TOP

Recollections of WWII from a Legendary Hump Pilot

By MS. BRITTANY OLSON, Staff Writer

Mr. George Kilbride truly embodies the defining characteristics of America’s Greatest Generation: humility, personal responsibility, an unrivaled work ethic, and heroic dedication to fight and sacrifice for his country; not for fame or recognition but because it is “the right thing and the only thing to do.”

Kilbride had a profound sense of obligation to his country, and immediately following his 18th birthday in 1942 he enlisted in the Army Air Corp to support U.S. WWII defense efforts. After just six months of flight training on PG-19s, BT-13s, and C-47s, the New Jersey teen was certified ready for war and deployed to Bengal, India, as a pilot of the 12th Cargo Combat Squadron. At that time, Japanese troops strategically entered Burma to occupy the Burma Road. The Burma Road was a group of three truck-convoy ground transportation systems that were utilized to transport substantial quantities of British and American cargo into western China to support the Chinese Revolutionary Army’s war campaigns against Japanese forces. The Japanese had previously annexed China’s last railway connection with the Soviet Union and the Port of Rangoon, China’s last controlled port. The only transportation route remaining was airborne over the eastern part of the Himalayan Mountains from India to Kunming, China, where the cargo was then trucked to Chungking and dispersed to troops from there.

On April 8, 1942, the United States Army Air Corps partnered with Allied forces on its first mission to transport fuel, weaponry, and other war supplies to the Chinese by navigating the deadly 1,000-mile-long route over the Himalayan Mountains referred to by Allied pilots as “The Hump.” The task was initially assigned to the U.S. 10th Army Air Corps and then reassigned to the Air Transport Command.

The development of an airlift operation of this magnitude presented a formidable challenge for the U.S. Army Air Corps and Allied forces, especially given the treacherous terrain and unpredictable weather conditions. The Army Air Corps was not trained or equipped to transport thousands of pounds of cargo a day, and there were no airfields in the China-Burma-India Theater capable of accommodating the number of transport aircraft required for a successful operation. To make matters worse, pilots were forced to fly blind into enemy lines without reliable charts, radio navigation aids, or weather equipment while navigating the mountain range’s infamous series of tight switchback turns called 24-Turns. As a consequence, these brave men had to depend on their intuition and straight-up luck for safe travels to the other side of the mountains.

The Hump airlift ended in August 1945 and was responsible for the successful delivery of 650,000 tons of cargo to Chinese troops in just 42 months. The operation was supported by 84,000 military personnel and remains one of the most complex logistical operations ever attempted and achieved by any country in history, but success did not come without paying the ultimate price. An estimated 700 Allied planes crashed or were shot down in the Himalayas and over 1,200 Airmen lost their lives. The Hump route was so dangerous and challenging with a one in three chance of surviving that each cargo mission was classified as a combat mission. “We went over with a squadron of 28 and we lost 20 in the first couple of weeks,” recalls Kilbride. The WWII Veteran was awarded eight Air Medals, four Flying Cross medals, and a medal from the Chinese government honoring his support of the country’s war efforts. During his yearlong assignment in India, Kilbride flew 229 combat cargo missions to transport supplies and passengers over The Hump and survived multiple crashes and ejections.

Kilbride flew The Hump nearly every single day during his deployment in India and his aviation routes over the Himalayas spanned an average of one to one-and-a-half hours. Navigating the Himalayas was so difficult because planes were unable to climb to a high enough altitude to bypass the peaks altogether, and pilots were forced to weave through the mountains using a printed map, airspeed, and a clock to navigate.

“There was me, a copilot, and a radio operator. The copilot and radio operator had to calculate how fast we were going and time it to plot our way through the mountains with a map as we flew through the valleys. The challenge was we were flying strictly on rudimentary instruments because most of the time the weather was so bad, you couldn’t see anything. That’s why we lost so many planes because crews thought they were in one place when they were in another part of the Himalayas and would fly straight into a mountain,” explained Kilbride.

The veteran pilot recounted several close encounters with death. His crew crashed into a ditch on a landing strip in Burma that was partially occupied by Japanese troops. “The Japanese had one end of the strip so when we landed at the other end, we had to open fire to keep them from firing on us.”

During another mission, Kilbride’s copilot sheared the landing gear off the plane while attempting to land on a runway cut into the side of a mountain. “If you were too low, you would hit the mountain instead of the runway. The copilot wasn’t low enough to hit the mountain, but he was low enough to shear off the landing gear and we skidded down the strip on the belly of the plane. We survived but the plane was unsalvageable.”

His crew was forced to jump from their plane on one occasion. “We had a 6x6 truck that was cut in pieces and put in the back of our plane. It took a lot of manipulating to make all the pieces fit. We lost an engine and couldn’t hold the altitude unless we dropped some cargo weight, but there was no way we could get the cargo out in flight, so we had no choice but to bail out. We parachuted into the jungle of the Naga Hills on the border of India and Burma. It took us 11 days to find our way out and we had to steer clear of the headhunters searching for Allied crewmembers that had survived crashes. We mostly ate pineapples that were growing wild.”

Aside from delivering cargo, Kilbride also had the pleasure of transporting distinguished generals and celebrities. “I transported the General of the Chinese First Army. I didn’t even know he was on the airplane. One time, I flew the tennis star Alice Marble, and famous actors Ava Gardner and Pat O’Brien to Burma,” he recalled.

Kilbride returned home from the war at 20 years of age and within just two weeks, he pursued his dream of becoming a professional pitcher for the New York Yankees. He visited his former high school baseball coach and was invited to attend a Major League Baseball (MLB) tryout at Ruppert Stadium in Newark, New Jersey, for the most promising amateurs from across the country. “I pitched three innings, struck out eight [batters] and the Yankees head scout came running over and wanted to take me up to the office to sign a contract,” stated Kilbride. He played for the Wellsville Yankees and Mayfield Clothiers Minor League Baseball teams for three years all while earning a Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering. At 23, Kilbride left the Minor Leagues to pursue a career as a chemical engineer with the Standard Oil Company in New Jersey.

This year, Kilbride, a decorated WWII Vet, semi-pro baseball player, chemical engineer, and loving father and husband celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary.