Survival Over The “HUMP” Part One
First Lieutenant Art Tuttle, our flight engineer, yelled into the intercom; “Doc, our number 4 engine is showing a drop in oil pressure and a rise in head temperature. Keep an eye on it, Art, and let me know if your numbers continue to drop,” ordered Capt. Doc Waller, our pilot.
As the flight’s co-pilot, he knew that the B-29 engines and other bugs had become problems for many other crews stationed out of Piardoba, India. We were often overloaded with 140,000 lbs. to 160,000 lbs. gross weight, causing the engines to overheat.
Girlfriends, losses and pin ups
The rapidly forming cumulus clouds below caught my attention. But I realized that eighteen hours of B-29 flying, per mission, in the China Burma Theater gave us all a lot of time to think; wives and girlfriends the “Love Boat B-17 over Walker Field, my wife, Betty Ann, coaxing the big bomber through the skies over the Michigan/Ohio State football game, my time in the cavalry and my new assignment as General Smith’s aide.The loss of Lt. Edward Pearce, a Flint Northern football star and 3-year Michigan State charter winner, on a mountainside in French Morocco…then 1st Lt. Charles Hill (middle of MSU), who was piloting a Liberator over Germany, failed to return a month later and stabbed me like a knife.
Pearce, Hill and I stayed together through 14 moves to camps and bases, moving from the Cavalry to the Armed Forces and then to the Air Force. We all got our wings together following the same path and I mourned them and their crews. Heartbroken, their widows with newborns carried on…and kept the faith that their loved ones would return.
The selection of the nose art was important to the bonding of the crew…the spirit and pride of each crew. The more personal, intimate and irreverent, the better for 19-24 year olds in this war. Perhaps a pinup on the side of a plane would make the enemy stop (with laughter or with desire) in their quest to shoot down our plane, giving our gunners a chance to catch it first. A playboy pinup or worse was sure to be exciting for most and a relief for some. Themes ranged from sassy or sexual to cartoon/caricature, people, logo/name, and name only themes. What the hell, the more garish the better. If it relieved some tension and we let it rip. It was so much fun and all of a sudden all the men became artists in each aircrew unit to get a representative coat of arms.
Sergeant James Lynch, our right gunner, suddenly yelled into the intercom; “Doc, our number 4 is smoking.” Here we go again, I thought, as Captain Doc Waller, our pilot, told Jimmy to watch for flames and First Lieutenant Art Tuttle, flight engineer, to check gauges, check temperatures and pressures, and his emergency checklist. .
Numbuh 4’s time couldn’t have been worse. We were 34,000 feet above the Himalayas. This is not a bombing mission but a cargo flight. We carried eight rubber-lined fuel tanks secured in the bomb racks, 2,900 gallons to offload after 13 more hours of direct flight to our forward base in the Cheng Tu Valley…in preparation for the drive to bombard the homeland of Japan.
We were a long way from home carrying so much fuel on board. A possible engine fire was now more terrifying than being fired on Kyushu and Yokohama from intense and accurate anti-aircraft missiles.
I looked at Doc, quietly concentrating on his next task. He was going over his emergency procedures and options as he descended and changed course, in case the worst happened. He knew that twelve men were counting on him to make life or death decisions. Dock told me to take the yoke and I flew “STARDUSTER” on our new course. I kept an eye on #4 as he polled Art Tuttle for engine performance numbers and asked for constant updates from our engine eyes in the back.
Through the darkness of morning, we press on. None of us expected that our missions would arrive without casualties or that our own aircraft would have a better chance than others to emerge unscathed. The question we all ponder… What if? And it seemed like the answer to what if could become a reality…soon.
The number 4 engine was slowly losing power and now we could smell gas vapors in the nose of the plane. With a sudden and dramatic turn to the right, TSgt Alden Huisjen, our senior gunner, yelled, “We’ve got thick black smoke coming out of number 4 now.” Quickly, I turned to confirm our problem child on the starboard wing. Doc gave me that look and I nodded a confirmation of the reality of our problem. Our converted B-29 tanker was now in real trouble.
Doc immediately cut power upon hearing smoke coming from the engine, even as Art reported that all engine instruments were showing normal indications. The power reduction had reduced the volume of smoke, but within 10 minutes, a large plume of oil and smoke suddenly erupted from the upper nacelle. Sergeant Don Carter, our radio operator, went to the forward bomb bay to investigate gas fumes. Doc was worried that the fumes would saturate the plane and the entire crew might be affected.
“Fire, fire now coming out of number 4,” Alden yelled, “the flames are growing.”
Suddenly, there was a second shudder and Art looked at the tachometer and notified the pilots that the number 4’s MAP/RPM was dropping rapidly. The motor then jerked violently and stopped completely…