Excerpted from Best Little Stories from World War II: More than 100 true stories (2nd edition), by C. Brian Kelly, pp. 196-198.
War Still Supreme
For Spencer R. Quick of Chicago, it wasn’t always the Japanese he had to worry about while flying tiny single-engine liaison airplanes in China. The other kind of risk could be a mission as “simple” as flying an American officer to headquarters from some remote outpost–such as the day Sergeant Quick was expected to lift a somewhat impatient lieutenant colonel from a rice paddy near Lungling for a ride to HQ at Paoshan.
After landing–squishing down?–in the unexpectedly boggy rice field, Quick tried to explain that taking off again would be, in a word, “difficult.” After some discussion as to who was in charge here, the lieutenant colonel “got very angry and threatened to have me court-martialed for disobeying
Quick, a mere noncom, like all liaison pilots flying Stinson L-5s and Piper L-4s for the U.S. Army in China and elsewhere, finally acquiesced. Rank, after all, is rank.
Up to a point, anyway… and it would be Sergeant Quick doing the flying. Making a circuit of the rice paddy and its dikes by foot, he had taken notice of a long, somewhat dry rice paddy on the far side of one dike. The takeoff would still be “difficult” to say the least, but a plan had evolved in his head. A plan that he kept to himself.
He told his passenger to leave all his gear behind, even his parachute, to lighten their Stinson L-5. In the process of that briefing, Quick somehow failed to mention the adjoining rice paddy. After all, as anyone could see, it was separated from theirs by an impossibly high dike.
After they climbed aboard, Quick taxied around his wet paddy for a time, steadily revving up his speed, to shake off the mud clinging to his wheels and… well, to make a long story short, he quite suddenly made a fast run at the high dike, “bounced the plane hard” just before reaching the earthen wall, bounced over it, wheels just grazing the top, “mushed down into the adjoining field,” the dry one, then really bounced the fast-moving plane and got it airborne.
At Paoshan thirty minutes later, a white-faced, thoroughly chastened lieutenant colonel climbed out and said, “I’ll never fly in one of these damned things again,” but added his thanks and acknowledged, “I know I almost caused both of us to get killed.”
All in standard operating procedure (SOP), it seems, for the incredible, intrepid airmen like Quick who day in and day out flew the L-5 and the L-4 in the tough, unforgiving terrain of the CBI–the China-Burma-India theater of war.
That day’s work could also mean carrying artillery spotters, ferrying supplies, transporting the mail, or evacuating the wounded from the ever-changing battlefronts of China and Burma. The risk factor was ever there too.
For one light-plane pilot one day, it was a Chinese horse that stepped in front of his L-4 as it was taking off from a sandbar near Seaton. With repairs, the L-4 did survive. The horse did not. Undeterred, pilot Robert M. Smith of Iron Mountain, Michigan, flew out the L-4–no brakes, loose fabric on the left wing.
Smith, it might also be mentioned, flew air evacuation missions for the famous Merrill’s Marauders who fought the Japanese in the near-impassable jungles of Burma. “I had a few adventures during that time,” Smith acknowledged in the limited-circulation book The Unsung Flyers, a collection of first-person accounts by L-plane pilots from all theaters of World War II.
As one such adventure, Smith cited the time he had to make “an instrument let-down from 5,000 feet with no instruments, a broken air speed indicator, a near-dry fuel tank [and] a stretcher patient.” All in a day’s work. “I pulled out just before hitting some trees and found our air strip in heavy rain.”
Another time, “Again with a patient… I experienced a bad down-draft in very hot air at the end of the strip at the base of a hill.” Again, all in a day’s work for an L-plane pilot. “I made a flat turn up a creek in among the trees with the throttle fire-walled, the airplane lifted out without touching a thing.”
Sometimes, however, the hardworking little planes did “touch” a thing or two-like trees, or mountainsides suddenly rising up in front of them. This was the land of the “Hump,” the vast Himalayan range that had to be crossed to reach China from India’s Allied bases. Usually, the flying noncoms disassembled their machines for shipment over the Hump by large transport aircraft, then reassembled them on the other side.
The day came, though, when an extraordinary flight of thirty L-planes took on the Hump crossing on their own, with all but one successfully boring their way through the mountains–and storms that tossed about the light aircraft like confetti.
That one, piloted by Lee East of Highland Park, Illinois, was forced down by a thunderstorm, then hurtled headlong into a tree. East was thrown through the windshield and soaked with aviation fuel, but with the help of area villagers and Chinese bandits, he was able to reach his destination of Kunming, China, anyway. The journey, of course, involved a lot of walking.
Spencer Quick (of bouncing-over-the-dike fame) also had an encounter with Mother Earth in his trusty L-5. Caught in a downdraft and slammed against a mountainside, he yet managed to pancake his plane into a “small, tight draw.” Like his compatriot Lee East, Quick was thrown partway through the windshield and soaked with gasoline, but he was able–again with villager help–to reach civilization and safety as well.
But another kind of service, a calling, really, still awaited him. It had to do with his mountainside encounter in the CBI. “As I reflected afterwards on what happened to me,” he wrote in fellow L-plane pilot Earl F. Nelson’s Unsung Flyers book, “I slowly realized that God had in fact provided His saving grace to me–as I called out to Him in my terror and agony.”
In 1953, Spencer Quick entered the Virginia Theological Seminary to prepare for his real, his lifetime, calling as an Episcopal priest.