A Tribute to the Veterans of the Forgotten Front of WWII

The China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater of World War 2 was the largest theater in land area of all the WWII theaters. It stretched northeast to southwest some four thousand miles from Manchuria to the southern tip of India and east to west some 3,500 miles from eastern China to western India. It was an area that encompassed the highest mountains on earth and some of the world’s thickest jungles and driest deserts. Temperatures ranged from well below zero to over 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and in some areas, the storms of the monsoon season brought hundreds of inches of rain and some of the worst flying conditions in the world. Aircrews often encountered severe icing, winds up to 250 miles per hour, and vertical air currents that hurled their aircraft up or down thousands of feet per minute. The combination of monsoon weather, the Himalayan Mountains, and enemy action resulted in the loss of one in five aircraft that flew in the CBI Theater. The scattered wreckage of lost aircraft over the stretch of the Himalayan Mountains between India and China became known as the “aluminum trail”. The aerial supply lines for troops fighting in Burma and China were the longest of the war, crossing sections of the Himalayas that rose over twenty thousand feet and traversing the dangerous swamps and jungles of Burma. The flight route over the Himalayas between India and China was called “the Hump”.

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The CBI Theater  has been called the forgotten front. It was fourteen thousand miles from the United States and had the lowest priority for supplies of all the WWII theaters receiving only what supplies were left after the European and Pacific theaters were supplied. When WWII veterans of the CBI would talk of the war, it was often in terms of the meager rations they had. They would tell of subsisting on powdered eggs, powdered potatoes and powdered coffee and what little rice or fruit they could barter from the natives or collect in the jungle.

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Fighting and living conditions in the CBI were some of the worst of the war. The soldiers had to contend with bamboo thickets so dense they had to hack tunnels through them, and the underbrush was a thick tangle of vines and briers. After they were in the jungle for a while, they began to stink and develop fungus infections and their clothing began to rot and disintegrate.  Everything in the jungle either bit or stung, there are wasps as big as your palm and red and white ants whose bite burned like fire. Spiders would crawl up their legs and leave bites that swelled to the size of walnuts. There were scorpions and snakes and centipedes that often crawled into shoes or pockets or pant legs. If that wasn’t enough, there were leeches everywhere. There was the one-inch common leech, the three-inch buffalo leech, and the six-inch elephant leech. They lived at different levels in the vegetation from the ground up, and would drop from trees or attach themselves to unwary soldiers as they crossed swamps or streams. If their bite wasn’t treated, it would fester into ulcers that ate clear to the bone. There were poisonous snakes and tigers and leopards to contend with as well as jackals that kept them awake at night with their yipping and howling, and monkeys that would get into their tents and defecate on their beds.

CBI veterans also had to contend with terrifically hot and humid weather. The aircraft-maintenance people usually worked at night to avoid the heat. During the day, the metal on the planes got too hot to touch. In the monsoon season, the rains made everything a muddy mess and contributed to the spread of diseases such as malaria, dysentery, trench foot, jungle rot, dengue fever, and cholera.

Although it was the “forgotten front,” the CBI Theater was noteworthy in that it saw the first glider invasion in the history of warfare and the building of the Ledo Road through mountains and valleys flooded by monsoon rains. In addition, it saw the monumental effort to keep China in the war by flying hundreds of thousands of tons of supplies over the dangerous and foreboding Himalayan Mountains. The success of this effort kept thousands of Japanese troops tied down in China, where they were unable to aid their comrades in the war in the Pacific. Perhaps the most significant accomplishment of the CBI Theater was the greatest sustained combat air-supply missions the world has ever seen. These missions over the jungles of Burma kept more than seven hundred thousand Allied troops completely supplied from the air as they successfully defeated some of Japan’s best jungle fighters.

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The official military title of some of the airmen who were part of this air-supply effort was flight traffic clerk, but they were better known as “kickers”. They were aircrew members whose job was to properly load bundles of supplies onto their aircraft and then unload those supplies by dropping them from the planes to soldiers on the ground below. Sometimes the supplies were specially bundled with parachutes, and at other times, they were not. The job was neither easy nor safe and usually required unloading six thousand to seven thousand pounds of supplies while their plane flew over enemy positions at very low altitudes and speeds. It would typically take seven to fifteen passes over their target to completely unload the supplies. During these passes, they were often subjected to deadly fire from enemy aircraft and ground forces. The term “kicker” came from one of the methods the crew often used to unload the supplies. As they approached their target area, bundles of supplies would be stacked in the open doorway of the plane’s cargo bay. One of crewmen would then lie on his back behind the stacked bundles, with his knees flexed and his feet firmly planted in the center of the supplies. At a signal from the pilot, the kicker would literally kick the supplies out of the door to the waiting troops below.

There is much more to the story of the forgotten front and you can read more about the members of the “greatest generation” who fought there in the best selling book Kicker, available now from Amazon at the following link.  KICKER

 

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