As the early morning darkness gave way to sunrise, Eric Sevareid found himself sitting in the belly of a plane…he was not alone. The 30-year-old correspondent was one of 20 passengers and crew aboard the new C-46. Their location?…Chabua, India. Their destination?…Kunming China. The date?…August 2, 1943. Sevareid was smack dab in the middle of the loneliest theater of World War II.
For more than a year, pilots of the Air Transport Command had been flying supply missions from India into China, working to supply Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese forces (and the U.S. Army Air Force as well) in their campaign against the Japanese. These daring missions involved flying over the eastern Himilayan mountains, known in local-speak as “The Hump.”
The supplies that landed in China didn’t always end up in the proper hands, and the black-market was burgeoning in and around the drop-off point of Kunming. Unscrupulous hoarders were earning immense fortunes selling supplies shipped from Indian bases where, as Donovan Webster writes, “troops were living on gruel, Spam, and rice, while those close to Hump deliveries in China grew fat on American-bought pork, beef, and chicken.”
Eric Sevareid himself would write, “When I saw the American establishment at Chabua, where hundreds of Americans and thousands of natives slaved in scorching sun or dismal rain to get supplies into China, I could not help feeling a certain resentment of the Chinese resentment of the inadequacy of these suppplies. Our men were killing themselves and being killed every day in the effort. … There were at this time absolutely no amenities of life … It was a dread and dismal place. … They were trying to do too much with far too little. Pilots were overworked, and when they had made the perilous flight to China and back the same day, having fought storm and fog and ice, they simply fell into their cots as they were, unshaved and unwashed, to catch a few hours of unrefreshing sleep before repeating the venture the next day.”
It’s not a pretty picture that Sevareid paints, and I’m sure the feelings he had accompanied him that morning as, with the sunrise, he lifted off with 19 others on one of these “ventures”. And one hour into the flight, Eric became acutely aware of the dangers of the mission when the guy sitting next to him informed him that one of the engines had gone out. These new C-46s had engines that were occasionally prone to vapor lock. Still processing the implications, the dull roar of the plane noise was replaced by a shattering howl and blinding light.
The crew chief had popped the plane’s exit door and was ordering all the luggage and supplies to be pushed out. Sevareid’s luggage was soon hurtling through Burmese airspace, along with the remaining cargo. His last words aboard the plane, penned quickly in his notebook, read “Nine fifteen a.m. Baggage out. Left engine not working.”
Almost before he could think, he was nearly the plane’s last passenger. Waiting a moment to clear a mountain (so his chute would have time to open, he prepared himself to jump, only to be thrown from the plane as it lurched to the left. He gave himself a precious one or two seconds to clear the plane, then pulled the ripcord. The force of the chute’s deployment ripped Eric back to reality. He opened his eyes in time to see the oily orange fireball of the C-46 as it disintegrated against the mountainside.
As it turned out, there were numerous injuries among the passengers, but just a single fatality (the flight officer, later found still strapped in his seat). And apparently the crew had radioed coordinates before the plane went down, because another plane flew over in short order and dropped supplies with a note that a rescue party would be coming.
But for Eric Sevareid, jungle life had been replaced, for the time being, with jungle living.