The 900th Airborne Engineer Aviation Company made more landings than any other gliderborne unit. This article gives an account of their missions in Burma in March-May 1944 during OPERATION THURSDAY. The 900th contributed directly to the operation’s success by building airstrips that allowed the insertion of a large Allied force behind enemy lines.
The Japanese occupied Burma in 1942 after a fighting withdrawal by Allied forces to India and China. The Allies discussed war strategy at a conference in Quebec in August 1943; they decided to increase efforts to liberate Burma and reopen the ground route to China. British, Indian and Chinese divisions would attack east out of India while the Chinese armies attacked west from China. By early 1944, the Japanese were in eastern India and were threatening to invade the rest of the country.
In 1943, British MG Orde Wingate formed Long Range Penetration Brigades, called the Special Force or Chindits, and led columns into northern Burma to attack the Japanese. Although he withdrew at the start of the monsoon season, he proved his concept and convinced the Allied leadership to make a larger effort in 1944. He advocated attacking the Japanese to disrupt their plans and ease the pressure on British and Indian troops near Imphal and Kohima, India. In 1944, the Chindits consisted of six brigades of British, Scottish Black Watch, Gurkha and West African troops, totaling about 23,000 men.
On 4 February 1944, Wingate received the following missions from his commander, Field Marshall William J. Slim:
1) help the advance of US LTG Stilwell’s Chinese divisions to the Myitkyina area by drawing off and disorganizing the enemy forces opposing them, and preventing the reinforcement of these enemy forces;
2) create a favorable situation for the Chinese to advance westwards across the Salween River into Burma; and,
3) inflict the maximum confusion, damage and loss on the enemy forces in northern Burma.
1st Air Commando Group
It was also agreed at the Quebec conference that the US would take on a larger role in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater. Part of the American contribution to Wingate’s efforts was the 1st Air Commando Group (ACG) under the command of COL Philip G. Cochran. It was a small self contained air force equipped with liaison aircraft, fighters, bombers, transports, gliders and helicopters. The 1st ACG was to provide dedicated tactical airlift, aerial resupply and medivac, and fighter/bomber support to the Chindit penetration of Burma. By the end of December 1943, the group was established at two RAF airfields in Assam province in India – the headquarters, fighters and bombers were at Hailakandi while the transports and gliders were at Lalaghat.
900th Airborne Engineer Aviation Company
Another American contribution was the 900th Airborne Engineer Aviation Company, activated on 3 June 1943 and trained at Westover Field, MA. The airborne aviation engineers were formed to provide a force that could be delivered by glider or transport plane and was capable of building or repairing airstrips.
The 900th arrived in India on 10 August 1943. They worked on airfields at Ledo, Tagap, and at Shingbwiyang where they built the first airstrip behind enemy lines, finishing on Christmas Day 1943. They were assigned to the 1st ACG in February 1944; they moved to Lalaghat on the 7th to train on loading and lashing down equipment in gliders and C-47s in preparation for missions in support of the Chindits.
CPT Patrick R. Casey was in command of the unit, which had a strength of 4 officers and 124 enlisted men in March 1944. They were equipped with airborne engineer equipment – the Clarkair CA-1 bulldozer, Case SI wheeled tractor, Adams 11-S towed grader and LeTourneau Q carryall – and engineer hand tools. The equipment was lightweight, but the 4230 pound bulldozer still exceeded the 3750 pound nominal payload of the WACO CG-4A glider. All the equipment could be loaded without disassembly into C-47s or gliders.
Wingate’s plan for 1944 was called OPERATION THURSDAY. He planned to airlift two infantry brigades (77th and 111th) while a third (16th) walked in from India, a total of about 12,000 men and 1800 mules. (The 3rd Brigade was held in reserve to garrison the strongholds; the 14th Brigade was temporarily and the 23rd Brigade completely lost to operations against the Japanese in India.) He chose to make the airlandings in the Indaw-Katha area, about 150-175 miles behind the Japanese lines. Landing there, he’d attack less experienced service troops and disrupt their support of the units threatening Stilwell and India. The Japanese would be forced to pull units from the front lines to deal with the danger that such a large force would pose to their rear areas.
Wingate planned to establish strongholds from which columns would attack the Japanese. The first (BROADWAY, PICCADILLY and CHOWRINGHEE) would be established by airlanded forces, a later stronghold (ABERDEEN) and fortified roadblocks (WHITE CITY and BLACKPOOL) would be developed as the operation progressed.
OPERATION THURSDAY was set to go on Sunday, 5 March 1944, during the full moon. BROADWAY and PICCADILLY were to be seized simultaneously by gliderborne troops from the 77th Brigade. CHOWRINGHEE was to be captured the next night by the 111th Brigade. Airlanded forces would then reinforce all three strongholds – the 77th flying out of Lalaghat to BROADWAY and PICCADILLY, and the 111th to PICCADILLY and CHOWRINGHEE from Tulihal airfield. ABERDEEN was to be developed by the 16th Brigade after they walked into the area.
It was the 900th‘s job to land their equipment by glider and prepare the airstrips, behind enemy lines, for the follow on airlanding missions. Only fair weather airstrips would be built, as Wingate did not expect the operations to continue into the monsoon season without the capture of an existing all weather airstrip.
PICADILLY - BROADWAY Switch
MG Wingate had prohibited any last minute photo reconnaissance flights of the LZs to avoid alerting the Japanese. COL Cochran sent them anyway and discovered that the LZ at PICCADILLY was covered with logs. The photos arrived only 40 minutes before the planned takeoff time and caused great concern among the Allied leaders. Had the operation been compromised, had the Japanese put antiglider obstacles on PICCADILLY, and were they waiting to ambush the glider landings at BROADWAY?
Slim, Wingate and Brigadier Michael Calvert, 77th Brigade commander, discussed replacing PICCADILLY with CHOWRINGHEE. Calvert objected because CHOWRINGHEE was on the east side of the Irrawaddy River, which would create problems with concentrating his brigade to the west of the river. Wingate decided to send all the gliders to BROADWAY; the pathfinder tow plane/glider combinations started taking off at 1812, only half an hour after the planned time.
The Japanese were not waiting; Burmese timber cutters had dragged the logs out of the jungle onto the clearing to dry. They still created an effective antiglider obstacle.
BROADWAY was 250 miles and 31/2 hours flying time from Lalaghat.
The original plan called for forty gliders to go to both PICCADILLY and BROADWAY – now all eighty would go to BROADWAY. CPT Casey and 2LT Robert C. Brackett had checked the engineer equipment and men while awaiting takeoff. Brackett was originally headed to PICCADILLY; now both of the six man teams would go to BROADWAY. Each team had two bulldozers, one grader, one jeep, one carryall and engineer hand tools.
The main body started taking off at 1905, only half an hour after the last pathfinder. Each C-47 towed two gliders - all were overloaded to at least 4500 pounds - and strained to gain the 8000’ altitude needed to clear the Chin Hills. The engineers were in 9 gliders near the front of the main body.
The pathfinders landed at 2200 to discover that the LZ was covered with logs, buffalo and elephant wallows, and ruts created when timber cutters had dragged logs out of the jungle to dry. All were hidden from aerial view by four foot tall elephant grass. The full moon didn’t provide enough light to see them as the gliders landed.
COL John R. Alison, Cochran’s deputy commander, was in charge on the LZ. He tried to delay the main body of gliders but the radio had been damaged in the landing. Before it could be repaired, the transports arrived overhead and gliders starting cutting loose for their landings. Alison and the others kept moving the landing lights around to guide the gliders to the best remaining landing areas. Confusion reigned as gliders arrived and crashlanded in the darkness.
Two gliders, carrying bulldozers, crashlanded among the trees. The cockpit section of a glider was hinged to swing upward for loading and unloading. Cables and pulleys were rigged to pull the cockpit up and out of the way if the dozer broke loose during landing. This feature saved the lives of two pilots (1LT Jackson J. Shinkle and Flight Officer Gene A. Kelly) and their engineer ‘copilots’ (SSG Raymond J. Bluthardt and SGT Joseph A. DeSalvo). Both dozers shot out of the gliders and turned over several times. DeSalvo was injured when the dozer hit his head on its way out and was evacuated the next day.
At about 0230 on the 6th, Alison got a message back to Lalaghat. Further takeoffs were stopped and tow/glider combinations not yet past the point of no return were recalled. The last glider in landed safely with a bulldozer. In all, 35 gliders crashlanded on BROADWAY that night. Alison and the others worked to sort out the mess, then settled down to wait for daybreak. Fortunately, the Japanese were unaware of the landings.
Daylight revealed the extent of the losses; all but three gliders were wrecked, about 30 men were injured and 23 men killed. CPT Casey had been killed when his glider overshot the LZ, tried to circle but stalled and crashed, also destroying a bulldozer. Several engineers had been hurt and a carryall damaged during the landings. 2LT Brackett was left with 9 men to complete the airstrip. The engineers had first and second echelon repair parts, mechanics tools, and gas and oil for the equipment. Brackett gave this account of the work on the airstrip:
At 0600 hrs while Col. Allison and I were on reconnaissance grading was begun in the general direction of the flight strip. When the direction had been determined we ran a base line with the jeep and grader the length of the field missing as many buffalo-wallows as possible. At this time there was one grader, one jeep, two bulldozers, and a carry-all in operation. The glider carrying the third dozer was damaged, but parts salvaged from the fourth ‘dozer which had gone through the trees and turned over on its back were utilized. At 1000 hrs COL Allison informed us that light planes would arrive in one hour – redoubling our efforts, the light planes were able to land on a runway 2000’x300’ at 1100 hrs! During this period British troops helped to level the grass and ground with bayonets and kukri knives, and the R.E.’s [Royal Engineers] blew up a tree standing in the middle of the field.
We continued on the other 2400’ of runway, making it 150’ wide to insure sufficient area for landings that night. The main job consisted of filling in the log ruts caused by elephants hauling logs in the wet season, to the river. Now hard as stone, some sixteen inches deep and two to four feet wide, they accounted for much of the damage to the gliders on the previous night. Grading was kept to a minimum, to keep as much grass as possible on the runway, taking off only those bunds [dikes] over three inches high. At 1910 hrs the first transport landed, we dispersed our equipment and prepared for the first meal since leaving [Lalaghat]. The next morning we continued work on the strip and unloading area. By that evening we had a 2400’x300’ runway and unloading areas for eight planes on both sides of the runway.
At first light CPL Walter J. Hybarger was up on a dozer pulling logs and wrecked gliders off the LZ and starting on the airstrip. SGT William W. Geider and PFC Paul F. Johnson worked to repair the third dozer. Brackett didn’t want to disturb the clay soil of the LZ so he cleared a minimum of the elephant grass, made few cuts and filled the ruts to level the airstrip. He soon had an airstrip 5000’ long and 300’ wide.
On the night of 6 March, sixty three C-47s landed on an airstrip with a fully lit runway and tower radio. The fly in of the 77th and half of the 111th Brigades continued until the 11th. The Chindits immediately moved out on missions to attack the Japanese. The 77th Brigade moved southwest toward Mawlu and established the WHITE CITY roadblock. The 111th Brigade marched farther west to Pinlebu and eventually north to establish the BLACKPOOL roadblock.
1LT Fred S. Beard and 6 men relieved Brackett and his men on 10 April. They improved and maintained the airstrip until the 20th, then returned to Lalaghat by C-47. The Chindits started leaving BROADWAY on 1 May, by the 7th only the garrison battalion was left. They were flown out on the 13th and BROADWAY was abandoned.
At dusk on 6 March, twelve gliders took off from Lalaghat to seize the second stronghold, CHOWRINGHEE. On board were an airfield control party, engineers and three platoons of Gurkhas for security.
The LZ was about 1000 yards long by 200 yards wide and in better condition than BROADWAY. Eleven gliders landed safely but unfortunately, the twelfth, piloted by 1LT Robert L. Dowe, crashed. He overshot and made a 180° turn, but hit a tree and cartwheeled across the LZ. Onboard were a bulldozer and two engineers, CPLs Harold C. Coker and Billy F. Boen, who, along with Dowe, were killed. The dozer broke loose and was destroyed.
1LT Jerome A. Andrulonis was in charge of the engineers. Without a bulldozer there was little he could do to prepare an airstrip that night. LTC Clinton B. Gaty, maintenance officer of the 1st ACG, was in charge of the LZ. He radioed COL Alison at BROADWAY for help. They laid low in the jungle all day on the 7th to avoid detection by Japanese planes.
At sundown Andrulonis started the Gurkhas cutting the elephant grass on the LZ with their kukri knives. They had cleared 12 acres by 2100 when they heard transports overhead. Two gliders, piloted by FOs Vernon Noland and William Mohr, had been snatched out of BROADWAY loaded with a bulldozer (and CPL Hybarger) and jeep. Fifteen minutes later, three gliders arrived from Lalaghat with a grader and another dozer and jeep. All five made safe landings. The engineers were working by 2130 and prepared a 3000’ long airstrip in only four hours. The first C-47 carrying the 111th Brigade landed at 0130 on the 8th.
All that night the engineers leveled and graded the airstrip, continuing the next day and into the next night. PFC Robert Bennett fell asleep and fell off while running a dozer; he looked back to see that CPL Ronald J. Cain had also fallen asleep and off the grader. SGT Joseph D. Walker and PFC Kay C. Eminhizer took their shifts operating the machinery.
The fly in of the 111th continued the next night. One hundred and twenty five C-47 sorties brought in half of the 111th; the other half was landed at BROADWAY. The Brigade moved out on its missions near Pinlebu.
CHOWRINGHEE was abandoned on 10 March. That morning the engineers left by C-47, their equipment was snatched out by glider and returned to Lalaghat. Only two wrecked gliders were left at CHOWRINGHEE. The Japanese bombed and strafed the airstrip just hours after the last Chindit column left the area.
The 16th Brigade started walking in from Ledo on 5 February; by 19 March they had covered 450 miles and were in the Meza River valley northwest of Mawlu. They set to work establishing the ABERDEEN stronghold for themselves and the 111th Brigade, and for the fly in of the 14th Brigade.
LTC Gaty flew in on the afternoon of the 21st in a liaison plane to supervise the building of a glider strip. The Chindits worked all night and at dawn on the 22nd five gliders with engineers and equipment landed safely. A sixth tow and glider, which had gotten lost, arrived an hour later. Twenty engineers with two dozers, a carryall, grader, tractor and jeep started to work on an airstrip. With help from the Chindits, a 3600’ long airstrip was ready the next day. The engineers loaded themselves and their equipment on the first six C-47s to land at ABERDEEN; the planes also towed the gliders back to Lalaghat.
The fly in of the 14th Brigade started on the 23rd, was delayed by weather and aircraft availability, and was not completed until 4 April. The fly in of the garrison battalion wasn’t completed until the 12th. Their arrival completed the fly in of the Chindits to Burma.
The 14th Brigade was given the mission of preventing Japanese reinforcements from moving against the 77th Brigade at WHITE CITY. They and the 16th Brigade made successful attacks in and around Indaw at the end of April. The 14th was then ordered north to protect BLACKPOOL. The 16th Brigade was evacuated from ABERDEEN by the 5th of May and it was abandoned the next day. Almost 700 sorties had been flown onto the airstrip at ABERDEEN.
The 77th Brigade moved southwest out of BROADWAY heading for Mawlu. They destroyed a Japanese railway engineer detachment at Henu on 16 March and established the WHITE CITY fortified road and rail block. It was astride the north-south supply route to the Japanese fighting Stilwell, so after only eleven days the Chindits had accomplished their first mission. After supplies were airdropped, the block was completed on the 19th. The Japanese probed the roadblock for several nights, then attacked in strength on the nights of the 21st and 22nd. After improving his defenses, Calvert attacked and cleared Mawlu on the 27th.
A C-47 airstrip was needed to supply WHITE CITY. The Chindits cleared a 400 yard long glider strip and five gliders landed on the evening of 3 April. 1LT Leonard P. DiSandro gave the following account:
On a Monday [3 April] I was called to a meeting with the CO of the glider organization. There I first heard of the proposed strip to be constructed. Just one piece of equipment, a bulldozer, had been requested. I protested that any work done by the dozer would have to be followed by a grader and since there must be considerable work for a dozer, I requested permission to take two bulldozers and one grader. Luckily my request was granted. I say luckily, because as usual we found more work than we expected.
Take off time was set at 1700, then moved back to 2200. Five gliders were tested and loaded. We had our equipment, gasoline, and two jeeps to be delivered to the British, in addition to the usual field lighting equipment and rations. We picked four operators and one mechanic [CPL Leonard W. Dean, CPL Murlin E. Snead, PFC Medra Cousins, SGT Jack McGee and CPL Alvin H. Barrows]. I decided to go myself to have a glider mission under my belt. We arrived over the field in the first glider at 0015 and made a very good landing. The field had been lighted by the British, and since it was blessed with a perfect approach, all landings were uneventful.
While the last piece of equipment was being unloaded, I walked around the field with a Captain from the glider outfit and an RAF man. I found the problems very like those at another strip we had just finished [ABERDEEN]. The bunds (dikes) between the rice paddies required the dozers, but that wasn’t the least of our trouble. The field was very rough, but it wasn’t level ground with high spots – it was level ground with holes. Water buffaloes wandering across the field during rainy seasons had torn it up so badly that a tremendous amount of grading would have been necessary to bring it down to condition anywhere near smooth. That amount of grading would have turned the field into a bog after the lightest shower, or into a dust bowl when dry. The soil was almost pure clay, which turned very slick when wet, and was difficult to grade when dry. It refused to break up under the blade – large pieces would pile up, and finally the grader would jump the whole windrow … and all this happened while we were merely trying to lightly top it off!
We worked the rest of the night but could accomplish comparatively little. When dawn came I got a better picture of the situation. I put one dozer to leveling the bunds with the grader smoothing off behind. Since we had to have the field in operation Tuesday night I decided to get the strip and parking area roughed out, and leave the finer touches until the next day. By 1730 Tuesday we had the strip and parking area completed. It was about 3,500 feet long and 120 feet wide. The parking area measured about 150 by 300 feet.
Due to rain at our base no planes took off for the strip that night. However one transport did come in from another field. The pilot found the field bumpy, but satisfactory. We all got some sleep Tuesday night. On Wednesday we graded the field from end to end, and enlarged the parking area to 300 feet square. That night a whole bunch of transports landed – we had taken a heavy rainstorm, but all planes landed safely in spite of the slick condition.
On the 7th, the Chindits flew in some 25 pounders and the dozers were used to move them into position. They were also used to improve trails within the protective wire, regrade the airstrip and build aircraft parking areas.
The Japanese launched air, artillery and mortar attacks, and finally a ground attack on the night of the 10th. After repairing minor damage to the airstrip, the engineers and equipment were flown out by C-47 the next afternoon.
The garrison battalion took over the defense of WHITE CITY on 10 April. On the 17th, Calvert marched the 77th Brigade north towards Mogaung. WHITE CITY was evacuated on 9 May after the 111th Brigade established BLACKPOOL.
After operating near Pinlebu, the 111th Brigade was ordered to establish a fortified roadblock in the vicinity of Hopin. After resting at ABERDEEN they marched north on 23 April.
MAJ John Masters, 111th Brigade commander, picked the location for BLACKPOOL (known to the engineers as CLYDESIDE) on 7 May. He made a personal reconnaissance to determine the suitability of the area for a glider strip and C-47 airstrip. He and RAF Flight Lieutenant Jennings paced off the available distance. There was about 3900’ of useable paddy land; unfortunately, the northern 1400’ were five feet lower than the southern 2500’. All that night and the next day the Chindits worked at leveling the paddy dikes by hand to clear a glider strip, as well as preparing positions within BLACKPOOL.
1LT Andrulonis gave the following account:
Two C-47’s of the First Air commando Group landed at [Lalaghat], bringing news of “CLYDESIDE” mission. We immediately loaded one bulldozer, one Case tractor, one grader, and one carry-all, and took off. S/Sgt. Tierney, Cpl. Jones, T/5 Hybarger, and Pfc’s Lovelace and Fisher together with myself comprised the engineering personnel. My ‘dozer loaded glider was the first to take off for what proved to be a smooth uneventful flight, arriving over the site at 0615 [9 May] in broad daylight.
We had difficulty in locating the strip, no expected support ground troops were to be seen even after one pass up the valley. … During our search for the strip the second glider had arrived, and spotting the field he cut loose. Still on our approach we sweated out his landing – everything seemed under control until he was about 100 feet up – then we watched as he stalled out and nosed straight down! A second later my pilot [FO Marlyn O. Satrom] cut loose. … We settled back and braced ourselves for the initial shock – we hit with a bump, raced along for a second or two, then came to a screeching stop.
British troops rushed out of the jungle to give us a hand – landing gear washed out, wing collapsed, we had overrun the field knocking out a few bunds. No casualties – all ropes held, the dozer never moved an inch. … The next gliders landed in adjoining paddy fields – washing out their landing gear – and never touching the “strip”! The glider that nosed in, killing both pilots [1LT Donald A. Lefevre and FO Hadley D. Baldwin], contained Pfc’s Fisher and Lovelace – both injured – and the grader, completely demolished. The site for the C-47 strip was laid out in paddy-land nearest the hills approximating the British stronghold, with miles of clear approach on one end. The other end was obstructed by 30 yds of tall trees so it was decided that a one-way approach would suffice. From this end ran terraced paddy land with 6” to 1’ variation in elevation which after 2500’ ended in an abrupt 5’ drop – to continue in terraced paddy land for 1400’.
The first day Cpl. Jones and I alternated on the ‘dozer, assisted by 50 British with pick and shovels. By noon we had a rough liaison strip ready, expecting light planes which never arrived.
At 0200 hrs on May 10th, S/Sgt. Tierney and T/5 Hybarger whose glider had failed to take-off, crash landed with the carry-all. Since they were not expected only air-drop fires were lit – their only landing target! Tierney slightly wounded, and Hybarger shaken up, the carry-all arrived in good condition. By 1900 hrs 2400 ft had been roughly graded, and that night three C-47’s arrived – all good landings. … At 0400 hrs a First Air Commando C-47 landed on a 3600’ rain soaked field, rolling over the graded depression (done with only bulldozer and carryall) so our worries were over. That day the newly arrived grader did wonders smoothing the entire runway, while the dozer and carry-all continued to fill in the depression, minimizing the grade.
That afternoon we were grading the last paddies on the end of the field, when we heard shells dropping a short distance away beyond the woods. My men continued work. After five or six exploded, each closer and closer, a British runner told us to hit for cover – it was a Jap 75 mm! The barrage lasted about an hour – we inspected the results after dark. The C-47, apparently their target, had been riddled with shrapnel, the dispersal area suffered 15 craters. Shrapnel also put our Case tractor, carry-all, and ‘dozer out of commission. … That night I sent Lovelace out on a C-47, he had performed admirably after bruising and shock, in the landing which had killed both pilots and by now appeared fatigued. Twenty transports landed that night without mishap – and inspection of the runway the following morning showed it to be in perfect condition – hardly a trace of indentation where tires had touched in initial impact on landing.
The next day, May 13th, we continued smoothing the field pulling the grader with the jeep. … Transports began landing about 2100 hrs that night. About 2115 hrs Jap ground troops attacked the rear of our stronghold position. In the midst of a pitched battle we were ordered out at 2230 hrs taking off in a C-47 to return to base.
Although the block was established and receiving resupply by air, Masters did not get expected reinforcements and was being severely punished by the Japanese artillery. Aerial resupply and evacuation became impossible after the weather closed in and the Japanese brought in antiaircraft guns. Masters decided that the block had to be abandoned and on 24 May, carrying his wounded, he made a difficult withdrawal under fire.
The 900th made more landings than any other gliderborne unit. Although nowhere near the size or scope, their five glider missions in nine weeks in Burma equaled those made in the Mediterranean and European theaters in 1943 - 1945.
The 900th ably executed the mission it was established to perform. They conducted gliderborne insertions deep behind enemy lines to build airstrips for follow on airlanding missions. The 900th provided responsive engineering support and materially contributed to the liberation of northern Burma. They continued to provide airfield support missions throughout Burma during 1944 and 1945.
All told, the 900th, Chindits and 1st ACG made a total of 14 glider landings in nine weeks. Unfortunately, their accomplishments in Burma in the spring of 1944 were overshadowed by events that summer in Normandy.