Burma Banshees, "Angels on our Wings," the call of death to the enemy
February 22, 2005
The setting of the China-Burma-India Theater of War
80th Fighter Group (FG) "Burma Banshee" P-40N "Warhawk," 1944. A painting by Richard Groh, presented by Adam Lewis' "Adam's planes."
We will conclude our report showing you a few photos drawn from three articles in the National Geographic.
"The aerial invasion of Burma," by General "Hap" Arnold, Commanding General, US Army Air Forces, which contains official US Army Air Forces photographs. National Geographic.
This is Colonel Philip G. Cochran, USAAF, commando of the 1st Air Commando Group of the 10th AAF, as he buckles up at his base in India for a mission to Burma. Here is another well known officer, who, legend has it, was an inspiration for the then popular comic-strip character "Terry and the Pirates." The 1st Air Commandos' mission was dedicated to support General Wingate's "Chindit" guerrilla forces on the ground in Burma. His was a composite group, with several different kinds of aircraft: Two P-51 Mustang squadrons, one troop carrier squadron of C-47s and gliders, and three liaison squadrons of L-1 and L-5 "Piper Cub" like aircraft of the kind that picked up Banshee pilot Lt. Clower. Please note the base is austere, the aircraft hidden off in the woods and under a camouflage net.
This is a famous airstrip built by these engineers in one day behind enemy lines in Burma, known as "Broadway." By the evening of the first day, 100 C-47 aircraft landed here with thousands of troops. Aircraft in these days needed to be simple and hardy. All air forces in the region were happy to see these strips installed. They could land here in an emergency, and if they had to bail out or crash land, they knew someone was nearby to come and get them. That said, the main purpose for "Broadway" and a sister airfield known as "Picadilly" was to insert friendly forces and supplies, mainly to support the British special operations force known as the Chindits.
Here's another famous home-made air strip in Burma, behind enemy lines, known as "Picadilly." In this case, the Japanese found the strip and blocked it with logs, make it unusable for glider landings. In this case, the air commandos used "Broadway" and completely surprised the Japanese.
A flight of P-51 Mustangs is "buzzing" their airfield on the way home from a mission. The truth is, from what we've read, Japanese fighter and bomber pilots were not very good in this theater. Their loss ratios were out of sight. In this case, they lost 34 aircraft to none lost for the air commandos. If you look closely, you can see a B-25 parked with the stripes, center right, and an L-1/L-5 parked at about the center point of the photo.
This depicts a typical target area. In this case, medium bombers were employed, but the Banshees went after similar bridge complexes as well. The bridge at Meza, Burma in the foreground had been destroyed earlier. This raid took out the temporary bridges built by the Japanese upstream.
"The Burma Road, back door to China," by Frank Outram and G.E. Fane, with photos by Mr. Outram, November 1940 edition, National Geographic
American engineers built this train trestle over the Gokteik Gorge, about 65 miles southwest of Lashio in upper Burma. It is about a half-mile long and 300 feet tall, placed on a natural bridge more than 500 feet high. This is the rail from Rangoon port to the Lashio terminus, after which supplies went to China by the Burma Road, until the Japanese closed the road.
This is a section of the Burma Road above the deep-cut Salween Valley in central Burma. A rock slide had blocked the road and it took 60 workmen to clear it. We show this to give you a sense for the incredible terrain and difficulties associated with building, maintaining and driving on this kind of road.
Another shot of the Salween Valley, and another sense for the terrain.
This shows the construction of the Yunnan-Burma railroad, with Kunming, China as the eastern terminus. We show this to remind you that these kinds of targets, especially for the Ledo spur, had to be defended while under construction by the Banshees and others.
"Burma: Where India and China meet: In the massive mountains," by John LeRoy Christian," October 1943 edition, National Geographic.
When flying over the Hump, this is the type of terrain you had to contend with, along with its winds, updrafts and downdrafts, and rapidly changing weather conditions. This is Mt. Jambeyang in China, north of the Burma border. Remember, you're likely in a C-47 not a Boeing 777.
This is a typical Kachin village in the hills of Burma. You will recall that these people helped General Wingate's Chindits and Merrill's Marauders, and also responded to downed pilots, rescuing them and providing them safe-haven until they could be taken back to their bases to fly again.
This old bridge spans the Shweli River in Yunnan, China. You will recall that during his escape after being shot down, Banshee pilot Lt. Clower was surprised to come upon a small bamboo bridge that might have looked something like this. He saw burned grass, took a chance to cross it, and then found a burned out village the Japanese had attacked. Once again, it is this kind of terrain Clower had to operate in, with bullet holes in his leg and burns on the same leg, for several weeks.
"Stillwell Road, land route to China," by Nelson Grant Tayman, June 1945 edition, National Geographic.
Here is a section of the Ledo Road, dubbed "Stillwell's Road" by Chiang Kai-shek, the spur built by American engineers to link Ledo, India with the Burma Road through northern Burma and thence on to Kunming, China. This photo shows the first overland trek into China by a string of ambulances, jeeps, and mobile artillery. It took 24 days for the convoy to travel 1,000 miles. To the Japanese, of course, this is a very lucrative target. The Banshees and others first had to defend those who built this road, and then had to defend those who traveled on it. Note that this road is an easy target to spot, that's for sure.
It is important to give credit where credit is due. African-American soldiers did a lion's share of building the Ledo Road. They made up 65 percent of the 15,000 American troops in Burma. This is a supply depot and a headquarters for an engineer unit. The troops are inflating a rubber float for a pontoon bridge. Those stationed with them will remember well their evening renditions of old plantation songs.
A Piper L-4 Cub takes off from a roadside air strip in Burma. An American grader is leveling the strip while the aircraft takes off. Note how close they come to each other. This is the kind of aircraft that came to pick up Banshee pilot Lt. Clower after he walked into a Burmese village occupied by some friendly Burmese Army people.
Chinese troops are on the march up the Stillwell Road to relieve fellow forces defending the Salween River, working to prevent Japanese forces from crossing it. Here again, these troops are out in the open and fighter patrols above had to be alert to defend them.
Here's that Burmese grass again. You'll recall it tore at Banshee pilot Lt. Clower's wounds as he made his escape. The good news is it's a good place to hide. The bad news is it is hard as hell to wade through. Here, two soldiers from the US 776th Engineer Petroleum Distribution Company are building an India-Burma-China pipeline. You will recall that the Banshees had a field day in March 1944 defending the oil refinery at Digboi, India, shooting down all but one of the Japanese attacking aircraft.
Just one more photo, drawn from “Ledo Road, the China-Burma-India Theater of World War II,” by Carl Warren Weidenburner in honor of his father.
A friendly fighter lets the Chinese troops on the march know he's there for them, a role played by the Banshees and many others every day.