FLYING OVER THE HUMP

September 14, 2001 12:00 am
Book cover was designed by its author, Tom Herrod. ().
Book cover was designed by its author, Tom Herrod. ().

One moment, pilot Tom Herrod was flying his C-46 cargo plane in a clear sky, the next, his plane was covered with 18 inches of solid ice and losing airspeed fast, even at full power.

Damn it, said the radio operator, This is the third time this month Ive been in trouble.

The transport dropped from 17,000 to 10,000 feet until it was finally able to hold that altitude over the densest jungle in Burma. To make matters worse, it was behind Japanese lines.

In spite of what awaited him on the ground, Herrod favored bailing out. His three crew members wanted to stay with the plane.

Fortunately, they were far enough south that only one of the lower ridges on the hump route over the Himalayas stood between the plane and its home base.

Unfortunately, that low ridge was between 9,000 and 11,500 feet high, and with the weight of the ice, the plane couldnt get above 10,000 feet. Because the ice covered every window, Herrod and his men were flying blind.

In his book, Hump Pilot, Herrod reported that his radio operator started to lose it, crying and babbling something about his mother, but the red transmitter light stayed on indicating that he was still trying to make radio contact.

They made it over the ridge and eventually the control tower was able to get a poor bearing on the plane, but wasnt sure where it was.

Herrod worked the controls to send his propeller tip speeds past the speed of sound. The tower heard the roar and was able to guide the plane in. It took a half-hour of circling to shed the ice.

The ambulance came to take the combat-fatigued radio operator off the plane, but the medics found none of the crew could fill out the paperwork or even sign their names.

The rest were taken to the hospital, but Herrod left to seek out his flight surgeon for a stiff drink. Two days later, combat fatigue caught up with him and he found himself wandering down a jungle road with no idea how he got there.

Herrod would remain in Burma for months and make dozens more flights over the Himalayas as a transport pilot in the China-Burma-India theater of operations in World War II.

Herrod survived many more harrowing adventures and went on to found a large crop-dusting service and an airline pilot training school after the war.

He eventually retired to Brookings and built his own home on Parkview Drive.

If the Japanese couldnt intimidate him in Burma, no one else stood much of a chance, and Herrod led many political crusades in Brookings.

Among the last of his involvements was to assist in the defeat of the Canopy Project and a $25 million school bond in Brookings.

Last year, he moved to Homosassa, Fla., where he assembled his wartime memories into a short, but action-packed book.

It tells the story of the pilots who braved enemy fire, deadly weather and the highest mountain range on earth to transport supplies over the hump to China after the Japanese cut the Burma Road.

To keep China in the war, and massive Japanese armies from reinforcing the Pacific islands, the pilots had to keep the supplies flowing day and night, in all weather, usually with no fighter escort.

Herrod said that during one day in the winter of 1943-44, Japanese fighters shot down 14 transports.

On average, one flight out of every 75 didnt make it back. Herrod flew 65 flights during his 16 months in Burma, fighting deadly snakes, disease and combat fatigue all the while.

Herrod tells his story in a straightforward conversational manner. He makes it clear he was just doing a job.

He saves his deepest respect for Merrills Marauders, who finally captured the Japanese airstrip at Myitkyina, Burma, ending the fighters reign of terror over the hump pilots.

Herrod dedicates his story to two of the Marauders: Roy Matsumoto and Brookings resident Clarence Branscomb.

He said the 3,000 Marauders were volunteers who had survived some of the worst battles in the Pacific. Only 600 survived the campaign that drove three divisions of Japanese troops out of northern Burma.

Herrod believes he and many soldiers who survived the war in the Pacific theater owe their lives to the Marauders.

They saved the hump pilots, who kept the supplies flowing to the Chinese army, which kept the Japanese pinned down, which allowed the U.S. Navy and Marines to retake the Pacific islands.

Herrod repaid the favor when he flew wounded Marauders out of Myitkyina. At the time, they held only a one-and-a-half mile perimeter around the cratered airstrip.

Herrod relates how American P-47 fighters bombed and strafed the sides of the airstrip to push the Japanese back so the hospital planes could land.

His plane was at 300 feet and descending fast when a P-47 flew under it, guns blazing. Still, it didnt take long for the Japanese shells to start hitting when Herrods plane landed.

He was soon loaded with wounded and ready to take off, but a soldier was shot down next to the tail of his plane.

The man was hastily thrown into Herrods plane, which took off as quickly as possible. Herrod had to bank sharply to avoid Japanese fire from across the river.

Herrod credited his pilot and military training for giving him the skills to survive Burma. That, and his youth. He said he was offered much the same deal during the Vietnam War, but he was older, wiser and in no mood to go through it all again.

Like most things Herrod has done in his life, when he decided to write a book, he did it all himself, from scratch.

He and wife, Judy, typed the story into his computer, printed the pages on his ink-jet printer, collated the pages, cut them and sent them out to be bound. Herrod designed and colored the cover, which his son printed with an embossing ink.

Herrod said his first printing of 30 copies quickly sold out. So did his subsequent printings of 50, then 100 copies. He is now planning a run of 250.

All profits from the book go to the national World War II memorial or nonprofit military museums. Herrod hopes veterans groups will help him sell copies to raise money for those causes.

He visited Brookings last week and left several copies at The Breeze Bookstore in the Brookings-Harbor Shopping Center in Harbor.

The price of $15 may be a bit steep for such a short book, but few people can put it down once they start reading, and most of the price is a donation to a worthy cause.

The feedback has been something else, said Herrod.

He also invites people to look up his Web site at http://www.cbihumppilot.com.