Ernest Chester, 93, of Carle Place is one of the...

Ernest Chester, 93, of Carle Place is one of the few remaining pilots whose dangerous mission during World War II was bringing supplies to Chinese and American soldiers fighting the Japanese. (Jan. 6, 2011) Credit: Newsday / Jessica Rotkiewicz

There aren't many left like Ernest Chester: A veteran of the U.S. Army Air Corps, Chester had been stationed in India, where he flew over the Himalayas, supplying ammunition, fuel, vehicles and other necessities to Chinese and American soldiers fighting the Japanese during World War II.

Often flying imperiled himself - by weather, problematic navigation and the threat of enemy fire - the Carle Place resident is one of a few remaining veterans who flew "The Hump," a treacherous aerial route.

Now 93, Chester still recalls the exhilaration of being able to fly, and the drama of the life-and-death missions.Chester's cargo included ammunition, fuel, vehicles and other necessities to Chiang Kai-shek's soldiers.

"Sometimes we flew peasants who were going to fight in the war," says Chester, a former president of the now-defunct China-Burma-India Hump Pilots Association.

The organization conducted its last reunion in 2005. "There aren't many of us left," said Chester, a widower since 2004.

Chester became a Hump pilot after the United States took the missions over in 1942. Until then, the Chinese government had hired American mercenary pilots to fly supplies from India to China after the land routes were compromised, according to Larry Starr, assistant manager of the American Airpower Museum in Farmingdale. These mercenaries, officially The American Volunteer Group, were known as "The Flying Tigers."


Getting his start

Chester, who had always wanted to fly, had passed the military pilots' exam before 1942 but didn't meet the other requirements. The 24-year-old also had taken and passed the New York Police Department exam and joined the NYPD. "I didn't have the two years of college to be a cadet" at the flight academy, says Chester, the son of Polish immigrants. "After Pearl Harbor, they waived the college requirement and allowed me to sign up as a cadet."

The waiver applied to all recruits, in fact, including those assigned to those round-the-clock supply flights so essential to successfully combating the estimated 500,000 Japanese soldiers occupying China at that time.

By the end of the war, nearly 500,000 successful missions had been flown over the Hump, say historians of Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii, which is commissioned to retrieve U.S. military remains around the world.

Chester flew 80 round-trip flights during his 18-month tour of duty. Each 6-plus-hour one-way flight was part of a 24-hour-a-day mission of C-46 and C-47 cargo planes flying across a treacherous route. "There was no place to stop if you had trouble," Chester says, adding that the temperature dropped 5 degrees with each 1,000 feet of altitude. Pilots routinely flew at between 18,000 and 20,000 feet.

"It was so cold that ice would freeze up on your face," he said.


'A flying bomb'

The cargo included "27 50-gallon drums of 100-percent octane fuel, and the fumes would fill the plane," he said. He described it as "a flying bomb waiting to explode."

The crew consisted of a pilot, co-pilot, crew chief and radio operator. "Eventually they got rid of the radio guy because you were out of communication range almost the whole time. They decided we didn't need one," he said. "And if you had a problem, there was nothing to do but crash" because the mountainous terrain or dense jungles didn't make for safe landings.

The China-Burma-India Hump Pilots Association website says that by the end of operations in November 1945, nearly 600 supply planes had crashed during the 31/2-year effort with more than 1,300 crewmen listed as dead or missing in action. Bodies still are being recovered by the JPAC, including five in 1994 and one in 2002. JPAC says 2,536 planes (supply and fighter) crashed during CBI operations. While nearly 1,200 remains have been found since the end of the war, JPAC says nearly 1,700 remains are still unaccounted for.

Chester still has - and can fit into - his leather flight jacket. On the back of each crewman's jacket was a Chinese flag and a message written in Chinese telling the finder to assist the wearer by bringing him to the authorities in any large city for a reward.

"I still got a lot of friends lost under 10 feet of snow in those mountains," says Chester, who retired in the early 1980s from the insurance business and only goes in sporadically to the office that was taken over by youngest son, Bruce.

And, he still has his flight map showing the two routes a pilot could take: "The single man's route - that was faster but took you over enemy fire longer. And the married man's route - longer, but you spent less time over enemy fire. I flew the married man's route." He and his sweetheart, Marion Silva DeMartini of Brooklyn, had married after he graduated from the flight academy in November 1942.

Chester remembers one flight when the danger came from within: "We were transporting a bunch of peasants [from the Chinese countryside] to go fight. These guys were right out of the fields. They had on these padded jackets and sandals. It was cold.

"There was a sudden payload shift in the back of the plane. I told the co-pilot to go check. He comes back and tells me these peasants were trying to light a coal fire to heat some tea to warm up. They were basically trying to light a fire on a sheet of aluminum, 'cause that's what we were made of."

Chester said that routinely he had to fly by dead reckoning, plotting the course on a map and estimating flying time and speed to determine the course. Below the 500-mile flight was a continuous line of snow-capped mountains or dense jungle. "You just had to figure out what angle you were supposed to fly and stick to it," Chester says.

After the war, Chester took up his father-in-law's offer of help to start a business, and he opened an insurance firm. He and Marion had a daughter, Joan, in 1945 and a son, Frank, in 1948. Another son, Bruce, was born in 1952. Chester eventually re-enlisted during the Korean War.

Sitting recently in his den, where his medals and other memorabilia are on display, Chester said that for him, an even more enduring legacy of his service is the realization of a childhood dream.

"I still remember the first time my flight instructor took me up," remembers Chester of a 24-year-old's excitement. "I look out and see the ground below me fading away. I think to myself, 'I'm flying, I'm flying!' It was the greatest feeling in the world."

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