Burma Banshee

by John H Murdoch, III

A thousand tortured dragons couldn't make more noise than this DC -3 that scared these "sons" from China's sky.

For once, the little, all-conquering pilots of the Japanese air force were scared. Five of their pilots had witnessed the full fury of the Chinese gods and seen a terrible, shrieking thing that flew like an airplane and howled like a thousand tortured dragons. This thing, the Banshee of Burma, had the general outline of a DC-3 after a session in a first aid class. It spit flame and 3,247 machine gun bullets didn't hurt it.

For five days and five nights, as the story of the screaming demon spread through the ready rooms of the Japs, the mountain passes and jungle valleys were strangely free of the roar of the invaders' engines. The quiet was broken only by the steady, almost peaceful, hum of heavily-loaded and unarmed Chinese National Airways Company transports and frequent thunderstorms along the aerial Burma Road from India into China.

In the safety of their front line quarters, the Japs tuned radio receivers to an all-knowing Tokyo for an explanation of this demon. Surely, the Son of Heaven must have had an explanation from his gods. True to form, possibly from a third-rate Japanese god, Radio Tokyo had an explanation. In the best possible American university diction the voice crackled over the ether:

"THE ENEMY ARE MOVING INT0 NORTHERN BURMA IN FORCE. SPEARHEAD OF THEIR INVASION IS A NEW AERIAL WEAPON, DESIGNED FOOLISHLY TO UNNERVE THE EMPEROR'S CONQUERING PILOTS WHO HOLD MASTERY OF BURMA'S SKIES. THIS SECRET WEAPON" SPOUTS STREAMS OF FLAME AND SCREECHES IN HORRIBLE TONES AS IT FLIES. A CHINESE DRAGON, PERHAPS? A PRODUCT OF THE ENGLISH-CHINESE? FOOLISH INDEED! THIS WHITE MAN'S FOLLY, TOO, WILL BE DRIVEN FROM THE ASIATIC HEAVENS."

For more than a month hordes of Japanese invaders had been streaming up the rivers and roads that lead from Rangoon to the borders of India and Free China, hot on the heels of stubbornly-defending Chinese, British and American troops who were determined to make the enemy pay highly for every mile of Burma. In ox-carts, trucks and often only on bleeding feet, swarms of civilian refugees (700,000 by some estimates) tried to keep pace with the outnumbered troops as they withdrew. Overhead, Japanese bombers and fighters mercilessly pounded the long columns that, as US General Stilwell was to explain bitterly later, lacked even a semblance of air support.

The Japanese airmen even threatened to sever completely the aerial lifeline into China — except for those five days and nights when the Banshee of Burma scared the honorable daylights out of Hirohito's heroes.

China National Airways, half owned by Pan American Airways and half by the Chinese Government, gladly accepted the role of helping military planes drop badly needed food and provisions to the beleaguered Allied forces; then by night, while friendly darkness hid their silvery skins from Japanese eyes, ferrying out as many refugees as possible from rough airfields hacked out of green jungle defiles.

There were few enough planes for the job. Roaring down on the Hong Kong airfield scant weeks before, Japanese bombers had blitzed a number of the CNAC craft lined up on the flight apron. Those that were saved were the ones that had been inside the hangars.

That was one reason why the CNAC transports that could be hauled off other runs throughout China and put to the work of evacuating Burma refugees or dropping food from the skies to the starving Chinese troops hemmed in northern Burma were so carefully husbanded.

Capt Harold Sweet — baldish, trim- mustached veteran senior pilot of CNAC with over 13,000 flying hours to his credit and a knowledge of China flying that comes only to one who has piloted planes over that vast country for five years — was flying one of the DC-3s, ferrying refugees out of the Burma hills on that night when the Banshee was born.

Inside the blacked-out cabin 54 haggard refugees huddled. Up in the nose Captain Sweet pondered the possibilities of eluding Japanese night fighters. He had been in tough spots before. He had brought the last CNAC planes out of Tientsin, Tsington and Tsinan when the early stages of the Japanese-Chinese war had spread there. It was he who flew the famous DC-2½; (the hybrid airplane that skilled CNAC mechanics had patched together from the fuselage and left wing of a DC-3 and the right wing of a DC-2). He helped in the aerial evacuation of Hong Kong, when CNAC transports shuttling in and out of that besieged city only by night carried to safety some 400 persons.

Not long before he had safely flown "important passengers" from Chungking into Rangoon, arriving seconds before 120 Japanese planes — buzzing like angry hornets denied an expected victim — had bombed the field from end to end.

As a "vacation" he lately had been ferrying warplanes across the ocean to the Near, Middle and Far East. The treacherous mountains of that part of Asia, that thrust jagged peaks 18,- 20,- even 25,000 feet into the air to tear to bits any airmen foolish enough to risk flying any other trail across them other than that customarily followed, were familiar landmarks to Sweet. The drenching monsoons and thunderstorms that roll unexpectedly across those skies were almost his natural environment.

For his work in the Hong Kong evacuation he was cited and recommended for the Distinguished Flying Cross.

So far, everything was working well this trip when suddenly the left engine gasped, stuttered, coughed, then finally gave up. Only the right engine roared on, bright exhaust flames streaming behind. The only logical thing to do was to find an emergency landing field — and fast!

Like the straw that drowning men are supposed to grasp, a tiny rock-hemmed field appeared ahead, just over the border in Free China. Side-slipping his heavily loaded transport with its weight of human cargo as if his ship had been a circus plane, Sweet managed to slide safely to a landing.

The damaged engine was more than the flight crew could undertake with their limited resources. Scratching his head, Sweet pondered the situation. He radioed for help to come from Chungking, but before mechanics could arrive a new day would have dawned and the relentless Jap flyers would be overhead.

Meanwhile, the situation looked bad. Sticky Chinese mud clung to the landing wheels, hub deep. Even with the help of all 54 passengers and other crew members Sweet found it impossible to inch the big plane off the field and under the cover of surrounding brush, sweat as they might.

The next best thing had to be done. Carefully, the precious oil and gas were drained from the tanks, and with twigs, leaves, grass and branches gathered by the passengers the silvery plane was camouflaged as well as possible.

Minutes before dawn, Sweet had found shelter for his passengers with the local missionary and then set out on the run to round up an army of coolies to drag the DC-3 out of danger.

Just as the rising sun topped the surrounding hills, five Mitsui fighters streaked down, guns spitting. They had found their target and they proceeded to blast the transport at their own pleasure, while Sweet watched in impotent fury from the cover of surrounding brush. Now he was glad that he had had the foresight to drain the oil and gas away. Otherwise the Jap bullets would have made a funeral pyre of the ship.

Lunchtime, and more Jap planes, roaring down to riddle the tattered hulk of the plane until their ammunition was exhausted. It was evident when they rumbled off that they were satisfied that that plane never would take to the air again.

Now there was more damage to report by radio to Chungking. By the time coolies had dragged the hulk off the runway, the repair crew had arrived, just as darkness fell.

If this had been anywhere else than China, the repair crew would probably have argued that it was hopeless to attempt to salvage what was left of the plane, much less to try to put it back in flying shape. But in China, planes are worth their weight in gold; the few Douglases that CNAC still had were hard enough to get in the first place. Now it was a catastrophe if one were lost.

"Reckon if you need her we'll fix her," declared Zig Soldinski, chief of the repair crew and able (according to his fellow workers) to fix anything from a broken spark plug to a broken wing. But when he looked at the wreck of the once-proud DC-3 there were tears there — tears of anger at the damage Jap bullets could do to a helpless transport plane and tears of bewilderment as to what could be done to repair the damage.

Hastily, the repair crew set to work. There were 3,247 holes in her. From nose to tail and from one wing tip to the other she looked like a colander. Where an instrument panel had been was nothing but a mass of twisted wheels and springs; every piece of glass was shattered; tires were punctured; dozens of control cables snapped; fuel tanks leaked faster than they could be filled; two propeller blades were missing.

But if a minute was lost, the Japs would be back with the sun to complete the work of destruction, and another desperately-needed plane would not be on hand when required to help the Chinese troops starving in the Burma mountains. New propeller blades, hydraulic brakes, fuel tanks, control cables, cylinders, and other fittings were flown to the riddled DC-3 and hastily installed. On a makeshift control panel, four of the most essential of the usual 41 flight instruments were mounted.

But still much work remained to be done before the plane again could take off. Those holes in the fuselage, control surfaces, and wings, how were they to be repaired? The supply of metal patches the repair crew had carried all the way from Chungking along with the other parts were barely enough to cover the most serious holes — those in the vital control surfaces.

Captain Sweet remembered the wise words of Charles "Chuck" Sharp, aviation-wise Operations Manager of CNAC: "In China, the thing isn't to figure out how to fly — it's to fly!" In the missionary's garden Sweet remembered seeing a large canvas awning. Yes, it could be "borrowed." And for patching? Some home-made Chinese glue would work.

Like seamstresses, the repair men cut out little round patches, daubed them with the homemade glue, slapped them into place, then covered the result with wing dope.

If the Jap pilots had bothered to come back the next day they might have detected under a covering of crude camouflage the ship they had "destroyed" the day before, all decked out in 3,000 awning patches. Fortunately, they didn't bother to pay a second visit.

That second night repairs were completed to Soldinski's satisfaction. With a smile he turned to Chuck Sharp who by then was on hand. "She'll fly," he reported. "I'll bet my next month's pay on it."

"All right," countered Sharp, with just a trace of doubt in his voice. "If you say she'll fly, then I'll fly her."

Together, Soldinski and Sharp clambered aboard, started the protesting engines, taxied the patchwork-quilt plane out on the field, tried a practice run along the length of the runway and then took off.

With a shudder that shook every rib in her frame she responded to Sharp's deft control. No chance to take on any of the passengers, they would have to wait for other means of rescue. As it was the plane responded like a 102-year-old grandmother as she slithered into turns.

Back just long enough to pick up mechanics — just in case. Then off again in a sweeping curve for a refueling base and safe haven in India, 1,500 miles away across jagged mountains. The gods only knew what lay between.

On the second takeoff, a control cable parted. To return to the field would have been to risk almost certain Japanese air strafing again. To go on meant a flight of 904 miles to the nearest place where repairs could be made. With a 30-mile headwind, Sharp throttled back until the ship was just holding forward speed, almost stalling. Eight hundred and twelve minutes later they landed, in a plane that normally would fly at 180 mph!

Quickly, mechanics replaced the severed control cable. On the field, waiting any means of rescue were four Americans and three Britishers. Yes, they could go along if they wished, said Sharp, secretly wondering if the flying quilt really looked that much like a plane. Should he tell them of what he had just gone through in the last 13 hours, or what he expected to run into in the hours ahead before the haven in India could be reached?

Sharp was going to take a gamble. Weather ahead promised to be terrible — the best possible thing, the pilot knew. That meant he could strike directly toward India without having to detour to avoid enemy country. But there was a second danger. Suppose the weather broke and now-grounded Jap fighters could take to the air in pursuit. It was a gamble either way, with the impossibility of remaining where they were to spur them on.

The third danger was the condition of the plane itself. A forced landing in those treacherous mountains with the DC-3 in its present delicate condition was unthinkable.

Until he reached the vicinity of the Japanese positions he kept his faltering ship high above the overcast. But once within range of possible enemy interception the safest place was in the center of that dirty black cloud bank.

Yard by yard, the plane dropped toward the foreboding cloud bank. As it disappeared from sight of the sun, the first rain pellets spattered against the thin skin of the transport. More and more came, sounding like bullets to the plane's occupants. Tiny rivulets grew to streams across the cockpit windows.

As long as the engines held out, all might yet be well. Suddenly their monotonous baritone was broken by a high-pitched shrill note. Were the Japs after all hurling lead at them from those dark cloud masses?

The explanation dawned with the speed of a machine gun shot. Those homemade patches — the rain was loosening them. And the wind was howling like a thousand tortured demons through the uncovered bullet holes.

It was like a huge calliope, with each new note louder and shriller than the one before. With thousands of holes to play with, the mountain winds were having fun. Cotton in the ears was no good to shut out the horrible tones. On and on the transport flew through the black clouds, long tongues of brilliant flame shooting from the exhaust stacks. Would their luck hold as they skimmed in and out of the clouds until safety could be reached? It looked that way until —

Just before sunset Sharp's keen eyes picked out the six tiny dots on the horizon that spelled trouble. In those parts those planes could not be other than Japanese. And, yes, they had seen him. At full throttle they raced through the evening skies directly toward the lumbering transport. The once-friendly clouds by now had vanished. There wasn't a hiding place in the entire sky that could be reached.

Closer and closer the six Jap fighters flew, until those aboard the transport could make out the Rising Sun insignia on the planes' fuselages. Would they open fire at once or try to force the CNAC ship to land?

Wonder of wonders, they did neither! Instead, as if at a sudden frightened command, they veered off, grew smaller and smaller as they high-tailed it for the Burma hills.

Two hours later, the Banshee of Burma, as the boys on the India-China run at once began to call her, was hovering over the Indian field. Dim marker lights lit the runway. It looked like everyone at the field was waiting to welcome them.

Down they came in a jolting, far from graceful descent. As they rolled to a stop the field commandant shouted to Sharp, "We heard you coming for 50 miles. Your radio announcement was certainly unnecessary. What in the devil are you flying there — a sieve?"

Then Sharp realized what a sky terror his plane must have looked like to those six Japs — spitting flame from both motors, wailing like some unearthly banshee and her gaunt ribs beginning to show in spite of expert repair work.

Whether the Japanese air force in Burma really did run out of gas for almost a week as some Japanese spokesman later claimed or whether the Banshee did scare them out of the skies no one can say for sure.

Captain Sharp, China National Airways and the Japanese have their own ideas. But they all pay respect to the memory of the Banshee of Burma. Today the same plane, completely over- hauled, is again ferrying badly-needed war goods into China. On her nose she carries more wound stripes than any known craft in this whole war.

This article was originally published in the July, 1943, issue of Flying including Industrial Aviation magazine, vol 33, no 1, pp 34-36, 140, 142.
The original article includes 4 photos, including one of the DC-2½, and thumbnail portraits of Zigmund Soldinski, Capt Harold A Sweet, and Charles Sharp.
Photographs from Pan American