Read an Excerpt
From a Dark Sky
The Story of U. S. Air Force Special Operations
By Orr Kelly
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1996 Orr Kelly
All rights reserved.
The Day Thursday Came on Sunday
At 6:12 P.M. on Sunday, 5 March 1944, a twin-engine C-47 transport plane lumbered down the grass airstrip at Lalaghat, near the eastern border of India. Behind it bounced a glider, attached to the plane by a three-hundred-foot nylon towrope.
Thus began one of the most imaginative and daring exploits in military history, an enterprise that was to foreshadow many of the successes—and some of the failures—that lay in the future for Air Force special operations.
By the time the plane had completed a full circle and come back over the airfield, it was still only 2,500 feet in the air. From Lalaghat, it had to struggle up to 8,000 feet to cross the Chin Hills and then penetrate 160 miles into the center of Japanese-occupied Burma.
The goal of Operation Thursday, as it was called, was to deliver three brigades of British and colonial troops far behind the Japanese lines to carry out a series of raids, cutting rail lines and roads, blasting bridges, and generally making life miserable for the Japanese, who had driven the British out of Burma with remarkable speed two years before.
The first plane was quickly followed by two more planes, with their gliders in tow. It was the job of the glider crews in these pathfinders to land in the dark at a rough clearing in the jungle that had been named Broadway, after the New York boulevard, and prepare as best they could for the arrival of sixty more gliders. Forty minutes after the first takeoff, the rest of the force began rolling down the runway at one-minute intervals, with each C-47 towing two gliders. The gliders were seriously overloaded—with men, mules, bulldozers, food, ammunition, and other supplies.
Even before the first pathfinder left the ground, Operation Thursday had already gone badly wrong. The original plan had been to dispatch eighty gliders during the long moonlit night, half of them carrying part of the force to Broadway, the other half carrying the rest of the force to another landing site a few miles away code-named Picadilly, for the London avenue. But a bare fifteen minutes before 5 P.M.—a takeoff time that would permit the first pathfinder to land just after dark—last-minute photographs revealed that the planned landing strip at Picadilly was blocked by large teak logs.
A worried group of officers gathered around the photos. On hand for the start of the operation were British Maj. Gen. William J. Slim, Air Marshal Sir John E. A. Baldwin, commander of the third tactical Air Force, American Maj. Gen. George Stratemeyer, the top American air commander in the area, and Brig. Gen. William D. Old, commander of the United States Troop Carrier Command. But the major burden of deciding how to respond to this bad news fell on three lower-ranking officers, one an eccentric Briton recently promoted to brigadier, and two American Army Air Forces colonels.
Brigadier General Orde C. Wingate was the driving force behind Operation Thursday. It was his dream to insert a fighting force deep behind enemy lines in a position to cause damage and disruption far out of proportion to its numbers. He had tried his plan in Burma the year before. It had failed, with serious losses. Colonel Philip G. Cochran and Col. John R. Alison had been personally selected by General of the Army Henry H. Arnold, commander of the Army Air Forces, to put together an air organization to support Wingate on a second try. With a small, dedicated air force to move his men and keep them supplied, to provide air cover, harass the enemy, and—most important—pluck his wounded men out of the jungle and hurry them to hospitals in India, Wingate's plan might have a chance this time.
As the officers studied the photographs, taken that afternoon from a B-25 bomber, there was no doubt that the airstrip was not usable. Did that mean the Japanese had learned what was coming and blocked Picadilly? Did the fact that Broadway and Chowringhee, another potential landing spot named for the main thoroughfare in Calcutta, appeared clear mean they were safe landing zones? Or did it mean the Japanese had purposely left Broadway and Chowringhee undisturbed, planning to ambush the Allied force as it landed?
Within the hour, a decision had been made: the operation would go ahead. But the Picadilly landing was scrubbed and twenty of the forty gliders scheduled for that site were added to the forty scheduled for Broadway. If the Japanese were lying in wait there, it would be a very bloody night.
While Cochran and Wingate waited at Lalaghat, Alison took the controls of the third glider scheduled to land. Although he had flown almost every type of plane in the American inventory, he had practically no experience in the cockpit of a glider. Despite his unfamiliarity with the craft, he landed safely and immediately took charge of the airfield operation at Broadway, preparing for the stream of gliders that would soon come sliding noiselessly out of the dark sky.
The pathfinders landed safely. But they quickly found that the aerial photographs showing a smooth landing field were dangerously deceptive. The even surface shown in the pictures was formed by waist-high grass. It covered ruts made by logs as they were dragged across the clearing, holes where water buffaloes wallowed, and the stumps of trees cut down to form the clearing.
At this point, there was nothing the pathfinders could do about the condition of the airstrip. Their radio was broken, so all they could do was put out marker lights and await the arrival of the follow-on gliders.
Smudge pots outlined a diamond-shaped landing area. Off in the jungle, a single flare was set. The pilots were told to cut loose from the tow plane as they passed over the flare, then hold their speed at a steady eighty knots, aiming to land within the diamond-shaped field. Without engines, they had little control over their trajectories, although one pilot had enough momentum to hop his glider over one that had landed in his path.
Virtually every landing was a crash landing. Gliders tore off their landing gear on the ruts or stumps and stopped abruptly. Following gliders, dropping onto the dark field, smashed into those already on the ground. Two gliders crashed into the jungle short of the field, killing all aboard. Another, carrying a small bulldozer, overshot the runway and crashed, but the crew survived.
After each pair of gliders landed, Alison and his crew frantically worked to avoid collisions on the ground by rearranging the smudge pots they had set out to mark the diamond-shaped landing area.
Before the pathfinders had taken off, two code words had been agreed upon. If all was well, the signal would be a cryptic PORK-SAUSAGE. If there was trouble, the signal would be SOYA-LINK—the name of a meat substitute despised by the British troops.
For hours, there was no word at all. Cochran, Wingate, and their superiors waited through the night as additional gliders took off toward an unknown fate. One of Alison's radios had been destroyed in the landing. His other radio was badly damaged. When it was finally repaired, he sent the code word SOYA-LINK—the bad news message—and it was received back at Lalaghat at 2:27 A.M.—more than eight hours after the first gliders had departed. Cochran, assuming the airstrip was under attack, recalled the aircraft that were still in the air.
In the darkest hours, just before dawn, Operation Thursday had all the earmarks of a major disaster. The commanders back in India, their fears reinforced by the cryptic message from Broadway, fully believed they had sent the force into a Japanese trap. On the ground at Broadway, there was wreckage everywhere. Of the thirty-seven gliders that had landed, only four were still flyable.
But what later came to be called "the luck of special operations" was intact. Casualties were surprisingly light. Twenty-four men were killed and thirty-three were injured badly enough to require evacuation. But the gliders had managed to deliver five hundred thirty-nine men, three mules, and nearly fifteen tons of supplies during the night. And, best of all, there was no sign the Japanese knew of the landing.CHAPTER 2
The Reluctant Warriors
Americans remember Pearl Harbor. But often forgotten are the scope and speed of the Japanese advance through Southeast Asia. Within little more than two months of the attack on the Hawaiian Islands on 7 December 1941, they swept south to the islands bordering Australia.
The attack on Burma (now Myanmar) began on 23 December 1941 with air raids on the capital of Rangoon (now Yangon). The British force in Burma was small, poorly supplied, and poorly trained for the kind of war it would have to fight in the jungle-covered mountains of Southeast Asia. But commanders counted on the rugged north-south mountain ranges, the thick jungle, and the broad rivers to slow the Japanese advance until it bogged down in the rains and floods of the annual monsoon.
They also counted on their naval stronghold at Singapore to prevent a seaborne invasion of Burma, and on neighboring Thailand to provide a protective buffer to the east. But Singapore fell to the Japanese on 15 February 1942, a month ahead of schedule, and the defense of Thailand collapsed after only eight hours of fighting.
If the Japanese had played by the British rules and stuck to the roads, the British might have held on until the monsoon. But the Japanese refused to be pinned down to the roads and rail lines. Instead, they sent small units through the jungles to slash away at the British in hit-and-run raids and ambushes. Their tactic was so successful that they beat the monsoon, driving the disorganized British before them.
On 8 March, the British abandoned Rangoon. Major General William J. Slim, the commander of a two-division British corps, fled north along the Irrawaddy River valley and crossed into India on 16 May with twelve thousand troops. He left behind another thirteen thousand men, many of whom managed later to escape into India.
American Lt. Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell, commanding a Chinese force in northern Burma, slipped across the border into India with a ragtag collection of one hundred soldiers on 19 May.
Stilwell gave a blunt appraisal of the outcome of the battle for Burma: "We got a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is humiliating as hell."
For the British, it was the biggest and longest retreat in history—and one of the most mortifying.
The British, strained by war in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific, might still have made a more effective defense of Burma if they had seen it as the Japanese did—as both more vulnerable and more important than it seemed to the British.
For the Japanese, Burma was a plum well worth plucking, especially since it fell so easily. The nation's 12 million acres of rice paddies produced a crop of 8 million tons, of which 3 million tons could be diverted to feed the far-flung Japanese force.
By capturing Burma, the Japanese also came into control of the southern terminus of the Burma Road. Built in 1937, the 717-mile road wound its way over rugged mountains between Lashio, in Burma, and K'un-ming, in southern China. It provided the main route for supplies destined for the armies of Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek. Although Chiang and his corrupt warlords often seemed more intent on fighting other Chinese than on ousting the Japanese, who controlled much of the country, or inclined not to fight at all, the threat of Chinese opposition kept thousands of Japanese troops pinned down. By cutting off this last trickle of supplies from the outside world, the Japanese hoped to free more of their men to carry on the war elsewhere.
Most ambitious was the Japanese plan to seize India, then the major British colony, and link up with the Germans moving eastward from North Africa.
While this disaster for the Allies was unfolding, Wingate, then a colonel, arrived in India on 19 March with an unorthodox plan in mind for dealing with the Japanese in Burma. With his full black beard, gleaming eyes, and irascible temperament, Wingate had the look and manners of an Old Testament prophet—and received much the same kind of welcome traditionally accorded to prophets.
Generals much his senior had ambitious plans—most of which came to naught—for cranking up a major frontal offensive to drive the Japanese back out of Burma. But Wingate brought with him a reputation gained from his command of guerrilla units operating against the Italians in Libya and the Arabs in Palestine. Perhaps because the situation in southern Asia was so desperately bad, Wingate was listened to more seriously than a relatively junior officer with such unorthodox ideas might otherwise have been.
General Slim said of him that he was "a strange, excitable, moody creature, but he had a fire in him. He could ignite other men."
Although the conventional wisdom was that British soldiers could not live and fight in the jungle as the Japanese did, Wingate insisted that properly trained soldiers could not only take advantage of the jungles but could beat the Japanese at their own game.
He was given command of a brigade of British and colonial troops and set about training them to operate alone far behind enemy lines, moving stealthily through the jungle to chip away at the enemy's supply lines—and his morale. As Wingate supervised the training, he acted as a model. Whenever he moved about the training ground, he ran from one point to another at full tilt, leaving panting aides trailing in his rear. When the time for putting his force into action neared, he marched them overland from the railhead at Dimapur to Imphal—a distance of 133 miles. They carried no rations; instead, he arranged for supplies to be dropped to them from the air during the eight-day march.
To this unorthodox force, Wingate gave a distinctive, unorthodox name. He called them the Chindits—a corruption of the Burmese word chinthe, the fierce dragon-like creature whose likeness guards Burmese temples.
Between 8 and 10 February 1943, in an operation code-named Longcloth, three thousand Chindits of the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade crossed into Burma on foot and penetrated deep into the country. Their first few weeks were a distinct success. They cut the key rail line between Mandalay and Myitkyina in more than seventy-five places.
But two key elements of Wingate's plan were missing. Since his soldiers, traveling on foot, could not provide their own artillery support, Wingate counted on the Royal Air Force to provide him with close air support. Whether because of inability or lack of willingness on the part of the air arm, he didn't get the support he needed. Wingate had also counted on linking his operation to an offensive by conventional forces. He didn't get that either.
As Wingate pictured the situation, the Japanese would be so busy dealing with the conventional assault that they wouldn't be able to turn and swat at him as he chewed on them from the rear. But without an offensive to keep them busy, the Japanese were able to turn their attention to the Chindits.
Operation Longcloth turned into a disaster. Without a source of supplies, the men were forced to live on the meat of their pack mules. When that ran out, they subsisted on snakes and rats. If a Chindit was wounded or sick and couldn't keep up with his colleagues, he was left behind with a rifle, a canteen of water, and, sometimes, a Bible.
Wingate and his Chindits made it back across the border into India in early June. He brought out 2,182 of his original force, but most of them were unfit for duty because of their cruel ordeal in the jungles of Burma.
It is more a measure of how bad things were for the Allies in mid-1943 than any significant successes Wingate achieved that he and his Chindits became public—and official—heroes. Despite the licking they had taken, the Chindits had, for a time at least, showed that the Japanese were not the only soldiers who could use the jungle to their advantage.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had often battled his nation's tradition-bound generals and admirals in support of his own unorthodox schemes, became Wingate's most enthusiastic admirer. When he departed in late August for the Quadrant Conference in Quebec, where he met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to plan the future course of the war, Churchill took Wingate along and had him explain his plans for a renewed assault against the Japanese in Burma.
Roosevelt and Churchill were guided by quite different objectives in their planning for the war on the Asian mainland. Churchill was primarily interested in restoring and strengthening the British Empire. This included driving the Japanese back out of Burma. But it also involved keeping China relatively weak and thus less of a threat to the empire in the future. Roosevelt, on the other hand, wanted a stronger wartime China—as a possible base for air attacks on the Japanese homeland and a staging area for an invasion of the home islands.
Excerpted from From a Dark Sky by Orr Kelly. Copyright © 1996 Orr Kelly. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.