World War II Pilot’s Tales Transport Rotary Audience

Warren Arnett
Warren Arnett

In 1945, 20-year-old Warren “Jeff” Arnett from San Marino was ordered by the U.S. Army Air Corps to fly from Indiana to India where, he said, he experienced fear for the first time while shepherding supplies across the Himalayas to Burma to Chinese troops allied with America.
His homecoming later that year, after World War II’s end, began with a comedic return to civilian life for the former airman, as he told the Rotary Club of San Marino during its luncheon last week.
“When I did come home, I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew my license,” Arnett explained. “I filled out my form and then a man called me back and he said, ‘Son, you’re not 21. You need a parent to sign this.’”
Arnett, who had enlisted in the Air Corps the
day after graduating from South Pasadena High School, would go on to a 50-year
career in financial management while continuing to fly and research aviation and rail history as hobbies. He frequently shares his stories and photographs at veteran and military events, including last year’s Chinese-American Military Support event for Veterans Day. His recollections at the Rotary luncheon drew the audience’s close attention and occasional chuckles, given Arnett’s sometimes humorous style.
He said that in 1945, having flown from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to West Palm Beach, Florida, he was handed an envelope and told to open it only after he was airborne again and at least 100 miles out over the Atlantic Ocean. He was to ultimately land in Calcutta in India, where he began his regular airlifts to and from various locales in Burma, now called Myanmar.
“We got involved in moving troops and dropping supplies, behind the lines usually,” he said.
In addition to the troops them-selves, Arnett said, he and other Air Transport Command pilots would ferry disassembled vehicles and even mules to the American allies during the
war. (“It took five or six guys to get a mule in a plane,” he said, highlighting a comical photo of several men struggling to lead a stubborn animal into the fuselage.)
Food was another important cargo staple; Arnett said he and his comrades eventually learned that 200-pound double-bagged sacks of rice would not break upon being dropped from aloft.
“I swear, as I looked down, I saw some of the Chinese soldiers acting like they were going to catch some of these bags,” he said.
The ATC work was not without risk; Arnett explained that the command’s cargo planes were often limited enough in the altitude they could attain, forcing him and other pilots to maneuver around mountain peaks, a challenge often exacerbated by weather. Although the pilots fell under the protection of the famed Flying Tigers, an American volunteer group within the Chinese Air Force, they often had to reckon with Japanese fighters along the way.
Even landing after a successful journey could prove harrowing.
Arnett said that on short roads or runways, if it seemed the plane would not stop in time, a smart pilot would angle the aircraft so that the wings and propellers would hit the ground and be destroyed while stopping the plane, saving the cargo while creating a trove of precious spare parts.
If a pilot arrived too early, makeshift landing strips of metal plates laid over muddy land might not have been set up in time, causing the plane to sink and crews to spend the day dragging it out again. Arnett said he did that twice, but had to explain himself only once: his commanding officer was with him on one of the flights.
“So I heard a lot about it,” he joked, drawing laughter.
More than a thousand airmen in hundreds of planes would crash-land in the treacherous mountains during that year, Arnett said; although many managed to find their way out, hundreds remain unaccounted for after descending into those jungles.
“It was an experience that I think about often,” he said. “My squadron had 42 pilots. Altogether, we lost about 15.”

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