On Wednesday morning of October 1,1943 my Mother pinned Silver Wings on my blouse at the graduation ceremony, Craig Field, Selma, Alabama. I was a pilot! About thirty of us from the Class, 43I, were then assigned to the 337th Fighter Group, 98th Fighter Squadron, Sarasota Air Base, Florida, for additional training in P-40Ks and Ns. We left the good ol' USA on Wednesday, January 5th, 1944 almost to the day I had entered the Army Air Force as an Aviation Cadet. We arrived in Karachi, India, five days later. Here we were to take combat operational training, instructed by combat pilots who were on their way home after fighting over China and Burma. When we finished our 14 to 15 hours of tight formation flying, practice dive- bombing, strafing ground targets and towed targets. We graduated again!
Four of my classmates, Joe (NMI) Setnor, Charles "CHUCK" Vagim, Malcom J. "JUD" Wilkins, Elmer L. "JACK" Wingo and the writer were ordered to fly to Calcutta's Dum Dum Airport on the other side of India. We hitched a ride on a B-25 bomber for the1, 500 mile flight. We arrived that Sunday afternoon, March 12th, to wait for a C-64 to take us to our new assignment in the First Air Commando Group, Hailakandi, then Assam, India. We were pleasantly surprised when we landed at dusk to see P-51As hidden in revetments just off the grass strip runway. Immediately, we were assigned to our quarters, bamboo huts called bashas, with dirt floors, two Army cots with mosquito bars and one 40 Watt bare bulb hanging from the rafters. We met all the pilots in the Fighter Section during dinner in the bamboo mess hall. A great collection of men, including four Aces! It had been a long day so we hit the sack right after the meeting.
Seemed like 30 seconds after my head hit the pillow, I heard boom, boom, boom. AA guns at the foot of our strip opened up warning shots. I jumped up, forgetting the mosquito net, scrambled out of the cot some how, grabbed my pants, stuffed my bare feet into my G.I. hi-tops and got out of there fast. The sun was just coming up. Men were running and yelling, "Air Raid", "Air Raid", "Get in the Foxholes". "We are under attack." I jumped into the nearest one with Chuck Vagim, my roommate since Basic Flying School, and other pilots. We heard distant machine gun fire above, comparable to someone ripping open a Velcro fastened jacket.
Looking up we were just able to see, now that the sky was a bright blue, two Spitfires chasing an Army JAF fighter. With the increasing sunlight we could make out the red meat balls, the British insignias and observe blue smoke emanating from the leading edge of their wings. Since they were up 10,000 feet or more, it took close to 6 second for the sound to reach us. Man, what a way to start the first day in this hot outfit! Unfortunately, the Japs never came over our field again. The RAF's Spits always got to them first. They could out climb any plane in the CBI theatre. Having the advantage of being east of us in the Imphal Valley, just on the Allied side of the Chinwin River, they were in the best position to intercept all raiding planes. The Japs were east of the river, extending down to South Burma and then beyond, to Thailand and Indo China.
The next day, Monday, March 13th, the five of us went down to the flight line. I got into a P-51A for the first time in my young life. What a hot airplane, different from the old P-40s we had been flying. Fortunately, as you may know they were built by North American Aviation, also makers of the AT-6 "TEXAN". I had flown them some 95 hours at Craig Field, Selma, Alabama. A Captain Neal Bollum, showed me around the cockpit. He was an experienced pilot and was authorized to check me out in a P-51. After obtaining permission from the tower I took off just flying "LOCAL". In the hour allotted to get the feel of this new bird, I practiced putting the gear up and down, the same with the flaps. But most important of all, to determine the flight characteristics of this 1200 HP Allison single engine fighter.
Two mornings later, Wednesday, March 15th, immediately after an early breakfast, we hurried over to the Briefing Room, adjacent to the tower, to check the Mission Board. There was my name, Lt. VAN DEWEIGH, spelled incorrectly but what the hell, I was posted to accompany the squadron dive-bombing. Man O' Man, my first combat mission! We flew to Pilebu, Burma, where I dropped my two 500 pounders. Don't ask me if they hit the target. I was too excited to notice where they fell. The flight took exactly 2 hours and 30 minutes.
When we landed I parked my 51 in its assigned revetment. A Captain Heller, also on the mission, parked close by. He came over to me and said, "Hey Lieutenant, was that your first combat mission? How did you like it? Were you scared? "Yes Sir" I replied. "Oh, by the way, you five new pilots who arrived the other day, how many hours flying time do you fellows have in P-51s?" I looked down at my wrist watch and replied, "Three hours and thirty minutes, Sir!"Back to Vets Page