Last Plane Out of Guilin

1st Combat Cargo Group, 4th Combat Cargo Squadron Calamity at Kweilin

S/Sgt. Larry Greenfield

According to my Flight Logs, I flew 33 combat missions in September 1944, 23 in October and 30 in November. The C-47, aboard which I was the radio operator, was one of six planes from the 4th Combat Cargo Squadron, 1st Combat Cargo Group, U.S, Army Air Corps, based at Sylhet, India. We flew mission after mission to Kunming, China and back over the Himalayas during that period of time. Other squadrons also participated,

By flying badly needed aviation fuel, troops and supplies to China, we were doing more than our share to support the 14th Air Force, then headquartered in Kunming. Earlier, the overland route from Burma to China (the Burma Road) had fallen into Jap hands. Not only was my plane involved in the evacuation of Luichow and Kweilin, it was the last US. plane out of Kweilin before that city and its air base fell.

What now follows is my recollection of the Calamity in Kweilin long, long ago: Our final mission to Kweilin was for the purpose of evacuating high-ranking brass and any war correspondents who had remained behind to cover the deliberate destruction of the base before the enemy could get to it. After a 500-mile flight from Kunming, we circled and landed in the midst of ongoing fires, and bomb explosions. B-29’s and P-51’s were still flying missions and returning. Whether the control tower was still standing, whether we landed without landing instructions, I am unable to recall.

This day was to be the last day for the 14th Air Force to utilize Kweilin as a B-29 base, from which air strikes had been launched against the Japanese. We had been told that this was going to be a “scorched earth” evacuation–leaving nothing or very little behind for the enemy to use against us. Where was the enemy? Well, are you ready for this?

Jimmy Dykeman, flight engineer and I had been ordered by our pilot(s) to “Guard” the plane by remaining aboard until we took off the following morning with the evacuees. The pilot and co-pilot then hustled over to the base war room, presumably to meet with the brass, later on to spend the night. To this day, I still believe that Dykeman and I were the only aircrew members on that lonely runway that night.

If you and a psychiatrist were to discuss a very old traumatic event, he or she might tell you that any normally healthy person can suffer a memory loss concerning that event. That sounds reasonable. However, through all these years, from 1944 to this present day, I have been drawing a blank every time that I try to recall the pilots’ names. Yet, the event remains as clear in my mind as if it happened yesterday.

By nightfall, 9,000 advancing Jap cavalry troops ware estimated to be about 6 miles outside the perimeter of the field. Of course, sleep was impossible, in particular, because Jim and I were too busy peering into the darkness in the direction of the unopposed enemy. Jimmy was cradling his fully loaded sub-machine gun in his arms. I had my fully loaded .45 automatic laying beside me, the safety on. Jim’s automatic was also laying beside him on the floor of the plane. Against whom or what were we supposed to be “guarding” our plane?

If we slept at all, it was fitfully. Awake, we wondered about those poor, helpless Chinese women and children, and their slow, tortuous, daylight march out of Kweilin, desperately trying to avoid being discovered by the Japs. We wondered about the guys who were making the 500-mile overland trip back to Kunming, in convoys of trucks and jeeps, over mountainous roads. Would they all live to tell about it? Later that day, we heard a rumor that an entire Chinese Army, the 93rd, had pulled away (retreated from their positions, wherever that had been), leaving the air base defenseless. This rumor turned out to be true.

That night, our racing thoughts produced a vision of hordes of Japs overrunning the base and, of course, capturing Jimmy and me. We couldn’t see them–but, we thought we could hear them—or were those heavy thuds ours? If, in fact, they are enemy troops–then what? Simple enough! Take out as many of them as possible before they eighty-six us’. Hey, we’re loaded for bear, right? a sub-machine gun, 2 automatic pistols and a full case of ammo! It’ll be a turkey shoot–us against them! Right? Wrong!

It was still dark when we heard and saw the flash of exploding bombs which, we were later told, had been buried in the fighter strip. Sometime after daybreak, while Jim and I were wondering why we were still alive, our smiling pilots and another guy jumped out of a jeep and started walking towards our plane. Could they somehow have known that we would complete this mission without encountering the enemy’?

Just as we didn’t really know where in hell the ‘brave’ soldiers of the Chinese 93rd Army were, so were we equally unaware of the enemy’s true location. Perhaps the Japs were much further away than we had estimated. Anyhow, there was no way in the world that we could convey our feelings about our involuntary “guard duty” aboard our plane. Aw, screw it! We were still breathing!

The other C-47’s were dangerously overloaded with all kinds of stuff when they took off before we did. As for us, our only cargo was a war correspondent named H. R. Isaacs. The brass had already left on other planes. We were, indeed, the last American plane out of Kweilin. Once airborne, we circled the field to set a course back to Kunming. “There goes the runway, Jim,” I said, knowing that we were getting our last look at what had become a calamity in Kweilin.

More than a few military leaders of that era, including General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, General Chennnult, and others who were there, called the loss of Kweilin “the worst strategic defeat ever suffered by an American Air Force.” Because of our losses of air bases in South Central China, the ‘secretly’ planned air, ground and sea invasion of the enemy-held China coast, two years in the planning, never happened. Instead, thousands of lives were saved by President Truman’s decision to drop “The Bomb” an Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945.

Where was I when that happened? By virtue of my ASR [Adjusted Service Rating], at 5 points for each decoration and each campaign in which I had participated, I was aboard a troopship, the General M. M. Patrick, heading home for a 90 days of Stateside R&R, after 436 combat missions over China. Burma and India. On September 12, 1945, instead of having spent the previous 10 days on furlough, I became a civilian once again.

From memory Larry Greenfield Radio Operator, 4th Combat Cargo Squadron,1st Combat Cargo Group 1999