From Wausau High to fighter pilot wailing a Banshee over Burma

The history that drove the mission tasking

December 15, 2005

Second lieutenant Gerald P. Wergin, USAAF, P-40 "Warhawk" pilot out of Wausau, Wisconsin found himself on an Air Transport Command (ATC) aircraft flying to Karachi, India. He arrived there on January 16, 1944. Karachi at the time was part of British India, located near the Arabian Sea, in what is now southeastern Pakistan.

It has taken the AAF about 21 months to get this recent high school grad ready to be an officer who is ready and committed to fight the Japanese from the air. His involvement, and of course the involvement of so many others, made history and set the stage for the United States becoming a superpower. The history enveloping Lt. Wergin's flying in the CBI is absolutely fascinating, worthy of careful study. We'll only brush the surface.

FlightRouteMap

We do not know what kind of ATC aircraft ferried Wergin to the war zone, but he noted that its route was Miami, Puerto Rico, Belham and Natel, Brazil, Ascension Island (mid-Atlantic), Accra, Gold Coast (now Ghana), and Karachi, India. We can't ask Gerry now, but our gut instinct is that he also landed at Khartoum, Sudan, and Tehran, Iran. Perhaps he slept through those!

The kind of demand made by having to airlift combat forces and move their fighter aircraft and all the logistics tail that goes with the men and the aircraft from Miami to Karachi is what forced the meteoric growth of the American airlift capability during and after WWII. It was one kind of challenge to have to do this for the war in Europe, and a far more challenging exercise to have to go to Karachi. The routes had to be solidified, vital meteorological equipment and weather stations had to be installed, facilities to repair broken airplanes and house their passengers and crews had to built, and an incredible infrastructure was needed to watch over and support all this.

B314

Pan American Boeing 314 "Dixie Clipper", presented by Pan American World Airways History

The South Atlantic route became one of the first candidates for civil contracts back then. Pan American Airlines became the first to provide the services needed. In fact, at the outset of WWII, the world's only aircraft that could carry heavy payloads across an ocean were nine Pan Am Boeing 314 flying Clippers and three more that Pan Am had sold to Britain. The US government took over all of Pan Am's trans-oceanic aircraft, crews and operations.

To manage all this, General Hap Arnold created the Air Transport Command (ATC) and air mobility in the US Air Force would change the position of the United States in global politics to this day and beyond. If the US gained anything from WWII, one of the most important gains was to learn better than anyone the importance of global logistics and the capacity to move men and materiel quickly, by integrated land, sea and air modes. The US Armed Forces now do this better than anyone in the world. Did you ever wonder why there always seems to be an aircraft carrier there, ready to fight? That is not done by magic.

BurmaledoRdMap

Wergin joined with Archie Towle at Wausau Airport to participate in the Army Air Force Cadet Training program in January 1942, just after the Pearl Harbor attacks. It's now January 1944 and he's in the battle zone. During the intervening period, the Japanese had marched through a good chunk of China, they already had Manchuria and Korea, they took the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), French Indochina, Thailand, the Malay peninsula, and the islands of the southwest Pacific. The Japanese had conducted limited air attacks on Australia, they forced General MacArthur to retreat out of the Philippines to Australia, they led the Bataan Death March, and the Japanese took Burma and were knocking on India's door. We're going to show you multiple maps so you get the lay of the land, but using the one above, Lt. Wergin's missions were to escort transport aircraft from northeastern India over the eastern Himalayas to Kunming, China, defend Allied airfields in India, attack Japanese forces and facilities in Burma, provide close air support to ground forces engaged in Burma, and provide air cover to the daring men of the US Army who built the Ledo Road that would connect to the Burma Road and enable ground logistics transport from India to Kunming and "around the Japanese." The principal American allies in accomplishing these tasks were the British, mostly colonial Indian troops, Burmese guerrillas, and Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese Army.

BurmaJapanAttackMap

Japanese conquest of Burma, and the Allied retreat, presented courtesy of the US Army

The conquest of Burma occurred before Wergin got there. Burma at the time was a British colony. This map shows how the British and their Chinese allies were forced out, having to retreat into China and India. The Chinese were commanded by an American Army officer, General "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell. He was so mad at being ordered to retreat to India that he walked out!

With regard to the above map, we are going to focus our attention on the area bounded by the red box.

Karachi

Karachi from the air. Photo credit: Jim Augustus/son, 493rd BS, 7th BG, presented by the 7th BG.

As previously mentioned, Lt. Wergin arrived in Karachi on January 16, 1944. In this photo of the Karachi airport, you can see B-24s of the 7th Bombardment Group of the 10th AAF and a couple of C-47s parked on the ramp. The Army also had a facility at Karachi for reassembling fighter aircraft being shipped into the theater. Furthermore, it had a flight school to indoctrinate newly arriving pilots. When a group of eight or ten aircraft were ready to go to the 10th or 14th AAF, pilots from the school would be assigned to fly them. We also have seen references to P-40s being delivered across the Atlantic Ocean to West Africa by aircraft carriers, then flown off the carriers to Accra, Gold Coast (now Ghana), and then flown to Karachi. We're not sure how the Banshees did it.

We need to step back just a bit. While Gerry and the others were in preflight training at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama, the 80th Fighter Group (FG), in May 1943, was declared combat ready and shipped out of the US bound for India.

The 80th had formed over a year earlier, in January 1942, activated three fighter squadrons, the 88th, 89th and 90th Fighter Squadrons (FS), rounded up pilot candidates to fly them, and trained them to fly and fight.

P47

Republic P-47 "Thunderbolt," affectionately known as the "Jug." Originally conceived as a lightweight interceptor, it ended up as a heavyweight fighter. Photo courtesy of the USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.

Interestingly, at the time the group was formed, the thinking was it was going to go to the number one priority theater of the war, Europe. As a result, all three squadrons trained on the P-47 "Thunderbolt," the highest flying fighter of its time. However, when a nation goes to war, "things change" and "stuff happens," and the 80th was redirected to the CBI Theater. As a result, the pilots had to quickly transition to the P-40 "Warhawk," also known as the "Tomahawk."

P40Slick

Curtiss P-40 was America's foremost fighter in service when WWII began. P-40s engaged Japanese aircraft during the attack on Pearl Harbor and the invasion of the Philippines in December 1941. They also were flown in China early in 1942 by the Flying Tigers and in North Africa in 1943 by the first AAF all-black unit, the 99th Fighter Squadron. Photo courtesy of the USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.

This was not trivial change for those pilots, as you can see just from the photos. That P-47 is one big machine. We'll give you a better sense for that a little later.

P38TwinDragon

80th Fighter Group (FG) "Burma Banshee" P-38 " Model photo presented by Aiken's Airplanes. You can see her unique "Twin Dragon" art. The 459th Fighter Squadron was the only one of the Banshee squadrons to fly the P-38, and it came to be known as the "Twin Dragons."

DukeWalter
Oh yes, one more piece of business on aircraft of the 80th FG. We said three squadrons of P-40s deployed in May 1943 to India. Well, in September 1943, a fourth squadron arrived to fill out the 80th FG. It was a kind of an "oddball" squadron; one might expect it to be called the 91st FS, but no, it was called the 459th FS. And, it did not come to fly the P-40 "Warhawk," but instead came to fly the P-38 "Lightening." The model shown above is in honor of Capt. Walter Duke, a leading "Ace" of the 10th AAF, a 459th FS "Twin Dragon" lost in combat in June, 1944. His aircraft was "Miss V." This photo is of Captain Duke.

10thAirForceLogo
During this same period of time, the 10th AAF was formed at Patterson Field, Ohio, and its first order of business was to get organized and deployed over to Delhi, India to set up shop and take charge of the bombers, transports and fighters flowing into that theater. The 80th FG was assigned to the 10th AAF and upon arrival, began deploying to "bases" in the Assam Valley of India, just outside northern Burma. The group's motto was "Angels on our wings." You might recall that one of Gerry's high school "admirers" said he was no angel. Well, by direction of the US Army Air Force, when he got to India, he became one! You can just hear him say, "Well, sweetheart, now I are one!"

We want to present two maps here to give you a feel for the geography of the Assam Valley in India and where it was relevant to the war effort in the CBI. The geography of this region was of crucial importance to the war strategy and the war effort in the CBI.

HumpMap

This is a map of the "Over the Hump" route between Assam State, India and Kunming, China. Map presented by CBI Hump Pilot.

You see the Assam State in northeastern India and "The Hump," the eastern sector of the Himalaya Mountains. You see Wergin's base at Jorhat. Most of the transport flights to Kunming with supplies from India flowed from the Assam State at fields scattered throughout the state such as Jorhat. And, of course, they returned to Assam to be reloaded and sent off again, back and forth, day in and day out. The Japanese had multiple airfields throughout northern Burma, the most important being the logistics center at Myitkyina, marked by the red dot. Japanese fighters would launch from there to intercept the transports flying the Hump, so the 80th FG had to fly patrols and escort missions to protect the unarmed transport flights.

JorhatAssamMap

This map, obtained from a November 1988 National Geographic article on the Brahmaputra River, gives you a terrific presentation of the geography. Too bad it does not include northern Burma. You can see how the Brahmaputra River forms the Assam Valley, ultimately meeting the Ganges to the south and together flowing into the Bay of Bengal. The arrow points to Jorhat. Perhaps you can envision the flight route over the hump to China, departing out of the Assam Valley toward the north, then swinging eastward to Kunming. The fighters generally patrolled between that route and the Japanese bases in Burma. Wergin flew over the hump on several occasions. Fighters from General Claire Chennault's 14th AAF in China were to pick up the transports as they crossed into China and escort them the rest of the way.

Here are two photos of what that flight looked like to many transport and fighter pilots of the time.

Himalayas

Himalayan Mountains, above and below. These are especially good views because you can see the challenges presented by the peaks, the weather, and also envision a flight up and down the foggy valleys if being chased. Presented by CBI Hump Pilot

Hump

We've set the scene. The 10th AAF has been formed and set up in Delhi, India. Its first fighter group to reach the region, the 80th FG, successfully transitioned out of the P-47 and into the P-40 and brought three squadrons with it in May 1943, and then brought a fourth squadron of P-38s in September 1943.

Lt. Wergin arrived in Karachi in mid-January 1944, he had already trained as a P-40 pilot at Sarasota, and was immediately assigned to the 90th FS in February 1944. When Gerry arrived, the 90th had about nine months of combat under its belt. He had none.

We said that the 80th FG's motto was "Angels on our wings," and indeed many transport pilots saw them as angels on their wings during the escort over the hump. Mottos are one thing, but fighter pilots at war see themselves as trained killers, they wanted to kill Japanese, so they came to be known as the "Burma Banshees."

What is a Banshee?

IrishBanshee

The banshee in Irish Gaelic, is called "bean sidhe," which means "supernatural woman." She is envisioned with a sunken nose, scraggy hair and huge hollow eye sockets. Her eyes are fiery red from continuous weeping. She wears a tattered white sheet flapping around her. She wails outside the door of someone who is about to die. Those familiar with the Curtiss P-40 "Warhawk" say that this aircraft made a mighty wailing sound when on one of her dive bomb runs, scaring the Japanese, hence, "Burma Banshee."

LewisBansheeNoseArt

This is the nose art of an 80th FG P-40N on a model aircraft made by Adam Lewis. Note the blood thirsty skull

Here's the real McCoy, an 80th FG aircraft nose, at an undisclosed airfield in the CBI during WWII. The photo is courtesy of Randy Clower, whose father flew with the 80th FG Banshees.

The skull signified death in the sky for opponents.

RealBansheeNose

Quite clearly, the “Burma Banshees” had their minds set on bringing death to their Japanese enemies, and that's exactly what they did.

YoungWerginHome

Young Gerry Wergin at his home in Wausau, prior to joining the AAF. Photo courtesy of the Wergin family.

So, Gerald P. Wergin, with all that was said about him in his yearbook, Wausau High School Class of 1940, son of a builder, an Archie Towle-trained pilot out of Wausau's airport, was now an AAF "butter bar" lieutenant fighter pilot charged with bringing death to America's Japanese enemies over Burma and China from bare-bones bases set up in India flying as a Burma Banshee with a bloodthirsty skull on his nose. How could anyone imagine?

OlderGerry

Lt. Gerry Wergin, USAAF, somewhere in India or Burma at war with the Japanese. Photo courtesy of the Wergin family.

He graduated from high school at the age of 18, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor when he was 19, he joined the aviation cadet program and the Army just after turning 20, and now he's nearly a 22 year old-plus fighter pilot ready to go to work and bring death to the Japanese.

The girls back home will be happy to know that despite all that West Point style training under the supervision of Army corporals and sergeants, and all those stomach turning spins and swirls during flight training, the lad was still sporting a smile and had his hands on his hips exuding all the confidence he needs to hop in his Warhawk and strike a blow against the enemy for God, motherhood and apple pie. The patch on his left shoulder signifies he's fighting in the CBI, and the one on the right shoulder says he's flying for the USAAF. You can see those coveted and hard-earned silver pilot's wings on his left chest, above his left pocket. You can also see he was not eating tenderloin steak and mashed potatoes; he weighed only 138 when he was commissioned; it looks like being at war has taken some of that off.

Wergin's 90th squadron had the P-40K and P-40N, the latter of which was the last and most modern production version of the P-40. Both aircraft used the more powerful Allison engines, the "N" model getting a little more power than the "K." The Army would have preferred Packard-built Merlin engines, but they were not available due to production shortages. The P-40N was the fastest of the series. Both models could attain max speeds in the 320s mph. The N could climb out a bit faster.

JorhatAirpot

This is a satellite photo of the present-day Jorhat Airport presented by DigitalGlobe and Google. We show it so you can get some feel for what the area might have looked like.

We have pointed out on maps where his base at Jorhat, India was located. While we say it was a major staging base, all we mean is a lot of aircraft flew in and out on their way to and from Kunming, and to and from Burma. The airfields themselves initially were chopped out of jungles and were simply dirt strips. Downstream, some steel matting would be brought in to make the field a little more civilized, but they were a bumpy ride in and out. This is a fairly current photo and it does not look significantly improved.

BHansheeFlightLine

A group of 80th FG "Burma Banshee" P-40s lined up at an undisclosed airfield in India or Burma. Photo presented by Onmarkint, an authority in die-cast replicas.

Gerry Wergin graduated from flight school Class 43I with Ken Mosely, both of whom were commissioned together. They were also assigned to the 90th FS together, and shared a tent with Lt. Michael Navarro. They called their tents "Bashas", using the Indian word for "living quarters." Here you see the "Three Muskateers."

TheGroup

In this photo, presented courtesy of the Wergin family, you see the "Basha mates." Left to right, you have Lt. Gerry Wergin, eyes closed with that interminable grin on his face, Lt. Ken Mosely, hair disheveled, and Lt. Mike Navarro, apparently ready to make a Hollywood movie as the leading man. Mosely's nickname was "Pistol Packing Mama," in part because of the way he wore his 45 pistol in his shoulder holster, and partly because of the way he treated his fellow basha mates. Navarro was known as the "Nicaraguan Air Marshal." They called Wergin, "Junior." Wergin says he got that name because he was the youngest guy in the squadron.

Navarro's P-40 was known as "Jealous Lil," named after his wife. Mosely's was "Pistol Packing Mama," and Wergin named his "Miss Beverly III" after his red-headed sweetheart back home. We do not have the accompanying nose art, but we urge you to spend time some day searching the net for WWII noseart. It's just terrific stuff.

NavarroPatch
There are a few things we'd like to point out from the photo above. First, note their tent is elevated by small logs, offering some protection from the heavy rains. And look mom, over Navarro's left shoulder, wash hanging to dry! Do you think the lads did that? But then again, they are at war and their boots are not what they were while aviation cadets. But we really want to zoome on Navarro's flight jacket patch over his left breast.

90thfsLogo
Each of the squadrons had their own patch. This was the 90th's. The black and white bear swinging a left uppercut showed the fighting spirit of the squadron during a time of intense combat against the Japanese. The stars represent the strength of America and the power of its attacks against the Japanese. It was approved by the Army on January 19, 1945, but the boys of the 90th needed a patch long before then, designed it, and wore it, knowing that the Army would catch up. That's why we have officers: to make those kinds of decisions!

Lt. Wergin was credited with his first combat mission flying a P-40N-1, tail number 42-104580, on February 28, 1944. He was tasked to conduct local air patrols, guarding against enemy air attacks against bases in the Assam Valley, and available to assist if fighters escorting transports needed help in a hurry. As an aside, shortly after Wergin flew this P-40, it was transferred to a sister squadron and was involved in two crashes, one on takeoff, one on landing. We're not sure what happened to it thereafter.

Many USAAF fighters flew defensive patrols to protect their bases because, in China, where fighters were introduced early on in the war, too many bases had experienced surprise attacks and they could barely get their fighters airborne to meet the enemy. The problem with having to run these patrols was they ate up scarce fighter resources.

Japanese "Sally" bombers and "Oscar" fighters were a constant threat to the bases.

Sally

Mitsubishi Ki-21 Japanese Air Force "Sally." Presented by the Jacques Tempe Collection.

The "Sally" was a Mitsubishi Ki-21 five crew heavy bomber and was Japan's most important bomber, especially in the CBI. She had one 12.7 mm machine-gun in the dorsal turret, four hand-held 7.7 mm guns in the nose, and a remote controlled 7.7 mm gun in the tail. So she had some guns, and a group in formation would be a threat to men like Wergin. The good news was old Sally could only lumber along at about 300 mph after dropping her load, slower if you caught her fully loaded, so a P-40 could run all around her.

Oscar

Nakajima Ki-43-I "Oscar" from the first Chutaï, 50th Sentai (fighter regiment), pictured in Burma, date unknown. Presented by Aircraft of the Second World War

The "Oscar" was manufactured by the Nakajima Company and was the most widely used Japanese fighter. How many and what type of canons she carried depended on the model you faced, ranging from 7.7 mm to 12.7 mm guns. It wasn't until the Allies started capturing these on the ground that they understood her full capabilities. Her big problem was she was slow, with max speed at about 308 mph. Early in the war, she enjoyed air superiority, but as US and British fighters arrived, she quickly succumbed to their speed and agility, and, of course, better pilots!

Here's where all that aerobatic training, starting with Wausau's Archie Towle, and the capacity to envision the world in three dimensions paid off for Wergin. He could bob and weave his way through all the gun fire and work on these guys.

Wergin arrived on the battle scene at a very crucial time. Prior to his arrival, the 80th FG had focused on defending the air bases and escorting the transports over the hump. You will recall we said the 80th's fourth squadron, the 459th, arrived in September 1943 with the P-38 "Lightning." The 459th was stationed far to the south in the Chittagong area, very close to the Bay of Bengal and closer to Japanese occupied Rangoon, a major port and the capital of Burma. The 459th started flying ground attack missions against Japanese forces mainly in southern Burma, and then sent a few aircraft up north to do the same there. The rest of the 80th followed suit up north, attacking airfields, supply depots, troop concentrations, and bridges, especially rail bridges. In other words, they started taking the fight to the enemy instead of being in the defensive mode.

There were many important reasons this had to happen. Lt. Wergin arrived at his base at Jorhat in February 1944, right as the 80th FG began a robust effort to capture the major Japanese air and logistics base at Myitkyina. Initially, Wergin flew combat air patrols and reconnaissance, while the more seasoned pilots started attacking ground and air targets inside and over Burma. But even pilots nicknamed "Junior" are not given much time to become "seasoned." In March 1944, just one month after arriving, he started flying against Japanese targets inside Burma. By April 5, Wergin was seasoned enough and he joined in on the bombing and strafing missions almost on a daily basis. The history of what went on here is some of the most fascinating of the war. We will give you a taste for it here.

IndiaBurmaCombatMapB

This map depicts the Japanese ground threat to India and the Allied objectives in northern Burma. It also nicely depicts the terrain issues. Note the red box around Jorhat; that was Gerry Wergin's first base and the first base for his squadron, the 90th FS. The map was supplied by Thomas Davis of the 745th Railway Operating Battalion, headquartered at the time at Mariani, Assam, India. The map was presented by CBI Hump Pilot

You've seen this map before. Initially, Wergin was stationed at Jorhat, marked by the red box in the upper left. The objective was the Japanese base at Myitkyina, marked by the red box to the right. The main region of battle was in the area marked by the green box, the Hukaung Valley. You can see arrows marked "allies" within that box pointed toward Myitkyina, the objective. Also note the areas of Imphal and Kohima, India, to the south and southwest of Jorhat. The Japanese attacked into India with the objective of destroying British and Indian forces at both locations. So you've got the allies heading down the Hukaung Valley to Myitkyina to support construction of the Ledo Road and resupply China by land, and the Japanese are attacking into India's Assam Valley to defeat the British there and shut down the allied airfields.

But why was Myitkyina so important?

LedoRoad


From where FDR sat, helping Chiang Kai-shek get the Japanese out of China was a very high priority. That was partly due to the fact that FDR needed Chiang to prevail in China. The communists led by Mao Tse Tung were also fighting the Japanese, but FDR reckoned that once the Japanese were destroyed, Mao would be a threat, to wit, support had to be given to Chiang.

Chinese forces were fighting the Japanese inside China and in Burma. The US provided the overwhelming amount of air support in terms of resupply and ground attack, but very few ground forces. The Japanese occupation force in Burma had shut down the Burma Road supply route from Rangoon and the sea to Kunming, China, plus the Japanese owned northeastern China and much of the China's eastern coastline. Chiang's forces were cut off from the world.

A plan was devised to build a new section of the Burma Road that would enable ground shipments from India to China. This new section was called the Ledo Road, also known as "Stilwell's Road," in far northern Burma, shown in red. Building this link was crucial, because far more supplies can be moved by ground far more cheaply than by air.

You can see Myitkyina lies at the rail head from Rangoon, which made it a major Japanese logistics center. Please recall that the Japanese were attacking into India against Kohima and Imphal. If the allies took Myitkyina, the Japanese attacking in India would have no source of supplies. Myitkyina also served as an air base from which to attack transport flights over the hump. And, it was about halfway from Ledo, India to the junction of the Burma Road that ran through China. In short, Myitkyina had to be taken, virtually at all costs.

PicksEngineers

Pick's engineers, many, many of whom were African-American troops, on the Ledo Road, here building the first gravel screen to be used on the construction project. Presented by the US Army.

PickLewis
Major General Lewis A. Pick, an Army engineer, had the task of building the Ledo Road. The problem was that the Japanese threat had to be removed from the planned route in order for Pick's engineers to build the road. These engineers literally built the road while ground and air forces were clearing out the Japanese ahead of them, around them, and above them

There were two groups of ground forces charged to clear the way. The first were smaller unconventional forces, the second more massive comventional forces.

MaraudersJungle

Men of 3rd Battalion, 5307th, "Merrill's Marauders," patrol jungle near Walawbum, Burma, prior to attack, March 1944. Photo credit Lt. David Lubin, presented by Marauders.org, a "must-see" site to see what these men did and endured.

The unconventional ground forces consisted of British General Wingate's "Chindits," mostly Indian, and US General Merrill's Marauders, nearly all American. Merrill's force was virtually the only US ground force in Burma; they were put together following Wingate's model. Together, these special forces operated behind enemy lines, disrupting Japanese movements, conducting reconnaissance, building air fields, and rescuing downed pilots.

FighterCoverTroops

A P-40 lets Chinese troops know he's there, for them, while they are on the march to battle. Photo drawn from Ledo Road, the China-Burma-India Theater of World War II, by Carl Warren Weidenburner in honor of his father.

The conventional ground forces were almost completely Chinese and were commanded by US Army General "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, one of the more colorful, effective, and controversial generals in the theater.

StilwellMrrill

General "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell (left) meets with General Merrill, said to be good friends. Department of the Army photo, presented by the US Army.

So, the Ledo Road had to be built. Myitkyina had to be taken and the Japanese evicted from that area for that road to make its way to the Burma Road. It also had to be taken to cut off Japanese supplies for all those forces stationed in northern Burma, especially those attacking to the west into India. The Chindits and Merrill's Marauders would work from behind enemy lines to prepare the battlefield, Stilwell's Chinese forces along with Burmese Kachin guerrillas would take on the Japanese on the ground, and the 10th AAF, the 80th FG included, would support all that with air-to-ground attack, bombing and strafing. Lt. Gerald Wergin and his colleagues were right in the middle of one of the most important battles of the war.

From April 1944 forward, Wergin's flying career in the CBI consisted mostly of bombing and strafing runs. As the battle progressed, airfields were either captured in Burma or the unconventional guys built fields "good enough" to use. Home-based at Jorhat, India, part or all of the 80th FG extended their reach by operating from fields inside Burma for some time, and, as mentioned earlier, Lt. Wergin started using fields in Burma in March 1944.

BansheeP40Takeoff

Men watch Burma Banshee P40 aircraft take off from small dirt strip in Burma, June 1944. This aircraft has been misidentified by some as a Flying Tiger P40. It is not. It is a Banshee. Note the aircraft parked off to the left. It's an L-5, used largely for reconnaissance. Photo credit: Presented by Marauder.org

To make a long and complex story short, Merrill's Marauders along with several Chinese regiments made it to Myitkyina and took the airfield on May 17, 1944. That's the good news. The bad news was that a larger-than-expected Japanese force was dug in the town of Myitkyina and was able to reinforce. Merrill's forces owned the airfields but lacked the capacity to engage in a siege of the town. Allied Aircraft began flying in and out of the field but it was dangerous business. The British defeated the Japanese at Imphal and Kohima, but were unable to reinforce Merrill. As a result, Merrill's Marauders were ordered to stay and hold their line. By the grace of God and through unparalleled heroism, Merrill's Marauders were able to cut off Japanese supply lines coming from the southeast. That enabled the Chinese forces with Merrill's people to destroy the Japanese in the city, but not until August 1944, or three months later.

Myitkyina

Using only these small howitzers the Marauders helped lay siege to Myitkyina from May through to its final capture, as best they could, along with their attached Chinese regiments, all together losing about 75 men per day, many to malaria, dysentery and scrub typhus. Department of the Army photo presented by Michigan History Magazine

Throughout, Lt. Wergin and his colleagues attacked, attacked, and attacked from the air, shutting down the rail line coming in, providing air cover for the ground forces engaged, and taking down any Japanese aircraft that attempted to intercede. Myitkyina was won, Merrill's Marauders were almost completely decimated by combat and disease, but in the end they prevailed. Their unit, one of the most heralded in our history, had to be retired and the remnants blended into another. This was the largest seizure of enemy-held territory since Burma had been captured and occupied by the Japanese.

In the middle of all this, in June 1944 the 80th FG began taking delivery of the P-47D "Thunderbolt II," other wise known as "The Jug." So the pilots had to transition to the P-47 in the middle of one of the biggest fights of the CBI war. While the Thunderbolt was a big looking hog compared to the sleeker P-40, she had longer legs and could strike targets at greater distances, and she could fly faster and higher.

Lt. Wergin started flying the P-47D in July 1944. He now had 2,430 horses at his fingertips, could jack her up to a max speed of 433 mph and cruise at 350, he could take her up to 42,000 feet and fly her for 1,030 miles total range. He carried six to eight .50 cal machine guns, and could carry ten rockets or 2,500 lbs of bombs. The aircraft he flew were from Block 23, so he had a bigger and better propeller that gave him more climb power, and he had better wings to carry more fuel drop tanks. He had a jettisonable cockpit canopy, a bullet-proof windshield, and he could carry more fuel inboard. And, for those who preferred to dive bomb to reduce their vulnerability, she was a "diver," better than most anything out there. There was just one catch. There were only six inches clearance between his propeller blade tips and the ground, so the aircraft had his full attention on takeoffs and landings!

If you will refer back to the maps, the 80th FG was now able to attack all the way out to Lashio, Burma, south of where the Ledo would connect with the Burma Road. As a result, construction engineers were afforded greater safety as they built the Ledo Road to its junction with the Burma Road to the north.

Just to remind you, here's a Banshee P-40 on takeoff that Wergin used to fly:

Takeoff

And here's the P-47 Jug:

P47

If you'd like a better sense for "the Jug," here's a great photo of 5 ft. 6 in. Lt. Gerry Wergin proudly standing next to his hog, followed by his giving a thumbs up saddled in that beast (both photos courtesy of the Wergin family).

WerginStandP47

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By the end of July 1944, with US and RAF aircraft flying in and out of Myitkyina at will, 80th FG pilots started using a bunch of fields in Burma, also pretty much at will.

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Map presented by multimap.com, a great place for finding the "hard to find" places in our world.

One of these was Tingkawk Sakan. The field is located in the heart of Hukaung Valley in Burma, marked by the red box in the center of the above map. Home base at Jorhat is marked by a red box to the west, and the target, Myitkyina, is marked by the red box to the southeast. We are very lucky to have a photo of the field from the air, provided courtesy of the Wergin family.

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You can see how it has literally been cut out of the woods. It was a 4000 foot gravel runway carved out of a 200 foot high teak forest with temperatures above 100 degrees. You can see what we mean to use care when calling it a "base."

Wergin used the Tingkawk Sakan field a lot during from September through the end of the year, flying his bombing and strafing missions from there. We believe his entire squadron and perhaps even the entire group moved there. Indeed many fighter and bomber squadrons were moving into Burma as they beat back the Japanese. In Wergin's case, not only did he have a fighter that could fly higher, faster, and farther, but now he was considerably closer to the main target and therefore able to clear out enemy from there and all around there. Of course, the risk of being attacked at this airfield was higher. There's always a tradeoff.

In October 1944, one year after graduating from pilot training at Craig Field in Alabama, one year after being commissioned a 2nd Lt "Butter Bar," with close to 80 combat missions in the CBI tucked under his belt, and having been exposed to some of the harshest and most incredible history of our times, Wergin was promoted to 1st Lt, no long a "Butter Bar," and certainly no longer a "Newbie." They still called him "Junior," but there was no "rookie" here.

And no sitting on one's laurels of a promotion either. Wergin continued a heavy bombing and strafing schedule through April 1945.

In January 1945, the 80th FG and the 90th FS moved into the Myitkyina airfield. The 89th squadron had already moved in during September 1944. The arrival of the 90th and several other flying units meant that the 10th AAF now had air superiority over northern Burma, and the end was in sight for the Japanese in Burma, though as was the case throughout the Pacific, they continued fighting fiercely.

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The first convoy to China has exited Burma and is entering Wanting near the Chinese border, where a celebration ceremony is held, January 28, 1945. US National Archives, presented by the Myanmar Government.

Starting on Christmas 1944, the American civil engineers and Chinese ground divisions began their major push to finish the Ledo Road and link it to the Burma Road. The link-up was achieved on January 27, 1945. Confident of victory, General Pick assembled a 113 vehicle convoy and left India on the new Ledo Road on January 12. They reached Myitkyina three days later, on January 15, and had to stop while ground and air forces finished some business with the Japanese. The convoy left again on January 23 and arrived in Kunming, China on February 4, 1945, amidst grand jubilation. The road was open, wide-open, and the Japanese were on their way out. The road has been named the Ledo Road and the Stilwell Road, but the engineers who built it called it "Pick's Pike."

There is some debate about the importance of this road opening. Soon after it was opened, Chiang Kai-shek saw that the Allies had the Japanese on the run throughout the Pacific, so he turned his attention to fighting the civil war against the Communist, Mao Tse Tung. The road was not used as extensively as had been anticipated. And, of course, the war ended in August 1945, just about six months after the road opened. But with the opening of this road came the liberation of Burma. The Japanese fell back to Mandalay in the country's center, Chinese forces began marching southward down the Burma Road, the Japanese were defeated in central Burma, and on May 3, 1945, the 26th Indian Division, with no resistance, took back Rangoon. A victory parade was held on June 14, 1945 in Rangoon. The war ended one month later.

Lt. Wergin flew his last combat mission on April 16, 1945, aboard a P-47D23. His squadron was then moved to the safety of Chabua in southern India. There he bounced around among a variety of aircraft from UC-78s, AT-6Ds, P47s from April 18 until his final flight on July 12. He noted that they practiced a lot of low level navigation and assumed they were doing that in case Allied forces had to invade Japan. The fliers in Burma were mentally preparing to fly to fields in eastern China for the onslaught of the Japanese home islands.

Either in late May or sometime during June 1945, 1st Lt Wergin was promoted to captain, which means he's been there and done that, now in the senior class of junior officers.

On July 22, 1945, the 10th AAF issued Special Order No. 203 which ordered young Capt. Wergin, now 22, to report to Replacement Depot #2 US Forces India Burma Theater, for earliest transportation to the USA! Wergin was not on the base when these orders came through, and had to catch up with the rest of his mates to take her on home.

We'd like to conclude our report in a section that is mostly a photo gallery:
The chums "over there" and the trip home, a funny conclusion to their war.