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Interview with Philip Adair [8/15/2002]

Unidentified Speaker:

The Free State Basha of the China-Burma-India Veterans Association is meeting at Snyder's Willow Grove Restaurant in Ithica ... Baltimore, Maryland. Our guest speaker for today, Thursday, August 15th, 2002, is Mr. Philip Adair, a fighter pilot in World War II who was assigned to the China-Burma-India theatre of operations. There were only about 250,000 U.S. troops in the China-Burma-India theatre. After the Japanese captured Burma, they cut off the Burma Road, the lifeline of China. Prior to World War II, ships landed at Rangoon, and supplies were shipped by railroad and river steamers to Lashio by way of the Ayeyarwady River and up to Myitkyina and then by truck to Kunming and the rest of China.

After the Japanese cut off the Burma Road in May of 1942, the only way to supply China was by transport aircraft flying from the bases in the northeast frontier of India in the state of Assam. They flew over the lower portion of the Himalaya Mountains called the Hump. Flying was treacherous because of the high mountains, bad storms and icy conditions. Many planes were lost, including those shot down by Japanese fighter planes. Mr. Adair flew Hump patrols to protect the U.S. air transport commands, air transport aircraft, and later flew a fighter and fighter bomber in Burma. Here ... the reason for the U.S. troops being in the China-Burma-India Theatre was to keep China in the war. The Chinese, by being in the war, kept about 1 million troops of the Japanese from being relocated to the South Pacific, and as a result of the actions of the people in the CBI, the Chinese troops were not available, and it saved thousands of lives in the South Pacific.

In addition to flying the supplies to China for Chinese troops, there was a small contingent of American troops with Chinese troops who were retaking the Burma Road from the eastern end of the road from China. In addition to this, Joseph W. Stilwell, the general in charge of the theatre, had troops moving down the Ledo Road to build a new road from Ledo, India, to interconnect with the old Burma Road. This in turn caused both the Army Engineers Corps, and support troops to have to move out the Japanese before they could construct the road.

Mr. Adair also helped fighter-bomb the Japanese troops so the road could advance. He also supported the Merrill Marauders, who were part of this engagement, to retake Myitkyina and to drive the Japanese out of the area on the way to rebuild the Burma Road and Ledo Road. Now, here is Mr. Adair, and here is his story.

Unidentified Speaker:

_______ general, U.S. Army Air Force, retired. He grew up on a farm, graduated from high school in Oklahoma in 1937. He worked for years and learned to fly in Wyoming. He volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army Air Force in December of '41 and graduated a second lieutenant, Single Engine Plane Advanced Flying School at Luke Field, Arizona, in August '42. He was assigned to the 89th Fighter Squadron, the 80th Fighter Group at Mitchel Field, New York, in September of '42, assigned P-47's.

He was deployed with the 50th Fighter Group in India, in Burma, flying P-40's and P-47's. In 1943, May, he flew 139 combat missions in the CBI, protecting the Yossan (ph.) Valley, the Hump route into China and the air support for Stilwell's composite forces, the Merrill Marauders, the British forces and others. He spent 20 years in the Air Force, air defense mission headquarters, ADC and USC, at the various overseas bases. He retired in November of '71 with 30 years service. Service decorations include the Silver Star, also awards of the Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Bell and Presidential Unit Citation. He currently lives in Goldvein, Virginia, with his wife of 57 years. He has four children and several grandchildren that live nearby. Mr. Phil Adair, give us a little talk. Mr. Adair.

(Applause)

Philip Adair:

Well, thanks a lot for having me. It was a great lunch; I really enjoyed that, and I'm delighted to be here with a group of ... congenial bunch of people. You know, I find it interesting sometimes and hope you do,too, to know a little bit about the background of the people in the earlier days. I did grow up on a farm in Oklahoma. It was on a creek not too far from the Army artillery of Fort Sill and Shepherd Army Air Force at Wichita Falls. Our farm was a kind of a favorite spot for pilots to come down and mow the grass, buzz the planes and scare the horses, and they ran away with me more than once.

But I knew when I watched them what I wanted to do. Now, I came from a family of nine children. I was the youngest. Six sisters, so I had a lot of bosses. Most families our size would live in a house with three or four bedrooms and two baths. We had three bedrooms and two paths; one went to the well, and one went to the outhouse. We didn't have electricity, and the only running water that we had was when my mother would hand me a pail and say, "Philip, run down to the well and get some water."

Well, we weren't poor. We just didn't have any money. So when I graduated from high school in 1937, I wanted to get into the Air Corps, so bad I could taste it, so I went up to Fort Sill and cornered the second lieutenant up there, and I said ... I knew I needed two years of college, but I thought maybe he would have some words of wisdom for me. So I said, "How do I get in the Army Air Corps?" He looked at me for about three seconds and said, "Sonny, go get two years of college and come back, and maybewe'll talk to you." He might as well have said, "Go to the moon," because there was no way I could go to college.

Well, being out of high school and living on a farm was kind of hard to make any money. The only kind of work I could get was what we call a day job. A day job is charged from sunrise and into sunset. On the bad days I would get 25 cents a day; on the good days, 50 cents. So I didn't have a lot of walking-around money. So when my younger brother found a job for me in Wyoming at 15 dollars a week, I jumped on that like a duck on a June bug. And you already know where I went up there. I did learn to fly there. I didn't get the two years of college, but I did get in the Army Air Corps. So when I joined the ___ fighter group at Mitchel Field, we were right next to the Republic Aviation factory that built the P-47's. That's what we were equipped with.

I arrived there on the 9th of September, and on the 14th I got in a P-47 and took off, and I was somewhat awed by the size of that machine. It was a monster, and I remember that day as well as I can remember yesterday. I remember getting it off the ground, pulling the wheels up and thinking, "I got this thing in the air. How am I ever going to get it back on the ground?" Well, it turned out it wasn't all that bad, you know, and I did that a good many times. Well, we trained on P-47's. We were supposed to go to England, and we were supposed to fight the German Air Force's 5490's and Messerschmitt 109's.

In April of '43 we had the boat about half loaded with equipment that we were going to take to England. The commander got a call in the middle of the night, and the next morning at 8 o'clock, we were all on a train in Hempstead, New York, headed south to Bird Field ____. When we got down there, the chief of the Air Force, General Hap Arnold, was there to meet us, which was somewhat of a surprise, and I was somewhat amazed, you know, that he had come down there to meet us, and he said well -- and he said, "You people have been selected for an important mission, but it's secret. I can't tell you what it is, and I can't tell you where you're going. You'll find out where you're going when you get there, and you'll find out what you're going to do when you get there."

Back at Mitchel Field, unloaded the boat, they stuck us in a compound at Camp Kilmer, put us on the Mauretania with a total of 11,000 troops. 52 days later and two boats later, we dropped anchor off the crotch of India. Now, they don't have a harbor there, so they couldn't go into the harbor. We had to drop anchor offshore. They took some barges out. We climbed down onto the barges. They towed the barges in close to shore where the water is about waist deep. We got off the barges and waded to shore. Bythat time I wasn't sure whether I was in the Navy, the Marines or the Army Air Corps.

Well, after we got on shore, we found out that we were going to get P-40's and we were going up to the Assam Valley. We were going to protect the bases up there and the airplanes that were flying the supplies and equipment over the Hump into China. Well, I was on the first contingent that went up there. We landed at a little, tiny place called Popeye. It looked like a postage stamp when we flew over it, about the size of a good-size putting green. We managed to land there right next to a super tank, which was being readied for air transport ships to fly across the Hump into China.

Now, to give you an idea of what that looks like, I've got a map here which I'm hoping some of you can see. Maybe all of you won't be able to. If you can see this kind of wiggly, dotted line here, that's Burma. It goes all the way down to Thailand. On this side is the Assam Valley. Over here is China, across these big, tall mountains up here. Here you see a bunch of purple dots there, those spaces that were in the Assam Valley, that's where these transport planes flew out of.

In 1942, the Japanese had managed to not only run the British out of Burma, but General Stilwell as well, which you're well aware of, and they took over all of Burma. They owned it clear up to Shingbwiyang, which is the farthest north base, and they were able to operate pretty well with impunity out of there.

Now, here is the Burma Road that started at Lashio, the brown line that goes up into China. The Japanese had managed to get all of the posts ... capture all of the posts from the Sea of Japan down to the South China Sea clear around the _____ Peninsula up into the Bay of Bengal, and the Chinese had no way of getting any supplies except what had been coming over the Burma Road, had to go across the Hump up here, and you could see two brown dotted lines up here. That's the general route that the air transport planes flew out of the Assam Valley across these big mountains up here. They had to fly over 20,000 feet, some places 23,000 just to get over those.

So they would take off at the Assam Valley bases loaded to the gills, climb, trying to get high enough to stagger over the top and ______ extremely vulnerable. The Japanese would fly Zeros out of the northern Burma bases up the Ayeyarwady and Salween River Valleys, where they would remain hidden, and there nobody could see them, you know, so they would snip up and shoot down these transports and go on home.

So our job became to protect the bases here and also fly patrol over this area you see up here where I _____10 13, that was the really vulnerable spot up there, and that's where the aircraft people really sweated getting across.

Just beyond that is a place that they called Hell's Gate, and once they got through Hell's Gate, they were in pretty good shape. They had to haul enough gas to take their supplies over there and enough gas to turn around and fly them back. So it wasn't an efficient operation, but it was the best they could do. Well, we did a lot of that in late 1943. From September on up to about October, we were principally on the defensive mode.

We had replaced the 51st group that had been stationed in the valley before, but when we got there, they didn't have any planes left; the Japanese had destroyed most of them either in the air or on the ground, so they had quite a few pilots but no planes, so when we came in, they mixed in with us. Part of our pilots went with the 51st into China, part of their pilots stayed back in Burma. They started going home in November. In October we started doing fire sweeps down into northern Burma to try to discourage the Japs from coming up into the valley.

We also went after the railroad bridges. You could see a black line right here, that's the Burma railroad that the Japanese used to bring supplies up into Kamang and into Myitkyina, ______, which we took out in October, which prevented them from using this extension to get over to11 Myitkyina, so it kind of slowed them down a little bit. It also upset them a little bit. So in December they started retaliating. They came in with a force of bombers up to Port Hurst (ph.), I think it was the 10th of December 1943. Four of our pilots happened to be on _____ 13 patrol up here. They shot down one bomber and four fighters. We didn't lose any airplanes, although one of them got shot up pretty bad.

Well, three days later, it was the 13th of December, I had just come back from one of these _____ 13 patrols, three and a half hours. I just began to relax when the red alert went off, and Japanese came in with 24 bombers and 40 fighters to the Assam Valley. I scrambled -- the rest of my flight wasn't able to get up to join me in time, so I was the only one that could intercept this force of Japanese before they hit the 10th Air Force headquarters, which I did. It was a bit of a scramble. Some people thought that I disturbed their attack plan enough to throw them off, but I really didn't. You know, it's kind of like a fly swatting an elephant.

But we did have quite a little fracas going on there. I shot down one bomber and one fighter and probably two more before they shot up my plane so bad that I couldn't do much with it anymore, so I went on back home.

In early '44, Stilwell's forces with two Chinese divisions and Merrill's Marauders started from Ledo Road to come down Hukawng Valley. They were on their way to Myitkyina. Our big job in addition to their defense became close air support for Stilwell's forces and Merrill's Marauders, and we flew all kinds of missions day after day, and sometimes two or three missions.

The first planes we had only had one pylon, so we couldn't carry any extra bombs, but in January we got a new type of P-40 in, finally, that had three pylons on it, so we could carry three bombs or one belly tank and two bombs and with that about a thousand rounds of 50-caliber ammunition. We were able to do a lot of damage to the Japanese forces down through there. We followed the Merrill Marauders and Stilwell's forces all the way down, close air support. The troop carrier people flew in C-47's and dropped supplies to them because it was almost impossible for the Marauders or anybody else to haul heavy equipment through the jungle. So we were trying to do with bombs what they would normally do with Howitzers, if they could get them, and they had some, too, and they used them; but we did our best to help them.

On the 17th of May 1944, Merrill's Marauders captured the airdrome at Myitkyina. The other 4,000 first trip _____ with a big hole in the middle, 60 feet wide, 2,000 feet on each side of that hole, they started flying C-47's in there to fly in supplies.

Well, the next day on the 18th, the Japanese came up with the force of Zeros, and they did a fighter sweep on Myitkyina. They destroyed four C-47's on the ground, two in the air, and one of our pilots was flying an L-5 as a courier to take some stuff down to the base there. They shot him down and killed him.

That same day I was over here near Kamang with a flight of four P-40's that was trying to get some support to Stilwell's forces there around the Kamang area. We got in a string and came in to drop our bombs, and just as I was pulling up, I looked up, and there was 15 Zeros sitting up there, and here we are down on the ground, low airspeed, with our pants down clear around our ankles, you might say.

When I saw those 15 Zeros, I knew right away that they were a bunch of professionals. They had us cornered in a little open area that was surrounded with clouds on all sides, cloud down on the ground and overcast of 5,000 feet.

When I saw what was happening, I told my guys to drop their bombs and try to get in the clouds as quick as they could, which they did. The guy behind me, when I turned around to look, there was a Zero on his tail as he was heading in the clouds. I was on his tail shooting at him, and when I came back out, I couldn't see any of our guys, but they were around; but there were a lot of Zeros there.

Well, with the P-40 at that altitude and without room to dive or way to pick up speed, we were in pretty deep trouble because not only could the Zeros outturn us and outclimb us, but the ones they had would outrun us too, so we had a pretty tough time. That battle went on for, like I say, a good 25 or 30 minutes, during which time I shot down two Zeros. _____ _____ leader also shot down two Zeros, and after we had been in the fight there for quite a while, out in this open area the only thing I could see besides myself was five other Zeros, and they were all on my tail. I was headed south, and home was north, so I went in the clouds again.

When I came back out, nobody around me, so I felt pretty bad about that time, because I had never lost one of my flight members before, and I thought, "Here I am. I have lost three. Why am I surviving?"

Well, I stuck around a little bit. There was obviously no use to hang around anymore, so I headed home. I got about maybe 15 miles north, and I see an airplane circling. I didn't know what it was, so I approached it pretty carefully. When I got close enough, I could see it was my own man, and he was flying in a circle. So he was looking for help, is what he was doing. So I pulled up alongside, and I could see that he had taken a 20-millimeter shell right behind his left shoulder in the cockpit, blew that whole part of the cockpit away. The airplane looked like a sieve. I don't know how it was flying, but it was. His radio was gone. He obviously was wounded. So I looked him over and signaled "thumbs up" as best I could, you know, so we headed home.

About 25 miles, and I heard kind of a feeble call, "_____ leader, do you read me?"

"Roger." It was the number three man.

He said, "I'm up at Sadia (ph.)." He said, "I've been hit pretty bad. I don't know what kind of shape I'm in. Can you come up and pick me up?" So I said, "Sure," so I did. I went up and found him. His airplane looked pretty much the same as the other one. All his tires were flat. He had been hit from the front, the back, the sides and everyplace else. So this time I thought, "Well, we did better than I thought. We've got three out of four home. I know we got some of them."

So we went on home, landed. The number four man, as soon as they took after him, he headed for home, and he made it. He had 16 bullet holes in his airplane. My ____ leader had 111 bullet holes in his. You couldn't hardly find a place in the airplane that wasn't ... didn't have holes in it. The number three man had 123 bullet holes in his. And I don't know why, but I didn't have a one. Somebody was right on my shoulder looking after me. I know that.

Well, we kept on flying close air support down through there for quite a while. Eventually I took a flight of P-40's from our base at Nagaghuli down to _____and flew with the 88th for a while. Then we got notice that we were supposed to go to Karachi and pick up P-47's, so I did that, came back. We flew long-range missions on _____ and for the first time, we could make it way down beyond this brown line here, which was our limit with P-40's, all the way down to Lashio, _____ and so forth, and we worked over all the Japanese bases down there.

So by the end of October, early November, the Japanese didn't have any bases down there they could use, to speak of, at all. They had all been wiped out, and at the same time, our forces had moved on beyond Myitkyina down to Burma and joined up with the Burma Road.

One thing I wanted to tell you is that when it came to close air support for Merrill's Marauders particularly, they had such a hard time, there wasn't anything that we wouldn't do, any rescue that we wouldn't take. They knew it. They saw our airplanes up real close, like 25 to 50 yards from where they were straight on Japanese forces. They knew what my plane looked like.

On the 19th day of May, which is the third day after they took the base in Myitkyina and after the Japs had already worked them over pretty bad, I was flying patrol17 over Myitkyina trying to discourage anybody from coming up and working them over again, and we had a call that all the bases in the valley were closed; they were socked in, and our base, the operation shack was on the edge of the runway. The runway was 60 feet wide. They couldn't see across it. They said, "There's no place to go."

Well, the only place I knew to go was there at Myitkyina, 2,000 feet of rock pile, so we landed there, and when my plane stopped rolling, Merrill's Marauders came up over the wings, grabbed ahold of me and hugged me, and they were so glad to see me, and I was glad to see them.

So I got out of the airplane. We were walking away, and all of a sudden, it got real quiet, and I don't think anybody was closer to Merrill's Marauders than I was, and I'll tell you why, because when we were walking away, I heard something go zing right by me. It was a sniper bullet.

All of a sudden, I looked around. There wasn't anybody standing. They were all laying flat on the ground. Man, I was right there with them. I hadn't much more hit the ground when one Merrill's Marauder was on each side of me and one of them on top of me, and they stayed there until they got that sniper. Finally they said, "Okay, sir. You can get up now. We got him." So I think I can truly say that nobody was closer to Merrill's Marauders than I was.

When we got P-47's, we started to working with support for the British troops. The Japanese had started in the summer a big campaign, their 15th Army coming up the _____ River Valley and up the rail line, and they were going to head up here. They were going to try to cut this Bengal-Assam rail line that they used to haul supplies up in the Assam Valley to fly over the Hump, and they almost did it. The British were here at Imphal, Kohemia and Dimapur, and they had been there for a long time. I often wondered what they were doing. Mountbatten's headquarters was -- well, it wasn't there, but he was in there once in a while. We escorted him into _____ once, took three days out of our busy schedule to _____ cover so he could come and visit, which was fine because he was a Southeast Asian commander, and he should have all of the protection anybody could give him, and we were glad to do that; but one thing that bothered us a bit was that the Southeast Asia command took the position that if something happened in the CBI and the British didn't do it or couldn't find a way to take credit for it, it didn't happen. So nobody knew what we were doing except us, and I thought that was really not too good of policy to follow, but, you know, that's the way it is.

Apparently General Stilwell had a lot of run-ins with General Slim and Mountbatten also. They got their disagreements, and as far as I was concerned, Stilwell's forces coming down through the valley there along with Merrill's Marauders, they are the ones that drew the Japanese out of Burma where we could start flying across the southern part there, the shorter route and making much more effective use of the transport planes and not losing so many and also to drive the Ledo Road _____ with the Burma Road, which happened in February of '45.

So with the war being over in August, most of that war was fought with supplies that were flown over the Hump. Not too many people have a good idea of what kind of losses the Air Force suffered. I've got some figures here for you. Air transport command lost 667 planes. The fighters in the tenth Air Force, 79 were lost; bombers, 170; combat cargo, 173; troop carriers, 47; liaison aircraft, 9; miscellaneous, 26; Chinese nationalist air command, 22; for a total of -- 526 miscellaneous, for a total of 1,193 planes lost. That route was called the aluminum trail because there was so many airplanes littering the mountainsides there.

That war went on for 1,074 days, one of the longest continuous battles, especially when you figure it started in China in 1937 and it went all the way through to August of '45, that was a long war.

One of the things that people don't realize too much is the part that the nurses and the Red Cross played over there. They did really a fantastic job, and they took some pretty serious losses. Some of them were in planes that were shot down over Burma. The most tragic loss that happened that I'm aware of took place on the 3rd of March, 1945, when there was a party where -- I don't remember which base it was, but the nurses from Ledo were flown over to the base--

Unidentified Speaker:

_____.

Philip Adair:

_____, yeah. On the way back the weather was bad, and that plane crashed. It killed ten air crews _____, one of which was the Red Cross and 17 nurses. That was really a tragedy. I seen one of the gals right over there that was a nurse, right over there.

Well, I have kind of skipped around a lot. I hope I haven't bored you too much. If you have any questions, I'll sit here as long as anybody wants to ask questions. I've got to warn you, I'm a little hard of hearing, but if you can make known what you want to ask, I'll do my best to answer it. If anybody wants to know where anything was on the map up here, you can come up and look, and I'll stay as long as you want. I've got some pictures over here that show a little bit about the Hump operation, et cetera. I'm yours until you're tired of me. Maybe you are already.

(Applause)

Unidentified Speaker:

Why was it took them so long to get out -- and you don't hear too much about it, is how Stilwell did not get along with any of the _____ over there, especially the British?

Philip Adair:

There were a lot of politics involved, and Stilwell, he ... I admired the guy. I mean, I would have done anything for him. But he rubbed a lot of people the wrong way because he was, you know, straightforward. He didn't believe in spreading B.S. You know, he was there to get a job done.

Some people didn't like that, you know. So they brought him back to the states, and he was treated very shabbily, in my opinion, and, consequently, you know, he didn't have anybody in particular who was there to support him and _____ Mountbatten, who was very popular, you know, he just kind of rode rough-shod over everybody. So Stilwell didn't get the credit that he deserved.

Unidentified Speaker:

Merrill's Marauders didn't either.

Philip Adair:

Right, absolutely. Now, I read a book not too long ago about the British operation, and they were setting over there in Imphal and Kohemia and, as far as I could see, not doing a damn thing, yet when the Japanese came up and they managed to fight their way through all of the air _____ trying to destroy them on the way out, the British managed to finish off the survivors that got there. They were in a war over there. They had _____from Rangoon down to Imphal because it was not _____. So they got a lot of credit for things.

I'm sorry, but that's the way I see it. Now, other people might have a different view.

Unidentified Speaker:

_____ Chiang Kai-Shek couldn't get along with him.

Philip Adair:

No, he didn't get along with Chiang Kai-Shek at all. I'm not sure very many people got along with Chiang Kai-Shek, even his wife, but ...

Unidentified Speaker:

But he insisted that he be removed, the way I understand it.

Philip Adair:

Yeah, yeah. Well, I don't know. There's a lot of politics involved there too.

Unidentified Speaker:

Did you have anything to do with Wingate?

Philip Adair:

Not too much. We did support Wingate's forces, and, of course, you probably know what happened to him. Wingate was a hell of a nice guy. He was a straight shooter and in there fighting Slim's battles for him. He wanted to get back to Imphal one night when the weather was extremely bad. He insisted over the pilot's, B-25's pilot's objections that they go, regardless. Why, I don't know. Anybody who has flown over that area, where there is no radio aids, the maps are poor, when it gets dark, you can't see nothing, and I mean, it's terrible. So they flew into the side of a mountain because he insisted on going. It was a tragedy because he was really a good commander. We were really sorry to see that happen.

Well, I enjoyed talking to you.

(Applause)

(End of tape)

 
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