Jumping out of airplanes was not one of the things we did while attending flight school during WWII. We did, however, always wear a chute. When I finally got my wings, along with 200 other second lieutenants in March of 1944, I also got a 10-day leave to visit home. No sooner had I arrived back in Bangor when I got a telegram from the base commander, saying that my orders had come through and I was to return immediately.
Out of that whole class, two of us had been picked to go directly overseas without any further training. This also occurred at several other flying schools. We were issued a flying jacket, watch, sunglasses, parachute, and a .45 pistol with holster and sent on our way. The end result, after several weeks of waiting at our departure point and a week on the high seas, was we ended up in Bombay, India.
From there, we were flown to Kunming, China, and assigned to a troop carrier squadron flying C-47s. We were warmly welcomed by the pilots who had been there for more than a year and would now be relieved.
Though we’d never flown anything as large as a C-47, our training was hastened by the pilots who were anxious to leave for home.
Kunming was at an elevation of 6,000 feet and beyond that the Himalayas rose to astounding heights. One didn’t want to overrun the station very far.
This was in my thoughts on the night of Jan. 22, 1945, as we made our way back from Suichuan with a load of 20 passengers and a crew of four. We were evacuating this base because the Japanese had it surrounded and the buildings and runway were being destroyed.
Our destination was Chikiang, about 400 miles west. We had made several trips from there during the day.
Flying in China was by the old “seat-of-the-pants” method. One headed in the right compass direction and depended on the onboard direction finder to locate the station. Its signal extended about 50 miles in good weather.
On that night, the weather wasn’t good. Our radioman could not pick up any station, and the direction finder was worthless. What we didn’t know was that we were bucking an 80-mile-an-hour headwind, and our navigation calculations were way off.
After eight hours, our gas gauges were getting close to zero. I had been climbing steadily for some time and we must have been close to 12,000 feet when I gave the order to abandon ship. In no time at all, the passengers and crew, except for my fellow pilot, were gone. I put the plane on auto-pilot while he donned his chute.
When I reached for mine, I found that someone else had taken it. Our personal chutes had all been fitted to us, but the one that was left had been designed for a midget. It took both of us straining at the straps to get me into it.
It seemed like an eternity floating down until I slammed onto a ledge. I spent the night in my chute not daring to move.
The next morning, I looked out over a river about 200 yards away. I watched a group of black-clothed men maneuver a boat down a stream and climbed down from the ledge. To make a long story short, I found some natives who eventually took me to the nearest village and was then picked up by a search party.
Later, at one of our small bases, one of our planes landed to take us home. Imagine my surprise when the pilot was the one who had bailed out with me. He had landed on the opposite shore of the river and had been on the boat that I had watched from my perch. He was back home within a couple of days without having to walk.
We lost one man from our crew. We lost three planes that night because of the weather. Some of them had to bail out over our own airfields because they could not land.
My absence was never reported to my folks, and a month later I had the opportunity to head back home. I took it.
During my time in China, I completed 88 combat missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster.
Alfred Cormier lives in Bangor.