In 1937 the Japanese invaded China, having the intention of creating an empire in the far east, followed by an incursion into Russian territory in 1938. Later in September 1940, Japan signed a pact with Germany and Italy, the result being known as the Axis Powers. The Allies were supplying the Chinese forces of Chang Kai-shek but the pact between Russia and Japan in 1941 caused logistical problems by preventing overland supply. On the 7th December 1941 Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and followed this with attacks on Hong Kong, Malaya, and the Philippines and it soon became obvious that considering the advance of the Japanese, the only way to supply troops in China would be by air across the Eastern end of the Himalayas.
- Leland Shanle
The problem was passed on to the United States Army Air Force who delegated the Tenth Air Force with the task of providing aircraft and crews to transport supplies across the area of the Himalayan mountains which became known as the Hump. It was soon realised within the armed forces that there was very little knowledge or experience of transporting goods in this way and possibly the best people to help might be the civilian airlines. The task was taken up by ten Pan American Airways DC-3s, followed by twenty five DC-3s and their crews from American Airlines. The DC-3 was the civilian airliner, later known as the military C-47 Skytrain and called the Dakota by the RAF, which effectively revolutionised air transport. An aircraft which was regarded as reliable and easy to service it saw service in most countries of the world from 1936 on, and some are still flying even today. The first mission across the Hump was in April 1942 and from then on flew every day until mid 1945, albeit with different types of aircraft.
Leland Shanle has written a fictional account of the efforts of the crews of American Airlines and their effort in supplying units in China in the second world war, the story opening with the reminiscences of an American Airlines pilot named Dobbs who is on his final trip as aircrew before retiring. His family has been involved in flying for several generations and it is around this family that the book is set. From the preliminary account of civilian flying in December 1941 and then a flashback to his service flying in the first World War, an introduction to the remainder of the story is achieved.
Intermediate chapters provide a rough form of history as to what was happening in the rest of the world and information in the form of signals provides a form of continuity but the main content of the book is the moving of men and aircraft from the USA to a base known to themselves as Shangri-La not far from Dinjan. Their long journey from Dallas, via Los Angeles, Pearl Harbour, Wake Island, the Philippines, Calcutta and final destination in the Assam valley is described in detail. What would seem now to be a fairly simple journey must allow for the fact that although the DC-3 had a range of some 1500 miles, they were loaded with kit, and a war had started.
The time spent flying the Hump covers several chapters including one account of where an ex WW1 fighter pilot uses a DC-3 to outmanoeuvre a Japanese Zero, some feat in itself because although relatively fragile, the Zero was known to be one of the best aircraft in a dog fight during the early part of WW2. Despite the trials and tribulations, some of the original people actually make it back to America and the final chapter covers their return and finally back to the present where another generation of the family is still flying for American Airlines.
American, German and Japanese aircraft involved are illustrated, along with descriptions in the text which are occasionally long winded, even involving technical, historical and military inaccuracies at times. What is most disappointing is the apparent dislike of the author for the British people. It is not very pleasant to read of insulting terms apparently being used in 1941 which only first came into use in the 1970s, and slurs on the British Royal Family which seemed to indicate cowardice. The devotion of one chapter to how the Americans could enjoy themselves regardless of the discomfort caused, and the inference that the British had a class/military problem does not ring true with Americans I have met. Although an easy book to read it will only appeal to certain readers where it would certainly describe an aspect of wartime history which does tend to be forgotten.