Chapman Hale, now 92, was the 22-year-old second lieutenant pilot of the B-25H bomber he flew from S.C. to China. Photo by David Grace.
Chapman “Chap” Hale is modest when he talks about his time in the military during World War II. Hale, who is 92, says, back then, his generation just did what was asked of them.
“We get all this noise about how we were heroes, but that isn’t exactly true. Yes, there were some outstanding individuals. The way things turned out, you did what you were told, and everything usually turned out OK. The reward was survival. What more could you ask for? There were several times that I guess my life was saved by having it built into me to hang on, just hang on. You just keep going. You can’t give up. I think this was so true of so many service people, especially of lower rank, who still did their best. They came home, and they never talked about it. It was never discussed. They had a job to do, and they did it,” Hale said.
By today’s standards, what was asked of Hale in 1943, may seem quite incredible.
Stationed at Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C., Hale was a part of the Army Air Corps Air Transport Command. The United States Air Force did not come into existence until after World War II.
“The mission at that time was training of air crews for replacement,” Hale said. “In World War II, combat crews were rotated back to the U.S. following completion of their combat missions, of course requiring their replacement in the combat theaters.”
Hale said trainees were processed from their first ride in an airplane to a well-qualified pilot for combat in just one year.
“The primary schooling that went in was in old-fashioned bi-planes. One of the objects was to teach you how to fly and the other thing was to make sure you were going to obey the system,” Hale said. “Some of the better pilots were so independent-minded that they couldn’t take it. They used to tell us, ‘There’s a right way and a wrong way and then there’s the Army way.’ We had to do it the Army way. Nevertheless, probably about 30 percent dropped out in the first year. They were either weeded out or dropped out. But that meant you had people left who were going to do what they were supposed to do.”
Prior to his training, Hale says he had never even been in a plane, much less flown one.
“Roughly a year from the day I took my first airplane flight, I was ready to go overseas, fully qualified with a crew,” he said.
Hale was a second lieutenant pilot of a B-25H bomber. This was the only model equipped with a 75 mm cannon and, because of the bulk of the gun, there was no room for a co-pilot. Hale and his crew, which consisted of a bombardier-navigator, two gunners and a tail gunner, were ordered to fly their aircraft from Columbia to China. Hale was only 22 and his crew members’ ages ranged from 17 to 36. Hale recalls feeling a sense of relief when he got his orders and found out he and his crew were headed to China.
“When I found out we weren’t going to Europe, I felt fortunate. If you went to Europe, that was bad news. The Germans were superior gunners. It was an adventure to go all the way to China, but also your chances of survival were good, much better than if you were going to Europe,” Hale said.
The flight, which Hale says took about six weeks to complete, had several legs, including stopovers in Puerto Rico, British Guyana, Brazil, Ascension Island, Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan, Yemen, Misirah Island, Baluchistan, Pakistan, India, and, finally, China.
On all flight legs except from Natal, Brazil to Ascension Island, Hale and his crew flew alone. On that leg, several planes flew in formation and one plane had a celestial navigat o r.
“Ascension Island is only two miles wide and 10 miles long. It’s kind of hard to hit it with no navigation aids. I think we missed it by maybe 10 miles, but that was considered pretty good. After we left Ascension Island and headed to Africa, we were broken up singly again. We were told, ‘Head toward Africa. You can’t miss it,’” Hale said.
With so many different flight legs, Hale says every place was different.
“Some of them were wonderful and some of them weren’t so wonderful,” he said. “Sometimes you’d arrive at a place and the next day off you’d go. We were not in any position to bargain. You sat or you went. But sometimes you had the opportunity to go and visit the local town.”
Hale says he remembers the beaches in Ghana being the most beautiful he had ever seen.
“The sand was snow white and the palm trees were everywhere. It was just absolutely beautiful,” he said. “We got to stay there several days.”
He also remembers experiencing culture shock when they arrived in Aden, Yemen.
“When we got to Aden on the Red Sea, that was the first time we saw Arabs. If you can imagine, thousands of people just being in the streets. Back in those days, they all wore their whites, which was a dirty gray white. I see pictures taken in the Middle East now, and you rarely see anyone dressed like this. But that’s the way they were then, all of them. It was definitely a different culture,” he said.
Looking back, Hale says one of the most amazing things about this journey was the planning that went into it.
“It was a very interesting trip. The logistics were absolutely great. When you showed up in the boondocks somewhere, there was always a fuel truck there and something to eat and a place to sleep. The accidents were few and far between [on assignments like this]. The pilot is just concerned with getting the airplane off the ground and then he starts to immediately think about where he’s going to put it down,” Hale said. “This was what you were trained to do, and you figured it out on the scene. You improvised and learned how to deal with the situation. It was actually kind of a memorable experience.”
Hale said, because he was so focused on getting the plane to its next destination, he didn’t worry too much about his crew.
“All through the rough air turbulence and all the twisting and turning, the poor crew had to take it. But they never complained. They could have called up and said, ‘Lieutenant, you’re being awful rough today.’ But they didn’t. They just did their job, which most of the time was just sitting there,” he said.
Hale says people have asked him how he did it — a young man, with only a year’s worth of training, flying across the globe from South Carolina to China.
“I flew sometimes eight hours by myself with no automatic stuff whatsoever. But I did it because that’s just what you did,” he said.
The only ill effect Hale says he recalls from his journey was bleeding gums.
“When I got to China, we went to a surgeon’s office and my teeth were bleeding badly. I hadn’t had enough vitamins. So, what they did, a dentist treated my gums with silver nitrate, which means the whole gums just came off. But there was never anymore trouble once they healed. I never heard of that treatment anywhere since,” he said.
He also remembers eating lots of rice while in China, which, his wife, Mabel, says, he wouldn’t touch after they got married.
“In China, we would also boil cucumbers and tomatoes for sanitation. Still didn’t do much good because those Chinese who were doing the work couldn’t be trained for sanitation. We were sick all the time,” Hale said.
Hale left the service in 1945 after the war was over. He resumed his education at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (now Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg, Va. In 1951, Hale and his wife moved to Kingsport where he worked as a research chemist at Eastman Chemical Company until his retirement in 1986.
Hale realizes he is one of the remaining few of his generation who can still recall in such vivid detail his years in the service and his experience as a young, novice pilot flying across the world.
“It’s just an incident of a war story of which there are millions. There were no blood and guts. My brother, who was at the Battle of the Bulge, his situation was much worse than mine was,” he said. “But, for me, it was no big deal. Everybody was doing it. I just had a job to do and I did it.”