Aviation History

Former C-87 pilot remembers the disastrous beginning of B-29 operations against Japan

‘The B-29 crews were cocky—at first. But as time wore on and accidents began to take their toll, the boys quieted down,’ Arthur La Vove, “Hump Driver.”

Arthur La Vove was a writer, artist, journalist, and pilot who lived and worked during a pivotal time in American aviation and military history. He was born on Manhattan Island in New York City, USA, on Dec. 6, 1909.

He flew his first airplane from Roosevelt Field in Long Island, New York, in 1929. He then went on to fly as a pilot for the first transcontinental airline in American history—Century Airways—and, subsequently, for United Airlines in the late 1930s, while enlisting in the Air National Guard prior to the attack by imperial Japan on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II in December 1941.

During the conflict La Vove flew as a “Hump Driver,” a pilot who transported people, supplies, and ordnance over the Himalayan Mountains between Assam, India and China. While deployed at Chengtu Airfield, China, he witnessed the arrival of the first B-29 in the CBI (China Burma India) theater.

La Vove recalls in his book Hump Drivers;

The B-29s were an awful lot of airplane. There had been scads of rumors about them. Long before they appeared in the CBI, the average Hump Driver imagined them in terms of hugeness that resembled fifteenth-century mariners’ descriptions of sea monsters.

‘The project for bringing the Twentieth Air Force’s big babies had been whispered, hush-hush, and top-secret from the very beginning. It had been known variously as the “Matterhorn” and “Twilight” project. No one, except possibly Tokyo Rose, the Japs, thousands and thousands of runway-building Chinese and Indian coolies, newspaper correspondents, and Air Force brass, knew exactly what was involved.

‘Hump Drivers, based in Jorhat and Tezpur in Lower Assam Valley began to fly their C-87s, loaded with cement mixers, rock crushers, bombs, and gas to the new, 2-mile-long runways that had come in being at the bases that surrounded the ancient capitol of Chengtu.

‘Weather reports were spotty; there were no adequate radio range facilities, traffic was heavy, and the fields were poorly lighted for night operations. But the Drivers put their ships in and then the 29s came along.

‘When they finally did show up, they looked surprisingly small after all the wild talk. Their crews acted like prima donnas at first. They were positive that they were going to win the war all by themselves.

‘Weren’t they going to bomb Japan from bases ‘way back in the guts of China?’

La Vove continues;

‘The ’29 crews were cocky—at first. But as time wore on and accidents began to take their toll, the boys quieted down. And the Drivers soon learned that a B-29 operation was a spectacle that could turn marrow to ice water.

There were the takeoffs. The Drivers would gather and watch, sweating palms, as the overloaded bombers slowly rose into the dismal overcast that always gave Chengtu a melancholy, tearful aspect.

‘Too often, bombers did not make it. Engine “bugs” hitherto und-tected showed up—and bombers and crews went up in smoke and flame.

‘And when the big boys came back from a mission, it was just as bad. The B-29 landings were a spectacle that, perhaps, the Romans could have appreciated. The Drivers did not.

‘Afterward—when the bombers were on the ground—the Japanese showed up and Drivers huddled in slit trenches while the maddened Nips tried to pulverize the ships that were damaging their homeland.’

La Vove concludes;

‘But these raids—Jing Bows, they were called—weren’t as bad as the accidents. It was tough, sweating out the B-29’s return; tough to watch one, with one or more feathered props make a wavering turn and suddenly stall and spin in …’

Hump Drivers is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force via Cool Old Photos and 7th Fighter.com

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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