Military Transport Division
Dec 12, 1941 - Aug 14,1945
From Chapter VII of Air Transport at War by Reginald M. Cleveland, Harper & Brothers, NYC & London, 1946
The story of Eastern Airlines' Military Transport Division is typical of the way in which airline experience was fitted into the mosaic of new demand and new experiences for war. American ingenuity, through this division, contrived to find a way to carry thousands of tons of critical war materiel and thousands of highly skilled men over the heads of Axis submarines stalking the Atlantic and threatening to neutralize our productive efforts by preventing the delivery of vital cargo to the fighting fronts.
Operating scheduled two-engined cargo planes principally between Miami and Natal, on the bulge of Brazil, and from Natal across the South Atlantic Ocean to Accra, on the Gold Coast of Africa, the division, in its three and a half years of existence, flew 33,480,000 miles over open ocean and almost uninhabited jungle to carry 47,500,000 pounds of war cargo, ranging from ammunition and guns to badly needed airplane parts for B-29 Superforts operating in the Pacific. During its operation 130,000 essential passengers were flown to or from the United States. In the four months period from June, 1945, to September more than 15,000 servicemen were flown back to the United States for redeployment or release.
With clocklike regularity planes flew, "down the line" with their precious: cargoes, maintaining schedules under the most adverse conditions. Efficient EAL mechanics and operations men in spite of inadequate facilities and primitive working conditions, kept the planes moving as smoothly as those over long established routes in the United States. Only once were EAL flights canceled because of weather and only one plane went down during the entire operations.
When the newly formed Air Transport Command, which will be remembered by Germany as one of the major causes for her defeat, begin functioning, early in 1942, General George called United States airlines officials to a special meeting in Washington. He painted a grave picture of our supply lines to Europe and Africa. He pointed out that Axis subs in the Caribbean were knocking off Allied merchantmen almost at will and that the war was moving steadily closer to the east coast of South America. Men and supplies were needed, and needed quickly, at proposed South American bases and in Africa where Rommel was lord of the land. The general outlined the breath-taking plan to fly tons of vital equipment and thousands of essential men down the coast of South America and across the Atlantic Ocean to Africa. He appealed to the airlines officials, representing the most experienced air transport talent in the country, to make the plan work. Specific routes were assigned to individual airlines and ATC was on its way.
With Eastern's decision to operate planes for the ATC, the company's operations division, with headquarters in Miami, was simply told that an airline was going to be operated for the Army and that it would be up to operations to start the ball rolling. Eighteen hours a day was not uncommon for some who carried on with their regular duties in addition to helping set up and operate the Military Transport Division.
By the latter part of March, 1942, the line had converted six of its DC-3 Silverliners from passenger to cargo carriers, and was launched on its military operation with three scheduled flights a day from Miami to Middletown, Pennsylvania, and one a day from Miami to San Antonio, Texas.
Because of the importance of the job and because Eastern had no overwater experience, only senior pilots with at least 10,000 hours of flying, experience and top-ranking mechanics and operations men were taken into the military operation, accounting for its immediate and continued success.
On April 14, Eastern made its first overwater hop, a survey flight from Miami to Trinidad. Several pilots and copilots, a mechanic, navigator, radio operator and the vice-president in charge of operations were aboard when the converted DC-3 took off from Miami in the early morning hours to blaze a trail. On the first day the survey party stopped at Cuba and Borinquen Field, Puerto Rico, where they spent the night. The next morning they took off for Trinidad via the Leeward Islands. When they passed over Martinique, then a hot spot in the Caribbean, they saw what they believed to be the French fleet. But they were not foolish enough to come down close enough to be sure. After a night at the lonely outpost, the survey party retraced its flight, leaving spare parts and essential supplies for the planes that were to follow as soon as schedules could be established.
On May 1, 1942, regular flights were started from Miami to Trinidad via Borinquen Field. Planes flew from Miami to Borinquen via Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the first day, from Borinquen to Trinidad and return the second day, and from Borinquen back to Miami the third day. By May 18 enough planes were available to operate the route daily.
One of the most difficult problems at this time was to provide adequate maintenance. Two skilled mechanics were stationed at Puerto Rico where they serviced four ships a day. One of them would service two planes early in the morning, board the second and fly to Trinidad, where he serviced the same two ships for their return trip. Then he boarded the second plane, flew back to Puerto Rico and again serviced the two planes before going to bed, a thoroughly whipped mechanic. The next day he could sleep late, until about 4 A.M., while the second mechanic took the trip south., On that day he serviced planes on their way to Miami.
Personnel stationed at Trinidad slept in a primitive hut and relied largely on Spam and vitamin pills for food. It was no picnic, but the boys, both mechanics and flight crews, knew the work they were doing was vital to the war. They gave the best they had. Mechanics even worked with their own tools. No others were available. It isn't much of an exaggeration to say they did all necessary repairs with the tools they could carry in their hip pockets. Each plane carried spare parts, including spark plugs, cylinders and pistons. Two stepladders for working on engines also were carried as standard equipment.
Borinquen Field, a fairly well-established U.S. air base, had hangars which could be utilized when major repairs were necessary, but Trinidad was little more than a small clearing in the jungle, just about big enough for a plane to land and take off. All work bad to be done outdoors, under a scorching tropical sun or in drenching rain.
Coming into Trinidad was a ticklish job for pilots. The air strip, surrounded by dense jungle, is at the base of mountains that rise more than three thousand feet. Often the peaks are hidden in the clouds. When Eastern first started flying, antiaircraft guns protected the field from all sides. Approaching aircraft were required to follow a designated corridor and give the proper signal of the day or risk the very good possibility of being shot down. Fighter escorts accompanied cargo planes to, the field. With plenty of enemy activity around Trinidad, personnel there could take no chances with aircraft, so pilots had to be right on the beam and know all the answers when they approached the island. The approach had to be right the first time.
One of the lines' first assignments in overseas service was not only to carry urgently needed supplies to Puerto Rico and Trinidad when all indications pointed to an enemy attack, but to help evacuate women and children from the two islands. Evacuees in the Greater and Lesser Antilles were brought to, Puerto Rico or Trinidad and from there flown to safety in Miami. On one trip from Puerto Rico, a pilot recalled, his passengers. included two dogs, four love birds, a talkative parrot, two babies in a basket and a pregnant woman. A doctor accompanied the flight just to be on hand if the stork should catch up with the hurrying DC-3. The plane won the race.
With Axis submarines prowling the Caribbean daily, leaving oil slicks and burning ships in their wake, officers based in the areas naturally wanted to get their families back to the United States as quickly and as safely as possible. Air, of course, was the only answer.
The so-called "Battle of Borinquen" gives an indication of the nervous air of expectancy that existed in the island during that period. The story goes that a ship appeared just off the coast of Puerto Rico a few miles from the airfield. Someone thought he saw landing boats being launched and excitedly reported that the air base was about to be attacked. Everyone was galvanized into confused action. No target was in sight but gun batteries on the airfield started shooting anyway, into the air and in all directions. The shooting caused more confusion. Boxes of guns and ammunition were opened. Guns and clips were shoved into the hands of men as they ran past the boxes. Men dived behind the first shelter they found and started firing wildly. There was still no enemy in sight but the whole field was a bedlam.
The "battle" lasted only a few minutes but a lot of ammunition and allot of nerves were shot before it was discovered that the unidentified ship was one of our own bringing supplies.
This incident might have happened at any one of many bases in the Caribbean or South Atlantic because the people in the area were thoroughly conscious of the nearness of the enemy. Unlike many persons in the United States at that time, they did not underestimate the enemy's strength and potentialities. He was knocking at their door.
By the latter part of June, 1942, enough cargo planes were available for Eastern to extend its military operation to Natal, on South America's east coast bulge, four thousand miles from Miami.
From Trinidad the two-engined cargo planes were to fly to Atkinson Field, a jungle-bound airport on the Demerara River about, twenty-eight miles from Georgetown, capital of British Guiana, then down the South American coast to Belem, Brazil, near the mouth of the Amazon, and on south to Natal, the jumping-off place for Africa.
The survey flight over the unfamiliar territory to Natal was made June 24, 1942. About a week later, July 1, two planes a day were scheduled all the way to Natal. Later the schedule was increased to four planes a day.
By the time the flights to Brazil were started, crews were becoming accustomed to the long overwater flights between Miami and Trinidad without the aid of adequate radio aids. Most of their flying had to be done by dead reckoning. This was no small feat, especially over the more than seven-hundred-mile stretch of ocean between Grenada and Puerto Rico, where there was not even a single coral island to break the endless slatecolored surface of the restless ocean.
The addition of the Trinidad-Natal leg brought with it new hardships, new dangers. Atkinson Field, the halfway point, between Miami and Natal, was little more than a narrow clearing in the tangled jungle that surrounded it. The vast tropical wilderness seemed poised on the very edge of the field, threatening to snatch back its own and licking its lips at the prospect of swallowing any plane that came within reach. To help camouflage the field, the jungle was not even cleared from the area between the runways. Revetments for dispersing planes overnighting there were barely wide enough to accommodate a plane's wings. As at Trinidad, antiaircraft guns were placed around the field and in the dense trees between the runways. Pilots were careful to give the proper signal when coming into this isolated air base, which had to be continually on the alert for possible enemy attack. Located on a sandy plateau, the highest site in the low-lying jungle area, Atkinson Field could be reached only by air or by the tide waters of the near-by Demerara River. Later a narrow road, or more properly a path, was cut through the jungle, but this often was rendered impassable by rains.
Eastern personnel stationed at the field, consisting of exactly one mechanic when the South American flights were started, slept in a native mud hut with a roof made of dung and palm fronds and ate little besides Spam and pills. Later when the United States acquired the base, barracks were built. But life still was raw. Clothing was washed by native women who used the primitive method of beating with rocks or sticks in a stream. The boys always had to dump the sand out of their pockets when their pants came back from the "laundry." All planes had to be serviced and repaired in the open against heavy odds. If it wasn't an almost endless drenching rain, it was blinding sand, mixed with clouds of mosquitoes bent on carrying men back to their jungle hideout. One man stoutly maintains his service at Atkinson Field would have ended abruptly if the pilot had not started the engines of the DC-3 he had just serviced. The prop wash blew away -enough mosquitoes to give him a chance to run for cover and grab a bottle of repellent.
Because army planes did not have permission to fly over French Guiana, it was necessary to fly the long way around the coast on the leg between Georgetown and Belem. Not only did the planes not have permission to fly over the French colony, then under German control, but they had frequent unmistakable warnings not to go anywhere near it. At least one Eastern plane came back with bullet holes in the fuselage, collected when it got too near the coast. Normally, all early flights did not get closer than five miles off shore.
Val de Cans air base, about twelve miles from the Amazon delta town of Belem, Brazil, was the next stop beyond Atkinson Field, and nearly a thousand miles away. The base, like the one in British Guiana, was literally hewn out of solid jungle by hundreds of native laborers, using machetes and axes. The jungle there is even more dense than at Georgetown. The trees tower as high as two hundred feet, grow close together and are interlaced with enormous vines and thick shrubs-a barrier which can be penetrated only with axe.
When Eastern started going to Val de Cans there were no sleeping quarters available and locally produced food wasn't safe to eat. Personnel stationed at the field and the flight crews staying there slept in the Grande Hotel in Belem, about twelve miles away by a tortuous jungle path that passed for a road. Frequently German and Italian officers stayed in the same hotel. At that time Brazil was still neutral.
Servicing four planes a day with the aid of Portuguese-speaking natives who helped with loading and unloading was such a time-consuming job that it frequently took the mechanic until nearly midnight to get through with his work. By that time he was so tired he hardly felt the accommodations in Belem worth the trip, especially since he had to be back at the base early next morning to pre-flight planes before their departure. So he frequently curled up on top of the cargo in the plane and got a little sleep there. For breakfast he ate emergency rations carried on board the plane.
As soon as tired flight crews hit the ground, however, they headed for the Grande Hotel or, more often, for Madam Gares', a respectable hotel-restaurant on Quntino Bocayuva, Belem. At Madam Gares' they could enjoy good food and fairly comfortable beds and pleasant atmosphere created by the owner, a Frenchwoman who had come to Brazil years before. Later, as more personnel came to Belem, Madam Gares' became known as Eastern Airlines' Staff House. Occasionally flight crews brought shrimp and other hard-to-get food from the States and shared it with hotel personnel. That clinched their friendship. Crew members even had a regular cab driver, Geraldo by name, who was always waiting in front of the hotel early in the morning to drive them back to Val de Cans air base. Actually the job was a windfall for Geraldo because he charged the crew ten dollars per trip, and that isn't hay in Brazil.
Living and working conditions at Parnamirim Field, Natal, were about the same as they were at Belem, but the weather was a little better-not so much rain and the heat was not as depressing. The soil at the field, however, was fine-grain sand that literally got in everybody's hair. Frequently, strong breezes from the South Atlantic churned up the sand so that airline boys swore it was impossible to see a big cargo plane sitting on the ground fifty feet away.
As tents offered the only sleeping quarters at the infant field, flight crews and ground personnel stayed at the Grande Hotel (every Brazilian town seems to have a Grande Hotel) in the city of Natal, about fifteen miles away. A deep, rutted ox path through the sand and scrub was the only connecting link between the field and town. It took two hours to make the trip, one way. Hotel beds were straw mattresses over wood planks. The food was poor and the waiters and EAL men couldn't speak the same language. Until they could pick up a little Portuguese, the boys worked out an ingenious sign language to get what they wanted.
A few weeks after the Miami-Natal flights were inaugurated, pilots found a way to cut at least half an hour from their flying time between Georgetown and Belem. Unofficially, they contacted American pursuit officers who were stationed at Zandery Field, Dutch Guiana, to protect nearby aluminum mines and got their assurance that cargo planes flying about fifty miles back of the mines wouldn't be shot down. With this assurance, the airline pilots started flying a direct course from Georgetown instead of going around the coast of French Guiana. On this new route it was necessary to fly over a corner of the Nazi-held French colony but the planes passed so fir inland that only the monkeys and perhaps few uncomprehending natives of the jungle even knew they were going over. Nearly two months later General Robert L. Walsh, commanding general of the South Atlantic wing, got official permission from the Brazilian General Eduardo Gomes to fly the direct course 'over the interior.
Although this route saved time it also brought hazards not confronted on the coast. The entire stretch was over almost solid jungle as wild and dense and isolated as any in the world. There were no dependable radio aids over most of the route, and maps pilots had to use were neither complete nor accurate. Many high mountains in the area were not even indicated on the maps and many of those shown were higher or lower than indicated and frequently as much as fifty miles from their designated location. The intertropical front, a barrier of cumulus, turbulent clouds, often, towering to the stratosphere and extending to within five hundred, feet of sea level, frequently blotted out most landmarks and made flying at about nine thousand feet a necessity. There was less turbulence at this altitude and, pilots found by trial and error, there were no mountain peaks that high.
In these early days of the South American run flight crews and passengers on the cargo planes were impressed by their isolation and relative insignificance as they flew high above the vast wilderness virtually unbroken as far as the eye could reach. On clear days the tightly packed trees of the jungle seemed like a plush carpet spread over the face of the earth. Occasionally the black waters of a narrow river wound laboriously through the dense growth. The jungle, apparently jealous of the little space occupied by the rivers, seemed to push hard against the narrow banks in an effort to swallow the rift that broke the solid mass. Most rivers could be seen only when the plane was almost directly overhead.
The only sign of life over this lonely airway was an occasional clearing, seemingly only a few feet wide, where natives had pushed aside the tall trees just enough to build a cluster of grass huts along a stream.
Flying over this remote area, with little but a compass to guide them, pilots knew there was just one thing to do-set a course for Belem and keep right on flying at least until they reached the first recognizable landmark, the mouth of the mighty Amazon. It is so wide at the point of crossing that the north bank has disappeared long before Marajo Island comes into view. The island, larger than Formosa, is surrounded by the brown river waters and was a welcome sight to pilots, because it lies just north of Belem, their destination. Marajo is inhabited by a few natives who graze large herds of cattle, the first sign of civilization a crew saw after leaving British Guiana.
Although the flight from Belem to Natal was also over jungle it did not seem quite so remote. Occasional open spots showed the red soil almost bare of growth and there were the fairly well-equipped emergency fields of Sao Luiz, about a third of the way from Belem, and Fortaleza, about two-thirds of the way down. Even over this area pilots in the early days of the military operation flew mainly by the seat of their pants. Navigational aids were few and far between. Of course, as one pilot put it, "We could always fly over to the coast and get our bearings provided the clouds were not so dense we couldn't see the coast line."
When it was determined that Eastern would operate in the Caribbean and South Atlantic, the company's medical department made an on-the-scene survey of the conditions under which personnel would have to live. At the time there were no army regulations as to immunizations and food; so it was up to the company to protect its own personnel. As a result of the survey, both ground personnel and flight crews were vaccinated against yellow fever, cholera, tetanus, typhus, typhoid, bubonic plague and smallpox. Both water and locally prepared food were found to be dangerously contaminated at most bases, so employees were advised to drink only bottled water, or water they boiled themselves, and to eat only specified foods. They were advised to avoid all fresh vegetables and all other native-prepared foods unless served very hot. Vitamins, to supplement their meager diet, were provided by the company. Because of the prevalence of malaria at Trinidad, Borinquen Field, Belem and Georgetown, men at those bases were -advised to take plenty of quinine. It was suggested. that flight crews take enough food from Miami for the entire round trip. Many of them carried their food and water with them when they went to a hotel in Belem or Natal.
The medical department also prepared a pamphlet giving detailed instructions on how to survive in the tropics. Each man living at one of the bases or flying to and from them received a copy of the pamphlet. It outlined the foods to eat and those to avoid, emphasized the importance of rest and exercise and made many suggestions which the men, unfamiliar with the tropics, found helpful.
All ground crews had a thorough physical checkup in Miami at least once every six months and a screening test every three months. Flight crews were screened before each flight and given a thorough physical once a year. Not more than an hour before each flight a nurse took the temperature and pulse of each crew member. If there was any sign to indicate approaching sickness in a crew member, he was not permitted to accompany the flight. A substitute took his place.
As an indication of how well the medical department did its job, there were only three mild cases of malaria throughout the three and one-half years of military operation in the South Atlantic, and only four cases of dysentery, all light cases, developed.
By late August, 1942, Eastern's military operation had expanded to such proportions and importance that the company decided to set it up as a separate organization, to be known as the Military Transport Division. The separation became effective on September 1.
About the time the division was formed, Eastern's maintenance department in Miami, anticipating the heavy volume of work that was to come, formulated procedures for training mechanics at company stations in New York, Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Houston and San Antonio. Men with mechanical experience were hired in each locality, a total of about two hundred, and given six weeks' on-the-job training under the supervision of line mechanics.
With a few veteran mechanics brought to Miami, they formed the nucleus of the MTD's maintenance department. Later this department assumed the full-time job of overhauling and repairing all planes used in the military operation. A complete check was made of each plane when it returned to Miami from its 8,000-mile round trip to Natal.
The MTD, early in September, sent veteran operations and traffic men from the commercial division to each base to handle liaison and co-ordinate the activities of the company. By November an assistant station manager and additional mechanics were sent to each base. About this time Brazil entered the war and soon afterwards the Army took over the air bases in Natal and Belem.
When the Army took over, Eastern personnel acquired the same status as commissioned officers and were required to wear special army uniforms. Although not actually in the army, they were subject to all army regulations, including court-martial and the articles of war. To indicate relative rank within MTD, Eastern men wore one, two, or, three bars on their shoulders---three bars for a captain or top administrative personnel; two bars for a chief mechanic, station manager and pilot; one bar for a navigator, radio operator, mechanic and assistant station manager.
Army control was to bring vast improvements in living conditions at the bases from Trinidad on down but those improvements were a long time materializing. There was such urgent need for getting the planes in and getting them out again with their precious cargoes that little time or effort could be given to building barracks and mess halls. Besides, material had to be brought in by boat and at that time only about one of every four boats got through. Vital supplies such as gasoline and food had to come first. At times when the Nazis were especially accurate with their torpedoes, supplies of these items became dangerously low. More than once the Natal base found itself with less than a twenty-four-hour supply of aviation gasoline, making it necessary for cargo planes to gas at the absolute minimum to fly from Natal to Belem. The men at Belem and Natal lived for weeks on Spam and bananas when their supply ships were sunk off the coast.
The station managers sent to each station were intended principally to act as liaison men between Eastern and the Army - to keep things clicking smoothly and to keep necessary records. Mechanics made visual checks of all Eastern planes landing at their base and supervised gassing of the ships. All this was beautiful theory. With practically no facilities available for getting their job done, and with the realization that a delayed plane might cost lives of men at the fighting fronts, all MTD personnel pitched in, and helped when a plane was on the ground. Frequently station managers, mechanics and sometimes flight crews all helped load or unload cargo and in the beginning this had to be done by hand. Elbow grease substituted for the lift trucks that came into use months later.
At the South American bases there were many natives who could be hired for about thirty cents a day but the language barrier made them less useful than they might have been. Nevertheless, when cargo had to be loaded or taken off the station manager yelled, "Mais homens" and "Gooks," as, the natives were called, came running. For a long time MTD men had to use sign language to make them understand what was wanted.
The Gooks seemed proud of any job given them around a plane, especially if it entailed some responsibility. One tall, dark-skinned fellow strutted majestically among his fellow workers day after day when he was assigned the specific duty of cleaning the toilet on each plane. He and his coworkers felt he had arrived in the world. He had the important title of Jefe del Lavoratores ("Supervisor of Toilets").
In spite of all difficulties -- lack of tools, insufficient number of men, primitive working and living conditions airline personnel at each base, with typical American ingenuity, got the job done. They improvised often and probably broke a few army regulations, but they kept the planes and cargo on schedule, and they did it with no fanfare.
The manifests of the cargo ships read like an army supply officer's shopping list. Everything carried had to get where it was going in a hurry. Airplane parts, including wings, tail sections and at least one complete fuselage of an L-5 observation plane, complete airplane engines ready for mounting, machine guns and small arms, ammunition, food, medicine, including vaccines and blood plasma, soap, mail for servicemen in Africa, India and China-all of these items and many more were carried over the ocean, over the jungle, over the Nazi submarines to the men who were fighting the war.
On return trips these same planes brought mica and quartz crystals from Brazil to the United States when a shortage of these essential materials threatened the manufacture of radio and radar tubes. They hauled tons of crude rubber. In the fall of 1942-1943, hundreds of survivors of merchant ships sunk off the coast of Brazil were flown back to the States. These men-mainly East Indians, Chinese, Dutch-were rushed north so that they could be assigned to other merchant vessels as quickly as possible. Captured German equipment, including mines, antiaircraft guns, aircraft engines and small arms, were brought back for study. Army ferry pilots returning for more planes were flown back to Miami.
Many passengers, all of them specialists needed for a specific purpose at a specific place, were carried on the south-bound trips. Radar men, mechanics trained to repair self-sealing gas tanks, and other highly skilled technicians made up the passenger list. At one time railroad engineers on their way to Iran were flown as far as Natal by MTD planes and several plane loads of sappers, trained to detect land mines, were rushed to Africa when Allied forces had Rommel on the run.
Perhaps one of the most important jobs assigned to Eastern was the transportation of cryptograph machines destined for army bases overseas. The machines, used to code and decode messages, were considered so important that an armed guard accompanied each plane or met them at every stop. To prevent the possibility of one of the machines falling into enemy hands intact, flight crews were instructed to destroy them if a crash landing seemed imminent. Had the enemy captured a cryptograph machine they could have broken our code. The code was never broken.
In October, 1942, Eastern's Military Transport Division became one of the first airlines to operate the new twin-engined C-46 Curtiss Commando, a big transport with many promising features but at the time with more than its share of "bugs." Its pay load was rated at ten thousand pounds, more than double that of the DC-3 then being used. Eastern got the fifth Commando off the manufacturer's production line and put it to work flying from Middletown, Pennsylvania, to Miami. Three months later the, Commando had gained sufficient respect for it to be assigned to the South American run. On February 8, 1943, the first C-46 left Miami for a survey flight to Natal. The big ship stopped at all bases along the route to give personnel an opportunity to be introduced to it. Within a month Eastern was operating fifteen C-46's in addition to DC-3's, and by July three round trips a day were being flown with the plane while DC-3's were making one round trip daily.
Eastern's maintenance department made more than three hundred changes in the C-46 most of which afterward were adopted by the manufacturer. Curtiss acknowledges that to Eastern mechanics go much of the credit for developing the Commando, later known as a dependable work horse of the Army. Improvements, including improved hydraulic gear control and a fire prevention modification, worked out by EAL mechanics, helped make the basically good transport capable of flying the "Hump" with regularity and dependability.
By the middle of 1943 the development of alternate landing fields along the South American route, together with the increased speed and range of C-46's, made night flying possible. So, by the first of September, Eastern started its first scheduled night flights between Miami and Natal. The planes left Miami about dark and fresh crews took over at Borinquen and Belem, enabling the ships to go straight through, stopping only long enough for check and fueling. With the inauguration of night flights a navigator, trained by the airline, was included in flight crews over the night leg between Miami and Borinquen.
Late in 1943 Eastern Airlines was asked to extend its military route from Natal, Brazil, across the South Atlantic to Accra, Africa. The little Gold Coast town was some 2,700 miles from Brazil so the trip over and back added 5,400 miles, all over ocean, to Eastern's 8,000-mile military route.
When this Natal-Accra route was inaugurated the first of June, 1944, Eastern became the first and only airline to operate scheduled daily service with twin-engined landplanes over the vast expanse of ocean between South America and Africa. When the C-46 Commandos and the men who flew them headed out to sea from the Brazilian coast they set their course for Ascension Island, a tiny dot 1,448 statute miles away, so isolated that there is no other land within 700 miles in any direction, no landing strip within a thousand. To find this dot, so small it hardly rates pinpoint on a world map, the navigators had to rely almost entirely on celestial navigation and dead reckoning. And they also had to be right the first time. If they wandered only a few degrees off course they would have missed the island entirely, and their gas supply wouldn't allow that. A navigational error simply meant crash landing in the desolate ocean. It was the end of the line if the gas tanks ran dry.
From Natal to Ascension was eight long, monotonous hours with only the billowy water below, cloud formations all around and the eternal headwinds that pushed against the nose of the plane like a giant hand trying to shove it back to South America. Near the end of each flight crews automatically studied every cloud below them until finally one suddenly materialized into solid ground. Usually obscured by haze, it was almost impossible to see the island until the plane was nearly overhead.
The first few times Eastern pilots landed on the Rock, as Ascension appropriately was called, they wondered, as they made the approach, whether the wings of the big plane would fit between the hills that hugged each side of the landing strip. Speeding down the runway which British engineers had said couldn't be built, pilots shot hasty glances out their windows to make sure their wings could clear those huge volcanic mounds, like inverted cones rising from the edge of the runway. Actually, of course, there was sufficient room, but to pilots coming in for the first few times it seemed that the ends of their wings could not be more than six or eight feet from the rock.
But the narrowness of the runway was not the only hazard. In the runway itself was a hump fifteen feet above the level of the approach end and forty-five feet above the far end. The hump was not considered dangerous by pilots who flew to Ascension often. They knew they had to land uphill, on a one and one-half degree upgrade, and then taxi downhill for a short distance. But for the uninitiated the hump created an awful illusion. Racing down the strip at a hundred miles an hour, a pilot got the impression that he was running out of runway. It looked as if the strip ended abruptly until he got close enough to see the downgrade. This caused many tense moments. To remove the hump would have required months of blasting through solid volcanic rock, delaying completion of the strip, which was needed in a hurry.
Before pilots flew to Ascension the first time they were carefully briefed in Natal. An important part of their briefing consisted of a moving picture showing the island from all angles, from the air, and from the ground. It emphasized the narrow approach between the volcanic mounds and called their attention to the -famous hump. But seeing the field in a picture and actually coming in for a landing proved to be entirely different matters.
Eastern planes going to the Rock always took off from Natal at night so they could land in daylight. There were two reasons for this. In the first place the field was not lighted. Lights would have increased its vulnerability to attack by Nazi submarines prowling in the vicinity. And equally important, thousands of terns, called Wideawake birds, roosting at the windward end of the runway, prevented night departures from Ascension. When a plane took off over their heads the terns flew up like a cloud in front of it. Before Eastern started operating to the island, at least one airplane was wrecked by the birds. In spite of repeated attempts to drive them away, the terns held on to their roost. The progress of the war adjusted itself to the habits of these little but determined birds.
The one Eastern employee, a mechanic, stationed on Ascension lived with army personnel in "Coconut Grove," so called because the barracks was near the base's only tree, an anemic coconut palm. The entire base, built on volcanic ash and cinders, is barren. Six miles away and twenty-five hundred feet above the field is Green Mountain, the top of which is covered with lush vegetation. The British deputy governor lives in the small British settlement on top of the mountain, the only green spot for hundreds of miles.
As the Ascension air base had to distill all its water from the ocean there were times when men actually went thirsty. A gallon a day per person was the ration for a long while and this included water for bathing and shaving. Later five gallons a day was allowed. Men at the base washed in basins; there were no showers.
After about an hour on Ascension for refueling and checking, the cargo planes, with a fresh crew, again headed out over the broad Atlantic Ocean. The 1,356-mile hop, like the one from Natal to the Rock, had to be flown by celestial navigation.
Malaria-infested Accra, the end of the line for EAL cargo planes, was not the kind of place ground and flight crews would like to call home. The low-lying Gold Coast field was ill equipped for servicing and repairing planes. All work had to be done in the open under terrific heat and often in terrific rain. Mosquitoes were so bad that M.P.'s checked barracks nightly to be sure every man was sleeping under a net. To be found in bed without a mosquito net was a court-martial offense. Men servicing planes at night-and all planes had to be serviced at night since they arrived about dark and left for their return trip before dawn - had to cover themselves with mosquito repellent.
Surrounded by bush country inhabited by primitive natives, personnel at the field seldom left the base even when they found the time. Nearby, Accra, a dirty little town with open sewers even in its heart, held little attraction after the novelty of seeing how the people lived wore off.
The C-46 Commandos used to fly the Natal-Accra route were modified by the airline's maintenance department in Miami to carry 250 extra gallons of gasoline. When the southbound planes were loaded in Miami, 1,500 pounds were consigned no farther than Natal. This much weight had to be taken off to allow for the extra gas. Since the Army would not permit passengers to fly across the South Atlantic in twin-engined planes, jungle kits, May West life preservers and life rafts provided for passengers to Natal also were removed, saving several hundred pounds.
By the first of November, 1944, B-29's were able to fly to their bases by the southwest Pacific. As the "back door" through Africa was no longer needed, Eastern's cargo ships discontinued the Natal-Accra leg. The last trip to Africa was made on November 10. Flights to Natal continued until October 15, 1945, when the entire Military Transport Division was ended.
One of the outstanding extra accomplishments of Eastern's Military Transport Division was the establishment of a weather reporting system credited with saving the lives of many army ferry pilots and tactical planes over the jungle between Georgetown, British Guiana and Belem, Brazil, in 1943. At the very time when combat planes were -needed most, in Africa and Europe, an alarming number of them, as we saw in an earlier chapter, were just disappearing over the thousand-mile stretch of wilderness and bad weather.
Because losses were so heavy and weather -information so meager, combat aircraft were often delayed for days by this leg of the Florida-Africa flight, creating congestion at airfields all the way back to the United States. This jam resulted in as many as several hundred airplanes piling up at each base, overflowing the fields, overburdening mess facilities and creating a shortage in the food supply as well as delaying the delivery of urgently needed aircraft.
Day after day Eastern planes, flown by competent pilots thoroughly experienced in instrument flying, were operating safely over the route. The army ferry pilots were young men with comparatively little flight time and almost no instrument experience to qualify them for flying through the heavy tropical rains and coping with the doldrum weather without adequate information.
Eastern and army personnel analyzed the problem and came up with the idea of making "weather ships" out of EAL planes southbound from Atkinson Field at 4.30 A.M. and northbound out of Belem at 4:00 A.M. The Army placed a man on each of these planes to observe the weather en route and report what be found every few minutes. The radioman aboard transmitted the information to ground stations.
The night before a "weather ship" departed, the EAL pilot told the army weather information center at Belem or Atkinson the route he would fly the next morning, direct, semidirect or coastal. The weather center then printed a map for each combat and ferry pilot giving the course the weather plane would fly, the radio call letters of the plane, the radio broadcast schedule of weather and the stand-by schedule of the weather plane.
Aboard the weather planes the observer made his report every thirty minutes. The southbound observations were radioed to Belem, Zandery, Atkinson and Waller fields on the hour and thirty minutes after each hour. The northbound plane sent observations at fifteen and forty-five minutes after each hour; thus there was a weather report every fifteen minutes. Within ten minutes after an observation was taken, the report was posted on a special weather map which indicated exactly where the observation was made. This enabled a pilot to know almost immediately the kind of weather the EAL plane was flying through. Reports from both northbound and southbound planes added up to a good cross section of the weather over the entire route.
Reports received at the bases were used by the operations office to decide whether or not it was safe to clear military aircraft. It was also arranged for the EAL flight radio operator to broadcast weather information direct to military planes in flight. If a ferry pilots desired information, he could call the Eastern plane and talk to the captain.
There were questions of this sort:: Shall I proceed or turn around and go back? What is the best course from Cayenne? .How much instrument flying is there? Where can I expect to come out on top of the clouds? It was Eastern's job to know the answers.
When the radio operator on the northbound weather ship received a call from a tactical aircraft, he arranged for the captain to talk to the military pilot. Frequently the conversation went something like this:
"I'm in an A-20 position about longitude 53-30, latitude 41-30 at seven thousand feet, have been on instruments in heavy rain about forty-five minutes. Which way do I go to get out of this stuff."
"I'd suggest you fly a course of 180 degrees for twenty minutes and climb to nine thousand feet. We can see the build-up you're in and it is pretty clear back here."
"Okay, thanks, I'll try it."
The project had been in effect less than two weeks when an outstanding drop in the accident rate was noticed. Ferry pilots lost their fear of the "unknown" weather over the jungle. Morale went up. Lives were saved. Airplanes were delivered more quickly and in more orderly fashion.
Recognizing these efforts in developing and executing the weather-reporting system, Brigadier General R. L. Walsh, commanding, South Atlantic Wing, Air Transport Command, wrote:
I want to express my deep appreciation for the part that Eastern Airlines has played in assisting in putting into effective operation, the InFlight Weather Reporting system between Atkinson Field and Belem.
A large measure of the success that has been achieved with this InFlight Weather Reporting system can be attributed to the fine cooperation and assistance of all Eastern Airline pilots, radio operators and ground personnel who have played a part in making it work.
A large percentage of pilots who have ferried planes over this route during the past month have used the weather broadcasts from these Weather Planes. These weather reports have proven of great assistance to these pilots as well as to the weather forecast stations. There is no doubt but that some planes and combat crews have been, or will be saved by means of this weather reporting system. Eastern Airlines' part in this plan has been extremely "well done." You have contributed considerably to the safe movement of combat planes to the fighting fronts.
Further commending the work, Brigadier General Bob E. Nowland, chief of staff, Air Transport Command, Washington, wrote:
It is the desire of this Command to acknowledge its obligation and express its appreciation to Eastern Air Lines. Between Atkinson and Belem, a marked decrease-was noted in the accident rate among tactical aircraft being ferried between these two points. This reduction in the accident rate was largely due to the fine cooperation and assistance of all Eastern Air Lines pilots, radio operators and ground personnel who helped on this project.
This Command wishes to express its particular appreciation to Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, President; Mr. S. L. Shannon, Vice President in Charge of Operations; Mr. V. E. Murr, Acting Superintendent for Communications, and Mr. M. R. Cochrane, Supervisor, MTD Communications, for the part that Eastern Air Lines has played in promoting the safe movement of aircraft to the war zones.
It is further particularly requested that all Eastern Air Lines pilots, radio operators, and ground personnel who participated in the project described above be recommended and thanked in behalf of this Command.
In addition to regularly scheduled trips, the MTD flew several special missions, highly secret at the time. One sent two planes, loaded with ammunition, to Alaska when a Japanese attack seemed imminent in1942.
In the same year an emergency call was received to help shift an entire army pursuit squadron-lock, stock and barrel-from Louisiana to March Field, California. Seventeen planes in all made the trip, including six of Eastern's. To do the job, planes had: to be yanked from regular schedules, hastily assembled at, Baton Rouge and flown out with pilots and crews improperly rested. But the job had to be done and it was.
With the war over and the job of flying veterans back from South American bases almost complete, Eastern Airlines ended its Military Transport Division with the satisfaction of a job well done. Three groups of men were largely responsible for its glowing war record; the mechanics at each base and at the maintenance base, in Miami who, with superb mechanical ingenuity, kept the planes in the air; operations and traffic men who ironed out kinks as they appeared along the line; and flight crews - captains, pilots, navigators and radiomen -- disregarding all the hazards weather and uncharted jungle could throw at them. They can always be proud of the part they played in helping to win the war.
In addition to utilizing Eastern Airlines' know-how to speed tons of high-priority cargo and thousands of important passengers to the war fronts, the Army tapped the company's rich store of experience to establish a school for pilots, navigators and flight mechanics. The school provided training for 1,190 men. Established in Atlanta, it gave instrument and transition training to 146 pilots, all graduates of advanced army flying schools or licensed commercial pilots, while 774 pilots were given on-the-job training to qualify them to fly heavy transports. The school also trained 154 flight mechanics, graduates of army mechanics schools, and 20 flight control officers. Ninety-six navigators were trained by EAL in Miami and eighty-two pilots were given navigation instructions.
On suspending its instrument and transition training a few months after the school was started, Eastern took over an army operational training unit to assemble flight personnel into crews and give them on-the-job training with big cargo planes. To provide realistic training, the line operated scheduled cargo flights to Buffalo, Detroit, Miami, Middletown, Macon, Mobile, Memphis, Nashville and Jackson, Mississippi. An EAL instructor accompanied each flight. At one time the OTU cargo runs were flying more hours than two-thirds of the commercial carriers in the United States. A total of 9,226 hours was amassed by this training group, which, according to the Army, had the highest utilization of any similar school. The Army requested that schools put at least 250 hours a month on each ship. Eastern frequently flew them more than 400 hours a month. EAL's average was 350 hours per plane per month for training planes.
Like the pilots and mechanics, the navigators trained by Eastern were graduates of army schools but the Army wanted them to have additional training and practical experience before they were assigned to ATC. To provide the practical experience two DC-3's were modified especially for navigational training. Each of the planes was equipped with six navigator's tables and other necessary facilities. Using the lost-ship procedure, navigators and their instructors were flown away from Miami and "lost." They had to find their position by celestial navigation and then plot a course for home. These instruction planes were flying in the Caribbean at night long before any military transport flights were scheduled.
Have any family memories to share? I will post them here.
HERE'S ONE FROM ROBIN BUSSEY (daughter of Flight Radio Officer J.W. Bussey): "One story remember my dad telling is of a top secret flight to Guatemala during the war, where they off-loaded many very heavy, unmarked cargo pallets covered with tarps that masked the contents. It was an unusual destination, and the flight manifest did not list the nature of the shipment, also something highly unusual. There was also a heavily armed military escort for the cargo that originated from Fort Knox, TN. Apparently, a recently-deposed dictator had disappeared after looting the treasury, which threatened to bankrupt the country and create economic chaos for the region. The dictator had been replaced by a new presidente who was friendly to the US. Within hours of the EAL plane landing, the news reported the missing gold had been “found,” and Guatemala’s economy was once more fiscally sound."
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