Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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Almost Over the Hump – Podcast #174

At the beginning of World War II, Great Britain had most of its military resources focused on its war with Germany.  This left one of its colonies, Burma (now Myanmar), poorly defended, a fact that Japan took notice of.  Japan was already at war with China and had taken control of the bulk of the Chinese coastline.  This left just one major way for the Allies to get supplies into China to help fight off the Japanese – over the land via the Burma Road, which was not exactly a superhighway.  Stretching 717 miles (1,154 km) in length, the road was narrow, winding, and among the most dangerous in the world at the time. Yet, it was better than nothing.

Japan wanted Burma badly.  Not just for its natural resources, but to take control of the Burma Road and halt the transport of military supplies into China.  So, in 1942, the Japanese took advantage of a poorly fortified Burma, swept in, and took control of the country.

If the Allies couldn’t get supplies to China by land or sea, they had just one option left: they would have to take to the skies.  But this was a risky proposition. We’re talking about flying over the Himalayas – the tallest mountains in the world – with pre-jet age airplanes.  This would be tough to do in even the best of conditions, but these planes would be flying fully loaded through some of the worst weather conditions ever with Japanese aircraft on the prowl.

Just to give you an idea of how dangerous these transport missions were, between the initial flight on April 8, 1942, over what Allied pilots referred to as “The Hump,” until the winding down of the program in November 1945, 594 aircraft were reported lost or missing, with 1,659 men killed or MIA.

Perhaps you are old enough to remember the late CBS anchorman Eric Severeid. He was on one of those Hump missions when his airplane developed engine troubles. He quickly grabbed a bottle of gin and safely parachuted down into the jungles of Burma.

About one month later he would be rescued by a search-and-rescue team and later wrote, “Hardly a day passed that the operations radio did not hear the distress signal of a crew going down in the jungle valleys or among the forbidding peaks. Few at that time were ever found again, and there was a saying among the pilots that they could plot their course to China by the line of smoking wrecks on the hillsides. It is not often that one sees fear in the faces of fliers, but I saw it here. Each one reckoned that it was only a matter of time before his turn would come; they had the feeling of men who know they have been condemned.”

 The flight path from Dinjan to Kunming
The pink area highlights the region of Burma under Japanese control during WWII. The flight path from Dinjan to Kunming is the curved line directly above the pink area. (Wikipedia image.)

Many stories could be told of these Hump flights, but let’s focus on just one: that of China National Aviation Corporation, CNAC #58, which departed Dinjan, India on April 7, 1943.  Loaded with graphite electrodes, its destination was Kunming, China.

At the controls of the Douglas C-53 DO Skytrooper was 26-year-old pilot Camille Joseph (Joe) Rosbert of Philadelphia, who had earned a degree in chemical engineering from Villanova College in 1938. Unable to secure employment after graduating, he became a pilot for the US Navy. Then, seeking new adventure, he resigned from his commission in 1941 and volunteered to fight for China.  There, he joined up with the AVG (American Volunteer Group), later coined the Flying Tigers, and was credited with downing seven Japanese planes.  When the AVG disbanded on July 4, 1942, Rosbert joined up with the CNAC to fly over the Hump.

Joining him as co-pilot on this flight was another experienced airman, 24-year-old Charles Ridgely (Ridge) Hammell, III. He was a civilian pilot who, along with fifteen other Pan American pilots, volunteered to fly eight large transport planes into Burma to evacuate civilians there, just prior to the Japanese takeover. Ridge then joined up with the Pan American’s African Corp, which transported strategic material and personnel from Miami, down to South America, across the Atlantic to the African coast, traversing the Sahara to the Middle East, and then up to the Hump.  Ridge typically flew the desert portion of these missions, but there was something about the Hump that appealed to him.  He made the switch, and this particular flight that he was copiloting would be his very first over the Hump.

There was a third man on board, but little is known about him.  He was Chinese radio operator Li Wong.

Takeoff from the airstrip went smoothly and was purposely done under the cover of thick fog to prevent being spotted by Japanese fighters. Climbing ever higher into the sky, they encountered torrential monsoon rains that pounded against the windshield. Then, at approximately 12,000 feet (3.66 km), the rain transitioned into heavy snow.  As the plane continued its ascent, Ridge knew that they were getting close to the top.  He grinned, turned around to Li Wong, gave him a pat of assurance on his head, and told him, “We’re okay now. Another thousand feet and we’ll clear the hump. Another hour and you’ll be home!”

Yet the plane was starting to struggle.  Heavy ice began to form a film across the windshield and then spread to the wings, quickly coating them in a 6-inch (15.25 cm) layer of ice. The airplane began to lose airspeed and altitude, so Joe radioed Dinjan to let them know that he was turning back to base.  He proceeded to turn the aircraft 180 degrees, but the inside of the windows froze completely over and he was unable to see where he was going. Joe attempted to melt the ice by alternately pressing the warm palms of his bare hands against the glass.  He was able to melt a small peephole, about 2-inches (5.1 cm) in diameter, and was able to see that they were passing through a dense cloud.

No big deal, right?

Well, just as they emerged from that cloud, the rocks of a jagged peak suddenly appeared out of nowhere and they were within seconds of slamming directly into it.

“Look out!” Joe blurted out. “There’s a mountain!”

Instinctively, with his eye still peering through that tiny hole in the iced-up windshield, he sharply veered the aircraft to the right and missed the peak.

They had been within inches of certain death when a sudden loud scraping noise could be heard emanating from under the belly of the aircraft. It was as if the plane was about to be ripped open by a giant can opener.  And then they came to a sudden halt and everything was quiet.

(Map above shows the exact crash location. GPS coordinates 27°46’33.2″N 96°56’30.9″E)

It took a few moments for the two pilots to get a sense of what had just happened, but it wasn’t long before Ridge announced, “Get out of that thing before it catches fire!”

As Ridge prepared to make his exit, Joe told him, “Come on back in. You’ll freeze to death out there.”

They would soon learn that the engines had been ripped off in the crash so there was no danger of fire. Only the cabin of the plane had remained intact, which provided them with shelter against the elements. The radio, which was their only contact with the outside world, had been destroyed.  Even worse, the crash had snapped Li Wong’s neck and he had been killed instantly. 

It was just the two of them now.  And the main reason they survived had been because in banking the plane away from that peak, it was able to parallel the face of the mountain and come to a halt.  And if the rock and snow had not stopped the plane, crashing into another mountainous peak just a little farther up would have certainly done so.

Joe and Ridge were in the worst of predicaments.  They were at 14,800 feet (4.51 km) above sea level, with little chance of ever being rescued. That’s because the storm that brought them down blanketed the plane with an additional 2 feet (0.61 m) of snow overnight.  There was no way that any rescue mission would be able to spot them from the air.

Their only other option was to climb down the mountain, but that would be nearly impossible to do under even the best of conditions.  Not only did Joe and Ridge have no clue where they were or how far it was to reach civilization, but they also lacked food, protective gear, and good health.  The crash had cut up Ridge’s hands and face quite a bit and he was having a difficult time walking due to a sprained left ankle. And Joe had it even worse: his left ankle had been severely fractured in multiple places.  He would suffer unbearable pain each time that he applied even the slightest amount of pressure to it.

These two men were literally stuck between a rock and a hard place. If they stayed, they would certainly die from the lack of food and the extreme cold. If they opted to leave, there was little chance that they could survive the treacherous hike out to civilization.

What would you do in this situation? Would you stay or leave?  The two pilots assessed their situation, and both came to the same conclusion: the odds were stacked against them, but they would need to hoof it out of there and save themselves.

As they looked around the snow-covered landscape, they observed that there was a tree line about 5,000 feet (1.5 km) below them. And where there are trees, there is also water. If they could locate a small stream and follow it, that would lead to a larger stream, and then to a river that could bring them to a town or village.

(Google Map image above indicates the approximate location of the crash site.)

The plane was equipped with six small tins of food and a gallon jar of soft-drink syrup, which they could mix with snow to drink. At best, they could ration this little bit of nourishment to last about one week. So, they figured that if they waited five days, their ankles would heal up enough so that each step that they took wouldn’t be filled with excruciating pain and they would be able to leave then.

They grew impatient and on the third day, they decided to begin their hike out.  They were not successful.  The slope was incredibly steep, and they were in such pain that they barely covered a distance of 200-yards (183 m) in four hours.  They decided to turn back, arriving back at the fuselage just as darkness began to set in.

The men felt hopeless.  Knowing that they were probably going to die, they struggled to fall asleep and eventually dozed off.  Then, suddenly, a brilliant idea popped into Ridge’s head.  He began to pry one of the floorboards of the plane loose, which woke Joe up.  Ridge suggested that they use the floorboards of the plane as sleds to race down the mountain.  Not only would this keep them off their bad ankles, but it would get them to the tree line below far faster than they could ever have managed on four good feet.

Colorized photo of Ridge Hammell (left) and Joe Rosbert shortly after their rescue.
Colorized photo of Ridge Hammell (left) and Joe Rosbert shortly after their rescue.

It was their only hope.  They quickly got to work ripping up the boards.  They also pried boards from the plane’s cabin to use as splints to secure their ankles. The silk parachutes were torn into strips to serve three purposes: to bandage up their damaged ankles, to secure the splints, and to protect their hands and feet from the brutal cold.

When daylight finally came around, they headed off. Well, sort of.  Their homemade sleds were a complete failure.  They would rapidly go down a hill, but as soon as they hit a soft spot, the boards would dig into the snow.  They would then have to dig the boards out and start again.  They did this over and over again until Ridge hit a rock and went tumbling about 50 yards (46 m) downslope. He was unhurt, so they decided to give up on the sleds and just tumble down the mountain. It wasn’t long before they discovered the most efficient way to do this: they would lie on their backs, pull their legs back toward their chests, hold them tight against their bodies with their hands, and then go sliding.

This worked very well until they approached the tree line.  That’s when they encountered a steep slope that was estimated to be about 500 feet (152.4 m) straight down.  While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, they felt that they had no choice but to go over the edge and hope that they landed in soft snow below.  Ridge went first and landed safely.  He yelled back to Joe, “It’s okay, but it’s rough. Come on down!”

And that is exactly what Joe did.

Their wish was to find a stream that could possibly lead them to a larger stream, which they luckily found just before the evening’s sunset. They took shelter in a small cave that covered only half of their bodies, but it was better than nothing. They placed their arms around one another in an attempt to stay warm.

When daybreak came around, they once again set out on their journey. What they were to find was not good news.  The steep walls, rapids, and waterfalls of the stream made it impossible to follow, either from its edges or through its waters.  Their only option was to leave the stream and hike an alternate path.  This meant three pain-filled days of hobbling over the jungle-filled hills until they encountered peaks that were simply too steep for the injured men to climb. They could go no further.

This forced them to return to the stream, and they made the tortuous climb over the many giant angular boulders, both in and out of the water, that stood in their way.  They were making what they thought was great progress until they encountered a series of incredibly steep waterfalls.  Any attempt to go over them would result in certain death. Climbing out of the stream valley was also impossible.  Its steep walls were nearly vertical.

Keep in mind that Joe and Ridge were very low on energy due to a lack of nourishment. They had managed to spread the last of their rations out over many days, consuming just one bite each in the morning and at night, but they had taken their last bites that morning.

Would this be the place where they would both die?

The two men sat down to ponder their situation.  Then, out of the blue, Ridge noticed a long vine hanging down the valley wall and grabbed at it. Not only was it strong, but they quickly deduced that it did not naturally grow there.  It had been tied in place by human hands.

Humans! 

They knew that they must be getting close. How close they did not know, but it was the most positive sign that they had received since their plane crashed.

Adrenalin kicked in and provided them with the energy that they needed to climb that vine to the top of the valley wall.  And they found something even better when they got up there.  A number of the saplings had been notched as if they marked some sort of trail.

For the next three days, those notched marks took them along a journey that led them up and down numerous hills, over countless large rocks, and through dense vegetation. They had no clue as to where this would all lead. And even if it did lead to a location where they could be rescued, that journey could be quite long and they knew that they would never make it if they didn’t find some food.

It’s not that Joe and Ridge didn’t attempt to find food.  They tried just about anything they could find, but nothing seemed edible. At one point, Joe spotted a piece of fruit floating in the stream and fished it out.  He thought it was a mango, but its taste was far too awful for it to be that. Both took bites of it anyway and the result was incredible stomach pain. The only good that came out of eating that forbidden fruit was that it effectively numbed their stomachs for the next three days and took away their hunger pains.

On day thirteen, the stream valley that they had been following forked in two different directions.  Unsure which way to go, they simply continued in the direction that they were already going: to the east toward Tibet.  They later realized that they should have gone in the opposite direction, since that would have taken them toward Burma and India, where their base was.

Ultimately, that bad decision turned out to be the correct one.  After just one hour of hiking, they encountered a clearing and spotted a hut that had burned to the ground.

Later in the day, they spotted a child’s footprints in the mud, which gave them further hope.  Then, as the end of the day approached, they hiked over a hill and saw, elevated off the ground by stilts, a bamboo hut with a thatched roof.  More importantly, there was smoke coming out of it, which meant someone was probably inside.

They knocked on the doors of the hut, but no one answered. So, Ridge forced in one of the doors and entered the smoke-filled room.  Inside, they found two elderly women, one of whom was blind, and six nude children.  They were all terrified of the two fliers, and although they didn’t speak the same language, Joe and Ridge did their best to put their fears at ease. Once everyone was calm, the children handed each of the pilots a gourd, which they used to scoop hot food that the women had generously offered. After getting some much-needed nourishment, the two men quickly zonked out around the fire and caught some much-needed zzzs.

What they didn’t know at the time was that they had reached a hut belonging to the Mishmi people, a group who were thought by outsiders to have been savage head-hunters.  Yet, from the moment Joe and Ridge arrived, the Mishmi were anything but that.  Instead, they were kind, generous, and did all that they could to help the two men. The fliers became a bit of a tourist attraction with many Mishmi coming to see them and the unique things that they had, which included zippers on their clothing, a flashlight, a compass, and a mechanical pencil.

On their fourth day at the hut, it was time to move on.  Both were still suffering from their injuries, so three Mishmi men assisted the pilots as they hiked for eight hours along a rough mountainous trail. Their destination was a larger hut, where those three men and four others lived, along with fifteen women and countless children.

About two weeks later, an elderly Tibetan trader arrived, and he said that he occasionally had contact with the outside world, aka the “white man.” He asked Joe and Ridge to come with him, but they explained to him that they felt that they needed another five days for their ankles to heal up before they could make another journey.  One thing that they were puzzled by was that the trader had taken a keen interest in their mechanical pencil, but they refused to part with it.  It may be needed later on to send a note on to potential rescuers.  Then, later that evening, the trader, who may have been their only possible ticket out for a very long time, left.

A few days passed and suddenly that trader’s son arrived at the camp. He generously gave the two men a chicken, a pinch of tea, and a bowl of rice, and, just like his father, took considerable interest in that pencil. Joe wasn’t sure, but could they have not wanted the pencil, but instead wanted him to write something?

Joe quickly tore a corner off his flying map and jotted down these words on it: “We are two American pilots. We crashed into the mountain. We will come to your camp in five days.” The young man snatched that slip of paper and ran off with it.

They assumed that he would come back with his father on the fifth day and escort them to their hut. Instead, he came back on the fourth day and presented them with a gift of four eggs.  He then left the hut briefly and returned with an even more generous gift.  It was a standard form that was used in India to send a telegram and it was sealed shut with wax.

Could this be the news of rescue that they had been hoping for? It was. 

Inside was a message from Lieutenant W. Hutchings, who commanded a British scouting column that was about a four-day hike away.  He indicated that he was immediately sending messengers with supplies and that a medical officer would arrive shortly after that.

They didn’t have to wait long. The natives could move through the mountains quickly and arrived with the supplies less than an hour later. With the Mishmi people having been so generous to them, Joe and Ridge returned the favor by sharing their tea, salt, cigarettes, and matches in return.

Two days later, Captain C. E. Lax arrived to administer first aid and bandaged them up so that they could start the long journey out of there. The next morning, after twenty-three days with the Mishmi, they began the sixteen-day hike back to civilization.  There were still many mountains to climb and streams to cross, but this time they had ample food, warmth, and others to help them along when the going got tough.  After reaching a British patrol station, Joe and Ridge jumped into a truck and were transported back to the same base that they had flown out of forty-seven days earlier.

Their story of survival against all odds made headlines around the world, but once the attention faded, the two would go their separate ways.

Ridge Hammell returned to flying over the Hump about one month later, having completed an estimated 400 dangerous crossings over that mountainous terrain. He would return to the United States in July 1944, married Jean Powell, and then return to resume flying over the Hump about seven months later.  Sadly, he was killed during takeoff from the airfield in Dinjan, India on May 9, 1945, at 26 years of age.

Joe Rosbert was taken back to the United States to undergo extensive surgery to repair his ankle. Once he recovered, he and nine other former AVG pilots founded the Flying Tiger Line, which transported air cargo across the United States.  In 1957, Joe and his wife Lil moved to Spain, purchased a castle, and created the Hotel Son Vida resort.  Ten years later, they moved back to the States and opened Tiger Joe’s Gourmet Restaurant in North Carolina. He also authored two books.  He was eleven days shy of his 90th birthday when he passed away on January 8, 2007.

Due to the remoteness of the crash site, their aircraft is lying still there. It was located on December 14, 2005, by Clayton Kuhles, who specializes in finding aircraft and the remains of men who were lost on the Hump. In his report, which he has posted on his website MIArecoveries.org, he details what was found and includes photos of the wreckage.  The engines and the landing gear, which had been ripped off during the crash, lie approximately 150 feet (45.7 m) downslope from both the fuselage and the cargo that it was carrying. The fuselage was in far worse shape than when Joe and Ridge had abandoned it. Accidentally, it had been severely burned by Mishmi hunters who had been using it as a shelter.

In one of the villages, Kuhles spoke with an elderly woman who had cared for the two pilots in her village along the Ngat River.  She took one look at a photo of the two men taken shortly after their rescue and she positively identified them.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Joe Rosbert tells the complete story of their ordeal in the article Only God Knew the Way. (Saturday Evening Post, February 12, 1944, page 12)
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