Project Seven Alpha: American Airlines in Burma 1942
Author: Leland Shanle
Publisher: Pen and Sword (2009)
Binding: Hardcover, 256 pages
In late 1941, President Roosevelt agonized over the rapid advances of the Japanese forces in Asia, they seemed unstoppable. He foresaw their intentions of taking India and linking up with the two other Axis Powers, Germany and Italy, in an attempt to conquer the Eastern Hemisphere. US naval forces had been severely surprised and diminished in Pearl Harbor and the army was outnumbered and ill-prepared to take on the invading hoards. One of his few options was to form a defensive line on the eastern side of the Patkai and Himalayan Ranges, there he could look for support from the Chinese and Burmese. It was to be the only defence to a Japanese invasion of India.
To support and supply these troops, fighting in hostile jungle terrain where overland routes had been cut off, he desperately needed to set up an air supply from Eastern India. His problem was lack of aircraft and experienced pilots to fly the dangerous 'Hump, over the world's highest mountains. Hence came Operation Seven Alpha, a plan to enlist the aircraft, DC-3s, and pilots, veterans of World War One, of American Airlines. This newly formed Squadron would fly these medium-range aircraft in a series of long-distance hops across the Pacific and Southern Asia to the Assam Valley in India. They would then create and operate the vital supply route carrying arms, ammunition and food Eastward to the Allied bases and return with wounded personnel. This is the story of this little-known operation in the early days of the Burma Campaign.
This book is based on the true experiences of those who were involved and is a fitting tribute to the bravery and inventiveness of a band of men who answered their country's desperate call at the outset of the war against Japan in Asia.
The United States of America was caught with its' military pants down when the Japanese attacked at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Our standing military was pretty much reduced to nothing after the First World War, and there were no reserve or National Guard units on standby as became the case after world war two. These passive forces were created precisely because of where we found ourselves in 1941. Given what was going on in Europe prior to Pearl Harbor, one wonders why we did not start building up our own armed forces well before the Hawaiian catastrophe. Looking back, such a buildup would have been just as effective a way to address the sorry state of the economy as the New Deal, and other government programs were designed to do. But, we were caught flat footed, and had to play catch up right out of the starting blocks. The alarming spread of the Japanese war machine throughout all of Asia, and the South Pacific called for an immediate response, preventing the Japanese from establishing bases in strategic areas that would be next to impossible to take away from them. One of these fronts was in China where the Chinese army was trying to keep the Japanese army from pushing further west, and eventually south into India. Supplying the Chinese with war material to fight the Japanese became a major priority for the United States immediately after Pearl Harbor, but the only way to accomplish this daunting task was to fly the supplies out of India over the Himalayan Mountain range. There were no aircraft up to this task, but the job was nevertheless undertaken using American airliners, specifically the DC3, which would later be military, rigged to become the vaunted C47, which would become the workhorse for Army Aviation in every theater of the war. Not able to make the long, grueling flights at extremely high altitudes that later C46's would make over "The Hump" in one trip, C47's performed miraculously by hopping along the southern range of the Himalayas, and getting to the other side to supply the struggling Chinese army as it valiantly held off the advancing Japanese. Without the service of an American civilian aircraft, the DC3, and the heroic flying of civilian pilots gone military almost overnight, the Rising Sun would have swept over a much larger geography in southern Asia, making the retaking an almost impossible task.
Fighters, and bombers got most of the press, and glory in World War Two's air war, but as any of those pilots would have quickly told you, long distance cargo flying at extremely high altitudes, with winds up to 200 mph, over the most treacherous terrain on earth was the most trying, grueling piloting that air crews have ever faced. The monumental logistical undertaking of air supply over The Hump might never have materialized if not for the early, quick response of the original DC3's and their awesome pilots, and crews. Their efforts remain as one of the most astonishing military feats in the history of our country.
Reviewed by: Bob Flournoy (September 2011)