Air Transport Command – Airlift During WWII

by Jack Kinyon, ATC, 1942-1947

The Beginning

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, the United States was suddenly involved in two major wars, one in the Pacific against Japan and the other in Europe against Germany. Troops were deployed overseas, and combat air forces were formed and located in strategic areas of the world.

Major Challenges

To support the overseas forces and U.S. allies, a military air transport system was needed. The major airlines helped with the organization, and the aircraft manufacturers came through with the planes needed for the difficult missions.

Worldwide Organization

To meet the airlift requirements in these large areas, the Air Transport Command (ATC) was divided into nine wings (or in 1944, divisions) and were assigned geographical sectors. Each division was responsible for the movement of supplies, equipment, and key personnel within its sector and coordinated its activities with other divisions to provide a worldwide delivery system. The Navy provided a similar operation to its forces with the much smaller Naval Air Transport Service (NATS). This report focuses on the activities of ATC.

Principal Aircraft

The Douglas C-47, a conversion of the successful commercial DC-3 airliner, proved to be a mainstay in all theaters of operation. Its mission was enhanced by the Curtiss C-46 which had twice the carrying capacity of the C-47. For the long over-water flights, B-24 bombers were modified as cargo planes and designated C-87s. The premier long-range plane, originally to be a Douglas DC-4 commercial airliner, became the C-54.

Europe, Africa, and the Middle East Theaters

North African Campaign and the Middle East

The oldest of the air routes under ATC jurisdiction (and throughout 1942 the most important) reached from Florida, south to Natal, Brazil, then across the South Atlantic to Africa and the Middle East. It provided a lend-lease supply line to British forces fighting in the Near East. The battle lasted from 10 June 1940 until the German surrender on 13 May 1943. After the U.S. entry into the war on 7 December 1941, ATC participated in the North African Campaign, called Operation Torch, by bringing supplies to U.S. forces as well. It also supported Fifteenth, Twelfth, and Ninth Air Forces operating from locations along the Mediterranean coast and Cairo, Egypt.

Transport aircraft often stopped at Ascension Island in the South Atlantic on the flight from Natal, Brazil; to Accra, Ghana; or Kano, Nigeria. Eastbound flights continued through Central Africa to Khartoum, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, and to India to link up with the China-Burma-India Division. After Lagens Field (now known as Lajes) in the Azores was opened in late 1943, flights went from the U.S. east coast via Newfoundland and the Azores to Casablanca, French Morocco, and then across North Africa to Egypt, Iran, and India. This new route to India was much shorter than the 14,000-mile flights from Florida across the South Atlantic.

European Campaign

One of the difficulties ATC had was the winter weather over the North Atlantic. Until Lagens Field in the Azores was opened in late 1943, eastbound operations over the North Atlantic ceased because of very high winds and other adverse conditions. When the field became operational, all eastbound flights resumed, and by March of 1944 most transport flying between the United States and Great Britain or North Africa went by way of the Azores.
Bermuda was used as a weather alternate to Newfoundland. When able, flights to Prestwick, Scotland, continued to be flown via Labrador and Iceland. Through the winter of 1943-44, ATC provided a sizable eastward lift for the movement of key personnel, mail, and critical cargoes to the European and Mediterranean theaters. From January 1944 the monthly lift increased from 350 tons and 785 passengers to 1,178 tons in June and 1,900 tons and 2,570 passengers by July. Seventy percent went to Great Britain and 30% to North Africa.

ATC provided emergency airlift to Eighth Air Force, delivering incendiary-bomb fuzes, jettisonable fuel tanks for fighter planes, and other equipment. Pontoons were hastily carried to the Fifth Army in Italy.

In addition to their typical cargo, ATC carried 3,570 pounds of whole blood daily to Paris. Thousands of battle casualties were returned to the U.S. for medical care.

In the last five months of the war in Europe, over 10,000 tons of air cargo were carried overseas by ATC. It proved to be a safe, dependable airlift service.

Asiatic Pacific Theater

The Aleutian Islands Campaign (June 1942 – August 1943)

The Japanese believed that control of the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, was of strategic importance to prevent a possible U.S. attack across the Northern Pacific. They bombed Dutch Harbor on 3 and 4 June 1942 and occupied Kiska and Attu.

ATC responded and sent many planes to Edmonton, Canada, a major railhead and U.S. Army supply depot. There they loaded troops, ammunition, medical supplies, food, weapons, and other vital equipment and made daily round trips to Dutch Harbor. They also flew in a complete hospital as the one in Dutch Harbor had been partially demolished by Japanese bombing.

Throughout the ongoing battle with the Japanese occupation of Kiska and Attu, American and Canadian forces and Eleventh Air Force were supplied by ATC until all Japanese forces withdrew on 15 August 1943.

The India-China Airlift (July 1942 – December 1945)

In 1942, shortly after the United States entered the war, China stood between more than a million Japanese troops and the southeast Asia region, including American forces. After China’s ocean, rail, and road supply routes were blocked, all supplies had to be moved by air over the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains, an area named The Hump by Allied pilots.
The India-China airlift was dangerous because there were no radio navigation aids, maps were unreliable, and the weather was unpredictable.

Daily operations for 42 months resulted in delivery of 650,000 tons of materiel. Most of the personnel were from ATC with support from Britain, India, Burma, and China. Thirty-four thousand military personnel and 640 aircraft were involved. Five hundred forty-nine aircraft (86%) were lost or destroyed, and 1,659 personnel (5%) were killed or missing.

ATC was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation at the personal direction of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944–the first such award made to a non-combat organization.

Australia and the Pacific Islands

With the loss of the Philippines to the Japanese, Fifth Air Force and other U.S forces were relocated to Australia. This was vital for the defense of Australia as well as to provide a base to launch offensive operations to retake lost ground from the Japanese. In addition to Fifth Air Force, ATC supported Thirteenth Air Force at New Caledonia.

The Pacific route operation at the end of 1942 was still without proper organization, standardization, maintenance, or discipline. Staffing was increased, and by the end of 1943 the Pacific’s roster showed approximately 5,000 personnel. By September 1945, the size had increased to 41,600 officers and enlisted personnel.

In 1943, there were 29 aircraft assigned to Pacific operations, and at the end of December scheduled traffic amounted to 20 round-trip flights a week. The westbound lift from California, 107 tons in December 1942, had risen to 355 tons in December 1943. In addition, ATC performed special missions. One such mission was to send eight sets of B-24 modified horizontal stabilizers to Fifth Air Force at Port Moresby, Australia, to keep their B-24s flying.

As combat operations moved further north, the Australian terminus shifted from Brisbane to Townsville and Port Moresby, 1300 miles north of Brisbane. Sometimes, ordered equipment arrived at its destination after the ordering unit had moved to another location requiring trans-shipping the equipment.

With the rapid movement of combat activities northward, the Central Pacific route became the primary focus of transpacific operations rather than the Southwest Pacific route to Australia.
Air evacuation planes carried cargo and passengers on their westward flights and evacuation of the wounded eastward. In the battle at Saipan alone approximately 800 wounded were evacuated.

Throughout 1944 and 1945, ATC played an increasingly important role. In December 1943, the actual westbound lift amounted to 494 tons. The next December it was 1,618 tons, and in July 1945 it reached 3,483 tons. Bomber Command flew hundreds of B-29 bombers to the western Pacific for action against the Japanese homeland. An enlarged ATC played an important role in supporting strategic bombing by bringing in equipment and additional crews.

After the war with Japan ended on 30 August 1945, 1,336 C-54 flights brought over 23,000 troops, 924 jeeps, 9 disassembled liaison aircraft, 329 other vehicles and pieces of equipment, gasoline, and rations to Atsugi Airdrome, Japan. More than 7,000 released prisoners were flown to Okinawa, Japan, to begin their repatriation journey to the U.S.

Size of the Air Transport Command

When operations began on 1 July 1942, ATC’s military strength was approximately 11,000 officers and enlisted men. By August 1945, it had reached over 209,000 with an additional 104,000 civilian personnel. ATC’s fleet of 3,700 planes operated an aerial network stretching 180,000 miles reaching virtually everywhere in the world. In July 1945, the month preceding the termination of hostilities, ATC planes carried almost 275,000 passengers and delivered just under 100,000 tons of mail and freight.

Size of the Naval Air Transport Service (NATS)

While ATC supported the Army, NATS supported naval fleet forces worldwide. Its planes were R4D (C-47) and R5D (C-54) aircraft, and several types of flying boats. At its peak strength it totaled four wings of 18 squadrons that had 540 aircraft with 26,000 personnel.

Air Transport Command Legacy

On 18 September 1947, the U.S. Air Force became a separate branch of the military, and on 1 June 1948 the Air Transport Command and the Naval Air Transport Service merged into one organization, the Military Air Transport Service (MATS).

ATC had built a highly effective worldwide military delivery system through its pioneering efforts of building bases and establishing routes and navigation aids. The Military Air Transport Service inherited a very successful operation and continued the mission of military airlift to our forces and those of our allies.

4 Comments

  • The ATC did a vital resupply to a small captured German airfield near Arnhem in 1944. If I remember correctly they flew in and out of one runway only a mile or so from the German lines while the 82nd Airborne provided cover. The stores and equipment were needed to keep the allies on the move toward the trapped British 1st Airborne Division. Can anyone tell me about it? I am writing a book that includes it

  • Gary Frank Scott

    My father commanded two bases in Nigeria from summer 1942 through fall 1943 after initially ferrying twin engined aircraft from Florida via Natal.
    This supply route is undervalued as pivotal for sustaining British operations in northern Africa and Middle East until Azores base could be opened.
    Originally headed by United Airlines chief pilot Kris Kristofferson, my daddy was recruited as American Airlines pilot after learning to fly in 1934 at Randolph Field north of San Antonio. I still read daddy’s diary that he kept for those months in Nigeria and flying the route through Egypt, Erithrea , Arabia, to Pakistan and India.

    • My fathers (mhrip) unit probably built the airstrips that your dad used to land at Ascension Island and many countries in Africa. The 38th engineers never received the recognition they deserved because Ascension was a secret airfield. They tried to camouflage it but the best they could do in 90 days was making the gas tanks invisible from the Germans.

  • A very informative and well-researched article. Because, in 1944-45, my husband had flown the Brazil – Ascension – India route, I was familiar with it and thus I especially appreciated learning more about trans-Pacific routes.

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