A visit with 96-year-old “Hump Pilot” Richard Daniel Harris is like reading a good book about World War II.
At Harris’ apartment in West Seattle, you may burst into laughter when he describes how his beer blew up when he snapped the top off, flying at 16,000 feet, on hearing that Japan surrendered. And the other stories — like the Gurkha knife he got in Burma or the Assam Dragon — all come to life.
When you open his logbook and see the details of the treacherous trips he made over “The Hump”, the pet name they gave to the eastern Himalayan mountain range, and who those trips were for, you’d realize how much what he did really meant to the people of the United States and China.
From February to October 1945, Harris flew military transport aircraft from India to China in support of the war effort against Japan.
The US Army Air Force’s Air Transport Command (ATC) pilots flew from bases in northeast India’s Assam Valley to Kunming, China in the southwestern province of Yunnan, about a 500-mile hop. They helped supply Chinese and American troops from 1942, when Japan took control of Burma and its land route, until 1945.
“When Pearl Harbor happened, there was a call to arms,” Harris said. “When we were invaded by a foreign country; when they were at the table, trying to negotiate a peace, they attacked and bombed our ships in Honolulu. It is not fair.”
Harris volunteered to join the Army. He served from July 3, 1942 to March 18, 1946, went in as private and was discharged a flight officer.
“I didn’t expect to go in. … I had a friend who was interested in it. I had a car and I drove him down. We both went in and took the physical. He didn’t pass then I did,” Harris recalled.
When Harris did his first solo flight in Army training in Lewiston, Idaho, he considered himself a real pilot.
When he was flying back and forth over the Himalayas, he said the Japanese planes pretty much left them alone and never got up on The Hump.
“We did have very little Japanese aircraft attack us. The conditions were too bad for the Japanese bombers to fight. If they did anything, they dropped bombs on the runways we were going to use in China. So we could not land, and we would have to throw our loads out because we could not make it back over the higher altitude,” Harris recalled.
But the task was very risky because the round trip was full of high winds, subzero temperatures, thunderstorms and mountain peaks up to 18,000 feet high.
The pilots had no choice but to navigate the obstacles in overloaded C-46 aircraft built specially for the task. They nicknamed the C-46 the “Flying Coffin”.
They had a lot of casualties, he said, “probably one in four and some of them never came home”.
“We had to use oxygen masks all the time because of the pressure,” he said. “We used them at night at the time we took off and the time we landed. In the daytime, we wouldn’t put them on until we go over 10,000 feet.
“You’d listen for a signal on the radio, but in bad weather you couldn’t hear the signal. So you had to rely on what they called gyrocompass,” he said.
Despite the severe and harsh conditions, Harris himself went over and back 72 times.
“We would load our gas tank full and not refuel on the other side and come back. It was important to carry as much as we could to take off in India,” Harris said. “It was about tons of materials, like bombs, gasoline, ammunition, food, medical supplies, but mainly gasoline and bombs.”
Hump Pilots transported 650,000 tons of materiel to China at great cost in men and aircraft during their 42-month history.
“I was 21 years old; you don’t have any fear when you are 21.”
There were all kinds of life-threatening moments. Once Harris blew a tire when he was fully loaded with pipes for building up the gasoline pipeline to China. Most of the time he had to fl y by compass and let down by calculated flying time.
Harris, a Catholic, carried rosary beads with him on every trip.
Sometimes, Harris carried Chinese troops.
“They just sat on the floor and they had no oxygen masks. We got up to high altitude at 10,000 feet. The conversation in the back just sort of stopped. A lot of them went to sleep. Very few died. It was not a pleasant journey for them,” Harris told China Daily.
Harris was a member of the The Hump Pilot Association, which held its first meeting in 1947. After nearly 60 years of activities, the association’s board of directors voted on Sept 28, 2005, in Nashville, Tennessee, to dissolve the association at the end of that year due to the advancing age of its members.
In April last year, Harris flew to Washington DC with the Honor Flight program and attended World War II memorials. There were 23 veterans from the Northwest, and Harris was the only pilot.
When the war was over, Harris flew from Kolkata, India to Shanghai, which he said was quite an experience.
Discharged from the Army, Harris studied law and became a lawyer and served as an assistant US attorney in Seattle. He was the special deputy prosecutor for the county, served as a judge for three years in Seattle Municipal Court and practiced law for 52 years.
His son Tracy Harris said his father seldom spoke of his war experiences, and that was the way of their generation.
“Thanks to the Lord I have 73 years and more of a good marriage, wonderful children, two sons and three daughters,” Harris said, adding that he’s had a wonderful life.
Today Harris can still drive his car and ride a tricycle.
“But I am not sure if I can fly an airplane again,” he said with a smile.