The Library of Congress Veterans History Project Home 
Experiencing War: Stories from the Veterans History Project
Home » Text Transcript

Interview with Kenneth Stepherson [11/10/2003]

Kenneth Stepherson:

(Video appears to have started after the interview has begun)...And I have the English version of it right here. And it says, "1 am an American airman. My plane is destroyed. I cannot speak your language, I am an enemy of the Japanese. Please give me food and take me to the nearest Allied Post. You will be rewarded."

Now, we lost 600 planes over the Hump. During the four years of this operation. And we were prepared, or tried to be as prepared as we could to go down, because they spoke of an aluminum trail across the mountains from our airplanes that went down -- very dangerous flying. This came from my survival gear. We wore a vest with many pockets in it, that had survival items in it like fish hooks, chlorine tablets, a Boy Scout knife.

I can't remember what all now, but this is one of the items, this is an all silk map that was in one of those pockets. And I had drawn .... this is of the Hump, and sometimes people say "what is the Hump?" Well, we're talking about the Himalayan Mountains. And we called it "the Hump." I have drawn on it our course over to Tumning, China, from our base. Actually the map extends on the other side, this is just half of it, and the route we took over is indicated in the red and the route we took back is indicated too.

We flew over at an altitude of 13,500 feet, and believe me, this is flying through the mountain passes, it was not flying over the mountains. But coming back, we flew at 23,000 feet, and we were unloaded and so we could go higher.

This is a Japanese sword, a Japanese officer's sword, that was given to me by a Chinese officer, uh, in flight from Hanchow, China to Peping, China. You may notice that I'm using the enunciations that existed then; Peping has been changed to Bejing. Nanking has been changed to Namjing. And Hanchow is now Wuhan. All right. And this is a Japanese bayonet that you see there. And this is a picture of the famous 346 that we were flying. There's another picture over there. People gave me these pictures and they're nice and I'm proud to have them.

This shows one of our planes with Japanese fighters tailing them. Because the Japanese were shooting us down on the beginning, until they were cleared out. And that's about all I need to say .... (this video clip cuts off) (Video clip begins at another place) ... highest award I received was the Air Medal, which I qualified for, for so many hours over the Hump. And that's a good conduct medal. This is a Chinese medal that Chang Kai Shek gave to all of us, actually I didn't get it until about 1988! And the Nationalist Government on Taiwan sent our organization enough to pass out to all the rest of us! But it was authorized in 1945. This is the Far East Air Force, that I was a part ofin Tokyo, shortly after the Japanese surrendered.

Now I want you to note that I'm a honorary member of the Chinese Air Force. And this is honorary Air Force wings, that they sent to me. The Chinese were very appreciative of the effort that the Americans made on their behalf.

My name is Kenneth Stepherson. I'm 82 years old. I served in the China/BurmaiIndia Theater of War.

John Ross:

What exchanges did you have in the military before you went overseas?

Kenneth Stepherson:

Oh, before I went overseas. All right. I enlisted in the aviation cadets, that's where the Air Force got most of their people, everybody wanted to be a pilot. Well, I, put in 110 hours of pilot time before they decided that I should be a radio man. And they sent me to Scott Field, Illinois where the air crew radio men were being trained. I went through their course, but I had previous radio experience as a ham radio operator most of my life, and they sent me there as an instructor. So I taught radio to other boys who would go over and be flying as radio operators. Until 1945, in January, I believe, I received orders to go to Bergstrom Field, Texas, to be a crew member, to train to be a crew member in a troop carrier outfit. So I did that. And from Bergstrom field we were sent to Savannah, Georgia and we were in crews, we had a pilot and co-pilot, and, and an engineer and a radio operator, which was me. We were issued a brand new airplane, in Savannah, Georgia, and we got in a little practice in breaking that airplane in.

And then we received orders to take it to India, so now we knew where we were going and what we were going to do -- because we were going to fly the Hump. Now this operation was not highly publicized, and there are a lot of people today that don't know what it means to fly the Hump. So let me say a few words about the Hump first. In order to talk about the China/Burma/India Theater you need to understand the context of it, and what was going on and what we were trying to do there. In 1937 Japan invaded China, and ..... of course when the United States came into the War in 1941, December the 7th, Chang Kai Shek, who was head of the Nationalist Government in China, was in dire need of supplies, equipment, there wasn't any gasoline in China. Uh, that seemed strange, and it was, because when I later go to China I found that trucks and buses and automobiles had a little charcoal burner on the back end of the truck, of the vehicle, which fed .... gas was generated from the heat that they ran the motors on, and I'd never seen that before or since.

But, Chang Kai Shek sent his wife, Mai Ling Soon. She was from a prominent family in China, and very well known, and she was a very...

Chang Kai Shek met her at the home of Sun Yat Sen. Now I'll tell you a little about Sun Yat Sen, if you don't already know about Sun Yat Sen. Sun Yat Sen was China's George Washington. He led a revolution against the Chinese Emperors, and created the Republic of China, in October, 1910. And they celebrate October, 1910. I'm not sure but it may be October the tenth, 1910. (laughs) Every year on October the 10th, they celebrate Tin Tin Day, they call it. And I suppose they're still doing it, under the COlmnunist Government, I don't know that. But they did then, and Sun Yat Sen was the father of China. Chang Kai Shek was a protege of Sun Yat Sen. And of course, when Sun Yat Sen died, Chang Kai Shek took over the leadership of China. Uh, and he married Mai Ling Soon, from a very prominent family in China, and he sent her to Washington to see Roosevelt. And she played an important part in this, as the books over there with pictures of her and Eleanor Roosevelt and President Roosevelt, when she did this. Her message was that China was about to collapse. China could receive no supplies, anywhere.

The Japanese of course occupied all of the seacoast of China. And the only connection China had with the outside world was by the Burma Road, which was quite primitive. Now the Burma Road started in, at Rangoon, which is on the coast. And went north to Mandalay, and then further north to Michenaw? And then to Lashio, where it connected with this primitive road through the mountains to Kung Ming, China. Well, that was one of the fIrst things that Japan did, after they struck Pearl Harbor and invaded the Philippines, they invaded Burma cut that primitive road off. Well, uh, it was a good bit of fIghting going on, get Burma out of the Japanese hands. The British general ScWem and General Wingate did a big pad of the fighting. The United States (had) Merrill, Colonel Merrill got a group of Americans to go into Bunna and you may have heard of Merrill's Marauders. That's what they were called. And it was some very rugged terrain, and lot of rugged fighting, jungle fighting, that had taken place in Burma. Well, they did wrest Burma from Japanese hands. And of course, when I got over there, I got over there late, 1945, uh, the War was sort of. .. well, it wasn't won yet, but it was sort of winding down.

I was going to tell you about taking this airplane (I'll get to it -laughs) to India. So we started out, there were a number of us going, each crew was an airplane, but we didn't try to fly together, (but) we did see our friends from other aircrews when we landed. It took us 20 days to get to India. Of course, we played a trick in Cairo, so we could spend 5 days in Cairo, look at the Pyramids, and the Royal Egyptian Museum, and just see the sights, in other words. We must have made, I don't have it in my mind right now how many stops we made, but I'll name them all right quickly if you'd like me to.

We flew from Savannah, Georgia to San Juan, Puerto Rico. And we would spend the night in each place. Then on down to Georgetown, British Guyana. And then to Natal, Brazil. Natal is located on this little point of South America, which sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean. And not many airplanes were flying non-stop across the ocean in those days. They put extra gas tanks in our plane, to give us enough gas to reach Ascension Island, a little rock in the middle of. .... between Natal, Brazil and Liberia, in Africa. So we stopped over on Ascension Island, overnight, then of course we would fill up again everywhere we went, then on down to over to Accra, Liberia. And from there to Dakar, which is really a French island off the coast of Africa. And then Tunis, Marrakesh, spent the night there, to Tunis, to Cairo, where we spent fIve days, then we went to Aberdan, Iran, which was 140 degrees temperature when we were there. It was quite an experience trying to sleep, we took our sheets out to the laume, and soaked our sheets in water, and laid 'em on top of us and we'd go to sleep, and it wouldn't take long for those sheets to illy out and the heat would wake us. We'd do it again. We got out of there very early the next morning, and it was nice to leave that place. But then we flew to Karachi, India. Now at Karachi they took our airplanes away from us, and we stayed a couple of weeks there I believe. They then they made assignments. Oh, well, I should say that they sent us to Accra, India, which is where the Taj Mahal is, so that was a very interesting place to be. And then they gave us our assigmnents.

I was assigned to a troop carrier squadron, 2nd Troop Can'ier Squadron of the 443rd Troop Carrier Group, at Dinjan, which was in the Asam Valley, it's probably what is Bangladesh today, but was on the Brahma Putra river, and is in the foothills of the Himalayas. We had three squaill'ons in our group. The 2nd Troop Can-ier Squadron, the 3rd Troop Carrier Squadron, and the 315th. And each squadron had about 19 airplanes, 57 airplanes.

Now, remember this was a troop carrier group. We were trained to carry troops, to carry parachuters to drop supplies by parachute and also to tow gliders. Now in our outfit we had done a good bit of this for the British forces and Merrill's forces, prior to the time that I got there. But when Burma had been cleared of the Japanese they put our outfit to fly in supplies into China. Now, I started to tell you a bit ago that after Mai Ling Soon visited Roosevelt, she was able to convince them that China was on the verge of collapse and couldn't get supplies. Now Roosevelt knew that if China collapsed it would release possibly a million Japanese soldiers to fight us in the Pacific. So China must be kept in the War at all costs. And they set up the "Hump" operation. Most of the planes, they had about 8 or 10 airfields in India, that they were flying off of. Most of the units were ATC, or the Air Transport Command. We were the only troop carriers, but we were there with the airplanes and they gave us something to do so we flew the Hump. We carried all sorts of supplies into China, mostly gasoline.

Now, flying the Hump, the Hump boasted the world's worst weather, terrible flying weather. We flew on instruments 95 percent of the time, we couldn't see where we were. And after I'd been flying the Hump for a few weeks, we had a clear day and I saw where we were. (laughs) and it shocked me! We were flying through those mountains, not over them. Through mountain passes! And they had gone in and set up radio beacons in these passes, and we were using radio compass, we'd put the needle on zero and keep that needle on zero which would take us to the first radio beacon. Now remember we couldn't see a thing, all this time. And when the needle would tum around 180 degrees we knew we'd just passed over the place, the beacon. So we would tune to the frequency of the next beacon. So we flew blind through those mountains. And it was quite shocking to see how close those mountains were to us! It seemed like the crags sticking up were just about scraping our belly!

And there was all kind of bad weather. Of course, our rate of climb and rate of descent indicated, it pegged at 5,000 feet a minute. But many times we would peg it on, it would hit an updraft it would peg the meter on 5,000 feet up a minute, then immediately go into one that would peg it in the downdraft at 5,000 feet per minute. And I've had some bumps on my head from that too. Of course, this kind of weather made the airplane subject to carburetor ice, propeller ice, wing ice, and these updrafts and downdrafts could have sent us into the mountains. It was dangerous flying.

When we would get over at a certain point on our trip over, it was one of my jobs as a radio operator to call Kun Ming and tell them who we were, where we were, and what do you want to do with us? Now they had, besides the Kun Ming airfield, they had about four other auxiliary fields, out and around different places, because we were, there were about 500 or so airplanes a day going over! And one airfield of course couldn't take that volume, so they would tell us which one to go to. And we would change our course to the one that they told us to go to. But you know, a number oftimes, we would come in and they would have a stack of airplanes in the sky, they'd tell us to come in at 20,000 feet, and then they would ... we'd fly in circles at 20,000 until they told us to come down to 19,000 feet, and they would let us down one at a time as they could, and I remember one night, after an instant let down from 20,000 feet, we broke out of the clouds only to see a plane on the runway burning. Of course, that closed the field, so they routed us to another one only to go through the whole process again.

Well, that was something that the Hump was about. Many people did survive some of these, having to bailout, that is, over the Hwnp. The newsman Eric Sevareid, do you remember him? He and 20 others, or 20 altogether, bailed out over the Hump, and it took them about three months to walk out. 19 of them walked out. The natives did help us. Of course, I'm glad I didn't have that experience. There was a mechanic in my squadron that did have that experience of bailing out. Dh, they were over the Hump and an engine caught fIre, and the pilot ordered everybody to bailout. Well, he got his parachute and the radio operator got his parachute and they hadn't put them on yet, and the mechanic wanted to wait for the radio operator, and the radio operator really went back, hesitated, went back to turn on his IFF, which would be used for emergency calls, in this case. And he had just had his parachute hanging on his shoulder, and airplane blew up and he found himself falling through the air with his elbow through one parachute strap. And he managed to get the rip cord pulled and he hung on with just his elbow and anyway, he made it down. Nobody else survived. And he broke a leg. Later they found him, they sent a runner to somebody and got word out to where he was, and they sent a jump team in to bring him out. About six other people jumped to get him. They brought him out, took them three months to get him out, they didn't make him fly anymore.

There were many, many, many experiences that took place over the Hump. I was there doing this when Japan surrendered. They immediately told us to pick up and go to China. So to Chickang, China, a back country town, where it was in the mountains, and it was an airstrip that the Chinese had carved out of the mountains, and I'll show you pictures of the Chinese with baskets over their shoulders carrying rocks. Well, they were still there doing that. They continued to extend that runway. So they put us there to reposition Chang Kai Shek's Chinese troops. And we were to take the 92ud Chinese Army to Nanking. And we did that, very quickly. And it was, I don't whether I should tell this or not, but they issued us submachine guns. They had an understanding that they couldn't have parachutes for all the Chinese troops. So if we needed to get out, we were to jump and we would use the submachine guns if we needed to, to get out. I don't think we ever would have made it. Now that didn't happen, but it was planned.

Uh, after we finished that job, carrying the92nd Chinese Army to Nanking, we moved over to Hangchow, where we were to take another Chinese Anny up to Peiping, Bejing today. We took over a Japanese airfIeld there, we slept in the hangars, but immediately three aircraft were ordered to Chunking. Now Chunking was Chang Kai Shek's provisional capitol. And he wanted the people he had appointed to be the government of Northern China. He wanted to get them up to Peiping to take over. Now this was a special assignment, three planes of us went to Chunking. We picked up the Chinese offIcials, three planeloads. And took them up to Bejing, Peiping, Bejing! (laughs) But there was no gasoline to fly back. But a barge was on the way up river from the ocean, with gasoline for us to do this flying.

We were to fly another Chinese army up there. This was before we started flying the Army, this was taking the Government offIcials. Well, they put us up at the Grand Peiping Hotel, and of course, I was on the fIrst plane into Shanghai, and we were the fIrst to go into Peiping, too. The next day, those Chinese offIcials sent limousines no less, of course the Japanese were there, and they and they had the limousines, (laughs) to pick us up. And they entertained us, in a grand style, with the most notable meal I've ever been served in my life. We had round tables, and we were served 17 courses. Now there were 12 of us, airmen, and the Japanese, excuse me, the Chinese servant, continued to walk around the tables pouring hot rice wine into shallow little saucers, that we'd drink from. They kept them full. And every couple of minutes somebody would jump up and toast MacArthur, the end of the War, to victory, to Roosevelt, to Truman, to Chang Kai Shek, just about everybody. And it came across to me that we just did not realize how grateful the Chinese were to Americans for what we were doing. And the only Americans in China were us few hundred airmen. They took time, they most have had an awful lot to do, but they took time to entertain us like that. We had just arrived. Well, the barge of gasoline came in, we had spent three days of sightseeing there, and we returned to Hangchow and flew that Chinese AImy up there. And then they said it was time for us to go home. And we flew our airplanes into Shanghai, parked them, and walked away from them! About six or seven airplanes. And we had a fim time in Shanghai then. We had cold Cokes, cold beer, everything right.

Speaking of the cold beer, I'll have to digress and go back to where we were in India. Of course it was hot, it rained every day, it was monsoon season, and cows were wandering around everywhere. They would trip over your tent ropes at night! But there was nothing cold at all, nothing. But we were rationed a case of beer a month. And of course when the beer came in, we'd go get our case of beer and we'd drink it up pretty quickly, but it was hot. But that was a problem from only on the fIrst can. We learned to like it hot, and prefer it hot. And we had to develop a taste for cold beer later, when we returned! (laughs) And got back to civilization.

So we had a fun time in Shanghai for a while, and I had been over there less than a year as some others had been, so instead of sending us home, they transferred us to Tokyo, and we became a part of the Far Eastern Air Force, and we were billeted in an office building, down on old Ginza, right across Ginza from the Imperial Palace. And MacArthur had his office in the Da Achi Building, that's an insurance company today. But he had taken over that building, and he was just two blocks down the street. Every afternoon and morning, the Japanese would crowd the sidewalk, it was quite a wide sidewalk there, and they would crowd each side of it to wait for MacArthur to come out of the building to get into his limousine or to arrive in the morning. Of course, we were able to explore Tokyo to some extent while we were there, and oh there was just miles after miles of rubble.

And I made one flight from a Colonel who needed to fly to get flight pay. You know we had to fly at least four hours a month to get flight pay, and I needed it too. So we took a C-46 up and went over Hiroshima and flew around Tokyo Bay and Fujiyama, just a sightseeing trip and I spent the month of December in Tokyo. And then they told us to take our C-46 down to Manila. And we did that. We stayed in Manila for, I don't know, three months I think, two or three months, a long boring time, I know. And they fmally put us on the troop ship and took 19 days to get to San Francisco from Manila, and I completed my trip around the world.

Do you have any questions that you'd like to ask?

John Ross:

What was going through your mind while you were flying over Hiroshima, where the bomb had been dropped?

Kenneth Stepherson:

Well, that whole thing was just awesome. Of course, we use the tetID "mind-blowing." The concept of the atomic bomb, and of course, it looked just like the pictures you've seen, that's just what it looked like. There's a piece of a building standing over here, and so. But yes, it was awesome.

John Ross:

Out of all the experiences you had in China, what was the most memorable one, that sticks out in your mind?

Kenneth Stepherson:

Well, I just told you that the most memorable one was being entertained in Beijing by these officials, who were expressing their gratitude to us. We were the recipients of China's gratitude. They also took us sightseeing. They took us to the Forbidden City. And the GTeat Wall, and so on, and I realized at the time there weTen't very many Americans that had seen those sights. I had a very interesting tour. Some of the boys that flew the Hump stayed over there for thTee years and didn't do anything but fly the Hwnp, but I got a dose of that plus the additional travels in China which they didn't get. And uh, entertaimnent.

John Ross:

What kind of resistance did you get when you were flying?

Kenneth Stepherson:

Well you have to understand, the Japanese had been cleared out of Burma, by the time I got over there. But at the beginning, the Japanese fighters were shooting down our unanned transport planes. That picture on the wall shows one of our troops being attacked by two Japanese fighters. The caption is "Caught in the open."

John Ross:

Did you ever get shot at?

Kenneth Stepherson:


John Ross:

What was life for you once you got back to the US after the War? Was it going back to your old routines?

Kenneth Stepherson:

Well, it was a very emotional experience to arrive in San Francisco, with that great War over. We were greeted by a boatload of entertainers that were sent out to meet us. They were all girls, it was an all girl orchestra. And they had a platform on their boat, and they sang and danced and played music to us. And we entered the harbor and went over to the dock. Of course, they sent me immediately to Fort Smith, Camp Chaffee, which is at Fort Smith, Arkansas, to be discharged. And I caught a bus and came home. And of course, everything had changed. Of course, that change is continuous in any case, but a lot had happened since I left. (getting emotional) And it took me a little while to get accustomed to not wearing the uniform. I felt strange in civilian clothes. Ha ha. And to re-adjust to civilian life. But all the soldiers had to go through that. I went into the grocery business with my two brothers, and spent my life in it. We operate four food stores here in Memphis today. Or rather I'm retired from it, my children are (operating them). Anything else you'd like to ask about?

John Ross:

Did you receive any additional training for the environment you were in? In the mountains, it's cold and it's snowv. Did vou get additional training?

Kenneth Stepherson:

No. (laughs) You understand, when you're hot and wet in India, on the ground, of course there was snow on the mountains, but I didn't have to encounter the mountains. The only cool drink I could get was, of course we carried our canteens of water with us all the time. But when we went up it would get cold and we'd enjoy that cold water.

John Ross:

Did you receive training for what you did when you crashed? To escape an invasion, if you crashed in the Japanese ...

Kenneth Stepherson:

No I don't remember any particular training. I will say that early on during our basic training days, we had some lectures that covered a lot of ground. And one of them was survival in the jungle. It was general, it wasn't for that particular area, especially, but it was general. It reminded me of Scott O'Grady. You remember him, don't you? My son was on the ship that rescued him. In fact, he was appointed public relations officer for the ship to take care of these CBS and NBS news people who came aboard. It was a Kersarge ship, and they had helicopters that rescued him and brought him back to the Kersarge. And all those pictures you saw of Scott O'Grady getting out of the helicopter and so on, well my son Jack was there, taking part in all that.

There was general survival training, you know Scott O'Grady, I remember him saying he ate ants and I forget what else he said. But it made me think of survival training lectures that we have had.

John Ross:

That's about it. Anything else you'd like to add?

Kenneth Stepherson:

Oh, I could talk on for a long time about this, that and the other for a long time, but. .. (laughs) Like you know, such things as the cows, as I said, in India. They were allover the place. I mean, I made one nip down to Calcutta for something. And I went into the town just to see something about it, and cows were walking down the streets there too. Of course, the Hindus felt of course they were sacred. In fact they felt that all kinds of life were sacred. That was the Hindus. The Muslims of course didn't think that.

But there were lots of experiences that I had ... a number of good experiences. They weren't bad for me. The flying was dangerous, but I didn't get shot at. I didn't have to crawl in the foxhole, you know. We did have an incident, there were lots of incidents, I can't cover them all here, we're talking generally, but. ... In Hangchow, when we took over this airfield, there was a bomb dump there. Just off the airfield. And we all walked over and looked at it, explored around the area. I got a picture of me with my foot up on a pile of bombs, Japanese bombs. Well, while we were there some of the GI's went over and they did a little more than they should have, and they set off an incendiary bomb, and set off the whole bombing dump. And, gee, I remember that this was beyond any of our experiences. I remember I was in the hangar, in the barracks when this happened, and boy, you don't know what's happened. We all ran out of the hangar, and then we immediately knew what had happened, that the bomb dumps had gone off. It was a huge cloud of smoke and debris, you'd see items turning, slowing, in slow motion, going up in the air, then they reached a peak and started to come down, and then panic set in, because we started running in the opposite direction to get away from it, so we wouldn't get hit by some of the falling debris. And of course, I'd gotten out of the building that protected me. I don't think it hurt anybody (in there.) Several were killed by the bomb explosion, but that was just one of the experiences that I remember quite vividly.

John Ross:

Well, I guess that about wraps it up,, anything else?

Kenneth Stepherson:

All right. [Transcribed by Gary Witt on July 4,2004.]

Home » Text Transcript
  The Library of Congress  >> American Folklife Center
  October 26, 2011
  Legal | External Link Disclaimer Need Help?   
Contact Us