Burma Banshees, "Angels on our Wings," the call of death to the enemy
February 22, 2005
An overview of the Banshees’ missions
80th Fighter Group (FG) "Burma Banshee" P-40N "Warhawk," 1944. A painting by Richard Groh, presented by Adam Lewis' "Adam's planes."
Just a few months prior to Mountbatten's arrival, and the assumption of command over the 10th AAF by General Davidson, the 80th FG, training back in the US, said it was ready for combat. The group shipped out in May 1943, bound for India by way of Brazil, the Cape of Good Hope, and Ceylon. Once there, the group deployed to bases in the Assam Valley in India, just outside northern Burma. Its motto was, “Angels on our wings.
As we now start to introduce USAAF fighter aircraft into the Burma war on a permanent basis, it might do well to see where the war in the Pacific is as of August 1943.
Generally speaking, Japanese advances came to a screeching halt in July 1942, there was little left to capture, though the Japanese wanted to take India's Assam state to stop the air transport flights over the Hump. However, in the bad news department for Japan, the Allies had started to move.
The Doolittle Raid: an Army B-25 Mitchell medium bomber takes off from the deck of the USS Hornet CV-8. The Doolittle Raid on April 18, 1942 was the first U.S. air raid on Japan. Photo from the National Archives and Records Administration, presented by the USS Enterprise, CV-6
The Doolittle Raiders boosted morale by bombing Tokyo, the US defeated the Japanese at Midway, the Marines landed and took Guadalcanal, the US defeated the Japanese in the Battle of the Eastern Solomans, the British launched an offensive in Burma which included guerrilla operations, eighteen P-38 fighters shot down and killed Japanese Admiral Yamamoto, the US kicked the Japanese out of the Aleutians, the US began submarine warfare against Japanese shipping, the Allies were winning battle after battle in New Guinea, and Enrico Fermi conducted the world's first nuclear chain reaction test. To be sure, the Japanese were fighting fiercely and there was a lot of war left in them, but the Allies were unquestionably making gains.
With the arrival of the 80th FG, a word needs to be said about fighters vs. bombers in this theater of war. By reading the short bios of the generals in charge, you saw that most of them experienced WWI trench warfare. Those who were in early Army aviation also got a glimpse at what airpower could do. Many of these saw themselves as aviation pioneers. As a general rule, the Allied flag officers in charge in WWII focused nearly completely on strategic bombing, in part as a way to avoid trench warfare, in part because Army generals saw bombers as an extension of their artillery.
B-24 Bomber in flight over a Pacific Island. Photo taken by the Army Signal Corps. Photographs are from the personal scrapbooks of Lt. Colonel O. Howard Davidsmeyer, Sr., presented by AboutWW2.com
Not surprisingly, then, most of our military leaders, and this was most certainly true in the CBI, saw the fighter's primary role to be defending bombers from enemy aircraft and attacking enemy bombers. Missions such as ground attack, close air support of troops on the ground, air interdiction of roads and bridges, attacks on shipping and ground transportation were seen as secondary and tertiary roles.
This poster, done by Nixon Galloway, tells the story. It's titled, "Welcome little brother," and if you look close enough in the background, you can see a fighter escort approaching these two B-25 "Mitchell" bombers.
Restored B-25 "Mitchell" bomber making a low pass at Nellis AFB, Nevada in the 2004 Airshow there. The explosions below are pyrotechnics, but the photo demonstrates what these aircraft could do. Bombers as well as fighters carried napalm in the CBI and used it often. Photo presented by: Richard Seaman
In a paper prepared by Colonel Mike Worden, USAF, entitled, “Rise of the Fighter Generals, The Problem of Air Force Leadership 1945-1982,” Worden makes this telling comment:
“Psychologists tried to construct testing to discriminate between fighter and bomber pilots. Bomber pilots needed to be more deliberate and orderly in their thinking, with slower, but dependable decisions and actions. Also they were expected to be more mature team players. On the other hand, the air arm wanted fighter pilots to show more alertness, respond quicker, and display higher motivation and controlled aggressiveness than other single-engine and multiengine pilots. While psychologists never developed such classification testing satisfactorily, instructor pilots made their judgments along similar lines.”
In sum, the strategic bomber pilot was an orderly, thinking man, a mature team player, while a fighter pilot was a crazed boxer looking to punch someone's lights out.
We should now take a look at what the 80th FG was up against when it arrived. That is, what missions would the group have to fly.
Japanese conquest of Burma, and the Allied retreat, presented courtesy of the US Army
As a general statement, during the Japanese advance on Burma, British and American forces retreated through northern Burma to Imphal, Maipur, India. As a result, the Japanese strategy was to assemble a strong force with airstrips in and around Myitkyina, the largest town in upper Burma, capture the Imphal Plain, move to upper Assam and cut off supplies to China that were being flown over the “Himalayan Hump.” The only way to get into India from Burma was through Imphal. Here's a look at one section of the Imphal Plain.
This is a photo of the Imphal Plain, the valley, presented by the family of Aircraftman 2nd Class Walter Henry Charles Kingham, RAF, presented by his daughter, Sue.
India at the time was a British colony. British and Indian forces beefed up their defenses in the Imphal plain and constructed airstrips at Tulihal, Imphal; Koirengei, north of Imphal; and at Palel/Kakching, 45 km south of Imphal at the Moreh-Tamu road. Starting in about May 1942, the Japanese began conducting a brutal bombing campaign of Imphal that would last two years
First, by virtue of taking Burma earlier in the year, the Burma Road was effectively closed. In response, the US began to build a 500-mile spur from Ledo, India to the Burma Road at Mongyu, China, which by-passed the section of the road blocked by the Japanese. It was to be built by the US Army Corps of Engineers, led by General Lewis A. Pick. This job was completed in 1945.
You've seen this map before, when we discussed the Burma Road. Now you can focus on the Ledo Road, which later came to be known as the "Stillwell Road." Ledo is in the Indian state of Assam, close to the border with northern Burma, and is a railhead of the Bengal-Assam railway that connected to Calcutta and the Bay of Bengal. The British had surveyed such a project before WWII and reached an agreement with General Stillwell in December 1942 to do it. Two important events then occurred.
First, work on building a base of operations at Ledo and starting the road began right away in December. Second, arrangements kicked into gear to prepare fighting forces to fight their way ahead of the road building to clear the path and defeat the Japanese in northern Burma at the least. In this case, the Japanese base at Myitkyina became a crucial target, because it was the main base from which Japanese ground and air forces operated in northern Burma.
This is a map of the "Over the Hump" route between Assam State, India and Kunming, China. Map presented by CBI Hump Pilot.
Second, while the Ledo Road was being built, an air route over the eastern ranges of the Himalaya Mountains between India and China had to be put into high gear and protected. Here again, the Japanese base at Myitkyina was an important threat.
Himalayan Mountains. This is an especially good view because you can see the challenge presented by the peaks, and also envision a flight up and down the valleys if being chased. Presented by CBI Hump Pilot
A plan to fly "Over the Hump" took form in April 1942. As you can imagine from looking at the photos above and below, during these days, flying over the Himalayas was a treacherous flight. The terrain, climate extremes, and winds presented formidable natural obstacles. Here's another look.
This photo, taken from a B-25 of the 492nd Bomb Squadron, 7th Bombardment Group, 10th AAF, is of the "Hump" on the Kunming to Luchinow stretch. Photo courtesy of Mel Rapport, 492nd BS, presented by the 7th Bombardment Group (H)
C-47 Gooney Bird, from "Jumping the Hump: Airlift to China, 1942-45," by Mike Yoder, presented by Military History Online.
The air transport job fell to the 10th AAF in India and 14th AAF in China at the outset. General Brereton of the 10th AAF initially received 62 C-47 "Goonie Bird" aircraft, of which 15 were destroyed or lost before the operation could even get started. The basic routes had already been planned by Pan American Airways and Chinese National Aviation Corporation (CNAC). A straight route was only 500 miles, but a swing north to avoid Japanese fighters stretched the supply-laden C-47 to its limits. The first supply flights started in July 1942 and built up over the years to where 71,000 tons of supplies were delivered in July 1945.
The point to be made with regard to the Burma Banshee fighter group was that these flights needed protection, most especially prior to their entering the airspace over the Himalayas on the Indian side. While Japanese pilots would venture over the mountains to attack, the greater threat was before the cargo flights reached the mountains. It is our understanding that this escort and combat air patrol cover for the transports over the Hump was the primary mission for the Banshees, which helps explain their motto, "Angels on our wings."
Third, we have the Japanese forces on the ground and in the air staging from Burma and threatening India. The Japanese were knocking on India's door. In late December 1942, a year into the war, the Japanese conducted air raids on Calcutta. The Japanese were, in the main, flying out of the major airstrip in Burma at Myitkyina, and another at Mogaung. So these threats had to be neutralized.
This map depicts the Japanese ground threat to India and the Allied objectives in northern Burma. It also nicely depicts the terrain issues. It was supplied by Thomas Davis of the 745th Railway Operating Battalion, headquartered at the time at Mariani, Assam, India. The map was presented by CBI Hump Pilot
The Allied expectation, which proved to be true, was that the Indian cities of Imphal and Kohima would be among the first Japanese targets, and indeed the Japanese launched such a ground offensive in March 1944. The immediate Japanese goal was to capture the Imphal plain and move north to the upper Assam to cut off the air supplies over the Hump. The principal way to enter Burma from Burma was through Imphal. The British Army and its Indian forces had strongly fortified the Imphal plain and Manipur valley. Airstrips were constructed at Tulihal, Imphal; at Koirengei, north of Imphal and at Palel/Kakching, 45 km south of Imphal at the Moreh-Tamu road. Japanese bombing of the Imphal region began in May 1942 and continued for two years
Finally, the need for an Allied ground offensive was now obvious, and would demand what we know today as close air support, air superiority, and preparation of the battlefield by bomber and fighter forces. We already mentioned that General Stillwell understood well right from the beginning that a ground offensive to retake Burma would be required. He was right. First, Japanese bases in northern Burma had to go, and the only way to make certain of that was to control those bases with Allied ground forces. Second, ground forces were required to open the way for the engineers to build the Ledo Road. Moving supplies on the Ledo Road was far easier, far cheaper, and could be done on a far larger scale than lifting by air.
So now we need to introduce you to an outfit belonging to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), two army generals, one British, one American, who all together pioneered guerrilla warfare operations.
American and Burmese recruits training for behind-the-lines service with Detachment 101. Photo courtesy of CIA.
In May 1942, Eifel's people began their initial probes into Japanese held Burma. After some disappointing results with overland operations, in January 1943, OSS people were air dropped into northern Burma. There, they became friendly with native Kachin tribesmen, and by the end of the year had six Kachin operating bases behind enemy lines. This would grow to a force of 10,000 guerrillas spread out over a 600-mile front.
Admiral Mountbatten authorized Wingate to launch an offensive into north-central Burma and capture the Myitkyina and Mogaung strongholds of the Japanese army and air force. Mountbatten wanted American help.
In the spring of 1943, General Wingate led an experimental operation into Japanese held territory in Burma. This operation was codenamed "Operation Longcloth."
Chindit column passes through a Burmese village. Photo credited to the Imperial War Museum (Ref SE7911), presented by The Chindits.
Wingate employed 3,200 British, Indian, Burmese and Gurkha troops, organized them into eight jungle columns, and, directed by radio and supplied by air drops, this force covered 1,000 miles in four months, February to June 1943, gathered valuable intelligence, harassed and confused Japanese forces, and cut lines of communication, including a railway. Individually, the columns then made their way back to India.
In August 1943, Wingate briefed the American and British civilian and military leadership in Quebec. One result was the US Joint Chiefs of Staff authorized the first American commando force to be organized for such an offensive along with Wingate's Chindits.
Quebec Conference, Aug. 17-24, 1943 between Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt. Main results: D-Day in Europe Set for May 1, 1944; Southeast Asia command reorganized for war on Japan; Gilberts and Marshalls set as first objectives in central Pacific offensive. From the FDR Library, presented by the Department of History, University of San Diego.
Back in India, General Stillwell was planning an offensive employing, in the main, American-trained Chinese divisions. His planning meshed well with the Wingate idea. He intended to use long-range penetration combat teams to support his advance.
In September 1943, shortly after the Quebec Conference, the War Department authorized the creation of the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) to participate in the Burma operation, authorized three battalions, and set each battalion's troop strength at 1,000 for a total of 3,000. A recruiting effort began right away for jungle trained and jungle tested troops in a high state of physical fitness. Volunteers quickly stepped forward and three battalions disembarked in Bombay, India by October 31, 1943.
Colonel Francis Brink trained and organized the force from November 1943 through the end of January 1944 at the British camp at Deogarth, India, under General Stillwell's supervision and along with General Wingate's Chindits.
Men of 3rd Battalion, 5307th, "Merrill's Marauders," patrol jungle near Walawbum, Burma, prior to attack, March 1944. Photo credit Lt. David Lubin, presented by Marauders.org, a "must-see" site to see what these men did and endured.
The “Burma Banshees”, the 80th FG under the 10th AAF, fought in this region from September 1943 to November 1945, and took on all the tasks described above. So, the time has come to take a closer look at the Banshees.