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By Bob Dethlefsen.

This allowed for much greater accuracy but at the same time gave the opposition a greater crack at us both from ground fire and then from their fighters as we struggled to gain altitude to clear the mountains ahead. On one occasion the crew was forced to bail out of their badly damaged airplane, survived the drop into the jungle, and somehow all managed to find their way home with only superficial wounds. On another occasion, two "healthy" airplanes escorted one of their "limping" comrades to a friendly airbase before turning for home.

Once again there were no injuries except to the aircraft. The single runway at Kurmitola was hacked out of a jungle with a railroad spur running nearby to facilitate delivery of bombs, fuel and whatever else it took operate an airbase. There was a daily train from Calcutta that passed by every day about noon which dropped off fresh fruit and vegetables, the morning newspaper and, if you had ordered in advance, a quart of ice cream.

And that made train arrival the high point of the day. Besides a headquarters building there were, a mess hall which also served as the briefing room, officer's and NCO's clubs, numerous low level 2-man to a room living quarters, and a rudimentary outdoor movie and entertainment area. Not quite up to country club standards but far better than we had expected and there was plenty of local help that could be hired to maintain our quarters and handle the laundry. With the living area located some distance from the airstrip, it had early on become the habit of pilots returning from other than combat missions to "buzz" the camp area to signal their imminent arrival.

One incident that has already become legendary, must be recounted. Every military unit, regardless of size, had a monthly liquor and cigarette allowance, which could not be entrusted to a delivery by rail. So on the designated day, a B-25 with a temporary pallet fitted to the bomb-bay, would be dispatched to Calcutta, solely for the purpose of bringing home the goods. With 8 cans of beer and 2 cartons of cigarettes per person in addition to one 5th of whiskey per officer, it was the most valuable B-25 in all of India, and its pilot the man of the hour.

This procedure worked perfectly for the first three deliveries and then disaster. Our "man of the hour" pulled up too abruptly as he announced his arrival, resulting in the collapse of the pallet and subsequent, right on target, bombing of home base with a full load of beer. Although there were a great many damaged beer cans, and straw rooftops, there were no damaged people and for this one time, we were happy to report our bombs had been ineffective. For the pilot, it was better than receiving a medal. He has a place in history and will be remembered forever. 

I don't know whether someone got hung up on the movie "We Strike At Dawn" or for what reason but, for the longest time, that is just what we were doing. Get up in the middle of the night, eat breakfast, get briefed and away we go at sun-up. Aside from the fact that we were home before lunch and had nothing but a boring afternoon ahead of us, surely the Japs also had it figured out and had a much better chance of interception. Soon as we began to stagger our departure time, if nothing else, we got a better nights sleep. And I believe that as time passed, there were fewer and fewer sleepless night.

Experience soon told us which targets were likely to give us the most trouble and which could be considered relatively harmless. On a couple of occasions we came close to doing ourselves in. One day ten airplanes had completed their take-off but before the squadron had formed up, four had turned back because of engine problems. Investigation disclosed that automobile fuel had inadvertently been switched with aviation fuel.

And then there was the day we blamed it on the weather. Anyone who had been there for a week knew that it could rain almost anytime and it usually did. After all, we were practically living in a rain forest. But, no matter how hard it came down, it almost always could be counted upon to at least let-up in a few minutes. So on this particular day, as we return from a mission, the airfield is out of sight beneath huge rain shower. Perfectly clear a mile away but just the approach to the runway visible. The customary procedure was to fly overhead in showboat formation and then break away at proper intervals and follow the circling leader in to a landing.

This would have been a good day to practice making circles in the clear and wait for the storm to pass. But, by now we had become the hotshot Burma Bridge Busters and couldn't be bothered by a little rain. The result was one aircraft off the runway to the right and totaled. A second airplane clipped its wing on the first and received major damage. Two more off to the left with minor damage.

When it became my turn to touch down the visibility was slightly more than zero and without knowing what was ahead there was strong tendency to come down hard on the brakes--especially after catching a brief glimpse of what had gone before. However, a quick reminder that this runway had always been long enough before, made "easy does it" the order for the moment. There was a brief moment of relief when we reached the end of the runway but the turn-off was blocked by a parked freight train, leaving no room to turn.

Not knowing who or what was still coming behind us created a near panic situation. We had to get off the runway! Shut down the engines-- Everybody out-- With brakes off, push on the wheels until clear of the boxcar--Everybody back in-- Start the engines and get the hell out of there. Just for the record, the CO had been number one.   

All of this time I had been flying the same airplane 41-13161, which was beginning to show its age. I will be forever grateful to the line crew-chief who did an outstanding job of keeping it in fighting trim. Mainly because it was always ready to go, we were constantly fighting to keep it from being used for anything but its primary purpose, dropping bombs in Burma. Use one of the clunkers for training, or transportation to Calcutta or whatever. Soon though, it had reached the limit, with extensions, of hours requiring engine overhaul.

At that time I was given the choice of a newer airplane, with auto pilot, or going to the Indian aircraft factory at Bangalore where I would be guaranteed that two new, not rebuilt, engines would be installed. Not much of a choice. I chose to keep the same crew-chief and we all went for a visit to Bangalore. By this time with an abundance of flight crews clamoring to fly missions, there was time for R and R. One crew at a time was given a week off to head for the mountain playground Darjeeling, or the city playground Calcutta.

As time went by, and we continued to gain experience, our operations through Argatela were discontinued and we were making nonstop roundtrips from Ondal to the target and back. But with times ranging up to six hours and forty minutes we were beginning to waste a good bit of engine time that was not easily replaced. Another move was in order and, this time, it was to a newly constructed airfield at Kurmitola, still in India near Dacca, but much closer to the Burmese border.

Kurmitola Control Tower circa 1945. Photo

Weather Station at Kurmitola. Photo.

This move effectively lowered our time enroute by at least two hours, not only reducing wear and tear on the aircraft but also on the flight crews. By now, we were a fully equipped squadron of 19 planes, divided into 4 flights of 4, with 3 spares, and a full roster of men to support and fly. I don't think we ever got 16 airplanes in the air at the same time but on many occasions got close, and considering the area in which we were operating, it was considered acceptable. Most of the time we were still dropping bombs from medium altitude on bridges or railroad yards but every now and then, when we weren't having much luck, we would give it a go at low level.




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