The Hump: America's Strategy for Keeping China in World War II

  • Published

The Hump: America’s Strategy for Keeping China in World War II by John D. Plating. Texas A&M University Press, 2011, 320 pp.

Given the exploits of the strategic bombing campaign in Europe during World War II, it is not surprising that we hear or know relatively little about what was arguably the toughest flying environment encountered by and the most demanding air campaign executed by the US Army Air Forces (AAF)—the trans-Himalayan airlift known as the Hump. Without this air campaign, made successful through the sacrifice and loss of numerous aircraft and crews, we would have had no successful and equally demanding Berlin airlift. Much of our knowledge of it consists of anecdotal and personal stories of the pilots who flew the Hump—tales of events having scant connection to the strategic context in which they occurred. Author John D. Plating fills that void with The Hump: America’s Strategy for Keeping China in World War II, a comprehensive and remarkably readable historical study of the world’s first sustained combat airlift operation. An active duty airlift pilot with combat experience, Plating, who holds a PhD and serves as a professor at the US Air Force Academy, is more than qualified to pen such a book.

In his account of the Hump airlift, an operation often relegated to the periphery of airpower studies, the author describes factors that contributed to the unforgiving ruggedness of the environment endured by pilots flying the China-Burma-India corridor. For example, weather systems in that part of the world (consisting primarily of wind, turbulence, rain, and icing) were little understood, so forecasting proved impossible. Moreover, mountain wave turbulence had a devastating effect on aircraft fuselages. Lastly, the Hump pilots—commonly the least skilled of their pilot-training classmates—found themselves not only in combat the first time they sat at the controls but also under constant threat of attack by Japanese fighters who encountered no defenses.

From early 1942 until just after the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, the Hump airlift served as the best tangible expression of America’s commitment to China. Working with a determined and stubborn Chiang Kaishek and Nationalist Chinese forces, President Roosevelt overcommitted American airpower that, at the beginning of the airlift, never envisioned meeting the Herculean monthly airlift tonnage goals set for the effort. Ultimately, this campaign beat back and defeated Japanese forces in China, allowing Nationalist forces, rather than the Communist troops of Mao Zedong, to accept the Japanese surrender.

The hubris regarding American airpower in World War II asserts that strategic bombing laid the foundation for efforts like the Hump airlift. In fact, the opposite is true. Airlift was “the precondition that had to be met to make possible all other Allied military action” (emphasis in original) (p. 1). The author’s treatment of the airlift begins by introducing its architects—not only Roosevelt and Chiang but also Gen George Marshall, the Army chief of staff, and Gen Henry “Hap” Arnold, the AAF chief. Pressure from the top flowed through the command chain, and the officers leading the airlift, such as Brig Gen Thomas Hardin and Brig Gen William Tunner, felt the end of the whip. Tunner’s experience in the China-Burma-India theater would later pay huge dividends during the second airlift battle, in Berlin, which occurred during the Cold War.

Plating’s hypothesis in this work entails “investigat[ing] both the material and symbolic components of the airlift with an eye toward discovering whether the airlift really did keep the Chinese from surrendering to the Japanese before August 1945” (emphasis in original) (p. 9). He brings plenty of evidence to bear to support that premise. In doing so, he first lays out the origins of the airlift, followed by the reasons for its existence, and then an account of how it both failed and succeeded en route to attaining larger political goals. The author equivocates in the last 10 pages, however, qualifying his conclusions in accordance with how one perceives the airlift.

When the operation began, none of the people involved knew what they were doing. Plating describes this phase as “barnstorming” (see chap. 3, “ ‘Barnstorming’ over the Hump: March to December 1942,” pp. 73–104). Inexperienced pilots flew in a part of the world they knew little about. A lack of discipline and low morale conspired to make impossible the job of cast-out commanders who initially led the airlift. After they got a handle on what was going on, the next and most important phase ensued. During the 13 months from May 1943 through May 1944, airline executives and pilots joined the effort en masse, turning the fledgling campaign into a more efficient and eventually thriving one. The last phase, known as the “era of big business” (p. 71), made the airlift’s operations resemble those of an experienced airline. Although problems with discipline and morale still existed, they had diminished significantly. The airlift systematically met its tonnage goals in spite of the weather, which never improved—an accomplishment that pleased both Chiang and Roosevelt (until his death) and exceeded most people’s expectations.

Airpower scholars will find Plating’s treatment of the Hump airlift worthy of study. He concludes the work by reiterating the five themes that tie the airlift’s significance to the larger context: “airlift as an expression of airpower; the Hump as a dramatic feat of aerial logistics; the impact of the Hump in both theater and global war strategy; airlift as an expression of the ‘national-ness’ of airpower; and airlift as facilitating a paradigm shift in global logistics” (p. 241). Readers will certainly enjoy this book!

Col Chad T. Manske, USAF

New York, New York

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."