By: Victor Fic

Starting in 1942, Ned Thomas, then a young US Army second lieutenant, and his peers winged skyward from their base in northeast India to hoist multiple tons of war material over the Himalayas to land in and provision Chongqing, the headquarters of Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalists, tying down Japanese forces in what became known as the “China Quagmire.”

The best route arced over mountains that shouldered up to 5,000 meters high. Even worse, the pilots faced “fierce winds that flung large planes like feathers … they felt the floor drop away in jet streams that [might] bury them in the crevassed [mountains], then suddenly hurl them upward … on wild rides … oxygen starved, fighting deadly vertigo in aircraft, while the gyro spun crazily on the dash,” according to Nedda Thomas, who has written a dramatic history, centered on her father, of the campaign to fly what was called “the hump.”

No wonder that Thomas is emotional over the amnesia blacking out the pilot’s ordeal. She rightly wants us to respect them, so she pens a loving biography. Her father’s brassy dedication and decency come across. However, the truly engrossing tale is the amazing Hump drama that ensures the book does a winner’s barrel roll overall. 

Thomas adroitly flits between the pilots and the encompassing geopolitics. She reviews Japan’s subjugation of Burma in 1942, interdicting the Burma Road that previously allowed America to truck aid to Chiang’s Nationalists. 

Washington was ardent to keep assisting corrupt Chongqing. Thomas observes that an ongoing war would compel Tokyo to garrison 2 million troops in country. What if the Nationalists withered? Then the enemy would swing his surplus men to the western Pacific. They would stop General Douglas MacArthur’s vital island-hopping campaign. That necessitated what was known as “aerial conveyer belt” over the Hump.

The backdrop to the Thomas’s narrative is the volcanic rivalry that affected the pilots. Claire Chennault, commander of the famed Flying Tiger P-39 fighter unit in Kunming, metaphorically duked it out against US army general Joseph Stilwell, who led the US ground forces in the CBI.

Chennault, after flying myriad open cockpit planes, had a face so leathery that he could have slapped on boot polish instead of shaving cream. As for Stilwell, his nickname Vinegar Joe characterized a man intolerant of fools while raging that Japanese, Chinese and American varieties plagued him.

To her credit, Thomas accurately summarizes the issues. Chennault bellowed that if he was given around 200 planes to bomb Japan’s shipping lanes, he could choke it into defeat; therefore, he punched the air in demanding more Hump supplies. Stilwell favored an infantry war and stomped ground clamoring for additional gear.

 The author overtly favors Chennault. This reviewer suspects it is so because he is on her beloved pilots’ team. Thomas pulls an intellectual stall here because both men were brilliantly half correct.  While Chennault’s warplanes were deadly, he succumbed to the mystique of air power. Stilwell was the quintessential army grunt prepped for yesterday’s conflict, i.e. the massed infantry of WWI. Their head butting was epic.

What is history’s verdict? A hybrid soil produced the blossom of victory. Chennault’s fighters downed 7.7 Japanese planes for each that they lost and plunked down 1.1 million tons of shipping. As for Stilwell, he did retake Burma in 1944. So let us break with the author’s partisanship in the interservice rivalry and laurel both flyboys and ground pounders.

Overall, Thomas is most skillful when her sights sharpen on the Hump and its pilots. For instance, when she enumerates its dangers, she stuns and holds the reader: overloaded planes straining for lift, sparks that exploded aircraft, poison fumes, lightning, being “sucked under an ice cap” and metal – scrunching crash landings, etc. As for pilots who ate flatulence-producing foods, the thin air balled them up in pain. 

Thomas throws in plenty of flying terms that relate the men’s real time experience, e.g. “Pilots regulated a tube from inside the cockpit that fed a glycol deicer into the hub of the props ….”

In offering cockpit banter, furthermore, she evinces a novelist’s ear for authentic dialogue. When one pilot tells his pal about his preference for leggy gals, the latter ribs him to “Warn ’em so they don’t swoon when they see you” – 100% guy talk!  

Thomas’ emotional restraint ensures a realistic story. She does not caricature the pilots as gravel-voiced Apollo-like gods. Instead, she admits that “the Hump drove men mad … sent them back to America … broken forever.” Thomas, therefore, swings over those skeptical about tales of valor that relatives intone. She crafts a classic example of how courage is not the absence of fear — but its conquest. 

In addition, the author persuades not by shouting out a propaganda poster but by merely subtly sketching her subject’s virtues — and also harnessing the power of jarring contrast. At times, the Hump pilots ferried the Nationalist troops. Thomas description indicates that the barbarians were not at the gate, but buckled inside the cabin — or not.

 When the Chinese ran amok in flight, they flipped airplanes. Or they urinated inside or they lit a fire in the walkways. Thomas eschews condemning them. Instead, she lets her heroes’ attitude glow in the shadow that this raffish lot cast. 

Among the book’s most memorable passages is one surely unique to China. The author includes it to impart – literally – blood red local color. When the US pilots revved toward take off, Chinese coolies sprinted in front of the propellers. One’s emotions bank in confusion: are they drunk, crazy?  Thomas explains that these ultra – superstitious men sought to chop up the evil spirit tagging them! That is the slight climb of a humorous, edifying cultural anecdote.

 But the next point flings one into a nose dive of horror: many a lead – footed coolie became coleslaw in those three blades — they whirled at up to 3,000 rpm. The coolie’s dash, you better believe, scared the hell out of the US pilots. Several of them careened and crashed off the runway to save the madcap runners. 

 Thomas’s hard data proves her motivating contention that the supply effort far surpassed what the odds predicted. The key factor was the derring-do of the pilots. The text hails them for transporting over a million tons, e.g. food, fuel, medicine, ammo, steam rollers — even mules! That kitted out 60,000 US soldiers and 19 Chinese armies.  

At least 700 of them, and possibly as many as 3,000, died flying a route deceptively labelled the Hump but that the pilots in moods of morbid candor called the Skyway to Hell.