We are pleased to announce that we have added to the display of World War II memorabilia at Smith Library. The addition of the bomber jacket and other personal items of Willis Slane are now displayed next to the Jack Lucas Medal of Honor case. These beautiful items are on loan from the Slane family, and they honor the school by letting us share these with students, staff, and faculty. During WWII Willis Slane served in the pacific theater by piloting cargo aircraft over the Himalayas on the “Burma Run” to resupply the national Chinese army in its fight against the Japanese.
Willis H. Slane Jr.: Piloting the Burma Run and “Flying the Hump”
The Hump was a major battle of World War II — a three-year siege of the Himalayas. Slow, clumsy unarmed cargo planes carried the freight of war to the Chinese; their crewmen were the aerial “quartermasters” who flew through rain, ice, wind, and clouds twenty thousand feet above the jungles of Burma and the snow laden passes of China. The flights over the Hump were by the Air Transport Command (ATC), an outfit of some of the bravest and most skilled crews in the world. Their job was to keep China in the war (against Japan), bringing supplies, troops, high-octane gasoline, guns, and whatever else a war needed in a ’round-the-clock airlift operation. Without their daring flights, the machinery of war could not operate. Air crews of the Hump perfected a new idea in warfare: airlifting supplies and men on a grand scale. What was learned later saved Berlin with its airlift and taught the army how to move troops and evacuate the wounded by air in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Their story was the main act in this drama in the backwaters of World War II. Their war was the Hump. (Excerpted from: Spencer, O. C. (1994). Flying the Hump: Memories of an Air War, Texas A&M University Press.)
During World War II the Japanese controlled western China and Burma. The U.S. developed two options to supply the Chinese forces fighting the Japanese, the Burma Road, which was over 400 miles through the mountains or flying from northeastern India, over northern Burma and over the Himalaya Mountains to western China. To clear the mountain ranges, aircraft had to fly well over 12,000 feet, necessitating the use of oxygen masks.
The C-46 Commando (in background) had more power and carrying capacity than a C-47 but was not as easy to fly or as dependable. In front of the C-46 is a Piper Cub, in Army nomenclature, the L-4 Grasshopper, which was used for liaison and observation.
Willis H. Slane Jr. began his love of flying at the age of 6 when he met Charles Lindbergh when Lindbergh flew to the Triad in October 1927. Just 5 months earlier Lindbergh became a national hero becoming the first person to fly nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean taking off from Long Island, New York and landing in Paris, France. Willis even named his dog “Lindy”. In 1940, Willis enrolled in Parks Air College, now a part of St. Louis University. He became the youngest civilian instructor for the Army Air Corp in 1942.
The bomber jacket pictured here (also on display) was worn by Willis Slane and was standard issue for the time. The jacket had a place for the squadron patch as you can see on the front of the jacket and in many cases included a map sewn into the lining that could assist a downed pilot. Also, on the rear of the jacket is a “CBI Blood Chit” (CBI – China, Burma India campaign) which includes the American and Chinese flag and a Chinese language note asking the reader to assist the stranded pilot. Many flyers would remove these patches in fear of being found by an unsympathetic Chinese communist.
After the war, Willis Slane returned to High Point and joined the family business, Slane Hosiery Mills, becoming president in 1954 when his father died. He became president of the National Association of Hosiery Manufacturers in 1956. In 1959, he founded Hatteras Yacht Company with local businessmen, Earl Phillips, George Lyles, Harris Covington, Curtis Smithdeal, and his brother Jack Slane. In 1965, he worked with the War Department to develop a specialty boat for the shallow waters of the Vietnam rivers. Legend has it that when the military asked him to come back with his design plans in a few months, he said: “I don’t have time to waste, come down to New Bern in 1 week and test the boat”. In early September of 1965, after just a day of testing, the Navy wanted the boat and Hatteras to build it. Because of excessive regulations, Hatteras declined but provided the prototype and design to the Navy. Three days after learning of the Navy’s acceptance of the boat, Willis Slane died on September 8, 1965, less than 30 days after turning 44. Willis Slane Jr.’s middle son, Thomas V. Slane, and his sons, Thomas V. Slane Jr., and Bryce H. Slane are all graduates of HPU.
-Blog post by David Bryden, Director of Library Services