Blue Yonder: World War II Pilot Hasn't Stopped Flying
It has been decades since the Army Air Force last flew the venerable C-47 cargo plane.
But as a birthday present, on March 6, Southern Pines resident Major Dick Walter, retired U.S. Air Force, veteran pilot of World War II, took a DC-3, which is similar to a C-47, into the air from tiny Griffin-Spalding Airport in Georgia.
In contrast to his last military flights in a C-47 over the jungles of Burma, this flight was on a beautiful, sunny day over far more hospitable terrain.
Richard "Dick" Walter was born in Dolgeville, N.Y., halfway between Albany and Syracuse, 85 years ago March 14. Like all the young people of his time, he grew up with World War II looming in the future. While attending Cornell University, he was activated into the Army Air Force and was accepted in the Aviation Cadet Corps to go to flying school.
"My basic military training was, amazingly, at Miami Beach, marching up and down Collins Avenue, followed by an equally wonderful summer in Meadville, Pa., picking up advanced engineering and technical training," says Walter.
His flying training started with 10 weeks in Yukon, Okla., where he soloed after just seven hours of flying. This was followed by advanced training in Garden City, Kan., and multi-engine airplanes in Pampa, Texas, a town so rural that the main street still had hitching racks for horses. Finally, after almost 18 months, he received his combat orders: to fly "the Hump" in India.
From Greensboro, he boarded a huge troop train that took 10 days to crawl across the country to California.
"Just before Thanksgiving in 1944, I joined 6,000 other soldiers on a troop carrier for a month-long nonstop trip to Melbourne, Australia," he says. "The ship raced at 17 knots but zig-zagged constantly to minimize the risk of submarines."
Things became more tense near Australia where the ship was joined by British Navy escorts. Officers, like Walter, had relatively spacious quarters and ate in a wardroom while enlisted men slept in racks 10 bunks tall and ate in a mess hall down in the bowels of the ship that was open 24 hours a day.
"I read more paperback books on that trip than in the whole rest of my life," Walter says with a laugh.
No one was allowed off the ship in Melbourne, and after a day and a half looking over the railing at that beautiful city, they sailed on to Bombay.
"You could smell the city before you could see it," he says.
Walter left Bombay on a spectacular train, with private compartments and leather seats. But after a day and a half, the railroad changed to narrow-gauge track for the rest of the trip to Calcutta. It was there he first met other people joining the same squadron, and as a group they headed northeast. At several points the grades were so steep the train could not climb the hills. So everyone was ordered off the train and they walked alongside it, while it struggled to make it to the top of the rise.
"Finally the train arrived at the Brahmaputra River on New Year's Eve 1944," says Walter. "There was no bridge across the river, so each soldier hired a bearer to carry his bags down the embankment to barges."
The barges took them across the river and more bearers carried their bags up the other side to the next train. This final train was an ancient rolling slum, with ragged seats, no lights, and bathrooms that were nothing more than a hole in the floor of the train.
Lurching along in the dark, Walter and his buddies opened the bottle of Scotch that he had carried in his duffle bag all the way from the U.S.
"We welcomed the New Year in style," he says.
Walter's final destination was Ledo, Assan Province, in northeast India. Northeast India was the heart of the "CBI Theater" -- China, Burma and India. Here the Allies, led by the British, were locked into a deadly struggle with the Japanese who had invaded south through China and made it to the Burma/India frontier.
Fighting under appalling conditions of tropical heat, fickle weather, jungle diseases and erratic supply lines, the Allies challenged the Japanese while bolstering the efforts of Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese army in that battle against the Japanese invaders. Since the Japanese controlled the railways and roads, the only way to get supplies into China and Burma was by air.
Which is what brought Dick Walter to Ledo.
While the supplies were in Ledo, Walter flew from a base called Sookerating.
"This was an airfield built on the grounds of a tea plantation," he says. "Mud was everywhere dust wasn't."
The men slept in bamboo-sided, thatched-roof shacks and at night used their .44 caliber pistols to shoot the rats running among the rafters. The mess hall was the tea-planter's old bungalow made of woven bamboo. The only solid structure in the entire place was the concrete runway, and the noise of planes arriving and departing filled the daylight hours. Quickly Walter was scheduled for his first flight in a C-47, which even today is a favorite of many pilots around the world.
"The C-47 is like nothing you might see today," says Walter. "It's a 'tail dragger' design, so the plane's nose pokes skyward while the steeply-sloping fuselage dangles behind the landing gear, swooping backwards to an impossibly tiny tail wheel."
The plane weighs 30,000 pounds and has a huge, 100-foot wingspan with 13-foot propellers. Despite its awesome capabilities, it was barely able to do the job.
Walter remembers climbing into the airplane that first day, finding it mostly empty except for some lumpy burlap bags in the middle of the floor. He climbed up the steeply sloping deck into the cockpit.
"Hey, Captain," he asked, "Do we have to fly to Ledo to get our load of cargo?"
"Nope," the captain said, "That's what 6,000 pounds of potatoes looks like."
"And off we went, a flying delivery truck, carrying whatever was needed to whoever needed it," Walters says.
Walter recalls the unusual training he was given on this first flight. He had never seen the cockpit of a C-47 before so the layout was unfamiliar. As he climbed into his seat, the crusty 24-year-old captain gave him his instructions: "Your job is simple. Don't touch anything," he said.
"So I didn't," he says.
Other pilots were more helpful in teaching Walter how to handle the heavy aircraft, and in 30 days he was promoted to an aircraft commander. He flew more flights carrying potatoes, or rice, ammunition, pipe, barrels of fuel, canned foods, medical supplies, and anything else the soldiers in the jungle needed.
He flew mules to Chinese troops in Burma and goats to India Gurkas. He dropped radios and food to OSS "special forces" who were sabotaging railroads and blowing up bridges from their jungle encampments. One trip into China he carried hundreds of garbage can lids.
"I can only assume some other plane had the garbage cans themselves," he says with a smile.
When flying into Burma and China, each pilot carried silk maps of the region, which fit into pockets and were more durable than a paper map in the wet climate.
Walter had a special leather bomber jacket. Stitched into the back of the jacket was an American flag and a Chinese flag, and a message in Chinese that said, in effect, "This pilot is a friend of the Chinese. Bring him to safety and you will be rewarded with rice and gold."
"Amazingly, even after 64 years, I still fit into that jacket," he says.
Walter flew many drop missions into Burma, air-dropping supplies out of the back of the plane to landing zones marked in clearings by the soldiers. "Drop missions" were exactly that: instead of landing the plane to off-load cargo, the "loadmaster" -- a sergeant in the back of the plane -- would literally push the supplies out the door while the plane was still flying. Some missions used parachutes for delicate supplies, but less fragile materials were just dropped. Bags of rice, for example, half-filled and double-bagged, could be dropped from 300 feet without bursting.
Many supply drops were made while Allied troops were near or even in battle with Japanese troops. This meant that Walter often had to fly low and slow near enemy positions, and the lumbering C-47 was an inviting target for enemy sharpshooters.
"We were always the target of ground fire," he says. "Since the bullets were always coming from beneath us, we sat on our flak jackets instead of wearing them."
It was a ferociously busy time.
Walter recalls flying five roundtrips into Burma in one long 13-hour day. Most days started before sunrise and lasted well into the evening, since they could drop supplies only during the day because there were no lights or navigation aids in the mountainous areas.
But the overloaded, under-powered C-46s and C-47s were never designed to fly in such thin mountain air.
Many times Walter would climb in circles, spiraling upward to gain enough altitude to clear the mountain ridge between India and Burma. Clawing at the air, the planes wound their way through the one mountain pass, "Hell's Gate," which was the only safe route into Burma. With no air traffic control system and with as many as six different air fields sending their planes back and forth through Hell's Gate, the risk of mid-air collisions was constant.
Walter recalls one particularly dicey mission.
"We were going to resupply some Chinese troops that were in contact with some Japanese," he says. "They had given us their position on a hilltop, and told us a drop zone had been cleared in the valley below them. What they didn't tell us was that the hill across the valley was held by the Japanese. So as we came down the valley, low and slow and dumping our cargo into the LZ, the Japanese troops opened fire down onto us from on the hilltop above us! We came back with a lot of holes in the wings."
Weather forecasting as we know it today simply did not exist in World War II. Many flights involved flying into unexpectedly bad weather. Walter remembers one mission when they flew into the heart of a thunderstorm.
"The co-pilot and I were literally standing in our seats," he says, "alternately pulling up on the yoke and then pushing down on it, fighting the thunderstorm. It was so violent we really didn't think the plane would hold together."
Over the Hump
While flying east into Burma was tricky enough, flying north over "the hump" into China was much more dangerous, and Walter made 86 flights over the Himalayas. In June 1945 his squadron moved to Dinjan to be closer to China, and the pace of operations picked up as the Japanese retreated.
Flying the Hump was difficult in good weather, but the soldiers in China needed supplies every day. So Walter and the Army Air Corps often made the trip flying "blind" in the clouds and storms, unable to see other planes or the mountains.
"Using stop watches and guestimates of the wind, we'd estimate their position and time their turns, hoping we would clear the rocks," he says.
Many pilots guessed wrong.
Walter recalls one awful day in 1945 when 16 different airplanes and 60 fliers were lost, victims of unforecasted bad weather flying blind over the Hump. In total, more than 600 Allied planes and crews were lost flying supplies in Burma and China.
The trips to China were the best missions, Walter recalls.
"I flew all over the country, to Nanking, Shanghai and Kunming," he says. "In rural Chikyang, Chinese workers were building the runway by hand. Every morning thousands of Chinese men, women and children would walk up the hill to the field and squat around boulders. They would work all day, barefooted, smashing the rocks with hand-held hammers and rolling the gravel smooth with huge, human-pulled rollers. The result was a runway where every take-off produced a swarming cloud of dust, and pilots had to wait for the wind to blow the dust away before the subsequent plane could depart."
One night Walter arrived late at night at Dinjan to pick up the last Americans as his base was moved forward to Chikyang.
"It was payday, and I had almost $200 in cash in my pocket, and was concerned somebody might steal it while I was sleeping," he says.
So he hid his wallet in his pillow and slept soundly, knowing all was right with the world -- at least until he overslept. Realizing he was late, he raced out of the tent and back to his airplane, leaving his wallet and his cash hidden in the pillow for some Indian housekeeper to find.
"That was a long, long month, that was," Walters says with a grin.
Despite all these dangers, Walter was involved in only one crash. He and his crew had brought a C-46 back to Dum Dum Airport in Calcutta for a regularly scheduled shuttle flight. When the plane touched down, the left landing gear just folded up and the plane slid sideways across the tarmac.
"It was our squadron commander's favorite airplane, too, so we were in hot water," Walter says. "The group commander grilled us personally, but in the end nobody was hurt and they needed the plane, so they just fixed it and away we went."
The war ended in August 1945 while Walter's squadron was in China. After the war, they delivered medical personnel into Shanghai, moved more supplies, and tried to help the Chinese transition into a peace that never came. By the end of the war, Walter had more than 800 flying hours, and he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals for "undaunted by the hazards faced regularly and continually, [he] participated in operational flights in unarmed, heavily loaded transport airplanes during which enemy fire was probable."
On Christmas Day 1945, Walter was demobilized out of the Army at Fort Dix, N.J., after traveling by train from Tacoma, Wash. He finished college and started a career in the New York City area.
Walter stayed in the Reserves after the war, and in 1956 he was reactivated in Reserves and served until 1969, flying C-119 "Flying Boxcars" during the Cuban Missile Crisis and C-124 Globemasters through the Cold War.
"My last flying missions were in the C-130, a military cargo plane still in service today," he says.
More recently, Dick has been co-pilot on AngelFlight missions using a Cessna owned by two Southern Pines residents. AngelFlight is a charitable organization that transports medical patients to the location of their medical treatment. This is a common problem for cancer patients, for example, who need repeated and expensive trips back to a medical center for chemotherapy.
"By helping with AngelFlight, I sharpen my flying skills and get to share my love for aviation with others," he says.
And that one last flight in a DC-3? Arranged by his wife of 21 years, Joan Walter, it was "the best birthday present I ever got," he says. "The plane felt solid and strong, just like I remembered it. The feel, the engines and the vibration were all the same. The only thing different was nobody was shooting at us."
You can visit YouTube and watch videos of Dick flying the DC-3 and being interviewed by airshow exhibition pilot Dan Gryder at www.youtube.com/ results?search_query=Dan+Gryder&search_type=
Mike Jones lives in Southern Pines.
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