Jenny Wiley Elk Tour Bus — Good morning Gary can we use your facility again…
Airport — Come on in Trinity, looks like you have a good group today!…
Over the hump
ot all of my customers at the airport come from the sky. Our beautiful lobby is also used by Jenny Wiley State Park as part of their elk tours. During the winter and spring, Trinity Sheppard, park naturalist, for Jenny Wiley brings park guests from many parts of the country to view our beautiful elk herds. All “locals” know that Airport Road is the place to go to see elk but out of town tourist don’t. Jenny Wiley State Park’s elk tours are a pretty popular draw for them. It’s actually a good tourist attraction for Martin County, too.
The park’s elk tours before the pandemic struck were very successful. Nearly every weekend from October till March they booked tours. They have started them back this winter on a limited basis and hopefully next year they will be back to normal. That big old green school bus they use for the tour is sometimes full of “tourist” hoping to see our majestic elk. Most of their customers are from the surrounding states but I have talked to people from New York to Florida and western states too. Now one might think…why don’t they just get in their cars and drive to the airport like all the locals do and see the elk? First, most people wouldn’t know to come “to an airport” to look for elk and second, they get a whole lot more of a tour by listening to Trinity’s talk.
Trinity does a wonderful job explaining the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s elk restoration project here in Eastern Kentucky. Not only is he knowledgeable about the elk, he is very entertaining, joking and interacting with his guests. The tour usually gets on Airport Road at daylight, drives back-and-forth through the industrial park and to the airport. There are almost always elk to see somewhere at that time of morning. After stopping and taking their pictures for an hour or so, they stop at the airport for a restroom break, some coffee and Trinity’s talk.
I have heard Trinity’s talk many times and I listen to it as intently as his customers do because I almost always learn something new. Trinity makes the airport part of the tour, too, and allows me to tell them about our wonderful facility and how it was built on a re-claimed surface mine and our 5,000 feet runway.
Most people seem interested and ask me questions about our airport and aviation in general.
A couple of years ago a lady on one of the tours from the Ashland area noticed my collection of World War II books. She said, “I see you like reading about WWII.”
I told her, “Yes I do, I usually read a couple of WWII books or more a year. I especially like reading about personal experiences during the war.”
“Then you must read my father’s book about his WWII experiences. He was from the Ashland area, became a veterinarian after the war and wrote a book about learning to fly and flying a C-47 cargo plane in Burma “over the hump” into China. Being an airport manager I’m sure the aviation aspects of the book will interest you and my father’s story will probably too.” She said.
About a week later I received in the mail a paperback book titled, “Through Hell’s Gate to Shanghai,” by John G. Martin, DVM. It was his personal experience with the 10th Combat Cargo Squadon, flying supplies from Burma to China, supplying the Chinese fighting the Japanese during the war. His daughter was right! This book was very interesting to me. My flight training was still fresh in my mind and reading about his “accelerated” flight training was very interesting. The men he served with, the missions he had to fly and all the danger he lived with on a daily basis was hard for me to comprehend. This book was a very good read.
When the squadron was formed the men were sent to Flordia to earn their wings. Pilots and crew members received extensive training each day because there was a great need to supply the Chinese and America was very busy fighting a two front war. The military needed cargo pilots and planes badly. General Eisenhower after the war said the C-47 cargo plane was one of the four most important pieces of equipment in the war effort.
After only 200 hours of training 100 C-47’s were lined up in West Palm Beach, Florida to start their trip….to Burma. These new pilots and crew had to fly from Florida to San Juan, Puerto Rico then with two stops in Brazil to the eastern most city of Natal. Then the crews teamed up in groups of 10 for the South Atlantic crossing. Of course these planes didn’t have enough fuel capacity to make it across to Africa, so each group of 10 planes had a expert navigator to get them to the “tiny” little speck of an island in the South Atlantic called Ascension. Keep in mind, these men didn’t have a GPS to find that tiny island and the only possible place they could land. The squadron started the trip at night. The lead C-47 had an expert navigator on board to use the stars for navigation to get started on and to maintain the most direct course. The other planes departed in groups of 10 so they could maintain radio communication with the lead plane. The squadrom relayed messages back and forth until they were close enough to pick up the radio siqnals transmitted from the island of Ascension.
There was very little room for error, all navigation had to be perfect. The total flight time was 8 hours and 45 minutes and you either made it to Ascension or you bailed out in the ocean. After a couple of days rest they refueled and flew on to Accura, Guana on the continent of Africa, then across the vast jungles of Africa and Sahara Desert en route to India. From India to their base in Burma.
It’s hard for me to imagine the courage those new airmen had. A flight that long would have been scary enough. Now think about the possibility of sabotage, the ocean, the jungles and very little network of support along the way. I have about 1,000 hours of flying time now and a trip to Florida from Big Sandy is a big deal to me.
Once in Burma the mission was flying into enemy territory day after day dropping supplies to the Chinese. You may have wondered about the statement Dr. Martin’s daughter made to me about her Dad flying “over the hump.” I knew exactly what she ment. Over the hump means over the Himalayan Mountains of Nepal. That’s the tallest mountain range in the world and that’s where Mt. Everest is located. Not only did they have to deal with the enemy but very difficult and quickly changing weather conditions as well.
The reason I knew the term “over the hump’ was because of my friendship with WWII veteran Eugene “Skeeze” Ward of Inez. Sleeze used to eat at the Cloud 9 a lot and I got to talk to him many times about the war. (I’ll be doing another article about Skeeze in the future.) Skeeze was a briefer for the glider pilots during the Normandy Invasion and other operations. He was very familiar with the C-47, that’s the plane that pulled the gliders and hauled the paratroopers during D-Day.
The Massey Energy pilots used to fly into Big Sandy a couple times a week when coal was still being mined in Martin County and bought a lot of fuel off me. At some of the bigger airports they flew into some of the FBO’s (fixed base operators….that’s what my business is called too) used to give them points that you could redeem for high quality model airplanes. The Massey pilots used to give me some of their model planes that they had duplicates of. One of them was a C-47 painted in WWII colors. When they gave me that plane I knew just what I wanted to do with it. With their permission I asked if I could give it to my friend Skeeze. They told me “absolutely” they wanted him to have it. (They also got me another one a couple of months later).
Skeeze came up to the Cloud 9 to eat one evening and I took the model C-47 over to show it to him. It sure brought a smile to his face to see that model and he started telling me some interesting facts about the plane. “This is the plane that won the war Gary, the fighter planes got all the glory but the C-47 did all the dirty work, supplied the troops, hauled the ammunition and everything else. Eisenhower loved the C-47! You have a nice model plane there Gary! That was a great plane.” Skeeze said.
“That’s your plane now Skeeze, that’s my gift to you.” I said.
Skeeze looked down at the plane and a strange look appeared on his face. I was actually concerned I might have said something to hurt his feelings and I had no idea what I could have said to cause that look of concern on his face.
Skeeze paused for a second or two and said, “Gary I’ll accept this plane under one condition. I would like to give it to my former business partner, Tom Williamson, if I have your permission to give it away? Tom flew these planes “over the hump” during the war and I would love to give it to him. Is that ok with you?” (Tom Williamson was part owner of the former Williamson-Ward Chevrolet in Inez.)
“Of course you can Skeeze, I think that’s a wonderful idea to give it to him.” I said. I had heard of Mr. Williamson, I knew he lived at Tomahawk in Martin County but I had no idea that Mr. Williamson flew C-47’s in the war.
Just think about that for a minute… a young man from the hills of Eastern Kentucky with no flying experience, ended up on the other side of the world during WWII, flying cargo planes over the tallest mountains in the world, to enable us to enjoy the freedom we have today! The sacrifices, the courage, the commitment it took to accomplish what they did. He and his generation of Americans are for sure, “the greatest generation!”
About a week later I was sitting in the office and when I looked up Skeeze was coming through the door with this big smile on his face. He said, “Thank you so much for the model C-47 plane that I gave Tom. I didn’t tell you but Tom has been battling Alzheimer’s for some time now. I try to go see him as often as I can and he rarely has any conversation with me. Usually I just talk and he just stares and doesn’t speak. I don’t know if he is understanding me or if anything I say is getting through. I had the plane in a bag and I said, “Tom I have a gift for you and handed him the C-47.” Tom reached out and got the plane and looked at me and I could tell he knew what it was. He stared at it for a couple of seconds and in a clear confident voice said, “over the hump!”
Just a few years later my father was battling Alzheimer’s and I know just how important that little model plane was to Mr. Williamson and Mr. Ward. My God Bless them both!
Jenny Wiley tour bus lady — I’ll be mailing you a copy of my father’s book
Me — I promise you I’ll read it!
(Gary Wayne Cox is airport manager at Big Sandy Regional Airport owned by Floyd, Johnson, Magoffin and Martin Counties)