He flew a ‘Gooney Bird’ over “The Hump’ in the China, Burma, India Campaign

Members of the 34d Combat Cargo Unit, 328th Airlift Squadron, 14th Air Force in front of a C-47 transport plane for their graduation picture at Bowman Field, Louisville, Ky. in 1943. Lemery is standing in the back row, fifth from the left in front of the plane’s engine. Photo provided by Thomas Lemery

It was a little hard to read, but the handwritten account of Maj. Thomas Lemery’s World War II career in the China, Burma and India Theater flying supplies in a C-47 Transport to the British 14th Army in Burma was a wonderful supplement to his fading memory.

Written for his grandsons, Robbie and Jeffery, 15 years ago when they were 8 and 10 years old, it was based on the 85 year old Port Charlotte, Fla. aviator’s recollections. He flew 450 supply missions in all kinds of weather flying day and night from September  1944 until September 1945.

“Dear Robbie and Jeffery,

 First of all I want to thank you two guys for asking me to write of my flying days. It is something I have been immensely proud of throughout my life. For you see as a youth all my dreams and aspirations were sky-bound.

I spent many, many hours in our old garage building airplane models. No plans, just from what I could visualize.

His 14-page manuscript ended this way:

“My flying career came to a screeching halt in June 1945 at Meiktila, Burma. The British with a tank column forged ahead and secured the airfield. Although the enemy still surrounded the field we flew in the needed supplies.

“It was on taking off and becoming airborne that my right engine exploded as it was hit by enemy ground fire. I crash-landed in the bush alongside the landing strip. Indian troops rescued us.

“After a few weeks in a field hospital I was released to active duty. After a flight or two into China I received orders to proceed to the U.S.A. For me the war was over.”

What Lemery didn’t tell his two grandsons about the crash landing 60 years ago was that he was thrown through the windshield of his C-47. He seriously injured his right arm and elbow when he used it to protect his face as he smashed through the glass head first. He also injured his back which from that day forward has given him trouble.

Lt. Pool, his copilot, was killed in the crash. His engineer, the third member of the crew, broke his leg.

The cockpit of the C-47 was almost disintegrated. There was little left of the right engine after it was hit by enemy ground fire.

“Due to the intensity of the Japanese fighter planes we turned to night time flying. We continued our air support of the 14th Army in the light of a full moon.

“Indian troops, as we approached the landing lit huge bonfires to aid in our landings. We could not use our landing lights, except at the last instant in our approach to the field,” the old aviator explained to his grandsons.

Flying out of Imphal, India, in the north eastern part of the country, Lemery and the men of the 328th Airlift Squadron delivered all kinds of supplies to the 14th British Army beginning in late 1944 when the ground troops moved south over the “Nanga Hills” into Burma.

Thomas Lemery, pilot (left); Wally Borla, co-pilot; and Harold Strathman, pilot, stand before a World War II C-47 transport during a reunion in 2001 at the 238th Airlift Squadron at a museum complex in Niagra Falls, N.Y. The trio flew “Gooney Birds” supporting the British 14th Army in Burma during World War II. Photo provided by Thomas Lemery

They flew everything from 55-gallon drums of gasoline to mules in their C-47 “Gooney Birds.” Four mules would fit into a transport. When they weren’t flying fuel or mules it was ammunition, food and an enormous amount of other supplies to keep an army in the field. Sometimes they parachuted the supplies into the British troops, other times they landed in a field or on a captured enemy runway and unload their supplies.

One of these flights he still remembers like it was yesterday.

“We got up about 3 a.m. and takeoff at 6 a.m. We were flying southwest over the ‘Nanga Hills’ and down into northern Burma near the former Japanese air base at Myitkyina,” he said. “Our mission was to supply the 14th Army by air drop.

“We dropped into this little valley. It was so small we had to fly figure eights while dropping our supplies,” Lemery recalled. “We got a message that there were Japanese fighter planes in the area. We stayed in the valley until we got an “All Clear” message.

“As we flew up over the hills and gained altitude we could see one of our C-47s burning on the ground. It was Captain White. One of the Jap fighters got him.”

Lots of C-47s flying “The Hump” or bringing supplies to British forces in Burma, like Lemery was doing, were lost to Japanese fighter planes, occasionally to ground fire and often to weather conditions, quirky terrain and navigational errors.

“Lt. Jim Davis, my best friend in the outfit, was carried to his untimely death when one of the engines on his C-47 failed. This young man was a former War Department employee in the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

“At the time of his death a letter from Gen. ‘Hap’ Arnold (Air Force Chief of Staff) was forwarded to his family. It stated that Arnold knew Jim personally. It praised the young aviator for his patriotism in forfeiting his life for his country.

“Jim never spoke of his friends in the Pentagon. He just went ahead and did his duty as he saw fit,” Lemery wrote his grandsons.

Thomas Lemery holds his dress uniform with silver wings and campaign ribbons. On the wall in his Port Charlotte home is a shadow box containing his military decorations and other service memorabilia he collected over the years cover the cabinet below. Sun photo by Don Moore

Thomas Lemery holds his dress uniform with silver wings and campaign ribbons. On the wall in his Port Charlotte, Fla. home is a shadow box containing his military decorations and other service memorabilia he collected over the years fill the cabinet below. Sun photo by Don Moore

Although World War II is a fading memory for Maj. Thomas M. Lemery, U.S. Air Force (Ret.), his service to his country during the second World War 60 years ago was undoubtedly his finest hour.

His commendations

Maj. Thomas M. Lemery, U.S. Air Force (Ret.) received the following commendations as the pilot of a C-47, twin-engine transport while flying in the China, Burma, India Theater of Operations:

The Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters (3 awards); Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters (4 awards); Atlantic-Pacific Theater Ribbon with four battle stars; two overseas service bars; WW II Victory Ribbon; the American Theater Medal.


This first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. in January 2004 and is republished with permission.

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Maj. Thomas M. Lemery 1919 – 2006

United States Air Force retired Maj. Thomas M. Lemery, 87, of Port Charlotte, Fla., died recently at his home. He and his wife had resided in Port Charlotte since February 1989, moving from Venice, Fla.

Maj. Lemery was born Nov. 1, 1919, in Vernon, N.Y.

He once wrote that, as a child, all his “dreams and aspirations were sky-bound.” Lemery grew up in an era when lighter-than-air ships like the Hindenberg, Graf Zeppelin and Akron filled the skies and the imagination of his youth. He followed with awe the flights of Charles Lindbergh and his historic first solo flight across the Atlantic in his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis. Lemery dreamed to one day join them in the sky.

As he approached the age to begin the first steps of fledgling flight, the costs associated dimmed his dreams. That is, until he entered the U.S. Army’s 26th Infantry Division prior to World War II. As part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, a flight school had been established at State University of New York at Morrisville under the National Youth Administration. Destiny had a hand in Lemery being chosen as one of 20 infantrymen selected for flight training at Morrisville. His dream now attainable, Lemery excelled. The process began with preflight training at Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Ala., and culminated, in December 1943, with a commission as a second lieutenant and silver flight wings pinned upon his chest.

Lemery served in the China, Burma, India theater during World War II as a “Hump Pilot,” flying C-47s over the Himalayan mountains. He served with the 3rd Combat Squadron, 1st Combat Cargo group of the 14th Air Force, “Flying Tigers.” Lemery logged 1500 flying hours in 450 missions under all types of combat and weather conditions, mainly in support of the British 14th Army. Historians agree the U.S. Army Air Corps’ tenacious efforts in providing a supply route over the Himalayas turned the tide of battle against the Japanese in China.

Lemery, who survived a crash landing when an engine failed, was rescued by Indian troops. He served his country with distinction. He earned three Distinguished Flying Crosses for extraordinary and heroic achievement and the Conspicuous Service Cross. He was proud to serve his country.

Thomas M. Lemery, like so many who served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, represented the best and brightest of his generation. This lifelong American patriot passed away on Oct. 31, 2006. His wife, Waunetah, remembers fondly their 20 years together as “the romance of a lifetime.”

Maj. Lemery is survived by his wife Waunetah; two sons, John D. Lemery of Boston, Mass., and James D. Lemery of North Carolina; a daughter, Betty Ann Lemery of Liverpool, N.Y.; a stepson, Rex B. Lighthart of Gainesville, Fla.; five grandchildren; three step-grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; seven step-great-grandchildren; and several nieces and nephews, including Rebecca Lemery and Gary Nagy of Bradenton, Fla.

A “Celebration of Major Lemery ‘s Life” will be held after the first of the new year. We are grateful to our family and to hospice for their care and assistance.

Arrangements were made in Port Charlotte, Fla.

From the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla., Dec. 2, 2006



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