Himalaya Mountains

Photograph of Himalaya Mountains

U.S. Army. Via

The Himalayas are the highest mountains on Earth, forming an imposing barrier between India and central Asia.  The mountains formed 40 million years ago, when the Indian continental plate collided with Asia.  This collision pushed up the Himalayas and the plateau of Tibet and produced major faults as far north as Lake Baikal in Siberia.  Though little subduction has taken place, due to the similar densities of the two plates, the crust has been warped downwards south of the Himalayas, producing the Ganges valley.

Photograph of air transport and Chinese peasant

U.S. Army. Via

The Allies attempted to supply China by air over "the Hump" (the southeastern Himalayas) from 15 July 1942 onwards. The airlift was first proposed by the Chinese Foreign Minister, T.V. Soong, in a memorandum to Roosevelt on 31 January 1942 in which Soong described the terrain to be crossed as "comparatively level." It was anything but. This costly airlift brought in just a thousand tons in December 1942, but by July 1944 the flow had increased to 18,975 tons per month and peaked in July 1945 at 71,000 tons per month. The wartime total was 650,000 tons, which Huston (1966) points out was equivalent to just two convoys of 35 Liberty ships each.

While this did have some value for supplying American air units in China, it was never sufficient to support the creation of a modern Chinese army. It took 45 pounds per day to supply an American soldier in the Pacific, meaning that the airlift could have supplied the Kuomintang army of 3 million men less than a third the allowance given American soldiers, even if all the aid had gone to ground forces with none stolen or wasted. This also ignores the initial equipment requirement. This was about 4 tons for an American soldier deployed to the Pacific, meaning that the airlift could have equipped just 10,000 Chinese soldiers a month even at an allowance half that for the Americans.

However, the airlift was politically important as a demonstration of American willingness to support China. Chiang's demands, and American commitments, were expressed in terms of tonnages over the Hump. This sometimes created perverse incentives, as when tired ground crews early in the airlift loaded aircraft as rapidly as possible with whatever was at hand, ignoring the priorities set by Chennault and Stilwell. For example, the airlift brought in less than 68% of its tonnage for Chennault as gasoline in May 1943, rather than the 81% he had requested. More astonishing still is that about 9% of the airlife tonnage in the eight months ending in February 1943 was Chinese paper currency printed in the United States under Lend-Lease.

The cost was heavy. Bissell estimated that flying 5000 tons per month into China required 140 aircraft in good weather and 300 during the monsoon. The transports had to fly a minimum of 520 miles (840 km) at a minimum altitude of 16,000' (4900m) of which at least 45 minutes was spent over Japanese-controlled territory. Frequent poor weather meant frequent detours that lengthened the flight and required climbing to as much as 20,000' (6100m). From January 1944 to August 1945, a American life was lost for every 340 tons of cargo delivered. India-China Wing, the command responsible for the airlift, received a Presidential Unit Citation, the first non-combat unit to do so.

The Himalayan airlift had a significant social impact on Yunnan. Kunming, the terminus of the airlift, was the location of Southwest Associated University, which provided much of the intellectual leadership of the Democratic League. The Democratic League was active in anti-Chiang activities.

Photo Gallery

Hump tonnage in 1943

U.S. Army

1944 Hump tonnage

U.S. Army


Hastings (2007)

Huston (1966)
Hsiung and Levine (1992)

Larrabee (1987)

Romanus and Sunderland (1953)

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