a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Family WWII history declassified, discovered in an email from France

The same plane in which my uncle would survive a crash during World War II lands next to a Flying Tiger during one of his Flying the Hump missions to China.

By Scott Beveridge

The wind was calm with clear visibility when a C-46 U.S. Army Air Forces plane left Mohanbari Airport in India Aug. 4, 1944, destined to deliver gasoline to China to assist in its defenses against Japanese invaders during World War II.

Air command immediately lost radio contact with the pilot after giving takeoff clearance to the cargo plane also carrying Pfc. Thomas L. Beveridge of Charleroi, Pa., and two other crew members en route to yet another dangerous mission to fly 500 miles over the Himalayan Mountains and on to Chenyi.

Thomas L. Beveridge
It would take four days for the pilot, John D. Akers of Webster Grove, Mo., to carve his way out of the jungle to safety after parachuting from the aircraft to reveal the plane had caught fire and crashed.

And, it took yet another 24 hours for Beveridge, who served on the plane as a radioman, and the crew chief, Edward R. Cronk of East Orange, N.J., to return to civilization and report their copilot had lost his life, according to the official military report on the crash marked “secret” and declassified in 1973.

Thomas Beveridge was the younger brother of my father, James, who had many unanswered questions about this plane crash before he died in 2007 at age 84.

His kid brother would need to be coaxed to talk about the plane crash, and he revealed only some glossed-over details to relatives before he died in 1989 at age 64 in La Mirada, Calif., where he made his home and raised two children after being discharged from the military.

My father even went as far as to place a Freedom of Information request to the Army a few years before he died seeking the crash report, only to be informed it was destroyed in a fire at a military records warehouse.

Eventually, Brewenn Chausset, an avid collector of War II memorabilia in France, located the crash report at the U.S. National Archives after finding the name of 2nd Lt. Frederick E. Brownewell Jr. on a laundry stamp inside a service hat he acquired that once belonged to the officer killed in the incident.

Chausset, after finding photos I had posted on the Web of my uncle, sent me an email in January seeking help in searching for additional information about Brownewell to add to his collection. He also passed along the report and photos of the plane taken before it crashed.

His inquiry, though, did more to solve some mysteries of my childhood hero and uncle about his service in the China-Burma-India Theater, which was considered among the most dangerous places to be in the war.

Thomas Beveridge, who grew up with a fascination for airplanes and had many models of them hand-built and strung from the ceiling of his bedroom, lied about his age to enlist in the Army before his 18th birthday to follow my father into the war.

Standing 5 feet 9 1/2 inches tall and weighing just 138 pounds, the younger Beveridge was a perfect fit for “flying the Hump.” His small frame would have allowed a plane to carry more supplies President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised Chinese ruler Chiang Kai-shek after Japanese forces overran Burma in 1942, closing the ground supply line to Western China and leaving air travel as the only option.

In summer 1943, thousands of planes crossed from India to China, delivering nearly 3,000 tons of supplies to Chiang Kai-shek. By the time this service ended in 1945, there were more than 1,000 Hump fliers listed as dead from crashes or missing in action, according to the 2003 book, “The Burma Road,” by Donovan Webster. These flights in thin air over the mountain ranges, Webster wrote, were met with freak winds of up to 248 mph, turbulence that would flip over planes and sometimes cause them to suddenly drop thousands of feet within a minute.

In the 11 months Beveridge “flew the Hump” in 1944, ending in November of that year, he completed 97 round-trip flights, according to a brief mention of him in the 1998 book, “China Burma India, Where I Came In, Vol. II,” by Robert James Kadel.

Once on the ground following the crash, he met up with Cronk and they returned to the crash site to discover their dead comrade.---- They found themselves in steep terrain with leech-infested swamps and seemingly endless bamboo thicket, Webster noted in his book, and with nothing more than one ant-covered chocolate bar to eat. Beveridge dropped 18 pounds, his war records show, while he and Cronk used their machetes to carve a path to a stream and followed its direction to a friendly air command base.

An Army air jungle rescue unit consisting of one officer and three enlisted men who volunteered for the mission set out three months after the crash in search of the missing plane and copilot, along with eight natives to assist them in the journey. It took them five days to cut their way through the jungle and reach the crash site, the military report shows.

They found the plane on its side, missing a wing and engine that likely “burned on contact with gasoline drums exploding,” Intelligence officer and 2nd Lt. of the Air Corps Donald B. Kelly noted in the report.

The bones of one man were found near the rear door of the inside cabin, along with melted silver believed to have once been his flight wings. They buried the remains with military honors Nov. 17, 1944, with a cross marked “unknown soldier,” while also destroying confidential matter and using .45-caliber slugs to destroy the plane’s transponder. The Army would use his false teeth to eventually positively identify the remains as those of Brownewell.

Meanwhile, Beveridge went home, saving the ripcord to his parachute that helped to save his life.