Cpl. Donald Kuhn From India to Burma: World War II
by Priscilla Rall
Last month, I wrote of how during World War II, Donald Kuhn traveled north in India, hearing jackals howling and starving children begging for food. When he finally got to the airbase at Tansucoa, he was assigned to Intelligence, an S-2, with tremendous responsibilities. He typed up every mission report as soon as the pilots were debriefed after each mission. Then, the reports went to the Communications staff that then put it in code to be sent to General Santameyer, General Chenault (of Flying Tigers fame), and four other top brass.
Every day, two planes went out to take reconnaissance photos of Burma. They had no guns for defense, just two cameras each. As soon as they returned, Kuhn had to process them, label them, and then file them for use in future missions. Another duty for Kuhn was to take a one-pound chunk of opium from the safe and cut it into small pieces that could fit in a vial to be placed in each pilot’s emergency belt, along with a small silk map of Burma, pills to purify water, and a special comb that had a hacksaw in the handle, supposedly to saw oneself out of a prison cell if captured!
Each emergency belt had a number, and it was Kuhn’s responsibility to keep records of each belt that he handed out before each mission and to record them when they were returned, and to put the opium back into the safe. What the opium was for he did not know, but one can only guess. At one base, he was actually responsible for the safety belts of every pilot in every airstrip in all of India.
Eventually, Kuhn was incorporated into the 459th Squadron, which was fitted with all P-38 twin-engine planes, although no one had been trained on these aircrafts. It was brimming with guns, and under its wings, they could hang two 100-pound bombs, put jelly bombs (napalm), or extra fuel tanks if the mission was particularly far away. The mission for the day would come down early in the morning and could include 10 or all 25 aircrafts. They were to bomb and strafe railroads, supply depots, and once all planes went out, to bomb the vital airstrip at Rangoon, Burma. When the planes returned (and not everyone did), Kuhn wrote up all of the ammo expended by each plane and gave that report to the higher-ups.
On Easter Sunday 1945, Kuhn vividly recalled that a single Japanese plane attacked his airfield (that had absolutely no defenses), and dropped a cluster of incendiary bombs, burning their barracks or “bashas.” Donald had just left the building and saw the approach of the enemy plane. A cautious man, he had already scoped out a nearby pipe that ran under a railway track. First, he grabbed his barracks bag, which was by the entrance, and grabbed a family photo off the wall, then he hopped into the pipe. Thankfully, no one was killed by the bombs, but many of the men were wounded by shrapnel. When it was safe to exit his place of succor, he noticed that a piece of shrapnel had pierced the photo he had of all of his sisters.
The airstrips were very primitive, just gravel and grass. They moved a lot, as they needed to be as close as possible to the fighting. Finally, the enemy was being pushed back east. The only troops were the American Merrill’s Marauders and some British and Indian troops. There were a number of air-warning units of several men each. They were secreted in the Chin Hills of northeast Burma. They reported all planes, friendly or not, to Kuhn’s airfield, then he had to write with a grease pencil on an acetate overlay of a map exactly where the enemy was, as well as how far the Allies had progressed. Earlier, he was responsible for marking all of the locations of German troops in North Africa, so he knew just where Rommel was, as well as the Allied troops. “The men would come in to see how we were doing, and at that point, not very well!”
At one point, the Japanese were closing in on Kuhn’s location, and all of the men were issued carbines for protection. Before that, they had no guns at all. But, the Japanese were stopped before they got to Kuhn’s location.
One of Donald’s most memorable experiences was when Lord Mountbatten, who was in charge of all the allied forces in Burma, visited his unit. He was there to give them a “pep talk,” when it seemed that the Japanese might be closing in on them and cutting the three airfields in the north off from the Allied forces in the south.
Cpl. Kuhn did ride on the famous Ledo-Burma Road, which he described as rocky with mountains and jungle all around. Once, Kuhn flew on a PT-19 Fairchild trainer plane, made right here in Hagerstown, Maryland. He laughed when he realized how many units he had been attached to. First the American Air Command #1, then the 5320 Air Defense Wing, then Headquarters 10th US Air Force, and finally, to the 459th “Twin Dragons” unit. This was dangerous business. Donald vividly recalled when two planes were lost on one mission. They never had any word on their status and were not captured. The entire unit rejoiced once when all 25 planes went out on a mission and all 25 returned! By the way, Air Commando Col. Phil Cochran, the inspiration for the comic strip “Terry and the Pirates” was in Kuhn’s 33rd Fighter Group, but in the European Theater. In all, 45 airmen were lost from the Hq. 33rd Fighter Group, the 58th, 59th, and the 60th Fighter Squadrons during the war in the CBI, or China, India, and Burma Campaign.
The war was winding down. The atom bomb was the final punch that knocked the Japanese down. Kuhn later learned that the 459th was to be in the “Forward Echelon” for the planned invasion of Japan. They were to be flown over China and back up the first invasion forces. Thankfully, that never was needed.
After the surrender was signed, Donald was finally able to return home. He took a Navy troop ship home, from Calcutta through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Then, they sailed through the Mediterranean, sailing by the famous Rock of Gibraltar into the Atlantic Ocean. He finally reached New York harbor in early November, and his ship pulled into a berth right next to the USS Missouri, where the surrender was signed! Then, off to Camp Kilmer and finally to Ft. Meade, where he was deactivated.
Finally home, he found that he began being troubled by a nervous condition of vertigo that made him feel like he was swirling around and could fly off into space at any moment. It was obviously a variation of PTSD; he worked it out, and a month or two later, it disappeared. He had a hard time deciding what he wanted to do. He first worked at a feed mill in Smithsburg and then on his brother-in-law’s farm. Finally, he landed a job in accounting at the Chewsville Co-op, where he worked for 34 years.
In 1950, he married Naomi Leatherman, and the couple moved into her parents’ home, where they had an egg and chicken business. One day they collected 800 eggs! The couple had two daughters and lived in the same home until he passed several years ago. Naomi still lives in the family home near Foxville.
Cpl. Donald Kuhn had a remarkable career in the U.S. Air Corps and was instrumental in the success of the 459th Fighter Squadron. Few of us even remember the CBI Theater, but now you know the rest of the story.