CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - Five aging World War II pilots who once flew over the treacherous terrain of the Himalayan Mountains reunited in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday to swap stories of the first American airlift.
Part of a steadily dwindling number of “Hump” pilots who have been meeting since 1946, the group of friends said age and infirmity will make this reunion their last.
“We were the first aircraft airlift operation that was ever attempted,” said Bill Thomas, 91, who lives in Charleston. “We called the terrain we flew over “the Hump”...and the name sort of stuck to us.”
Members of the U.S. Army Air Force’s Air Transport Command, the pilots flew from bases in northeast India’s Assam Valley to Kunming, China in the southwestern Yunnan Province, about 500 miles east.
They supplied Chinese and American troops from 1942 — when Japan took control of Burma and its land route — until 1945. They transported trucks, weapons and Chinese soldiers, Thomas said.
The thousand-mile roundtrip was full of high winds, sub-zero temperatures, thunderstorms and mountain peaks up to 18,000 feet.
They flew it without cabin pressure or cabin heat in the transport planes of the day, twin-engine C-46s and C-47 “gooneybirds,” said Tex Rankin, 91, of Fort Worth, Texas.
Navigation was by radio and dead reckoning, said Don Marshall, 88, of Scottsdale, Arizona.
Despite the fact that each of the men earned a Distinguished Flying Cross, the Hump pilots said they don’t see themselves as particularly brave. “A lot of us were pretty scared most of the time,” Thomas said.
“We were routine pilots assigned to the China-Burma theater, and we went over there and did what we were ordered to do,” Rankin said.
But the Navy Seals who flew by helicopter into Pakistan on Sunday to kill Osama bin Laden deserve the reward money that was on the al Qaeda chief’s head, Rankin said.
“I think they should get the Congressional Medal of Honor, all of them,” said Bill Gilmore, 88, of Cincinnati, Ohio.
On Friday, the Hump pilots will visit Charleston Air Force Base to tour the C-17s that supply troops in Afghanistan.
“The C-17 pilots tell us they are a lot easier to fly,” Marshall said.
Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune