Over the weekend, nonagenarian (and Rock Island, IL native) Bernard “Barney” Young was belatedly awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for actions dating back nearly seven decades to his service in the Second World War.
First authorized by Congress in 1926, the Distinguished Flying Cross is the USA’s oldest military aviation award. It may be bestowed upon “any person [who], while serving in any capacity with the Air Corps of the Army of the United States, including the National Guard and the Organized Reserves, or with the United States Navy, since the 6th day of April 1917, has distinguished, or who, after the approval of this Act, distinguishes himself by heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”
Past recipients of the DFC include some of the country’s most famous fliers, among them: Charles Lindbergh (an Army Reserve Captain at the time of his trans-Atlantic flight), Curtis LeMay (WWII bombing commander and, later, head of US Strategic Air Command), Paul Tibbetts (pilot of the B-29 Enola Gay), and Chuck Yeager (Test pilot. Stud.) For a brief time, DFCs were also awarded to civilians who made exceptional contributions to the development of aviation. Amelia Earhart was the first civilian (and woman) so honored. She was later joined by Jacqueline Cochrane, Roscoe Turner, Wiley Post, and the Wright Brothers (retroactively by a special Act of Congress and, in the case of Wilbur, posthumously).
That’s pretty good company.
What did Mr. Young do to deserve such accolades?
Between January and September 1945, as an airman attached to the 347 Army Air Forces Base Transport Air Command, he logged 500+ flight hours piloting C-109s (i.e. B-24 Liberators converted for fuel transport) over the eastern Himalayan Mountains from bases in India to supply USAAF units and allies located in China. First launched in April 1942 and lasting to November 1945, the operation in which he took part was the longest and most extensive sustained airlift campaign in history prior to the 1948-1949 events over Berlin. Though generally less well-known to the public than the contemporary bombing campaigns over Europe and Japan, the wartime missions flying “The Hump” were hardly less dangerous.
High above the treacherous and desolate terrain of the world’s tallest mountain chain (at altitudes often surpassing 20,000 ft), pilots battled 100+ mph winds that slammed into the slopes below creating powerful updrafts over ridges and deep downdrafts over valleys. An aircraft caught in such a downdraft could plunge 5,000 feet per minute, before suddenly being whisked upward at almost the same speed. Icing was a constant problem above 12,000 ft with wings sometimes warping and bending from the build up. Inadequate navigation aids and communications equipment made things worse. As Mr. Young noted, “There was no radar, no weather balloons, there was nothing to help us. We flew at night and turned off our lights so the Japanese couldn’t see us.” With only rivers, ravines, and other geographic features to guide them, aviators faced danger from the start to finish of their approximately five-hour, one-way journeys. The high fuel consumption rates that accompanied high-altitude flying typically meant that fewer than 20 minutes of airtime separated crews from their destination or likely death. By the time the War had ended, 594 aircraft were lost or written off and 1,659 personnel killed or missing in action.
Mr. Young attributes the fact that he survived roughly 120 round-trip flights over The Hump to a certain amount of skill “and a helluva lotta luck.” Whatever the case, his is certainly deserving US military aviation’s oldest and most distinguished award.
[For a quick three-minute short on “Flying the Hump” check out this (unattributed) short video from the late(?) 1940s]: