CLOAK AND DAGGER
An Airman's Story of Dropping Special ForcesTo us “chauffeurs” these spies, guerillas, agents, or whatever you might term them members of Force 136, I.S.I.D. and O.S.S. - were the real heroes of the war. Nothing could be said of their activities during hostilities, and little has been said since. But under the most perilous conditions, and undergoing terrific hardship - for many, torture and death - men (and sometimes women) undermined the enemy from within and paved the way for the eventual victory. knew who they were, where they come from, where precisely they were going, what they were going to do.
They were listed on our operations orders simply as so many “bodies ”,to be dropped, along with so many containers, at such and such a geographical spot, at an exact moment, on a specific night, or day. One night, it might be the hills or plains of Burma, the next, perhaps a tiny clearing in the steaming jungle of Malaya, yet the next again, possibly a paddy field in French Indo-China, or the outskirts of a bamboo-thicketed community in Siam.
A few moments before take-off our “bods” would be hurried up to our aircraft in a covered van, There might be a terse greeting between bods and aircrew. Hours, many hundreds of miles, and perhaps a word or two later, we would parachute them into the night as silently and as mysteriously as they had originally appeared at our aircraft`s side. We were pretty close to the DZ now. This was only the second flight to this area. Alverson had taken us over to a distinctive landmark on the east coast and from there we were doing a timed run to the spot, designated only by latitude and longitude, where the “reception party” was to be waiting.
The second navigator, Pilot Officer Harry Walling, now acting as “bomb-aimer”, was in the aircraft`s nose to guide the drop, the bomb doors were open, ready to spew out the containers, and our passenger was perched on the slide awaiting the bomb-aimer`s signal that would sendthem shooting into space, into the night, to an uncertain landing below.
Now, according to our calculations, we were directly over the designated dropping area. But instead of a series of lights laid out on the ground, as, back at base, we had been told to expect, or a certain letter flashed at us by aldis lamp, there was nothing but pitch black darkness.We had come nearly 2,000 miles and most of it over water, through thunderstorm, at night. In the tropics, thunderstorms (cumulo-nimbus cloud) climb to tremendous heights and then centers are particularly violent.
On such a long operation at this - at that time, the longest in that theatre of war - we did not have enough fuel to climb over storms, and we would never have survived trying to get through. We skipped along just before cloud base, or about 250 feet off the water. It was unbelievably dark and only when lightning flashed could we see where cloud left off and blinding rain began.
This went on for hours, and while it was a bit nerve-racking for all of us, it was a real test for navigator Alverson. He had no radio aids, and some 30,000-40,000 feet of cloud were between him and a sight of the sky, where either sun, moon or stars could have helped him. So he resorted to flame floats - flares which, tossed from the aircraft, ignited when they hit the water. With our tail-gunner, Pilot Officer Jack Tyson, sighting on them with his guns, Alverson could translate the apparent drift of the aircraft with respect to the float into approximate wind direction and speed, and combing those factors with our compass direction and airspeed, calculate where we were and where we should be.
Working tirelessly over his maps and charts for hours, in cramped quarters and tossed about endlessly, Alverson brought us out right on the nose. And here we were over the dropping zone, and no one in sight. It could be that somewhere the signals had got mixed , perhaps this was neither the place, the night nor the hour, Perhaps the party below had been surprised by the enemy and wiped out. Perhaps they had suddenly learned that the Japanese had got wind of what was going on, and, without having time to radio back to headquarters, had called off the reception. Perhaps - perhaps we were not over the right spot. After all, it was, typically, only a tiny clearing in the jungle - easy to miss - and it was so dark nothing could be picked out below.
Back the few miles to the east coast we went, then did a timed run in once more. Six minutes, five minutes, four, three, two, one, zero - and there were the lights! They were laid out just as called for.
Besides being identification, they told the direction in which we were to drop and hinted at the size of the dropping area. The letter of the alphabet blinked from the ground also checked. All signals had to be in order before a drop was made. One crew completed a 3,000 mile flight but refused to drop because the aldis signal was one letter out.
As we throttled back, gently getting down to the 700 feet above ground from whichbods were parachuted, our bod, armed to the teeth and apparently serenely confident we were going to drop them just wherethey should be going, awaited the bomb-aimer`s signal that would send them on their way.
The way out was via a slide similar to that found in children`s playgrounds or at swimming pools, but many times more slippery, It was rigged up in the rear of our Lib-vulgarly referred to as “the pregnant whale” because of it`s bulky, underslung appearancefacing to the tail and leading to an escape hatch in the floor.
Our bod - an English army officer - sat on the slid, his legs over the edges and holding on with his hand, Our dispatcher stood by him. Suddenly the red warning light, just above the slide but flashed by the bomb-aimer up in the nose, went on. This was the alert. Only a matter of moments now and everyone had to be ready - an quick. We were down so low, travelling so fast, and with only a tiny space into which to drop our mysterious friends - a fraction of a second could spell success or failure Suddenly, we were there.
Up in the nose, as though he was dropping a bomb, the bomb-aimer pressed a button. The green light at the “toboggan slide’’ flashed and our wireless operator-dispatcher, Flight Sergeant Gene Zimmerman, whacked our bod over the back. Out they shot. Another time around, this time down to 500 feet to drop the supply containers hung on racks designed for bombs, and our job was done.
Out went the lights on the ground, and back home - nearly 2,000 miles away - we headed. Down below, our former passenger was being greeted by the men with whom he would share the dangerous job ahead.
A brief radio message next day from deep in the jungle stating whether the drop had been successful or not - a message always awaited with keen interest, even anxiety - was the last we heard. However, the enemy heard plenty.
We were working with what literally amounted to a secret army spread throughout all enemy-occupied southeast Asia: a secret army which was organizing friendly natives: spying and reporting back important intelligence, arranging (through outfits like ours) air-drops of supplies to this secret army, ambushing enemy convoys, blowing bridges and directing air attacks on Japanese troop concentrations, munition dumps and supply depots. They even organized landings of allied aircraft deep within enemy occupied territory to pick up refugees, their own wounded and enemy prisoners.
These people - English, American, Chinese Canadians, French, Indian, Burmese, Siamese, Malayan - did a wonderful job, and it was a privilege - and an honour to work with them.
Our squadron was based at a small village, Jessore, just outside Calcutta, It comprised three flights single - engine Lysanders, for the short but hazardous hops into Burma, twin - engine Dakotas which took their loads further away, to French Indo-China and Siam, and even landed there on occasion, and our, the Liberator flight, for the very long-range, non stop missions even further into French Indo-China and Siam, and to Malaya.
As the war ended, most of the air crew were Canadian, almost all had been trained at Boundary Bay, British Columbia. Our commanding officer was a famous RAF “type”, Wing Commander L,M. Hodges, D.S.O. and Bar. DFC and Bar, Croix de Guerre, etc.