with storms, turbulence and winds well over 100 miles per hour. Regardless of what the weather would be, he was expected to fly through it. This was standard procedure for Hump pilots in 1944/45. He did know that he would be aided by a tailwind going over and would be fighting a headwind coming back.
Both the flight and landing at Hsinching airfield in Chengdu were uneventful, or at least uneventful from the perspective of a Hump pilot. They made it with minimal bad weather. The flight had taken 5 hours and used 1100 gallons of fuel. At 2:30 p.m. they were ready for their return flight to Kurmitola. Using a stick measurement, the engineer estimated that some 1700 gallons of fuel remained. John and operational staff at Hsinching determined that this would be adequate for the return flight.
It was one of those times when the fuel tanks should have been topped off. The headwinds were stronger than the predicted 60-70 mph. The trip back would take longer than expected. John climbed to 17,000 feet and flew the plane to conserve fuel. Eight hours later at 10:30 p.m., the plane was still 300 miles out from Kurmitola. The engineer reported that there would not be enough fuel to make it. John decided to make for the much nearer air base of Shamshernagar near Talagaon, India.
Dropping down to 13,000 feet, he immediately encountered a snowstorm with moderate to severe turbulence and light icing. While he had to fly by instrument, it wasn’t the snowstorm that created close to impossible flying conditions; it was the thunderstorm waiting on the other side. “It was the severest I ever encountered,” John stated in his official post accident report.
He was more descriptive in the oral history he would give to his granddaughter Jennifer 50 years later. “The plane was tossed from side to side and up and down. There was no way to control it.” Breaking out on the other side, the plane was hit by an “extremely violent jolt,” (probably a lightning strike) which apparently damaged the plane. “It started turning to the left in spite of full right rudder application.” There was more bad news.
His co-pilot reported that engine number one had shut down, apparently out of fuel. John immediately ordered cross fueling from the fullest tank. The engine sputtered back to life. The engineer reported that there was 80 gallons of fuel left, but all gauges were now showing empty. Other engines began to sputter in and out.
Surrounded by thunder and lightning, his plane circling to the left, and his gauges showing empty, John was out of options. He ordered his radio operator to send out a Mayday. They were going to bail out of the plane before it was too late. The engineer and radio operator jumped first, the co-pilot next, and John last.
They jumped into a pitch-black night, lit only by lighting. It was impossible to see what they were jumping into. Would it be a river filled with floodwaters from the raging storm? Would they crash into the jungle trees that were known to grow upwards to 150 feet? Would their parachutes get caught in the trees leaving them dangling a hundred feet above the ground in the dark night? Would the crew members land close to each other or be scattered miles apart across the jungle? Would they survive?
As John’s parachute snapped open and he began his descent into the darkness, the horizon was suddenly lit by a ball of fire as the plane crashed into the jungle. It had been close, too close.
NEXT BLOG: Landing in the jungle and walking out.