By Robert Klemann
The mission started at an air field in upper Assam valley [an eastern province of India, extending into northern Burma]. Chabua, I believe. We had spent the night at a tea plantation, enroute to our destination at Kunming, China. Our planes were loaded with all of our change of station equipment, spare parts, tools, etc. plus personal luggage.
I had a money belt with several months pay for my crew which I had placed under my pillow for the night. In the evening we were told that in the morning, on our way to Kunming, we were going to bomb the airfield at Lashio, Burma, which had been occupied by the Japans. This caused a great deal of excitement, what with the bomb loading, map marking, planning a low level attack in a totally unfamiliar environment. This would require flying two sides of a triangle instead of just one, stretching our range to the limit.
The briefing told us that the altitude of mountains between Lashio and Kunming was 9,000 ft. on the available maps. As it turned out that must have been an underestimate. We were up long before dawn, making final preparations for the flight and bombing mission.
Our six planes were lined up in the parking area, wing tip to wing tip, and all started up and warming up, when the navigator in the plane on our right discovered he had forgotten his maps. (I had forgotten my money belt.) The navigator climbed out of the plane, and started to run back to the office, but ran into the whirling propeller of the plane. That was the first casualty of the day. The flight went on without one navigator.
We headed south through rain and broken clouds which obscured our vision. Believe me it was eerie flying blind in a group, not knowing where the others were, except that they were very close. When we broke out of cloud we would reassemble until we reached the next clouds, where we were literally in the dark again. One of the planes became separated and lost from the group.
We found Lashio, and our leader Major Gordon Leland went in at low level, and made a steep turn to line up with the air field. I was on his right wing on the inside of the turn, and I had it pulled in so tight I was afraid we were going to spin in.
Anyway, we dropped our bombs and headed east, and climbed to 11,000 ft. through broken clouds, and again partly instrument partly visual. Leland had told us to fly close formation because of the threat of enemy fighters. I was reluctant to fly too close because the constant throttle jockeying was using too much fuel, and the gas gauges were going down at an alarming rate.
We were approaching the highest mountains and went into a heavy cloud cover, and I moved over a little more for more maneuvering space. At this time we felt several explosions, not unlike simultaneous thunder and lightning, and felt the turbulence. Within seconds the copilot Stewart Sewall hit my shoulder and pointed out the window at trees and shrubs going by the wing tip. We immediately started up for more altitude.
We soon broke out of the clouds and saw one other plane ahead of us. I began to follow him not thinking it might be the plane without a navigator. After a few minutes of this our excellent navigator Alson Peck came to the cockpit and said, "Do you want to go with them or do you want to go to Kunming?" I said, "You got us this far from the States; just tell me where to go."
We started out on the new heading, again in and out of clouds, and the clouds grew heavier and darker. With the gas gauges showing empty, Peck said, "We should be over Kunming. Find a hole, and if we are not over Kunming it's up to you."
We found a hole in the clouds, and there was Kunming right below us. Ignoring any other traffic, I went down and made a straight-in approach to the only runway. We landed, and as we were taxiing to the hangar and buildings, the engines stopped.
As we were getting out of the plane and onto the ground, another B-25 landed and came over next to us. It was Bill Gross, who had been separated from the flight before Lashio, but had found the target and bombed it. He had been attacked by Jap fighters and had a casualty aboard. One of the crew had been struck in the back by a single bullet. [The dead man was radioman Wilmer Zeuske.] Bill Gross immediately transferred to fighters, but unfortunately he was shot down while strafing Japanese troops along the Salween River.
I was taken to General Chennault, and we had a long talk about the mission and the B-25s. He seemed very disappointed that it did not have more range, and about the fate of the other crews, of course. The crew from the third plane that had taken the wrong route [the B-25 without a navigator that Klemann had followed for a time] had bailed out when they ran out of fuel, and were brought in by the Chinese several days later.
Weeks later, one of the Doolittle Tokyo raiders, Captain Dick Joyce, who was then flying supply flights over the Hump from [India], came to me in Kunming and handed me the money belt I had left under my pillow at the tea plantation. What are the chances of that happening today?