Presentation Date: May 24, 2007
Lt. Leonard Komor
Air Transport Command Pilot flying "the Hump" Air Transport Command Pilot flying "the Hump" “We lost 12,000 pilots and airmen on the Hump in the four years of its operation. So you can imagine what kind of weather we had, because there was very little shooting going on.”
Leonard Komor was born December 25, 1917 in Shanghai, China, the son of a Hungarian consul living in the Western sector of that river city. Leonard says his father had mastered six languages, and ran a business that exported pig bristles and hides to the San Francisco Bay Area.
Komor began his talk at the May Golden Gate Wing meeting with a brief history of the “opening up of China” to foreign trade, a process the Chinese resisted with three 18th-century wars, ending in the concession to foreigners of a sleepy little fishing village on the Huangpu River. A portion of the little village was set aside as a foreign sector, occupied by merchants, their consulates and the infrastructure for trade. The sleepy fishing village would become the huge city now known as Shanghai, the center of commerce for all of China.
Aiming to be an engineer, Leonard went to a high school in the German sector of Shanghai, which allowed him, on a student visa, to attend the University of California, Berkeley. In 3-1/2 years, he graduated with his bachelor’s degree in electrical and mechanical engineering.
Returning to Shanghai in 1940, Komor became a machine gunner in the Shanghai Volunteers Corps. The Japanese had invaded Manchuria in 1931, and by 1937 had begun trying to conquer the rest of China. While the Japanese sector of Shanghai became a base for Japanese military units fighting in Central China, Komor took turns doing guard duty on the other side of barbed wire.
In 1940, Komor was contracted to do engineering work for an American company that had bought the Shanghai Power Company, located in the Japanese sector. Every day he rode a bus across Soochow Creek separating the Japanese from the rest of the foreign sector.
But by late November 1941, six months into his new job, Leonard decided he wanted to quit the company. Concerned that the Japanese would escalate their war aims and he would be stranded on the wrong side of the fence in Shanghai, Komor planned to go to the United States, obtain a regular visa and return to Shanghai to work at the power plant on a permanent basis.
Because American ships were banned from China’s coast due to a trade embargo against Japan, Komor boarded a Dutch ship for the Philippines. At Manila, Komor got aboard the President Coolidge, a luxury liner loaded with women and children fleeing from the impending Pacific War. Leaving Manila Harbor, the President Coolidge grounded on an uncharted sandbank, bending a blade on one of her propellers.
Komor says he heard first there would be a delay for repairs, but after a U.S. Navy captain met with the liner’s captain, it was announced the ship would sail “right away.”
“When we came to the exit from Manila Bay, the U.S. Navy opened the submarine nets between Correigidor and Bataan to let us out. And out there, waiting for us, was the USS Houston, which would be destroyed 11 days later by the Japanese at the Battle of Sunda Strait.”
Komor says the first morning out he thought it strange the ship convoy was heading south rather than east. On the top deck was a galvanized steel cage holding two Panda bears, on its way from Madame Chiang Kai-shek to the Washington Zoo, a gift from China to the American people.
He also noticed some crewmembers painting the ship superstructure white.
“After five or six days, coming up to the deck to see the bears being fed bamboo shoots, here was the crew painting the superstructure grey... I wonder what happened. The date was December the 8th. It was December the 7th in Pearl Harbor.
“The captain came on the horn and said the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. They didn’t know where the Japanese fleet was. We were on a course from Manila to Pearl Harbor. He changed course in order to avoid where the Japanese fleet may be. After two or three days it was clarified (where the Japanese Navy was) and we came into Pearl Harbor five days after the attack. You can imagine what we saw. It was incredible, absolutely incredible… the destruction.”
Recognizing the threat to his parents inherent in the expanding war, and hoping to personally help them by the war’s end, Komor decided to become a pilot. He enlisted first as an airplane mechanic, graduated top man in his class from mechanic school, and was made a U.S. citizen in Wichita Falls, Texas. With those two hurdles overcome, Komor applied for pilot training, was immediately granted his request and progressed through basic flight training in California.
Advanced training, flying the UC-78, was at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. It was there that Komor survived a night-landing incident with stuck main landing gear in one of the twin-engine planes. Komor was told to find the toolbox on board, which he did, only to find it missing the tools he needed. While his co-pilot kept circling, burning off fuel, Komor found a metal plate on the wooden wing spar and pried it off with a fire axe. He disconnected the electric drive system from the landing gear, and then manually cranked down the landing gear.
“When the operation was over at about 2:00 a.m., we came in for a landing and the airplane was not hardly damaged at all. We just got the wingtip and one of the props because we ground-looped it.”
Komor had asked to fly the Hump, and upon graduation he was assigned to the 14th Service Group. Arriving at his new base in Florida, Komor noticed the two gate guards were Chinese-Americans. He quickly discovered the whole base was filled with men of Chinese heritage. As a graduate engineer who spoke Chinese and German, Komor had been placed in the middle of a training camp tasked with turning the men, within a five-month time span, into aircraft mechanics for the China/Burma/India (CBI) Theater of Operations. The program had been conceived by Chiang Kai-shek, presented to and approved by President Roosevelt.
“Some of them were Chinese-American and could speak English. Some of them were Chinese who had come from China, and didn’t speak hardly any English. And we were going to make airplane mechanics out of them?
“I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I started writing letters… and after the third letter I got my wish and was transferred to India.”
Even with his limited flying experience, Komor began flying “the Hump.” The Hump was the name for the 500 miles of Himalayan mountain peaks, obstacles made all the more treacherous to passage by aircraft due blinding snow, thunderstorms, severe updrafts and downdrafts.
“I was in seventh heaven, was doing what I wanted to do, and loved everything about it except for the weather. It was atrocious, absolutely atrocious. I was not an experienced pilot yet. I had a couple of hundred hours, but nothing had taught me how to fight a 50,000 foot thunderstorm.”
“We lost 12,000 pilots and airmen on the Hump in the four years of its operation. So you can imagine what kind of weather we had, because there was very little shooting going on.
“I had never flown in conditions as bad as this. The thunderstorms over the Himalayas were at 50-60 thousand feet. Gen. Harding had stated months before I got there, and there was a sign in our operations center that stated, ‘There’s a war on. Therefore there is no such thing as weather.’ So when the time came, you went.”
Komor recalled a mission one night in which his plane had barely broken ground when there was an explosion:
“Several airplanes had disappeared over the Hump and never been found. Intelligence had told us Japanese sappers had been climbing across the Naga Hills, across the hills where we were in Burma, and placing explosives and destroying airplanes. They set them off once they were up in the air. I didn’t know how they did that, but that way they’d assure the airplane was not going to be flying again.”
“I had barely pulled the wheels up when there was this tremendous explosion in the back end of the airplane. And I immediately remembered the warning to Mita ‘good inspection of the airplane’, which I thought we had made. I declared an emergency and the tower said to come on in. And while I was declaring the emergency, I felt the controls to see if they were still there, and they were still there.
“The minute we had landed and put the airplane on the ground I knew what the problem was.
We had blown out the tail wheel tire when it was retracted into the tail end of the airplane. And in blowing it out, because the doors were shut, it reverberated through the airplane. I thought then that it had taken some of my years of life out of me, but it’s not true because I’m still around and almost 90.
The Air Force of the 1940s had three distinct Commands: Fighter, Bomber and Air Transport. Komor says fighter pilots thought they were special, and jokingly attached an alternative meaning to the initials of Air Transport Command (ATC), calling its pilots “allergic to combat.”
Komor says he endured this indignity until one day, during the monsoon season, when he was flying 44 fighter pilots of the 14th Air Force from Kunming back to Chadwar, India. The pilots had put in their time and were coming home on rotation. About three-quarters of the way to the station where the pilots were to disembark, the cockpit door flew open. The captain in charge of the fighter pilots came storming into the cockpit and told Komor the #2 engine was on fire.
“That got my attention and I asked the co-pilot to look out the window. He did and said there was a big cloud of smoke out there. I looked at the oil gauge for that engine and the oil pressure was going down rapidly, and it was not a fire, but was oil from the engine.
Komor feathered the engine and trimmed the airplane for single-engine flight. The captain returned to the back end of the plane, where everyone was silent, sat down and said nothing more himself, while the pilot-in-charge wrestled the airplane down and made a GCA landing.
“It was the worst, positively the worst trip I ever made, and we made lots of lousy ones on the Hump, believe me. The airplane rolled to a stop and I was wet with sweat from wrestling the airplane, being nervous and what have you. We sat on the runway because I could not taxi, because it was one engine. If I’d poured the coals to it, it would have probably gone off the runway, as it was not very wide.”
Komor says the door opened again and the captain said, ‘Lieutenant, you did one helluva job. I want to thank you very much. It was a great landing and you sure handled this airplane very well. I want you to have this.’
The captain handed Komor a Zippo lighter. Komor didn’t smoke, but he has always kept it as a reminder of why flying “is for the birds. It’s tough.”
On one mission to Chengtou, Komor was transporting forty 55-gallon drums of gasoline tied down to the cargo deck of a C-46. Suddenly his co-pilot noticed an airplane was following them. The Japanese were only 200 miles away at Michina, Burma.
“We had no fighter escort. That’s why I figured if I was allergic to combat, to hell with that. I wasn’t afraid of anybody. I had nothing to fight with. So why would I be allergic to combat?”
Komor moved the tail of the C-46, and he saw a twin-engine aircraft following his plane. As that plane drew closer he recognized the unmistakable silhouette of a B-25. As the medium bomber pulled up alongside Komor’s plane, someone stuck a camera out of a window and took a picture of the C-46.
“At the time, I wondered, what’s going on here. Of course a B-25 is much faster than a C-46 filled with forty drums of gasoline onboard. Then, he disappeared and I thought I’d never find out what it was all about.”
Twenty-five years later, when Komor was an electrical engineer for GTE Sylvania, a sales manager for the company had a picture of a C-46 hanging on the wall of his Massachusetts home. Closer examination showed the plane carried the identification number “596”, the number of the C-46 Komor had been flying the day the B-25 came alongside. He found out the GTE sales manager had been in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in China during World War II, and had a duty to reward the natives in Burma and China with bags of salt for aircrew. The salt would be distributed to villages passing the aircrew along to safety, with more bags awarded if the crewmen were alive.
“I asked him if I could have a copy of the photo…25 years after the photo was taken. And that’s quite a coincidence.”
In August 1945, while flying over Agra, India, Komor heard on the radio that “a device” had been dropped on Hiroshima and that the war would soon be over. When he landed after that mission, Komor requested a transfer to any operation flying to Shanghai, so that he could find his parents. His request was granted.
Flying to Tasgaon, India, Komor was amazed to see about 100 C-54 cargo planes. With the pending Japanese surrender, the Air Transport Command was to deliver the Nationalist Chinese 8th Division to Shanghai before Chinese Communist troops arrived there. Komor says Colonel Andrew Cannon personally told him to load “training equipment” (in actuality, a pallet of food, “procured” from the commissary) aboard one of the C-54s, which Leonard could deliver to his family.
Assigned to fly as second pilot on the mission, Komor soon saw how the 14th Air Force had smashed Japanese planes, hangars and facilities at the airport in Shanghai. He also had a front row seat to witness the Japanese surrender at the airbase. Komor had been left on board the C-54 to do paperwork, and had a perfect vantage point:
“Here’s this long table with the Japanese on one side and our officers on the other side. The Japanese commander ceremoniously handed his sword to our colonel in the symbolic surrender. But I had no camera. I could have been a wealthy man had I taken that picture.”
Colonel Cannon then gave Komor the opportunity he’d been hoping for, to check on his parents. He was able to commandeer two Japanese Army cars—a 1940 Cadillac and a 1939 LaSalle, both converted to crude charcoal-burning vehicles—to carry himself and the pallet of food.
Leonard rode as passenger in the Cadillac. With the Imperial Chrysanthemum on the Cadillac’s hood and the Japanese officer he was riding with, the cars were able to navigate streets through still-armed Japanese soldiers.
Nearing the YMCA by his parents’ home, Komor recognized a white man sitting on the curb. It was Jim Walsh, a former employee of a company that made ice cream and milk for Shanghai’s foreign citizens.
“I got out in the street near his feet and said, ’Hi, Jim. This is Leonard.’ “
Komor says Walsh looked at him, yelled “Hi, Leonard” back, then sprang to the middle of the street where the two men embraced.
“We were surrounded by a thousand Chinamen, who had never seen an American soldier. We had to spend about 45 minutes disentangling ourselves so I could get on to my Father and Mother’s house.
“The house was just like when I’d left it in 1937, and then again in ‘41. My father was on the second floor of the house… and was looking out the window. He later told me he saw these two Japanese military cars drive up. He had been arrested at the beginning at the war by the Japanese and beaten mercilessly. For six months he was in very poor health and never did fully recover from this.
“I got out of the car and started walking the driveway from the road to the house. I got halfway up there, took my hat off and looked up there and said, ‘Hello, Dad.’ He disappeared from the window. My mother was sitting on the couch in the living room with this friend of hers, and she said my father came storming downstairs and said to her, ‘Our son is here!’
“She thought he’d lost it, excused herself and ran after him, right behind him down the three steps to the driveway. We embraced on the driveway… and a lot of tears were spent, believe me.”
Komor says the family’s long-time Chinese servants joined in the homecoming “cry-fest”.
“That’s how I got home, how it worked to get past all the hurdles to get there. I can never thank these senior officers enough for their understanding and goodness. And, don’t tell me you can never bend the rules in the Army and the Air Force. You can do it if you have the right people who have the right reason and see the right cause.”
After a month in Shanghai, “working” for Colonel Cannon’s group, orders came to return home. They flew as far as Karachi, India, where they were told to empty the airplanes. The C-54s were being turned over to the Chinese government. Men and gear were hauled to a desert camp about 30 miles away, a camp Komor describes as “a hell hole”.
After two months, the crews were transported to the coast and the Grace liner Santa Rosa for the ocean cruise to New York Harbor. Then came a ride in railroad cattle cars across the United States to home.
“My wife and her parents awaited me at the station, in Berkeley. And now, I was really home.”
Today, Leonard Komor says he used to be a ‘rabid pilot’, but decided he wanted to get older. So he quit flying after having put in some 15,000 hours of time flying for the military, Pan Am Airways and privately.