Skies of Thunder: The Deadly World War II Mission Over the Roof of the World

Image of Skies of Thunder: The Deadly World War II Mission Over the Roof of the World
Release Date: 
May 14, 2024
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During World War II, more than 600 United States planes were lost ferrying supplies between India and China. The remains of many of them, sometimes still with the remains of their crews, are strown in the jungles of Burma. An estimated 1,700 American airmen were lost.

In Skies of Thunder: The Deadly World War II Mission Over the Roof of the World, Caroline Alexander tells the story of men risking their lives in brutal terrain and horrific weather conditions to keep China in the war. The author tells, through a clear and engaging narrative, the story from the pilots in the planes to the level of campaign overview, sometimes really from “30,000 feet.”

The subject is not easy as the place, if not the times, will be unfamiliar to most readers. Survivors of this epic struggle, however, lived until recent times and pretty much everywhere, to make their adventures memory and reality, not just legend.

Readers will not become lost in the details but enchanted by them, such as the usually overlooked role of women in this story. More details, in some passages, would have improved understanding.

Skies of Thunder begins with Chiang Kai-shek, who after 1925 came to power as the chief warlord leader of the late Sun Yat-sen’s Republic of China with the help of his nation’s underworld. Chiang controlled the army but could be replaced at any time by other warlords.

By 1935, the Chinese president was also dealing with a civil war with Mao Zedong’s Communists and a renewal of the Japanese invasion. He ordered the Burma Road built to consolidate his success against Mao in the southern provinces and to guarantee the access by his military to the outside world.

Two years later, the road became a lifeline for the poorly equipped, understrength Chinese armies as Japan seized the eastern seaboard. All overland routes were problematic due to lack of development, distance, ethnicities of the local people, and terrain. Building a practical road to Burma was more than the best, but a necessity, of all the other bad options.

Much of this book is a history of the development of Burma in this period, and the subsequent war fought by the Allies against the Japanese invasion. Conquest of China by the Empire of the Sun came to depend upon taking British Burma and its potential road to the Chinese armies, but the supply routes in the air as well as overland. In 1942, American and British forces suffered defeat after defeat in the Pacific.

Out of desperation, the Allies reluctantly turned to air transportation but even that bad option depended upon the control of Burma, as the Japanese successfully pushed into Burma by land and air. While Japan had embraced aviation, the western nations had been dubious about military use of the new field of airpower.

China was under-resourced in planes, as with all other military needs but it did have the Chinese National Aviation Corporation, owned by the Chinese Nationalist government and Pan Am Airways, since 1930. This airline had promised to open “the Middle Kingdom” to the modern world, now it was needed to save China from invasion.

As early as 1932, CNAC was preparing to use airpower to resist the Japanese. Politics in China and the United States severely retarded progress, however. By the time that the Japanese overran Southeast Asia in 1940-1941, the allies faced a world-wide crisis of air transport, with pilots in shorter supply than aircraft.

Alexander never loses sight of the politics. The United States officially entered the war, following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, but its efforts in the region were initially only symbolic, to encourage China to not make a separate peace with Japan.  The Imperial army would still have to expend the same resources with occupation.

The official goals of supplying Chaing’s army or using his nation as a bomber base against the Japanese seemed wildly impractical in 1942. “The monstrous scale of the undertaking and the breathtaking sweep of the inherent dangers came to the fore.” This vast, largely uninhabited, region was no Shangri-la.

To eventually acquire enough pilots and planes to make a difference initially seemed an impossible task for the Tenth Air Force, activated at Patterson Field, Ohio, on February 12, 1942. The first 5,000 personnel left Charleston, South Carolina, on March 19, 1942, without any information on where they were going, or getting into!

Operations were rushed in answer to vailed threats from Chaing to make peace with Japan. As the United States was trying to get C-47 cargo planes to India to make the transport possible as the Japanese advanced into Burma and China, a seeming unstoppable military machine pushing ahead of them a sea of refugees.

Pilots had to deal with the vast jungles of Burma, the Himalayas of Tibet “the most formidable and unchartered mountain terrain on earth,” and the savage weather. “They were transversing the heavens at heights humans had only recently imagined possible.”

Skies of Thunder is a thorough, but never dull, history for the reader curious about the reality of World War II, including enough facts, personalities, and names to make this history whole. This work has annotation and a bibliography.