Shot Downin Burma
P.O.V. from Ben Borden
It was an afternoon mission in January 1945 in the vicinity maybe 60 miles southwest of Lashio (time and place subject to correction). We had two flights of four planes each with wing tanks and a bomb in the middle. Foster White led the mission and I led the second flight with you as my element leader. Ed Tyler told me that he went along and that was his first mission. I assume that he was either on your wing or mine. Otherwise I cannot remember who else was on that mission.
The visibility was good with only a few cumuli-nimbus clouds floating around. We proceeded from Nagaghuli over the pass for about two hours and twenty minutes. I had an aerial photograph of the target and I had also circled it on my map, There came a time when I called Foster and said that in my opinion we had just passed over the target. I then rechecked the map, the photograph and the topography below - I'm sure you remember the intersections of streams, rivers, roads etc., and came to the conclusion that we had indeed passed the target, foster finally said that he would take his flight another few miles down to where he thought the target was and I should take my flight in on where I though the target was. We then got into echelon right, pulled up to drop our wing tanks and peeled off to the left doing a 180 turn and headed down toward the target from about 16,000.
Doing the usual, I turned everything on-guns, gun sight, armed the bomb and it was time to clear the guns and take aim. After four or five short bursts it was time to reach for the bomb release, line it up and let it go. My best estimate is that I passed over the target at around 200 feet and doing around 450-470 mph. I zoomed up in a left climbing turn. Half way around my 180 turn I looked back to see No. 2 coming off of the target and you approaching, it. I believe that your guns indicated your position. I looked ahead for about 3 seconds then back to observe you just beyond the target trailing a thin white line which gradually became more visible. I immediately turned left and called you on the radio - "Are you having trouble? —you are trailing smoke."
By this time you had already turned left 90 degrees from the target run and were climbing at about 7-800 feet. I was now heading for you descending from about 9000 feet. You answered "Yes - having trouble - plane vibrating badly - am bailing out. I passed you just before you went out. I was going about 450 and passed you at a 45 degree angle at about 1000'. I did a very steep 180, turned on the emergency IFF - the locater gadget and retarded my throttle to slow down, I looked back through the entire turn in time to see you hit the ground. Very soon it seemed a few seconds, your plane hit the ground and exploded. My recollection is that when I saw you trailing smoke I advised Foster White that I thought you had taken a hit. I would also assume that everyone in both flights was hearing the dialogue. I believe that I told the other two in my flight to circle at 5-6000 feet and put their IFF locators on. Just after your plane hit Foster arrived on scene doing about 450. Your burning plane was a marker. I said over the radio to Foster that you had landed, scooped up your parachute and headed for the woods about 3-400 feet away. You would know those details intimately and I want to hear them, if you will.
My recollection of the terrain is that there was a range of small mountains - 5-700' high about 2000' to the left of the target line. You turned left off the target and went through a dip in the little mountains and into an opening with jungle on the far side. You landed in that opening field. I then began a climbing turn and rejoined Nos. 2 & 4. Meanwhile Foster was calling Fighter Control. There was a lot of radio talk about a fix, jungle rescue and heading for Myitkyina (I checked and the spelling is correct.) In due course Myitkyina control advised that all appropriate parties had been advised of your situation and we should return to home base.
I believe that the foregoing may be subject to some small correction but that it is substantially accurate. We were all shaken and concerned about you and suddenly again awakened to the reality that those people shoot real bullets.
On Being Shot Downand Walking Out... in Burma
by James Edwards
Being shot down in a P-47 in the rough country of northern Burma, by Japanese ground fire does not make one a hero.
Preserving one's own skin is the central theme of this tale.
As background, in the summer of 1944 the Japanese had been .well established in Northern Burma and still blocked the flow by land transport of war materials to the Nationalist forces in southwest China. Ledo, and major US bases in upper Assam (India) were the key supply terminals for the heavy military tonnage being flown across the Hump to supply Chinese forces still resisting the Japanese. The key Chinese terminal in Southwest China was Kunming.
The mission of the 33rd Fighter Group, along with the 80th, the 459th and a few others was to deny the Japanese any opportunity to disrupt the major airlift from Assam to Kunming..... the "Hump" route. The tonnage being flown included gasoline, food, ammunition, and vehicles... without which the Chinese Nationalist Forces could not sustain their resistance. The airplanes were big, slow, cargo craft..... C-46's... C-87 tankers... etc.... that would not have had a prayer if Japanese fighters could have penetrated the Assam-Kunming air corridor. Our primary task, as a fighter group, was to prevent Japanese attacks upon the cargo planes in this key supply operation.
We had a secondary task as a fighter group. The Chinese, along with a highly mobile US Infantry task force, were moving southeast into Burma from northern Assam. The supply railhead was Ledo . . . into which heavy tonnage of equipment and ammunition could be brought by train. There was also a fuel pipeline. The objective was to be able to bring this heavy tonnage south by truck and pipeline into the middle of Burma, at Bhamo, and then across a road route to Kunming. This was "The Burma Road". It had been roughly built before 1942, but had no value to the Allies as long as the Japanese controlled Northern and Central Burma. Truck transportation was essential to really winning the war in China and the rest of the territory in the Southeast occupied by the Japanese. This secondary task.... and perhaps the more important one.... was to provide tactical ground support to the Chinese and American infantry as they drove the Japanese out of Northern Burma, and Central Burma, in late 1944 and early 1945. This ground support included dive bombing,, strafing, and napalm bombing of Japanese infantry positions. We were trying to help the American and Chinese infantry push the Japanese south of Bhamo ... so that a newly built road down from Ledo (Assam India) could hook up at Bhamo and become the main supply route to Kunming, China.
I was shot down by Japanese ground fire on February 11, /1945. The location was about 25 miles south of Bhamo... along the road south to the key city of Lashio. The Japanese had held out for weeks in the city of Bhamo, despite heavy air and artillery bombardment. They had lived and suffered like rats in caves and tunnels, and had finally abandoned the city in a slow, fighting retreat down the road south to Lashio.
The fighting was largely along the road. East or west of the road there was only patrol activity and there were minor skirmishes. The Bhamo to Lashio road is the only road in the region, ... running north to south.
The Japanese infantry retreating south from Bhamo was dug in along the road, and near a stream, in one of the valleys south of Bhamo. They had been pressed by the Chinese and Americans coming out of Bhamo, but there was no active engagement on the date of my problem. No spotter aircraft were directing our bombing and strafing efforts.
Our attack was composed of eight P-47's. We each had two 165 gallon wing tanks and one 75 gallon napalm bomb on the belly. Our mission was to napal bomb and strafe the Japanese infantry positions. The objective was to soften the opposition to American and Chinese infantry moving south along the road to Lashio. The target had been selected by Air Intelligence and the photographs were probably better than average. A lot of those valleys and stream situations look the same, and I'm sure we wasted a lot of ammunition on targets that really did not exist. But not this one. This one was alive.
My flight leaders were Captains Foster White and Ben Borden. Both were long time friends. I was Borden's element leader. White was the older "conservative" with the philosophy of playing it safe. Borden and I were more of the stripe of "giving it hell". In our rousing discussions of fighter aircraft tactics we took the position that a five hour flight into Japanese territory ought to result in a major catastrophe for the Japanese! We should shoot up as much ammunition as we profitably could, and do as much damage as possible. This meant two or three passes at a bombing and strafing target,... instead of one fast pass and head for home.
It should be understood that a fighter making a second pass over a target presents a much better opportunity for anti aircraft gunners. Also, it usually presents the fighter pilot with a much better opportunity to identify and hit his targets. The stakes are raised for both sides. The peril is increased for both.
Our eight P-47's flew southeast from Nagaghuli (Assam/India) for about an hour and a half. We flew over the Naga hills northeast of Lado at about 8000 ft. and then down the valley into central Burma, passing over Myitkynia and Bhamo in the early afternoon. There were no Japanese fighters, and none were expected. There was no Japanese high altitude anti aircraft fire. It looked like a breeze.
A few minutes after passing over Bhamo, White and Borden got into a radio discussion about the identification of the target. White felt it was further south along the Bhamo-Lashio road.... and Borden felt we had already flown over it. The repetitive valley and stream patterns running east to west offered little opportunity to differentiate. We circled and finally accepted Borden's point of view. Everybody had a good look and all eight of us broke down to about 150 feet, screaming down the valley toward the assumed infantry positions along the road. We could not see the troops that were dug in, but we could see the flashes of small caliber fire. We all dropped our napalm and headed up to about 5000 ft. for another look. Borden and White decided upon another strafing pass.
We were pretty well strung out by now, and almost operating individually. My wing man and I throttled back for the next strafing pass. We wanted to see what we were supposed to be shooting at. I think we went across the target area at about 200 mph, shooting all eight 50 cal. guns to the point where they were red hot. Sometimes the guns got so hot that they would "cook off" ammunition in the chambers after deliberate firing had stopped.
Obviously I took a hit on this second pass. As I pulled up smoke was filling the cockpit and the engine was starting to run a little roughly. As I started to climb and head north Borden called on the radio to say my plane was trailing smoke, and that he had me in sight. My objective was to get as far away from the Japanese ground position as I could while I still had an engine.
The engine did not last long. Perhaps four minutes. But it got me up over and past the next east-west mountain ridge, away from the Lashio-Bhamo road, and generally in the direction of friendly troops coming down from Bhamo. In a last gasp, with the
throttle wide open, it roared to life for about 15 seconds and then froze. It was terribly quiet up there with no engine, and only 1500 feet above the ground.
Getting out of the cockpit was a quick, automatic series of steps that every pilot had practiced in his mind hundreds of times. It took about two seconds, I think, and by the time I was out I was pulling the rip cord. The chute opened quickly and I swung twice before hitting the ground pretty hard. It was not graceful, and they do not award the Purple Heart for a bruised rear end.
Although most of the surrounding area was made up of rocky hills and mountains, and heavy growth, I had landed in a valley of pasture land. The plane crashed about 500 yards away, and exploded and burned. Ammunition- "cooking off" in the fire sounded like an infantry squad shooting at me.
My next objective to get away from the immediate area. My parachute could easily have been seen and the rising pall of smoke from the burning plane was a beacon. While away from the infantry fighting along the road, I was still in territory under the influence of Japanese patrols and the Shan Burmese valley people who were collaborating. I cut loose my parachute escape pack from the canopy and went as fast as I could up into the surrounding hills to the north. It was about 2 PM.
I found a crevasse between some large rocks that were big enough for concealment and also offered a good view of approaches up the hillsides.
My escape kit included birdshot ammunition to use with my 45 cal., chocolate blocks, a folding machete, silver Rupees dated prior to 1942, the opium packets for barter, the escape flag in Chinese script, and the double sided mirror with the aiming cross for signaling. Not much else. I had my 45 cal. with two clips.
I stayed in place for about two hours. It was deathly quiet. I could see no human activity.
At around four thirty there was the unmistakable sound of aircraft coming down from the north. It was a B-25 Jungle Rescue plane and about four P-47's. They apparently had no trouble finding the general area,... probably because there was some residual smoke from my burning plane. But they had to find me.
The sun was low in the sky, and periodically blocked by clouds. With exceptional good luck the clouds opened up as the B-25 was circling to the west and I was able to use the mirror to signal my location. The B-25 made a couple of low passes and then dropped two supply chutes. One landed close to me and I retrieved it quickly. The other landed far down the large hill in the direction of a Shan village. I started to go after it, but thought better of the issue when I heard dogs barking in the distance in that general direction. The chute I recovered had a walkie-talkie tuned to the B-25's frequency, a Jerry can of water, some C-rations, and a written note. The note said to stay put, and then make my way down into the valley, and about four miles west, the following morning. I was unable to contact the B-25 with the radio. Along with the P-47's, it was headed back to base to prepare for the next morning's effort. There was no doubt in my mind that I had friends who were going to get me out.
Sleeping wasn't very good. It was cold and I was apprehensive. There had been a blanket, a carbine, and more food in the chute I elected not to go after. There were sounds from the village toward the eastern part of the valley,... mostly dogs barking, there was no moon, but I did venture down into the valley to get a feel for the terrain. The ground seemed pretty solid. I almost got lost in trying to return to my little crevasse where my radio and other supplies were hidden. That would have been bad.
Adventure started early the next morning. I left my hiding place to see if perhaps an attempt to recover the other chute might be worthwhile. I had only gone about 100 yards when I met a Burmese coming toward me. Not knowing whether he was friendly I pointed my 45 in his direction. He turned around without a word and ran down the hill toward the east. I quickly gathered my supplies and radio and headed west, and down into the valley. I did not want to be around if my Burmese friend came back with reinforcements.
The Valley had a stream running down the middle and along the stream bed there were trees and substantial underbrush. By keeping close to the stream, and occasionally in it, I could remain largely out of sight as I made my way west toward the expected rendezvous with my rescue plane. The area on either side of the stream was open grassland for the most part, with high hills on both sides of the valley.
By about eleven AM I had reached a fork in the stream, beyond which there was a pretty good stretch of grassland. It was far from perfect, but looked good enough for the landing of an L-5 rescue plane. About the time I reached this field our planes came into the area. There was the B-25 again, eight P-47's flying cover, and finally an L-5.1 could reach the B-25 intermittently with my walkie-talkie, but both of us must have been fading out as the B-25 circled out of range. They located me with the aid of the mirror and the description of the fork in the stream.
The P-47's circled at low altitude to discourage any undesirable movement on the ground. The stage was set for the landing of the L-5 and no time was being lost. But oh Good God! He was coming in to land down wind on a stretch of grass land that was already barely long enough under the best of circumstances. I ran out into the open to try and wave him off. I could not contact him directly by radio,... wrong frequency ... and relaying the message through the B-25 didn't work. He was coming in downwind and fast.
He got the L-5 safely onto the ground but he could not get it stopped before he was about to go into the brush along the creek. At the last minute he hit the brakes and very slowly the tail came up and he flipped it into its back. He almost made it without flipping, but there he was, upside down. The propeller was broken. Captain King, the CO of the L-5 spotter and rescue squadron based at Bhamo, was my new companion.
King was not hurt when the L-5 flipped, except for a minor cut on his head. He had large scale maps of the area, another Jerry can of water, and a little C-ration type food. He also had been carefully briefed with respect to probable Japanese activity in the area. His urgent message was that we should get out of the immediate area as quickly as possible. With all of the air activity, and the disabled L-5, we were sure to draw unwanted attention. We took what we could carry, including the two Jerry cans, and headed north into the hills as fast as we could. It was not yet noon.
The side of the first hill we were climbing was covered with grass and rocks, and generally open. Both of us were struggling with our loads and spending no breath in conversation. We had made no plans other than to get out of the immediate area. Suddenly we faced a critical decision. Coming down the hill were four men. They were not in uniform. They were not armed. As they came closer, at a run, they shouted "Salaam Americans" and a variety of other fihrases in broken English intended to let us know they were friendly. King was apprehensive. He had been warned that many of the Shan Burmese in the area were pro-Japanese, ... or at least anti British and American. The question was whether or not to fire a few shots from our 45's and drive them off, or accept their protestations of friendship. We had a quick conference on the side of the hill and decided to accept them. A very good decision.
They immediately took up the burden of the water supply, the radio, and a few other things and we followed them at a fast pace well up into the hills. Conversation with our new friends was minimal, but we determined that a couple of them had been with the British at Singapore, and having escaped with their families were making their way west. They were Indians. There were lots of Indians in Burma.
They led us into an encampment in a rocky area, that included shallow caves. It was not very far from the valley in which we had left the L-5. There were three or four women in the encampment, including two very old ones. Also two or three children. It was very primitive, but they had utensils, bamboo mats, crude furniture, and something resembling blankets and spare clothing. They fed us something like fried sweet potatoes. We were not very concerned with food. They made a big thing of showing us great respect and friendship, but got the idea across that we had better get on our way. We had a long way to go to get out of the danger area. I do not think they wanted to be caught with us as their guests. All told, I don't think we stayed at that camp an hour.
Two of the younger men were our guides and the carriers of the water and supplies. They kept up a fast pace as we walked along mountain trails that wove up and down and east and west... but generally north. At about 6 PM we reached a small mountain village inhabited by Kachins. The Kachin tribes in Burma were very much anti-Japanese and had been organized (loosely) by the American OSS into guerilla groups to harass the Japanese. There were only about six bashas in the village and we saw only a few people. They were obviously and enthusiastically friendly, but the language barrier was almost complete. Our Indian friends let us know that they were turning us over to the Kachins, and that they would guide us toward American/Chinese lines. They quickly departed back toward their encampment, after refusing gifts of rupees that Capt. King and I had in our escape kits. We had two new, young, Kachin guides with whom we could
hardly communicate. One was armed with a carbine, and both had Gl web belts with one or two hand grenades hanging down. They appeared supremely self confident and proud of their armament. One message they did get across was that it was time to move on. No rest stop.
We walked through dusk and well into dark. The terrain was steep, but our guides knew the trails.
Almost exhausted, (King and I) we reached a much larger Kachin village rather high in the hills. It was well established with well built houses on stout bamboo stilts. They looked polished. There were chickens and pigs running around below and several out buildings. They seemed to be expecting us and about thirty people were gathered in the building that obviously belonged to the head man. Several of the younger men were armed and anxious to display their equipment. Communication was by pointing and smiling and nodding of heads, but it was obvious that they were pleased with their responsibility to get us back to safety. They fed us some kind of a dish of fried rice, pork or chicken, and a non identified vegetable. It was terrific. They insisted that we sleep in the head man's house ... on the floor ... on bamboo mats. It was wonderful for our exhausted bodies.
At dawn it was time to get up and go. Even earlier, a young man had arrived from the first small Kachin village with gifts. These were hard boiled eggs, artistically packaged in rolls of rice stalks or bamboo shoots to look like the snap favors we have at birthday parties. They were beautiful, and that young man had traveled ten miles on foot to deliver them to a couple of men with whom he could not communicate and whom he would never see again. We had a good breakfast of eggs and rice and started the trek north. We had the same two Kachin guides that had taken over at the first village, but were joined by two others... well armed.
About mid day the trail took us by a small burned out village. The guides wanted to talk about it. Somehow they got the idea across. Within the last few days a Kachin group had ambushed a Japanese patrol at this point and killed several. They were very proud of this.
Later in the day we were making our way down a mountain trail and could look across the valley at the next mountain. A long line of uniformed troops could be seen. We could see them because there were so many of them. They could not see us. Our guides made signs to suggest we should not worry ... and keep going. The B-25 rescue plane came into the general area about noon. I tried to reach it on the walkie-talkie, but could not make a contact.
About five in the afternoon we followed a stream that led us into a Chinese infantry camp. We just walked in, unchallenged. Nobody paid any attention to us. Our Kachin guides could not communicate very well with the Chinese. As we moved into the camp area we saw the American infantry with their mules, light artillery, jeeps, and a few trucks. There were tents made up of brightly colored drop chute canopies on both sides of a wide, clear stream. It looked like the whole American army unit was taking a bath in the stream ... including the mules.
Nobody paid much attention to us. We finally found a lieutenant and identified ourselves. He was very helpful. I wanted to find a way to reward our Kachin guides. They would not accept-the pre-war silver rupees and would have nothing to do with the opium packets. What they dearly craved was a pair of good, solid, Gl shoes for each of them. The lieutenant could handle this, ... although I doubt that they were exactly the right size. The Kachins were delighted. They put on the shoes and headed back. By late afternoon the good lieutenant had radio contact with Capt. King's squadron and two L-5's picked us up and took us back to Bhamo.
Who were the heroes?
Not Edwards. He was motivated by self preservation.
Borden and White. They stayed with me to know I was down safely, and they established pretty precisely where I was. They also got the Jungle rescue unit geared up (via radio) in time to get into the area before the sun went down. •
Captain King. He took on the task of flying the rescue mission himself. He had twenty pilots in his squadron that could have been sent on this hazardous mission.
Indians. They took a risk with respect to roving Japanese patrols. Also, in a state of fear, King and I might have shot at them.
The Kachins. They knew what they were doing and thoroughly enjoyed it.
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