Lafayette man recalls dangerous missions over Himalayas
On the surface, Lafayette native Peter Piccione’s experiences as a World War II aviator seem easy. He dropped no bombs and never encountered enemy fighter planes or antiaircraft fire. The airbase where he was stationed was never attacked.
His flights, however, took place over the most forbidding landscape on Earth — the Himalayas.
They called it “Flying the Hump,” and given the state of aviation of that day, it was hazardous duty. Storm systems and high-altitude winds bounced airplanes across the sky and blew them far off course. Navigation systems were unreliable. Monsoon rain systems made it impossible to land at airbases, assuming they could be located. Ice that formed on wings created havoc for pilots.
Piccione, 92, didn’t know about any of that when he enlisted on March 29, 1943. Few people did. With Americans fighting in north Africa and the Pacific, and with Germany and the Soviet Union waging titanic battles in eastern Europe, the action in the China-Burma-India Theater seldom made headlines.
But Allied leaders knew that supporting China, which had been at war with Japan almost a decade before Pearl Harbor, would stretch the enemy’s fighting capacity.
“They had 100,000 Japanese that the Chinese were keeping busy, so we could recover some of the Pacific islands,” Piccione said.
After enlisting, Piccione was trained as a pilot, then taught to fly the twin-engine C-46 and C-47 cargo planes, workhorse aircraft that ferried supplies, carried paratroopers and towed gliders that carried men and equipment to invasion areas.
Piccione was part of a group who learned to tow gliders, but before he was sent overseas, a military doctor diagnosed him with a heart condition. This had happened when he tried to enlist, and Piccione needed an expert’s second opinion before the Army agreed to take him.
This time, Piccione needed two trips to a California specialist to convince doctors that he was medically able to fly. The delay meant that he was not deployed with those with whom he trained, many of whom were shot down and killed.
“I remember we were at a meeting one time before we went overseas. The speaker told us, ‘Look to your left and look to your right. One of you is not going to come back,’ ” Piccione said. “I was the only one that came back.”
Instead, Lt. Piccione took off from a base in South Carolina and made stops in Florida, South America, Africa and Karachi, India (now Pakistan), before arriving at Namponmao Airfield in northern Burma (now Myanmar). As part of the 4th Combat Cargo Group, his job was to deliver gasoline in 55-gallon drums to China.
The airplanes had a pilot, co-pilot and navigator, none of whom was issued a parachute.
“They told us one time we had to get rid of almost everything that was heavy in the airplane that we didn’t need,” Piccione said. “I told them, ‘Look, you can get rid of whatever you want, but my heater alone. It gets cold up there.’ ”
He made the trip about five days a week, all but once returning the same day. The one exception was because of delays that would have required them to return at night, an especially perilous proposition because the C-46 and C-47 could not gain enough altitude to go over the peaks, so they had to fly between them. Piccione slept on a wooden table and returned the next day.
The accommodations at Namponmao Airfield weren’t much better. The air crews were housed in tents. Piccione found a roll of roofing material he used to create a floor over the dirt.
“Once in a while we’d get some beer, but there was no place to cool it,” he said. “We didn’t have any refrigeration. So, we’d tie four or five bottles together on a string and dump it in the Irrawaddy River at night and the next day it was kind of cool.”
Piccione remained at Namponmao until after the war ended in 1945. His return trip was nothing like his arrival.
“They put us on a slow boat from China,” he said. “It took us months, almost, to get us back to California. It was crazy.”
After the war, Piccione got his law degree at Tulane, then returned to practice in Lafayette. He was president of the Lafayette Bar Association in 1967, went on to be a city court judge ad hoc for 15 years. Now retired, he splits time between Lafayette and his son Michael’s home in Baton Rouge.