If present-day students are fortunate enough to find World War II mentioned in their history books, they’ll most likely study battles fought in North Africa, Europe and the Pacific. The CBI Theater is habitually cited as a footnote.
The China-Burma-India Theater did not receive the recognition or the respect that it deserved. The reason is simple: CBI was a back-water, unglamorous battle in disease-ridden jungles and/or ungodly mountain topography that few combat journalists cared to cover.
The painted Tiger-shark nose on the legendary P-40 Flying Tigers is the best-known CBI icon, but few Americans can knowledgeably discuss the commando unit known as Merrill’s Marauders, or, as the loyal indigenous peoples called them, Kachin.
To mention the “Hump” may evoke visions of camels, but the resupply route to our troops and Chinese allies over the Himalayan Mountain Range (the “Hump”) cost 594 airplanes either lost, missing, or simply written off, along with 1,659 personnel.
Via Oran, North Africa, and Bombay, India, Jim Garrison flew across the “Hump” to Kunming, China, to join Claire Chennault’s 14th Air Force, 3rd Fighter Group, 8th Fighter Squadron.
“I flew over the Hump in suntans (khakis),” he said. “Ice and frost had formed inside the cargo plane and sifted down like snow. Almost froze to death.”
Garrison repaired combat-damaged aircraft like the P-40 fighters and P-38 reconnaissance planes. He also worked on and loaded bombs on B-25 Mitchell twin-engine medium bombers.
His six Chinese ground crew members spoke pidgin-English.
Smiling, Garrison recalled, “We modified a belly tank on a P-40 for ‘critical’ supply flights to India for peanut butter and British gin.”
Garrison spent 28 months shuffling back and forth from several bases like Lingling, Kweilin, Liuchow, and An Kang, depending on which side was winning the war at any given moment. He survived more than 100 bombing raids.
He said, “After a bombing raid the Japanese would come in low at 500 or 600 feet and let their gunners strafe the airfield and personnel. My crew and I scavenged 50 cal. machine guns off junked P-40s and crafted twin-mounted anti-aircraft weapons. We killed a few Japanese pilots. I noticed they stayed a lot higher after that.”
Recalling the Chinese contributions, Garrison said, “Those people took a terrific beating from the Japanese because they supported us, but they never gave up. I had a lot of respect for them.”
With aircraft stationed close to the fighting, snipers or infiltrators were always a problem. Garrison said, “One day in the chow line, a guy just dropped dead in front of us. Then we heard the rifle crack. They were that close.
‘’ The Japanese also infiltrated our bases just to kill a guard in order to spook the Chinese. Shoot, they spooked us, too!”
Forced by the Japanese to evacuate several bases, Garrison recalled a certain day when all hell broke loose.
“There was gunfire and tracers and explosions everywhere. I grabbed my carbine and ran outside. An officer said, ‘Celebrate, Garrison, the war is over.’
‘’Yes, sir, that day was really special.”