SEAC – Southeast Asia Command – and the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations may have been “the forgotten war” of World War II, but it was a strategic linchpin in the prosecution of the war for both the Allies and the Axis in the Far East. For the Japanese, possession of Burma, which it achieved in early 1942, was a plum rich in value. Burma’s rice paddies produced 8 million tons of rice a year. Three million of those tons could be shipped to the far-flung Japanese military outposts in the new East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere that in 1942 covered almost half the globe. Japanese possession also cut off the Burma Road, the vital highway that carried supplies to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s armies fighting the Japanese in China. Finally, because Burma bordered India, it could be used as a staging area for invasion of what was then the crown jewel of the British Empire. In fact, the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters was preparing an ambitious plan to invade India and ultimately link up with German troops advancing from the east.
The challenge facing Great Britain and the United States was daunting in the extreme. Britain’s resources, even with lend-lease aid from America, were stretched perilously thin. As a result of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the vast industrial and manpower might of the United States had gone from a standing start to high gear. But it would take time before the full weight of those resources could be employed. In those early months of World War II, the United States had at hand little in the way of trained men, materiél, and the ships to transport and guard both. And, in order of priorities, the CBI came a distant third behind Europe and the Pacific theaters.
When Roosevelt presented him with Wingate’s proposal, Arnold was initially cool, as it dealt with support operations instead of air strikes against enemy installations. But then he saw in Wingate’s design an opportunity to demonstrate a hitherto unrecognized benefit of air power: The singular ability to support sizeable units for an extended period of time behind enemy lines.
Those desperate times called for desperate measures. Fortunately for the Allies, one man who saw opportunity where others saw only looming disaster was British Brig. Gen. Orde Wingate. Creating the long range penetration group called the Chindits, he conducted a guerilla campaign behind Japanese lines in Burma that caught the imagination of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was always receptive to unconventional ideas of waging war. Churchill took Wingate with him to the Quadrant Conference in Quebec where, in a meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Wingate outlined his concept for continuing his unconventional campaign in Burma. Wingate’s plan, even in expanded form, required relatively little in the way of resources. The key factor in the campaign would be adequate air support. Roosevelt, as enthusiastic about unconventional warfare as Churchill, endorsed it as a way of keeping China in the war.
Simultaneously, Army Air Corps Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold was looking for an opportunity to demonstrate how the war could be won with air power. When Roosevelt presented him with Wingate’s proposal, Arnold was initially cool, as it dealt with support operations instead of air strikes against enemy installations. But then he saw in Wingate’s design an opportunity to demonstrate a hitherto unrecognized benefit of air power: The singular ability to support sizeable units for an extended period of time behind enemy lines.
Gen. Arnold selected two officers to be co-commanders of the new unconventional warfare unit, Lt. Col. Philip G. Cochran and Lt. Col. John R. Alison. Cochran was a smart, daring, and imaginative fighter pilot with a distinguished war record earned in combat over North Africa. Cochran’s exploits had made him a national hero and the inspiration for the character Flip Corkin, the pilot hero in cartoonist Milton Caniff’s syndicated strip Terry and the Pirates. Alison was another exceptional pilot with a distinguished war record that included a combat tour with Maj. Gen. Claire L. Chennault’s 23rd Fighter Group, which earlier in the war had fought the Japanese under the name American Volunteer Group or “Flying Tigers.”
Gen. Arnold defined the mission of the new unit, initially named Project 9, in four points:
1. To facilitate the forward movement of the Wingate columns.
2. To facilitate the supply and evacuation of the columns.
3. To provide a small air covering and striking force.
4. To acquire air experience under the conditions expected to be encountered.
And in case there might be any doubt as to what the unit should do once it reached its base in India, Arnold declared, “To hell with the paperwork, go out and fight.” This order was taken so literally that later, when Cochran saw a dozen typewriters on a list of material to be shipped to India, he crossed them off the list.
Cochran and Alison, both old friends, realized that two equal heads of the unit would not work. They agreed that, for administrative purposes, Cochran would be the commander and Alison his deputy. In practice, the two had such a close and harmonious working relationship that decisions made by one were automatically endorsed by the other. Project 9 would experience five name changes, including Project CA 281, followed by the 5318th Provisional Unit (Air), then the Number 1 Air Commando Force, and finally the 1st Air Commando Group (the name they received during operations in Burma). According to legend, Arnold selected the name “Air Commando” to honor SEAC CinC Lord Louis Mountbatten, who had once commanded the British Commandos.
On March 5, 1944, Cochran, now a colonel, announced to his men, “Nothing you’ve ever done, nothing you’re ever going to do, counts now. Only the next few hours. Tonight you are going to find your souls.”
Arnold gave Cochran and Alison carte blanche. They compiled a list of their needs and used their broad authority with a vengeance. For troop transport, they requisitioned 13 C-47s, 100 CG-4A Waco gliders, and 25 TG-5 training gliders. For casualty evacuation, they obtained a combined total of 100 Vultee L-1 Vigilant and Stinson L-5 Sentinels. For fighter cover, 30 North American P-51 Mustangs were acquired, and after some extraordinary wrangling that included intervention by Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt’s special assistant, so were four Sikorsky YR-4 helicopters. Later, in India, the Air Commandos would be augmented with 12 B-25 Mitchell medium bombers.
Given the unique status of Project 9, Cochran and Alison only wanted volunteers. Thanks to their extensive contacts, they were able to contact the type of people in the Air Corps who they felt could get the job done. No person interviewed was told where he would be going or what the mission would be. He was only told that it would involve combat, that it would last six months, and that he should not expect a promotion. A total of 87 officers and 436 enlisted men, including former child actor Jackie Coogan, accepted the mysterious offer, and on Oct. 1, 1943, began an intensive training program in North Carolina. Two months later, the unit was in India training with the Chindits.
On March 5, 1944, Cochran, now a colonel, announced to his men, “Nothing you’ve ever done, nothing you’re ever going to do, counts now. Only the next few hours. Tonight you are going to find your souls.” Operation Thursday, part of the most complex and innovative combined operations action of World War II prior to Operation Overlord, was on.
Operation Thursday was part of British Gen. William Slim’s strategic response to Operation U-Go, the planned Japanese invasion of India. Slim’s two-month campaign was the first to combine tactical air support at every level (1st Air Commandos) with the extensive and far-flung ground operations (Chindits) conducted deep behind enemy lines. This support included air interdiction, transport, supply, medical evacuation, and reinforcements. Such assistance was critical for the Chindits’ success because distance and terrain isolated many of the Chindit units, making the Air Commandos the only means of logistic and combat support readily available.
Initially in Operation Thursday, the Air Commandos would land a glider force of Chindits, engineers, and supplies that included bulldozers and pack animals at two jungle clearings deep behind enemy lines code named “Broadway” and “Piccadilly.” The engineers would develop these clearings into air strips that would be utilized for the duration of the campaign. Gliders would be lifted off the airstrips using the new “snatch” technique, in which a hook attached to the end of a boom that extended from a C-47 Dakota flying 20 feet above the ground would grab a glider’s tow rope that had been suspended in a frame about 12 feet off the ground. As the campaign commenced, this boom and hook system would also be used to disrupt Japanese communications. Low-flying planes would snare telephone and telegraph lines, sometimes uprooting the poles as well.
A last-minute aerial photoreconnaissance of Piccadilly revealed that it was littered with fallen logs, making it a deathtrap for gliders. Thus all gliders were ordered to land at Broadway. Alison, now a colonel, led the Air Commandos on the mission and was in the second glider that landed. The men in the gliders discovered, too late, that Broadway had numerous natural obstacles as well, and landing gliders slewed in ground filled with ruts or struck tree stumps that ripped off undercarriages. Other gliders, trying to avoid recently the wrecked aircraft littering the clearing, overshot Broadway and crashed into the jungle. Because of the wreckage, the codeword “Soyalink” was radioed back to Chindit headquarters, halting the operation. But before additional details could be transmitted, the radio at Broadway failed.
The chief engineer responsible for constructing the air strip and most of his staff were killed in crash landings. Alison turned to the senior surviving engineer, an inexperienced second lieutenant, and asked him how long it would take to make Broadway ready for the C-47s. The lieutenant replied, “If I have it done by this afternoon, will that be too late?” Hours passed as Alison and his men, with the help of the Chindits, desperately worked to make Broadway serviceable. Meanwhile, at Chindit command, tension mounted as everyone worried over the cause of the delay. The tension broke when, at 4:30 p.m., the code words “Pork Sausage” – ordering the operation resumed – were received.
Though most of the gliders on Broadway were damaged or destroyed, and the force suffered 30 killed and 33 injured in crash landings, 539 men and almost 30,000 pounds of supplies successfully landed in the clearing. The Air Commando engineers had created an airstrip capable of accepting heavily laden C-47s. Before the next day dawned, 62 C-47 sorties would land at Broadway. By March 11, approximately 9,000 men, 500,000 pounds of supplies, and about 1,200 mules and 175 ponies were established 200 miles behind Japanese lines. At this point, Operation Thursday was officially over, but the Air Commandos’ work supporting the Chindits had just begun.
The Japanese quickly responded once they discovered the location of Broadway. On March 11 a fighter-bomber strike was launched, the first attack in an attempt to neutralize what had become a major enemy air base behind their lines. This air attack was followed up by successive ground assaults. Despite attacks that continued sporadically throughout the campaign, the Japanese were never able to eliminate Broadway.
On March 24, tragedy unrelated to enemy action struck. After completing a front-line inspection, Gen. Wingate boarded his B-25 at Broadway and took off for the Chindit home base in India. He never arrived. Days later it was discovered that his aircraft had crashed into a hill, killing everyone aboard.
Coordination between the Air Commandos and the Chindits was gratefully noted by Chindit Sgt. Cyril Hall. Hall was part of a 300-man unit assigned to establish a road block across one of the main Japanese north-south lines of communication and supply code-named “White City.” The unit’s mission was to prevent supplies and transport from reaching the Japanese 18th Army in the north that was fighting Gen. Joseph Stillwell’s army. Hall later noted, “White City should have been renamed ‘Red City’ from the blood that flowed there. . . . Each night, ferocious hand-to-hand battles would take place, British troops wading in with bayonet and rifle butt, whilst the Gurkhas and West Africans engaged with their native knives, the Japs with their two-handed swords. . . . At one crisis of a battle, Cochran’s Air Commandos planted a huge load of high explosives on Jap concentrations preparing to move up. The pilots, whom I cannot praise too greatly, were reluctant, for so short was the distance separating our forces that they feared hitting our own men. However, urging column commanders . . . insisted that it was necessary, so with deadly precision they unloaded everything they had, killing hundreds.”
On March 24, tragedy unrelated to enemy action struck. After completing a front-line inspection, Gen. Wingate boarded his B-25 at Broadway and took off for the Chindit home base in India. He never arrived. Days later it was discovered that his aircraft had crashed into a hill, killing everyone aboard. The consequences on future Chindit operations proved unfortunate, as Wingate’s replacement, Maj. Gen. W. D. A. Lentaigne, did not share Wingate’s passion for unconventional and long-range penetration tactics.
The Air Commandos’ versatility – particularly in the role of medical evacuation – was underscored when it made history on April 25, 1944, near the conclusion of the campaign. An Air Commando L-1 carrying three wounded Chindits had crash landed on April 21 as a result of enemy ground fire. The only suitable location for a rescue was a clearing too small for an airplane, but not too small for one of the Air Commandos’ Sikorsky YR-4 helicopters. Second Lt. Carter Harmon was ordered to pilot his “eggbeater” 500 miles from his base in Lalahat, India, to “Aberdeen,” one of a number of additional advance bases established during the campaign, which was about 60 miles away from the rescue site. At Aberdeen he would receive final instructions regarding the rescue. Harmon faced numerous challenges. His helicopter was small (it could only carry one passenger at a time), it was underpowered (its engine produced only 175 horsepower), and its range was limited (he would have to refuel about every 100 miles). The plan developed was for Harmon to shuttle the evacuees from the pick-up location to a British-held sand bar that doubled as a landing strip about 10 miles from the rescue site. From there an L-5 would carry the wounded to Aberdeen. On the afternoon of April 25, Harmon carried off the first, most seriously wounded Chindit. But an overheated engine and an approaching tropical storm prevented him from returning to extract the rest that day. The following morning, Harmon completed the rescue, becoming as a result the first pilot in history to perform a helicopter combat rescue.
At the end of April, the Chindits, exhausted but in high spirits, returned to India having successfully completed their mission. The three Japanese divisions assigned to invade India as part of Operation U-Go had been prevented from doing so. When interviewed after the war, Japanese Imperial Army generals testified that, “The penetration of the airborne force into Northern Burma caused the failure of the Army plan to complete the Imphal Operations. . . . The airborne raiding force . . . eventually became one of the reasons for the total abandonment of Northern Burma.” An even blunter assessment of the Air Commandos and Chindits’ success came from the commander of the Japanese 31st Division, Lt. Gen. Sato, who, in a message to Japanese 15th Army headquarters, complained, “Since leaving the Chindwin [River valley], we have not received one bullet from you nor a grain of rice.” And in response to a reprimand from 15th Army headquarters that threatened him with a court martial for insubordination, he stated in part, “The 15th Army has failed to send me supplies and ammunition since the operation began. This failure releases me from any obligation to obey the order – and in any case it would be impossible to comply.”
Gen. Arnold, meanwhile, had taken note of the Air Commandos’ success in Operation Thursday and the subsequent campaign. New Air Commando units were authorized, and Cochran would find himself reassigned and responsible for a new, larger Air Commando campaign in Europe.
This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2004 Edition.