By Chad Stewart

Ned Thomas just wanted to help, but his daughter wouldn’t let him.

What started off as an effort to keep him from injuring himself on a home rehabilitation project became a way for Nedda Thomas to tell her father’s remarkable story.

Through a series of conversations originally designed to distract the World War II pilot, Nedda, a Virginia-based author, got him to talk about what it was like to fly the Hump, the treacherous supply route over the Himalayas.

Those informal chats developed into “Hump Pilot,” Nedda’s 2014 book about the massive strategic airlift that helped Chinese forces vanquish their Japanese occupiers during WWII. The fact that few Hump pilots are alive to tell their stories means that Thomas’ book could be one of the last first-person accounts on the topic.

We thought it was imperative to talk to Thomas about her father, her book and what she hopes readers will learn about the men who risked their lives flying over the world’s highest mountains.

Why did you decide to write a book about Hump pilots now? What sparked this idea?

I grew up knowing that my father was a Hump pilot, but that’s all I knew. He never talked about it. To him, he just went and did a job and always felt he was part of a team.

I was a rehabbing an old house and every morning this grand old gentleman was on my doorstep with his toolbox and drill. He wanted to help me. I thought, “This man lived through the Hump, he’s not going to die fixing my house.”

So I said, “We’re going to sit down and get your war story at last.” He protested … he said nobody would be interested in this. But we sat down amid the paint buckets, the plaster dust and the tools … and I pulled this story out of him over his protests.

Ned Thomas, who was first in his primary flight class to solo, poses with a PT-17 after completing training at Douglas Army Airfield in Georgia. | Photo credit Photo courtesy of Nedda Thomas

How old were most of the men who flew missions over the Hump?

[My father] was 21 when he went into the Hump. I think the mid-20s may have been a little more common, but they were all young. These men went out and flew these deadly missions in World War II and they had to grow up fast.

Between the time my father soloed as an air cadet … to the time he had his wings, it was less than a year. As soon as he finished, he was immediately deployed to teach the next group of cadets coming along. He was a flight instructor and had his 21st birthday in San Antonio when he was taking a course to be a flight instructor.

How many were lost flying the Hump during the war and how many aircraft went down over the route?

We may never know the answer to that question. Records in that theater (China-Burma-India) were so piecemeal and so incomplete, it’s just another tragedy.

What do you think the men who flew the route would say was the most dangerous aspect about the mission?

The weather—the atmospheric conditions—was the constant. The frigid air coming down from Siberia, the warm, wet air coming up from the Bay of Bengal and the winds coming from the west … they all converged over that mountain range. And it was a mix of weather unlike no other on the face of the Earth. And they (the pilots) couldn’t see most of the time.

What did these planes carry over the Hump to Chinese forces?

Everything. Every port in China was blockaded by Japan. Their last port was through Burma and that fell in March 1942 and that was the port that some supplies could be brought up the Burma Road into China. There was no way to get supplies into China except for across the Hump. So everything went across. War materiel—fuel was the holy grail—ammunition, weapons, jeeps, first aid supplies, food—anything that could be needed for a military operation.

Do Chinese citizens of today have any understanding of the sacrifices American pilots made to support China during WWII?

It’s being recognized in recent years. They recently opened a Flying Tiger museum and the Chinese consider every man who flew in China a Flying Tiger, whether he flew transports or fighter jets or whoever they were.

What’s the one thing you want readers to take away from your book?

By giving the Hump war a human face through my father, I hope the reader will have a greater appreciation of all the men who flew in that theater. And I hope they will have a real working understanding of what the Hump pilots went through to do their mission.

—Chad Stewart is the senior editor of On Patrol. This story originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.

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