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George Turpyn: Pilot and Crew Held Captive in Tibet

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This is George's blood chit, which was first used for WWII soldiers fighting in India, Burma and China. They were often affixed to the back of your jacket.

George Turpyn enlisted in the Air Corps in 1942 as a 19-year-old. On the 41st mission his luck, as they say, ran out. After bailing out near Tibet, they encountered what they thought were allied Chinese. “We had a flag we showed them to say we are here to fight the Japanese. They called it a blood chit; it offers people a reward if they bring us in,” George recalled. “…. [T]hey didn’t know anything about the Japanese and they didn’t know anything about the war. …We figured that out pretty damn quick.”

Interview: January 31, 2012, Asbury Solomons, Solomons, Md.

I was done. I was on my last mission, but we weren’t shot down.  We had been flying since daylight and it was now in the night, middle of the night. We had thunderstorms and in bad weather with no navigation aids. We were flying through thunderstorms and we were out of oxygen and we’d had trouble with one engine all day.  We had been climbing hard and we had just broken out of the clouds and the navigator was in the dome trying to determine our position. One of our engines ran away. The propeller lost control and just a big fan holds you back.  Shortly after that, the second one did the same thing, so now we had one good engine and one bad engine.

We still had fuel. We had an undetermined position. We knew we were in the mountains somewhere, we didn’t know where we were, flying 21,000 feet to get on top of the storm and avoid the mountains – in the foothills of Tibet in Western China – and the engines started cutting out so I ordered the guys to start bailing out at 16,000 feet. I had 10 men aboard [the plane] and as we started to bail out, the last four of us got in this very remote area.

We were captured and they stripped us of everything, everything but our long underwear. We had all kinds of gear and survival kits with us, but when we hit the ground, we thought we were with Chinese. When we approached these three guys, we thought they were Chinese. We let them look at our gear but then we found out they were not friendly at all, and they had guns which they pointed at us, so we started to run. They captured us one at a time.

When the engines quit, it flies like a rock. And it had big bomb bay gas tanks on the airplane.  We had to get out between the tank and the front of the airplane because I tried to drop those tanks but they wouldn’t go out.  I had a handle by my seat I pulled up and they are supposed to drop out but they didn’t. We had pumped the gas out of them, and we tried to get them out of the way so we could bail out.  Tried to get our survival gear and our chute – try to get between the tank and the bulkhead of the airplane and I don’t know how we did it. I don’t know how we got out of there really. 

We just knew we had to get the hell out of there.  And so the last four on the flight deck started up and the co-pilot went out, the navigator and nose gunner went out and I was following them and as I went to get off the flight deck, I realized the airplane started to turn and I thought hell that thing is going to come back and hit us so I had to crawl back up in there and turn the sucker the other way and get it back on auto pilot and turn it back out again. 

When I pulled my cord I could still see the tail of that airplane; I pulled it too quick.  I could still see the tail of that airplane.  When I started out it was ungodly quiet and these mountains just seem to grow around you.  Just like you are sitting in the airplane, the mountains are growing.  And I looked down and I was up 400 feet off the side of the hill and I thought I was going in the water and I was getting ready to pop my chute and I hit the ground and I said, “Oh my busted ass!" and I stood up and fell down again.  

I hit on the side of the slope where the fog was coming up, and I got up and started walking around and I hollered a few times and some distance away the co-pilot was able to hear me, so we got together and I started walking.  And I was carrying my chute and he was carrying his chute and we saw these three Chinese, we thought.  We had a flag we showed them to say we are here to fight the Japanese.  They called it a blood chit; it offers people a reward if they bring us in. They didn’t know anything about the end of the war being near. They knew that we were there and they wanted ransom for us. We were invaders as far as they were concerned and they didn’t know anything about the Japanese and they didn’t know anything about the war.  They didn’t have any war except with their neighbors. We figured that out pretty damn quick.  They took our blood chit and they couldn’t even read it.  This is what it was. [Pulls his out of his memorabilia.] These were also on our backs, on the leather jacket.  [Points.] That’s Chinese. Says we are here to end the war against the Japanese and promises a reward if we are brought in. 

So we showed it to these guys and they put it in their pocket and they took our guns, and so I started running and Sam started running and I immediately sprained my ankle and I said, “Hell, I’m never going to get away like this.” So I laid down and I rolled down the hill; I literally rolled down this very steep hill.  There were brambles and rocks – there weren’t any trees – we were above the treeline.

I got down quite a ways and I looked up and here is this guy standing above me like this with a pistol and he shoots at me and he missed so I just started rolling again.  And he picked up a rock and hit me in the back of the head.  And I started to bleed like a stuck pig, but I rolled on down further, and like a rat I dug into a hole and he gave up trying to look for me.  It was overgrowth is what it was, but I got up in there and he came around but he didn’t see me.

At this point, I didn’t have any gear except my clothes and my helmet.  We had to leave food and all that behind when we ran, but then night came and I heard these drums down in the valley and we thought we were still with the Chinese and we thought these were guys calling us in.  So, I worked my way down and when I got down there, boy, they grabbed me and then stripped me. 

We found out later they were called black Lolos.  They’re war-like tribes and the Chinese get over there and the Lolos grab them and treat them like slaves and hold them for ransom.  They didn’t know what we were, either.

They had guns and they had little kids running around with baskets and we looked in the basket and they had hand grenades in them and they had World War I mausers or rifles. They captured us one at a time and I was the first one and then they brought the co-pilot in and he was stripped like I was and was left with a pair of shoes, long underwear and a shirt. Carl was a navigator, and I thought my God they must’ve killed Carl. Next they brought Carl in and then that afternoon they brought Danny in and they were all stripped. It was cold. This was February in Tibet. Well they didn’t have any snow then. It was not freezing. 

Well, when they finally got us and brought us all in. They herded us together in this central area and then, we slept there one night and I felt someone fiddling around with my shoes and we had agreed amongst ourselves that if anybody takes our shoes, we die fighting; we ain’t going to give up our shoes!

A gal, must’ve been the chief’s wife, I don’t know, had come down from the main hut and she was taking my shoes and I said, “No!” And about that time a cocks his gun and he was pissed. He didn’t like this, so she stole my woolen sock and she gave me a nylon stocking to replace it.  And from that day on they walked us up and down the mountains at gun point – all day looking for the airplane.  They wanted the guns out of that airplane; they heard there were guns in that plane and they were looking for fuji.  Fuji is airplane. They literally pulled us up and down those mountains in long underwear and a shirt.  But we were exhausted all the time; we had run out of oxygen.  I don’t know exactly where we were but it was high altitude and we were exhausted all the time being hauled up and down those mountains.

They stole all our watches, so we didn’t have any idea of time, but we’d start after dawn and go throughout the day. We weren’t always walking with the same people, and while we were out these guys would be running around in the hills yodeling and each one had some sort of a colored piece of cloth on his gun and that was their identification as to their tribe, I guess.

In the village, they gave us something at the morning and something at night and after we had been there awhile they split us into groups. Two, each of us, and they assigned us to a family who was responsible for feeding us and they put a big skillet in the fire and put some sort of fat in it and put some, I think it must’ve been goat meat in there, and they would fry it and then would put water in there, and they would steam ground-up corn and they also had something that they would put water in and boil it and it looked like weeds they put in there. I don’t know what it was. It was like spinach.

You know people have said to us, “Why did you do that [stay]? Why didn’t you just leave by yourself, just go down to the river?”  Well, where the hell is the river?  We didn’t know where we were; we knew we were in the mountains, and there was no river down there, so where the hell are you going to go? 

At night we just tried to stay warm. It was cold, and we were sleeping on bare ground in these huts. There was a fire in the center, but they put it out at night.  We had a goat skin to sleep on. They were full of bugs. They looked almost like a tick. We found them and swept them off us. When you tried to cover up with the goat skin they were on it. It was protection, but it wasn’t warm and we used to sleep with our arms around each other and as I said the navigator and I used to sleep in the hut and a pen behind us with the goats. 

The little goat, in fact the two of them, would get out and jump around us at night; we wished we could eat the buggers.  But after, we think the ransom was paid because they started leading us out and we were going through a village and we went into an area of the village with chickens in there.  They got a damn chicken out and they gave it to me.  Here I am with the chicken and I got to eat it, so I literally twisted its damn neck off and it didn’t really twist, but I broke it off. 

I was a farm boy, but we cut their head off with a hatchet. We never broke their neck and mother always cleaned the chickens. But after I got his neck off, I had to get a big pot of water and I dunked it and I pulled the feathers off and some way or another I got the thing opened and I pulled the guts out of it and I got a pan and got water and I boiled it and cooked it so we could tear it apart and eat it. It was the four of us.  Sam and Danny and Carl and I.  I can’t imagine getting through the war without Carl.

Before this time, we prayed a lot. And we talked about getting even is what we talked about. We just didn’t know where the hell we were going to go. We wondered if they would keep us as slaves – to clean the goats and stuff. 

I had a girlfriend at home; I had two or three of them! But my navigator had a wife and a baby and my co-pilot had been married, and Danny had his folks.

There was a town they were always talking about. We thought there could be a chance they might kill us, but we didn’t really think so because we knew we were being held for ransom.  We bailed out the third of February 1945 and I think we were ransomed late that month because they started feeding us better and got together a war party to take us to the Yangtze river and we were met by Chinese who took us to the war lord area and he apparently paid our ransom and the United States repaid him.

We found out later that they had been paid 1,200 silver Chinese dollars for us, which we didn’t think was very flattering since that was only 300 for each of us. We walked for days and days. We were pooped all the time. We had lost weight.  The Chinese general had his own army pick us up at the river, and after a short time he got us some horses, but the horses were small and I could almost drag my feet. And they had a kid that led the horse and me bouncing on the back of it and he knew that I liked that chicken, so we went into a yard and he brought me some eggs and I put them in my shirt hoping they wouldn't break.

But I forgot to tell you about my head when they captured me. They cracked my head with that rock. They sure did; I was bleeding like a stuck pig and we managed to talk them into letting us get into one of our kits and we managed to get into the kit and one of them had sulfa in it and we packed my head with sulfa.  I still have the scar – I’ll show you the scar here. Boy, that hurt like hell. We were worried it would get infected, living like that. Hell yea, that’s why we put the sulfa in. We packed it in with sulfa, When we walked, my toes had blisters and they would break and you could see almost the bones in my feet and they were covered in blood and my shoes were full of blood and my toes were just covered with skin, really, and bone.
I was pretty skinny by the end of this.[Shows picture.] This was after being rescued and being fed by the American rescue party and so forth. 

That was taken when we got back. Luey Gwayfah was the war chief. His army got us down into the town and they had a doctor there to look at my feet and he had a compound of pork fat and spices that he put on my toes and that’s all he put on. It didn’t hurt, and we got a chance to take a bath. I meant to tell you that when we talked them into letting us use the sulfa, we also talked them into letting us have a couple of canteens, so we would put water in a canteen and put it in the fire and boil it, so we wouldn’t get really sick. But we couldn’t afford to take any of it to do any washing and we didn’t have any soap. We would wash the best we could; we would take leaves or grass and whatever we found and wipe ourselves off and stuff like that, but there was no taking a bath. When we got to the village, the Chinese doctor arranged for us to take a bath and there was a big wash tub he let us get in, and when we got out it was like mud – the water. 

Then, after we had been in town a couple of days, the magistrate of the town decided to have a party and they were having all these people from all around come in and have a party and while we were there and in walks this American rescue party.  An army flight surgeon had an interpreter and a radio operator. We had a big party that night, and we had fermented rice that was strong as hell. It was really grain alcohol. It really affected us.

Interviewer: Now you said you flew 40 missions do you feel that there was any particular experience that you took from that which prepared you for this ordeal in terms of helping you deal with fear or deal with…

They taught us how to practice bailing out and we practiced that. But we didn’t expect to go through what we did.  I mean, sure,  we thought about getting shot down. Damn right. We were flying over enemy boats at night 400 feet above with a B-24? A B-24 bomber flying behind enemy lines? You’re damn right we thought about getting shot down.

Our closest call was one night outside of Shanghai. We were flying and attacking a convoy in the river outside of Shanghai. We were down at 400 feet on a bomb run and we were getting about ready for bombs away and the bombardier said, “Pull up! We’re going to bomb a rock.” But he may have been wrong because the navigator and the radar operator also were looking at the target on the scopes and they thought it was a big ship but the bombardier said it was a rock and he could visually see it. You don’t bomb a rock at 400 feet with high explosives because you would blow yourself right out of the air, so I pulled up and when I pulled up all hell broke loose like the 4th of July.

It was a big Japanese convoy we were flying over and they shot out our radar, but fortunately they didn’t shoot our engine or any of us. But they knocked us out so we couldn’t continue our mission.  We were at 400 feet and we had to climb up away from that damn convoy and everyone in the convoy was shooting at us. I could hear the shells bouncing off the airplane and sparks were everywhere. It was miraculous that we got out of there.

That was about half way through my tour. By that point, it was like this one is out of the way. Our problem over there was not enemy action, it was the fact that there was no navigation. The weather was bad, and we would be out on long missions and coming back in unless you got close enough for a signal you never knew where the hell you were.

You didn’t fuel in the air back then. You fueled before you went out and you hoped you had enough to get back.  We had people who would run out of gas and they crashed and they had airplanes that ran into mountains cause they didn’t know where the hell they were.

That is the reason I was so damn high [when they bailed out over Tibet] because we came across the coast and we were flying at 5 or 6,000 feet and these huge thunderstorms were ahead of us and we knew the ground would be going up so I kept climbing and I couldn’t see where the hell I was and the navigator couldn’t navigate because he couldn’t get up in the dome. We kept climbing to get out of the storms and we were flying at 21,000 feet and finally broke out. Our oxygen lights were coming on. The navigator got up in the dome to get ready to take our position when the first engine ran away and somehow we got that damn thing under control and then the other one ran away, and we started losing altitude.

I was 19 when I enlisted. In 1942. Everybody was going, and I wasn’t anywhere near being drafted yet.  I got into exactly what I wanted to get into. I wanted to fly; I wanted a crew. The wash out rate was terrible; 46 percent were washed out from our class. When I went to take the examinations for aviation cadet in Rochester, 125 people were taking the test. We had three days.  First day was mental exam. Those that passed that then had physical exam, those that passed that had a psychological test. The last day, they had us in a room and they said. “OK, everyone’s name who I call go off to the side.” So they called off about 80 percent of the names and then they said all the rest of you passed.  I didn’t have any college; they didn’t require any college then. After we took that examination and got qualified, I was assigned as a private and I went to Ft. Niagara and got my uniform and my shots and then they sent us to Camp Mills down by Mitchell Army Base in New York state. I finally got my actual appointment as a cadet in December.

So then we went to Classification and we took the same tests again and 60 percent of the class washed out. Then we went to pre-flight and they decided they gave us a lot of extra training, more tests and the altitude chamber. Then we went to Primary Flight School. A guy from Rochester, from my home town, crashed on landing on his very first flight. Forty percent of that class washed out, and then we went to Basic and they gave us time in PT 13 – that’s a bigger airplane, bigger engine. It did not have a retractable gear. I didn’t do too bad with that airplane except I didn’t do too well with formation flying. I did not like formation flying.

After I got through basic, I got held over one class – 40 percent of that class washed out. I got held over and then I went to Advanced, went to Texas to learn twin engine airplanes and twin engines were my thing.  I I could really handle the twin engine. So after we were graduated from advanced and got our commissions and got a months’ vacation and then I went to B-24 transition and learned to fly a B-24 airplane and then we went to Salt Lake City and was assigned a crew and then we went to California and did training out there, formation flying, gunnery practice, all kinds of things.  Cross country flying, we had two crews run into the mountains out there.

Then we went to California to go to the Pacific and they said we need people to fly missions against ships.  So they selected a bunch of crews to go to Langley Air Force Base for low altitude bombing training. Back I went to Langley and learned to fly night missions at 400 feet.  When I got through with that then I had to go down and sign for an airplane. I got assigned to a brand new airplane – brand new airplane with a million dollars’ worth of equipment and we flew to China.

Half the time I was scared because the most I’d ever flown was a 1938 Chevy, you know.  We went to Abadan, Iran on the way over. We had to go in there before 7 o’clock in the morning because things would heat up so much the engines would overheat.  Then we flew from there to India to Pakistan.  Then we flew over the Hump [Mt. Everest].

They call that the aluminum trail because you can track airplanes that had crashed or been shot down by the Japanese as you are flying over across the hump.  We flew into China. Our landing field in China was at 6,000 feet altitude. That’s pretty tricky. The engines don’t have the power, because of flack or the density of the air. The propellers have nothing to pull against.  All the runways weren’t paved; they were stone which had been laid down by hundreds of Chinese. I would lock the brakes, put on full power and superchargers, release your brakes and you would barely start moving. By the time you got to the tower, you would get your nose up so you want to pull the damn thing off manually off and it isn’t ready to fly yet, so you stagger off in the air and you have to drop down over the lake to get your climbing speed and that was normal.

That was the runway I used on my first mission. And I was thinking, I hope to God we make it. But you can’t say that out loud.

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