The Forgotten Theatre

Meredith Graham looks through the scrapbook of her great uncle, a professional photographer who served in WWII and as a decoder in China during the Korean War.

In late 1943, Alvin M Sievers set sail from Los Angeles, California, en route to India and, ultimately, China. As a member of the 12th Air Service Group of the United States Army, his deployment during World War II would be different from those in Europe or the Pacific. In fact, military historians would go on to call what happened in the China-Burma-India campaign that Sievers was a part of the ‘forgotten theatre’ of World War II.
Little has been written about the troops sent to aid the Chinese Army in its fight against the Japanese, about the relatively few men whose job it was to train Chinese soldiers and work alongside them to build airstrips and repair fighter jets. But their mission was nonetheless integral to the Allied plan and to China’s victory in its War of Resistance against Japan.

Family archive

When Sievers boarded the USS Hermitage one early November day, he had no idea where he was headed or what he would be doing. He kept a journal throughout his deployment and his family kept all the letters he wrote them. After he returned at the end of 1945, he compiled his letters and journal entries, plus newspaper clips, magazine articles, certificates, and the hundreds of photographs he took during his deployment.
A commercial photographer by trade, he took his camera with him. Wherever he went, he sought out the nearest shops for film and processing, though he also developed some himself using chemicals sent from home.
Along with the 1,200 members of his service group and some 5,000 others from the Navy, Marines, and Red Cross, Alvin Sievers endured a 46-day journey across the Pacific Ocean, during which the ship crossed the equator twice and the International Date Line. The lower-ranked men, including Private First Class Sievers, slept in the ship’s hold, which had bunks stacked four high.
‘The heat in the hold of this ship where our bunks are is unbearable,’ Sievers wrote in his journal. ‘I don’t think I have perspired so much in my life. A short time on the open deck this afternoon gave me quite a sunburn.’
After a few short stops at Bora Bora and Australia, the men were handed booklets dispelling some of the mystery of their destination – they now knew they were headed to India. The ship stopped at Bombay on the day after Christmas, and a few days later a train met Sievers and the rest of the 12th Air Service Group at the dock. They spent the next three days heading to Kanchrapara, just outside of Calcutta.

Transportation to theatre

This put Sievers right in the thick of the China-Burma-India theatre of World War II. As their booklets indicated, American and British military involvement in India at this time was aimed at keeping Japanese forces from seizing the country and taking over its strategically located ports. As well as defending India, the Allies wanted to reclaim Burma and reopen a route to get supplies into China.
In India, American and British troops faced the difficult task of transporting much-needed supplies from the docks to an airstrip in Assam, north-east of Bangladesh, a route that contained no passable road. An article in the June 1944 issue of Air Force magazine explained the situation:
‘From the States, supplies pour into ships, and sail halfway around the world to be unloaded onto the heads of the frail coolies of India. Ports are jammed with United Nations cargo ships. Transhipment takes time, but there is no alternative. Gasoline drums are slung from the shoulders of four coolies when it must be moved uphill; otherwise the drums are rolled. Heavy equipment is moved by an electric hoist, one of the few to be found along rail lines.
‘Transportation difficulties are the rule, not the exception, in the CBI theatre, and those encountered on the road to Assam are among the toughest.’ The members of the 12th Air Service Group found themselves in much the same predicament as the aforementioned cargo – stationed in Assam awaiting transport to China.
‘We went north by train and truck to Chabua in Assam Province,’ Sievers wrote. ‘There, after a long wait, we flew to China over the Himalaya Mountains, the highest in the world, and landed in Kunming. I think we flew at 17,500 feet.’

The Hump

The flight he referred to was called ‘the Hump’, the approximately 500-mile stretch of air between Assam and Kunming, China, that crossed over Burma and the Himalayas. After the infamous Burma Road – with its 23 switchbacks– was closed to Allied use, military personnel, cargo, and supplies had to be flown over the Hump to get into China.
‘The Hump route from Assam to Yunnan is 500-miles long, and veteran flyers say that every mile is a gamble with death,’ reported Popular Mechanics in its July 1944 issue. ‘It gets its name from the subsidiary ranges of the Himalaya Mountains that extend into Burma, jagged snow-capped little brothers of Mount Everest that protrude into the clouds and mist at 18,000 feet.
‘Between the peaks are valleys of lush jungle and treacherous air currents which cause a plane to drop a couple of thousand feet in a minute.’
By 1943, there were daily trips over the Hump. Cargo limits reached their maximum in July 1945 with more than 77,000 tonnes being transported into China in one month. But the success of getting much-needed supplies into China came at a hefty cost – more than 500 aircraft crashes were reported and at least 1,200 crew members were confirmed dead according to the CBI Hump Pilots Association.
In mid-February 1944, Sievers and his service group were sent over the Hump to Kunming. ‘Except for the possibility of being bombed by the Japs, everything is fine here. In exchange for lend-lease from the United States, the Chinese feed and house American troops,’ Sievers wrote upon his arrival. ‘Even though it seems hard to believe, even though we don’t have house maids, we do have four or five Chinese house boys in every barracks to keep “our barracks nice and clean”. They are war orphans.’

The mission

In China, the main objective for the 12th Air Service Group was to assist the 14th Air Force. Members worked to repair planes, gather supplies, and serve alongside the Chinese Army, led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Their main objective was to keep the Japanese military busy, to ensure that they continued to divert men and resources there rather than to the Pacific, where the main American forces were engaged.
Sievers was not part of a combat group, and it was clear from his letters and from a published interview with his commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert J Koshland, that the Americans were in China primarily to lend support to the Chinese troops.
The members of the 14th Air Force – previously known as ‘the Flying Tigers’ – did, however, engage Japanese forces directly, and they needed fuel, spare parts, and fresh ammo. All of these supplies had to be first flown over the Hump.
Sievers was tasked with encoding and decoding classified information as a message-centre clerk. He kept files of each transmission, including its time and mode of delivery. But, perhaps because of the classified nature of his job, he wrote little about his duties, preferring instead to tell his family about his many encounters with Chinese soldiers and civilians and his observations about life in China. One such encounter was an afternoon visit to a local school, where he was invited to play English teacher to about 40 young boys.
‘Instead of me reading, I got them to read, and then I corrected their pronunciation, which was very poor,’ he wrote. ‘Every time I said something or made a correction, the whole class repeated what I said. They were able to duplicate every sound. The subject of the lesson was Christopher Columbus. Surprisingly, as bad as their pronunciation was, they understood everything they read. I asked questions and they were able to answer them.’

Chinese ‘coolies’

The first year Sievers spent in China was not an easy one for American forces there. They were expected to work alongside the Chinese soldiers, whose uniforms and equipment were often sub-par. The local labour force, relied upon to build airstrips and the like, included great numbers but utilised rudimentary tools, often using elephants to pound the ground flat. They used handmade scales to weigh rocks, which were then carried on the shoulders of ‘coolies’– the word at the time for local laborers – to where they were needed. Then men would roll large, round boulders over the ground, crushing the rock and smoothing the road.

During the first few months of 1944, Sievers was stationed in Kunming, and then Kweilin, farther east. He experienced air raids, including one he wrote about on 9 April 1944: ‘We heard the sound of airplane motors overhead. “Those aren’t our planes,” someone said. And they weren’t. They were Jap planes headed in the direction of our field. It’s a funny feeling to watch the enemy fly over your head and not be able to do anything about it except hope he doesn’t drop a bomb on you.’
When the Japanese took Kweilin in July 1944, the base was evacuated and, as with several other American bases, the 14th Air Force was forced to bomb its own airfields. Sievers was then sent from one base to another, narrowly missing another attack by the Japanese. By Christmas 1944, he was in Chihchiang, in Hunan province. He would stay there until the end of the war.
Shortly after ringing in the New Year, Japanese forces again closed in on the American base where Sievers, along with the 12th Air Service Group and the 14th Air Force, were headquartered. In a massive effort to fight them off, American pilots flew two entire divisions of the Chinese Sixth Army over the Hump to Chihchiang. They brought with them supplies and pack animals, including mules and horses. Sievers was there when the troops and animals were unloaded. The plan was a success.
‘The Japs never did get here,’ Sievers wrote. ‘Instead, the Chinese pushed them back to where they started from.’

Victory

This was a huge victory for the Chinese Army and the American troops there. Sievers saved one newspaper article from 18 May 1945 that reported: ‘Chinese ground forces, working in very close coordination with the hard-hitting 14th Air Force, have administered a defeat to the Japanese attackers, and have probably thwarted, at least for the time being, what once looked like a very dangerous and imminent Japanese threat to the 14th Air Force base at Chihchiang.’
After that, things got calmer in the CBI theatre. News of Germany’s surrender spread quickly, and by 21 August, a few weeks after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was Japan’s turn.
‘Today for the first time I saw the enemy in the flesh,’ Sievers recalled on the day of Japan’s surrender in China. ‘Today, for the first time, I saw a Jap plane without running for a slit trench. The occasion was the surrender of the Jap forces in China.’
Several months later, the Army started calling troops back home. Sievers got on board a ship in Shanghai mid-November and was back with his family in St Louis, Missouri, by Christmas.
America’s involvement in China during World War II was mostly considered a success. The military had found a way to feed supplies and manpower into China by flying over the Hump. It helped train the Chinese soldiers of Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, and it diverted Japanese personnel and resources away from the Pacific. It also resulted in the Japanese retreating from China, once again opening up land and sea access to China. But US involvement could not prevent a resumption of civil war and eventual Communist victory in 1949.
To the rest of the world, which was focused on Europe and the Pacific arenas, the China-Burma-India campaigns to which Sievers and thousands of others devoted their service – and some their lives – remained largely unknown.