The Paw Paw River Journal
Another hump pilot comes home
I figured that the rest of our men who lost their lives flying the Hump in WWII would forever sleep the Big Sleep in that mountain fastness. But not so! Just recently I received a letter from Ken Sutton over Marshall way, and in it he had a most interesting news story. They found another one of our guys! The story appeared in the “ad-visor & chronicle” over there on November 26 of this year under the byline of Shelley Sulser.
1st. Lt. Frederick Langhorst was a handsome guy. The article had a picture of him. He had a daughter, Gail, who was 6 months old when his C-109 went down over the Hump in Northeastern India. So she never knew him, but she always wanted to find out what happened on that day.
I know the area where he crashed and it is indeed wild. I also know a little about the aircraft he was flying, although I never piloted one. It was a conversion of the 4-engine B-24 bomber. The only person I knew who flew in them was Dayne Kline, whose brother is a Pennsylvania friend. I was somewhat surprised to learn how many of those bombers were being used in the China, Burma and India Theater. One came through and landed at Sookerting, our base, to gas up. They were headed for action against the Japanese. Now picture this: they had a full crew, all of their luggage, full armament, including belts and belts of machine gun ammo. And they were over the load limit for takeoff, I am sure.
They slowly rolled out to the runway. The pilots ran through their preflight, checked all four engines, and then paused. We had all come out to watch. Thereafter, did they leap up into the sky? No—both pilots stood hard on the brakes while they revved up all four engines to full throttle. Flaps down, low pitch, and the fuel mixture at full rich, they trundled down the runway, slowly gaining speed. Through the open side windows, with fingers crossed, we could see the waist gunners almost trying to lift the plane themselves.
With all four engines howling, the long wings slowly straightened from their taxiing droop, and the big bird felt for open sky. Runway sped by. With both pilots pulling back on the controls, the bomber lifted, settled, and then became airborne. At the edge of the field they retracted the landing gear so it would clear the fence. Then the plane settled over a slight hill and out of sight, wallowing along.
We all waited for the crash, but the engines kept on roaring, fainter, then louder as they swept around in a wide circle just above the treetops. Back they came over the field, still clawing for altitude. And we could still see the gunners as they roared past. Several times they circled, slowly gaining altitude, and then set a course easterly for China and glory. We all heaved a sigh of relief.
Some other converted B-24s were stationed throughout the area… The C-87 was a cargo conversion, and then there was the infamous C-109. I only know about them because a friend from Aviation Cadet days was flying them… I met him one time somewhere on a trip. Only thing I remember about him… his trembling hands and haunted look. He said he was flying Liberators converted into giant gas tankers (the C-109). They carried loads of 100 octane across the Hump, just as we did. Only ours were in drums and could be dumped out the cargo door in case of emergency.
Those B-24 guys had no such option. Their tanks were built into the bomb bays and could only be emptied through vent valves. That plane’s official designation was the C-109, but we facetiously referred to it as the “C-One-O-Boom!” And as much as I disliked the dirty weather through which we sometimes flew, I felt even sorrier for my friend who had nervous twitches from his runs to China in the C-109.
When Lt. Langhorst’s remains were sent back finally for burial, there was no one left who knew him personally or had seen him. His daughter, Gail, was 6 months old when his plane went down, and she had always wondered about the father she would never know. Her mother had remarried and she had half-siblings. But now her mom was gone, and also her stepfather.
Frederick’s return got the full treatment. Gail said she wished she could have told her mom, but now she was gone, so in Heaven they had probably already swapped stories anyway! His body came in by air at Gerald R. Ford Airport in Grand Rapids and was escorted by State Police and Patriot Guard Bikers to the local funeral home. There were flag lines at the airport and at the funeral home. A fitting welcome for one of our lost airmen!
Gail said she planned to have his remains cremated and keep the urn by her until she can get over and have it interred with his parents. And another hero has come home. Thanks to Ken Sutton I got to read about him. And I often think about all the guys who flew over there in Asia. I heard that about 500 planes and crews were lost over the Hump. How many of them are still sleeping The Big Sleep in that mountain fastness we may never know. And the heroes, like Buster McCombs, who have turned to coral in the ocean depths. And the rows upon rows of lost husbands, sons, and loved ones who are buried in cemeteries all over the world. They will never hold a wife, play with a 6-month-old child, or watch a sunset!
Think of them, and perhaps send up a prayer as we lucky ones continue to weave golden threads into the tapestry of our lives in these story book towns across America!