Editor’s Note: Caprock Chronicles are edited each week by Jack Becker a retired TTU Librarian. He may be reached at email@example.com Today’s article is by Mary Walker Clark, an award-winning travel writer who has recently written “Landing in my Present,” her journey retracing her father’s war time experiences in Indian and China.
In 1939, Ray Charles Walker (Charlie) from Plainview, entered the recently opened Texas Technological Community College to pursue a degree in agriculture, one of four degrees originally offered. He was an unlikely student, coming from a farming family where he plowed the land behind a mule and later drove the first tractor in the area purchased by his father, who had also been the first to turn the soil in nearby Swisher County.
At Texas Tech, Walker took a full load of agricultural classes and appeared destined to follow his father’s footsteps into farming, but his course load masked a long-held interest in flying. Throughout his childhood, he often bought model kits, putting together airplanes of all kinds and he could comment on the planes’ capacities. The $290 cost to obtain a pilots’ license, though, was out of reach for this farm boy.
In 1939, a distant decision made by President Roosevelt would change Charlie’s life. Roosevelt knew WWII was inevitable and that America lacked the number of pilots needed to successfully fight the war. He instituted the Civilian Pilot Training Program that allowed college students to obtain their pilots’ license as a part of their course work. Texas Tech was one of 1,132 colleges and universities in the country that participated in the program. In Walker’s last semester in 1940, his transcript revealed credit for the Training program, and he became one of almost 10,000 new pilots licensed in the country that year.
Walker did not immediately join the service and in 1942, took a job with Hanger 6 in Uvalde, Texas to train Army recruits on their first plane – the PT-19A. He had only been flying for two years and had just enough experience to teach the basic elements of flying. Letters from his students revealed an easy-going instructor who enjoyed hanging out with the young pilots and would counsel them on the next steps in their training. One year later, he joined the service and began flying bigger planes.
In the fall of 1944, Charlie flew a newly minted C-46, a large transport plane, to Africa, following a then well-established route over the Atlantic Ocean. After spending Thanksgiving in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and Christmas in Nigeria, he got his orders for the Assam Valley in India. He was assigned to fly the Hump, the moniker given to the treacherous transport operation that brought gasoline from India over the Himalayas into Kunming, China for use by the American and Chinese armies fighting the Japanese.
The Hump was considered the most hazardous flying route in the world at the time, primarily because of the weather. Cold Siberian fronts swooped down over high mountains and crashed into warm humid air from the Bay of Bengal, causing wind drafts of up to 100 miles per hour and the dreaded ice. C-47s and C-46s only had windshield wipers to flick off the ice build-up. If a plane became too heavy, the pilot descended to warmer air to melt the ice but had the new problem of possibly flying into the mountains. Another option to lighten the load was by pushing 55- gallon barrels of gasoline out the cargo door to the jungle below.
Walker flew the Hump route 150 times, surviving when many didn’t. Over 600 planes were lost in the operation along with 1200 crew members. The shiny crashed planes below the flight pattern generated the name of “aluminum trail” for the path.
On Charlie’s last flight over the Himalayas, a co-pilot climbed into the cockpit and introduced himself. He was Mont Jennings from Lubbock, Texas. There was an immediate connection and they talked about the Panhandle and all that they had in common. After their flights to and from Kunming, the two never saw each other again.
Charlie returned to Plainview to farm. He continued to fly, first as a crop duster and later with his own private plane. He also never talked about his experiences on the other side of the world. When he died unexpectedly from an industrial accident, the family thought his war stories were lost. But a chance encounter years later by his sister, Helen Walker, with his co-pilot, Mont Jennings, brought his history back to life. Ms. Walker recorded an interview with Mr. Jennings and the family learned for the first time where their father was posted and how very treacherous flying the Hump was. In 2016, Walker’s daughter and son followed their father’s footsteps to India and China, a story his daughter, Mary Walker Clark, tells in her book “Landing in My Present.”
Charlie Walker remained a loyal fan of his university and was a faithful member of the Texas Tech Raider Club.
Mary Walker Clark’s travel stories are featured in the Paris News and may be found at her blog, Mary Clark, Traveler and her podcasts on NPR station, KETR, 88.9. She is a member of the North American Travel Journalist Association. Clark lives in Paris, Texas and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.