WWII Veteran Max Kernaghan, U.S. Army Air Corps: Flying The Hump
By Max Kernaghan
As told to Packy Maxwell
I spent about four years during World War II in the Army Air Corps (which became the U. S. Air Force after the war) which included operations in a war zone. I owe the service a lot. They took on a 19-year-old kid, housed, clothed, fed, and educated me, and gave me a structure in which to function.
The service made it possible for me to gain a college education, earning a salable skill and establishing a career path for most of the rest of my life. To this day I am very involved in veteran affairs in my community.
I was born in the little town of Galena, Kansas in 1922. I was very young when my father left the family and my first memories are of living in Kansas City, Missouri with my mother, aunt and grandmother. Two of the ladies worked and one stayed home. My mother worked in a “Sweet Shop” selling chocolates and running the soda fountain. For a time she went out to the then-resort town of Colorado Springs to work as a waitress, during which time I was left with foster parents. The foster parents, the Dixons, were taking care of a number of other children as well.
My mother returned after a time. Life was reasonably comfortable and I had a group of like-minded pals. I continued my schooling and graduated from high school. I was 18. It was 1939.
I was attending junior college in Kansas City when I heard of a program offered by Douglas Aircraft. It involved graduating from a metal-working course in Kansas City. Graduates got jobs at Douglas. Four of us got a jalopy and headed down Route 66 to California. The thing I remember most about the trip were the sand dunes, which I think were in New Mexico, where the highway on top of the dunes was made out of 2-by-12 wooden planks wired together.
When we got to California we got jobs at Douglas. I was working at a plant where they were building the A-20, a twin-engine light bomber. It was great to have a job and to be in an industry that was in the thick of things.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, I figured I’d better take action ahead of my draft board. I volunteered for the Navy. They said I had flat feet and rejected me. I didn’t know the Navy was doing a lot of marching.
I then volunteered for pilot training with the Army Air Corps. They also rejected me due to a deviated septum. That didn’t discourage me. A session with a doctor and a “chisel” and I was back talking to the Air Corps. I was accepted into their pilot training program, and graduated as a flight officer.
Training began with a sort of boot camp in Santa Ana, learning to be a soldier while at the same time mastering things like the Morse code and other Air Corps-related skills. From there, now as an Air Cadet, I moved to a college training detachment in the state of Washington. The pre-primary aircraft was the Piper Cub. From there I moved on to various California locations flying increasingly larger single-engine aircraft. I was under the impression
the Air Corps had many more pilots in training that they had aircraft available.
What I remember most about the single-engine training was the flight instructor yelling through the communications tube at me to see if he could unnerve me during various maneuvers. I trained in a number of aircraft. One of the single-engine trainers was known as the “Vultee vibrator” and a multi-engine trainer as the “bamboo bomber” due to its frame and fabric body. Having by this time flown all the single-engine training craft, I moved on into multi-engine planes.
Finally in April of 1944 in Douglas, Arizona, my training was completed and I became a flight officer and was posted to the Ferry Command (later to become the Air Transport Command). I soon received my single bar as a 2nd lieutenant.
Aircraft production was catching up with demand. My job was to ferry bombers and transport planes. After receiving four-engine training in Florida I was assigned to pick up multi-engine planes from Consolidated Aviation’s plant in Fort Worth, Texas. We would pick up a plane and fly to various locations around the country, leaving the aircraft for additional upgrades: outfitting with armaments, navigation instruments, and other modifications. We would ferry another plane from that location to the next facility. It was a kind of “round robin” all over the country. Then we would take a commercial flight back to Dallas. The women’s ferrying operation, known as the WASPS, was doing some of the same work, although there was no fraternizing.
After a couple of months of this activity, I joined crews flying bombers to Natal on the northeastern coast of Brazil via Trinidad. There another crew would take the B-17 or B-24 to Ascension Island in the mid-south Atlantic, then northeast to Dakar on the West African coast and on to units in southern Europe and North Africa.
Some of the flights, however, only went as far as Great Falls, Montana, where the planes were turned over to the Russians. Although I had no contact with them, it was my understanding that Russian pilots picked up the planes there and flew them across the Bering Sea to Asiatic Russia. Understand the Russians did not enter the war against Japan until shortly before VJ day.
It was now fall of 1944. D-Day had come and gone and it looked like I might not be going overseas.
Flying the Hump
For much of the war, there had been a somewhat isolated operation going on in support of the Chinese Army in South China near the Burma border. The Air Transport Command had been flying from various fields in India near the border with Burma carrying supplies, food and particularly aviation fuel for the Air Force unit under General Claire Chennault.
Originally this air group was a mercenary organization known as the Flying Tigers. It was hired by the Nationalist Chinese Government to provide air support for their ground operations. We understood that the pilots in this unit were independent contractors and were paid bonuses for a confirmed “kill” – a Japanese plane shot down – perhaps receiving $500 per kill. However, by the time I was involved, the unit had been incorporated into the US Air Force and had lost much of its swashbuckling reputation. Many of its original pilots had left in one way or another.
In late ’44, I got orders to this supply operation and was posted to Dhaka, India (now Bangladesh) just north of Calcutta near the Burma border. The orders took me by the earlier described southern route to North Africa and though the Middle East via Karachi and across India to Dhaka. I was to be a co-pilot in an aircraft that had been adapted from the B-24, a high-altitude bomber built by Consolidated Aircraft.
The aircraft’s armament was removed, and it was refitted with eight fuel cells in what had been the bomb racks, all together holding 2,900 gallons of aviation fuel. It was designated C-109 and was specifically adapted for use flying the “Hump.”
The B-24 had a somewhat troubled reputation as a bomber, since it was very light on protection armament and its fuel system was poorly designed. When used in low-level bombing operation in Europe it was extremely vulnerable. Fuel from where the wing tanks joined within the aircraft tended to leak aircraft fuel into the crew’s area. However, it was perfect for flying over the high mountains in the Himalayas know for such peaks as Mount Everest and K2. Until this modified bomber appeared, it was not possible to take a direct route over the top of the “Hump.”
The best way to describe the flight itself is to put my hand with fingers extended on the table between us. These extended fingers are ridges of mountains running down to the Indian Ocean. There is a weather condition called “adiabatic expansion,” which causes moisture off the ocean to rise up the ridges producing thunder heads over each of these ridge lines. They can rise up over 15,000 feet.
In the early days of flying The Hump, the C-46 aircraft used did not have the altitude capability to fly over these thunderheads. Some tried to take on these monstrous thunderheads, leaving an “aluminum trail” of aircraft wreckage among the rocks, as the ridges were called. As a result, planes had to fly a route around the ridges with a number of stops and lighter payload. However, the converted B-24 with its turbocharged engines could fly right over the top of the highest mountains further inland from these ridges in a safer and more direct route to Kunming.
Military flying is best described as a modern activity comprised of hours of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Described below are a couple of examples taken from personal experience.
A Good Flight
The crew is called up. The flight engineer has about 20 good “Hump” runs on his record. The First Pilot is a “Service Pilot,” meaning that he had earned a pilot license and has logged many hours in private planes, before entering the Air Corps. The co-pilot, age 22, is not a hot pilot, but moderately competent at navigation.
Takeoff set for 1800 hours (6 pm). First Pilot conducted a lengthy check list of the plane (the Air Force list plus his own list). Fuel has been loaded in all wing tanks and in the eight neoprene fuel cells located in the former bomb bay. All this well within prescribed load-weight limits. Weather: light mist, no cross-wind. Takeoff is noisy, but uneventful. After gear-up and flaps up we adjusted our rate of climb to about 300 feet per minute on a heading of 95 degrees (East). At about 10,000 feet we broke out above the clouds, and went on oxygen. Everything was clear with no turbulence.
In an hour we were over the first ridge in Burma at about 18,000 feet. Flight engineer verified normal readings for engine temperatures, oil pressures, and fuel consumption. All four engines were synchronized. Co-pilot was tracking Rangoon’s commercial radio station on the directional loop antennae in order to compute headwind speed, since “dead reckoning navigation” uses heading, time, and ground speed, which is air speed minus headwind. In about another hour we were at 27,000 ft. altitude over our halfway point. We could see it – pinpoints of light below us: Myitkyina, Burma (now held by British Forces, instead of Japanese.)
Radio conditions were just right. The Japanese propaganda radio station was coming through to us playing Glen Miller tunes, and with “Tokyo Rose” saying, “Hey GI Joe, your girlfriend is out tonight with that 4F (draft) guy from down the block. You’d better ditch this war and go home quick!”
The sky was black above with a zillion stars. The First Pilot was dozing in the back, the co-pilot, a little sleepy, but now “in charge” looked out and saw a RED LIGHT dead ahead. The specter of a mid-air collision popped into his head so he abruptly changed course. First Pilot roused to see what happened. When co-pilot pointed out the red light, First Pilot checked it then said, “Get back on course you idiot, that’s Mars!!”
Visibility was good over Kunming Lake and airport. We made a smooth landing and had a nice warm hour layover time, while the cargo fuel was being pumped out into storage tanks. The flight to Kunming usually took five hours and the return an hour less.
Personal comfort on the flight was absent. We were flying at 27,000 to 30,000 feet in a freezing environment. To keep warm, we wore a cumbersome sheepskin-lined suit, gloves, a face mask for oxygen supply, and a set of ear phones. Since the earphones were shared with other pilots when they had the aircraft, there were occasions when another person’s fungus became yours and there were enough fungus to go around in the tropical environment. There are no “facilities” on board.
But Then There was the Time
The crew: First Pilot, age 22, “wannabe” fighter pilot but assigned instead to Transport Command. Flight engineer fairly new, co-pilot same as before. Weather reported by pilots returning from China: a string of very active thunderhead clouds North-South across the route. Takeoff: in rain, stayed under cloud base about 4,000 feet flying “contact” (visibility with ground).
Over Burma, far to the east, lightning flashed from several thunderheads. To clear the terrain in Burma we needed more altitude, so we climbed into the cloud layer hoping to break out above it. Soon we realized we were not achieving the required rate of climb, and we were getting turbulence.
The lightning we had seen created radio noise which soon put us out of radio contact. Flying on instruments in these clouds, we were aware that we had perfect conditions for icing of the wings. When air is saturated with moisture at near-freezing temperature, and encounters the leading edge of the wing, it freezes a little layer onto the wing.
As this process continues the layer gets thicker and destroys the correct “airfoil” shape. At that point the lift decreases: You can’t climb very well. Commonly a pilot will simply descend to a lower warmer altitude and be rid of the ice. We were not sure of our location or of the level of the mountains below, so descending was not a good option. The turbulence got much worse, and we experienced “Saint Elmo’s Fire” on the wingtips and trailing edges. This is a harmless but eerie electrical discharge.
The prospect of going further east into the known thunderheads was appalling. Were we scared? You betcha! Feverishly scanning the radio, we located a voice on “short wave” (low-power short distance) coming from a British unit holding an airfield near Myitkyina. Co-pilot relayed our mayday situation, and a friendly voice said, “Hold on chaps.” In five minutes he came back and said, “We have a big searchlight which we will point straight up. Maybe you can zero in on that.” Even though we were totally engulfed in clouds we could see a brighter side and a dimmer side and so, by steering a spiral path around that searchlight beam we were able to descend without fear, breaking out of the clouds at 500 feet, to circle and land.
Brits were right there with flares lighting the runway, and even though this was after midnight, they gave us hot drinks, congratulations and bunks for the night. I shall always hold a warm spot in my heart for the Brits. In the morning the weather cleared some and we took off for Kunming.
Life at Dhaka
The base at Dhaka was an old plantation with buildings taken over from the British. What I remember most were orchards of breadfruit and other exotic fruits which the natives enjoyed in season with puffed rice. I suspect the British may have been responsible for introducing the puffed rice. The natives would take the soft fruits and dip them in containers of puffed rice and that was their primary food.
The local laborers were from the poorer population and were all Muslim. They wore loin cloths, and head wrappings somewhat like a turban which contained their lunch. They prayed five times a day. When they washed before midday prayer, they would slip the tube-like head gear down over their body for modesty’s sake, remove their soiled loin cloth and put it on their head. All these steps were required before they could eat.
I was billeted in one of the British tents. While the British had double-layered tents with a vent at the peak which kept them a bit cooler, the U.S. used standard-issue heavy canvas tents which were quite hot. The more senior officers used “Bashas” for their quarters and office spaces. These consisted of large diameter bamboo posts at the corners holding up a thick thatched roof with woven bamboo panels hanging from the frame. They were cooler and took advantage of the available breezes. The thatched roof was host to a variety of native varmints.
My bed consisted of a four-poster made of rough teak, which was so dense it wouldn’t float. The teak frame was inset with a woven mat on which you placed your sleeping bag. We all put our boots upside down on the bedposts to keep out the scorpions. Of course, there was mosquito netting suspended over the bed. When not flying, life was fairly peaceful, somewhat dull. We ate fairly well on standard army food. We had plenty of fresh eggs. You can’t do much to make an egg unhealthy.
There was an enlisted men’s club, an officers’ club and a beer ration. I didn’t drink so was able to make a bit selling my beer ration. As is the case with guys with time on their hands, there was a certain amount of gambling going on. One day an officer from CID (Criminal Investigation Division) who was a former professional gambler showed up at camp and conducted a session with us on how to uncover a cheat. Apparently there was a warrant officer in camp who, because of his rank as a noncommissioned officer, had access to both clubs. He was cheating at cards and was regularly sending money orders home in amounts three or four times his pay. He was uncovered and disappeared.
The flight operations were not organized into permanent crews, so that aspect of camaraderie was missing. The flight personnel consisted of a flight engineer, co-pilot, and pilot, arbitrarily brought together for each flight. We were not made aware of casualties. It’s probably safe to say that the casualty rate after the modified B-24s were introduced was lower. While one might notice that someone was missing, they never knew if it was because they were rotated home or “hit the rocks.”
The Japanese surrendered on August 14, 1945 and things got pretty slow at Dhaka. However, shortly after the surrender I was detailed to join a C-54 (four-engine DC-4) as co-pilot and flew to Fuzhou on the coast opposite Taiwan to pick up Nationalist Chinese troops. They had little or no arms, and some had only wooden batons. We had a heck of a time getting them on the aircraft. Most had never been this close to an aircraft much less to fly in one. After much work we loaded up about 50 of them. Many of the troops brought buckets with them which they needed for air sickness, etc.
We flew the troops into Shanghai. Upon arrival, the troops formed a column with a sergeant in command and a Japanese sergeant at the rear and marched around Shanghai to installations guarded by Japanese troops accepting their surrender, taking their arms, and replacing them with Nationalist troops. The relieved Japanese troops formed up at the rear of the column behind their sergeant and so the column proceeded until the column was all Japanese except the Chinese sergeant and then they marched off to prison camp. There was always a chance that one of these guys wanted to die for the Emperor and take someone with them but that didn’t happen as far as I know. While I did not see this firsthand, I was told about the procedure at the time.
I was able to spend some time in Shanghai and saw a large number of refugees living in the gutters and on the streets of the city while life went on otherwise. The wealthy were pretty much living the same comfortable life as always. At some hotels in the city you could still have a steak dinner as long as you had the dollars to pay for it.
In late 1945, 650 airmen from our operation, including me, were ordered to Calcutta for rotation home. There we boarded the troop ship USS General G. O. Squire (AP-130) for the trip back to the United States. It was no “cruise.”
The ship, built in Richmond, California by Kaiser, was designed to carry over 3,000 troops. It pitched and rolled on 20-second cycles and sea sickness was a given.
Space aboard was tight. Bunks were crammed together, six bunks high. The officers among the group (by now I was a 1st Lieutenant) were required to stand watch. That meant four hours on duty, below decks where men tended to get the most seasick, and eight hours off during a 24-hour cycle. I was not happy. The only bright spot was the chow, which was better than anything we had in India.
We crossed the Indian Ocean, up the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic to New York. For me the war was over. Having not faced the enemy directly, I did receive an Air Medal and a couple of ribbons showing my service in the CBI (China, Burma, Indian Campaign.)
Mustered out, I returned to Kansas City and shortly thereafter married my high school sweetheart, Betty Burke. I talked to TWA about a pilot’s job, but there were too many other returning pilots with more experience. Betty and I moved to Lawrence, Kansas and I enrolled at the University of Kansas under the G. I. Bill, which offered veterans’ tuition-free education and $90 a month (later boosted to $120 per month).
Betty had a good job while I earned a degree in three-and-a-half years as an electrical engineer. I immediately went to work for Bendix Aviation in Kansas City. The work involved the atomic bomb, which was very hush-hush at the time. Betty wanted to stay in Kansas City with family and friends close by. I had my eyes on California, where a lot of “defense work” was still being carried out.
I was finally able to talk Betty into moving west where, with my security clearance, I became involved with the development of the intercontinental ballistic missile. In order to evaluate the reliability of the equipment on board, we would fire up these rockets while they were anchored to a huge concrete stand, cooled by massive torrents of water.
I later joined Lockheed in Sunnyvale and worked on the Polaris submarine-launched missile. This missile, which was launched from a submerged submarine, popped to the surface of the ocean where it emerged, ignited, and took off. In the event the missile went in the wrong direction, they had a destruct device built in so it could be destroyed, if necessary. This involved using an electronic code. Because the Russians attempted to decipher the code, trying to destroy one of our missiles in flight, we changed the codes on these devices frequently. I was back in the middle of another war. This time it was the “Cold War.”
Betty and I were divorced in 1980 and I remarried in 1982 to a woman who had family ties here in Tuolumne County. We moved here and I commuted to a job with General Electric Nuclear Power Division in San Jose and was home on the weekends. Getting up at 4 a.m. to drive to San Jose on Mondays got old, and I retired in 1989.
I have a moral conflict about killing and was never in a position to have to kill anybody, for which I am very thankful. This is based on the commandment from Moses that “thou shall not kill.” I’m not sure what might happen in a situation where you have to get the enemy before they get you.
The only time I was shot at was during an incident in Lubbock, Texas. We were trying to get some additional flight hours by towing a target sleeve, a kind of windsock, behind our plane so fighter planes could practice their gunnery. The plane would come in toward the sock at a 90-degree angle, firing away. They were supposed to break away toward the rear of the sleeve. This one guy broke off toward our plane and we took a bullet in the fuselage. We got on the radio and gave him a few choice words. But that was only a small ration of what he got when he returned to base.
Mr. Kernaghan, 89, was interviewed by volunteer Packy Maxwell in 2011 for the Tuolumne Veterans History Project.