Dad and his younger brother farmed and carpentered together. I only knew them in those roles, but had picked up just a whiff of ancient history, that both had been pilots during a long-ago war.
Pilots! Dad and Uncle Bill? Flying planes?
An early memory of Uncle Bill is of his tall overalled figure standing up as he drove his John Deere tractor with its deep chug-chug echoing against the barn south of Dexter, Iowa, then later pull out of the barnyard onto the road with a string of wagons behind, giving us watching nieces a silly finger wave.
Uncle Bill was a John Deere man, eventually convincing my Massey-Harris-driving father to switch over. Both were Chevy fans, although uncle Bill adopted the automatic gearshift sooner than Dad (Warren), who believed they were much too unreliable. (Although he bought one as soon as his daughters left home, knowing how to drive a stick-shift.)
US Army Air Force
After Japan’s dastardly attack on Hawaii, which brought the U.S. into the fray, as Bill Neal wrote in his memoir, both he and Warren enlisted in the Air Force in 1942. Warren (Dad) was three years older and was soon called up for service. Bill wasn’t called up until early the next year, so he and Helen Cook decided to get married that December.
By the time Bill was sent his orders, Dad had earned his wings in Texas and was starting to teach advanced cadets.
Bill Neal also became a cadet, receiving his wings and commission the spring of 1944.
After Transition Training in the C-47 Skytrain cargo plane, he got orders for the CBI (China-Burma-India) theater of war. He left Helen at home in Iowa with her parents and pregnant, loaded into a C-54 cargo plane in Miami, and flew across the Atlantic to Bermuda, the Azores, Tripoli, and stopping at Cairo, Egypt, long enough to see the Sphinx and the Pyramids. Then over the Taj Mahal to Calcutta, India, and on to Dinjan, where he was assigned to the 11th Squadron, 3rd Combat Cargo Group, 10th Air Force.
Bill flew thirteen grueling missions over the famous “Hump”–the Himalayas–in a non-pressurized C-47.
They hauled everything from 55-gallon drums of airplane gasoline to PX supplies, equipment, guns, and troops (including Chinese) mostly from bases in India’s Assam Valley to bases in Burma, and also to our Indian, British, and Chinese Allies in the hills and mountains of Burma and China. He even dropped horse feed into areas where there weren’t many roads, where supplies were mainly hauled in by horse and mule.
C-47s could not clear the tallest Himalayan peaks, so the pilots picked out lower “saddles” to slip through. On one occasion, when Bill was giving a new pilot a check-ride, one engine began to run out of control. The kid thought it was a simulated test and just grinned at Bill, who took over and flew two hours on one engine to get to the nearest base.
According to Gen. Curtis LeMay, who then commanded the CBI Theater for the Army Air Force, the Hump was 1200 miles of the worst flying imaginable, a “smorgasbord of meteorological treachery” with violent downdrafts, high winds, and sudden snowstorms. Most of the men who crashed in the Himalayas never came back. Recovery groups are still trying to search for missing planes and men, although India’s government has not been cooperative.
Bill became a First Pilot and was promoted to First Lieutenant while overseas. After several missions, his unit was moved to Yunnanyi, China. He made one more trip over the Hump, as a passenger to come home after ten months abroad.
Home to Iowa
Instead of taking a plane, Bill came home on a Liberty Ship–through the Suez Canal, Mediterranean Sea, and across the Atlantic to the East Coast. They couldn’t receive or send mail while they were on the ship. He knew he must have a baby son or daughter waiting for him at home, but none of the Red Cross messages had reached him.
As soon as he could find a phone, he called Helen at her parents to learn that he had a daughter, born during a tornado. The hospital had lost power and was on a generator when Judith Kay was born.
It’s amazing to me that my dad and his brother were pilots in their younger lives, and that they never talked about it while we were growing up around them. I wished I’d asked questions back then.
But Judith Kay did ask questions of her dad, and in 1970 she visited some of the places he’d seen during a time that the world was at war–Calcutta, the Taj Mahal, New Delhi, Nepal–right before she was born.
Bill Neal’s Medals
Distinguished Flying Cross with three oak leaf clusters (left)
Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters (middle)
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Ribbon with three battle stars (should have)
Chinese Liberation Medal (right–gold with red & blue)
WWII Victory Medal (should have)
(CBI emblem is in the lower right)