Grace Beahm // The Post and Courier

Bill McKarns of Bryan, Ohio, was one of only five “Hump pilots” to attend an annual reunion Wednesday, at Magnolia Plantation. The five were World War II pilots who flew dangerous supply missions over the Himalaya Mountains.

The steel in their eyes belies the gray in their hair.

The five men sit back with veteran comfort as the questions fly. They are quick to joke and are matter-of-fact with tales that leave their audience in awe.

They have been in front of the notebooks and cameras before, again and again. It's nothing.

These guys have been over The Hump.

The Army Air Corps "Hump pilots" were the cargo plane lifeline for soldiers in western China battling the Japanese in World War II, lugging 10,000-pound loads of gasoline, food, supplies, ammunition, bombs and the like on 700-mile missions over the top of some of the most treacherous terrain on earth.

The Hump was the name they gave a half- century ago to the jagged, white-capped peaks of the forbidding Himalaya Mountains, a range considered virtually impassable by air not so many years before they flew it.

You simply had to go too high too long. Motors turned to mush, the gas gave out and the air was too thin to breathe.

Their gathering Wednesday was poignant.

The group was at Magnolia Plantation for what might be the last in a series of annual gatherings unbroken since 1946. They are in their late 80s or early 90s, old enough that the reunion organizer was too ill to do it anymore, and they talked before hand about calling it quits.

But Bill Thomas, 91, said, let's fly. One more go-round. And he hosted them in his hometown of Charleston. Only the five were able to make a reunion that once drew hundreds.

"It was too early to shut it off," he said. But now it might just be time. Next year, he said, "somebody else is going to have to volunteer."

Nowadays jets zip and satellites circle above the Himalayas. GPS can draw a bead on anyone below. In the 1940s they flew two-propeller planes, sometimes on only one working prop.

They flew without navigation because the flights were too quick and the weather too bad to get astral fixes.

"You'd fly straight through thunderstorms. They would shake the aircraft around," said Bill McKarns, 88, of Bryan, Ohio, who left forestry school in his teens to pilot a C-46. "I often thought it was like putting a cork in a washing machine. You could hear the (plane's) rivets squeal."

For farm boys and schoolboys raised in the Great Depression, it was an adventure beyond imagining, the risks so daring that risk-taking was part of the game. They'd carry a planeload of 50-gallon drums of gasoline, 10,000 pounds of it, put on oxygen masks to breathe, and some of them still casually lit cigarettes in the cockpit.

"Of course, there were some aircraft that just disappeared," McKarns said with a rueful chuckle.

They wore bail-out messages on their back written in Chinese that said they were Americans here to help -- and offering $5,000 in gold for their safe return. Safe return could mean 30- to 60-day treks village to village.

McKarns flew one mission that was turned around because of fog, then diverted to another airfield because of an air raid. Approaching the third field at night, he was told an air raid warning had gone off, the field was blacked out and he couldn't land.

"I told them, 'That's all well and good, but I'm going to run out of gas, I'm going to run out of oxygen and I'm going to land there in 12 minutes,' " he said. He did, by dead reckoning in the dark.

The next morning he flew back out, without oxygen because the field had none. He kept the plane at 12,000 feet so he could breathe and weaved his way back and forth between 14,000-foot peaks.

"It was the first time I really got to see (the Himalayas). I got right up close and comfortable. I got to see what The Hump was like from 500 feet away, the day after Christmas 1944," he said. "It was fun."

That was a long time ago, in a different world. Today, a space station orbits the globe. You can carry more technology in the palm of your hand than they could have dreamed of. The pilots traveled to the reunion in air-pressured comfort and watched movies as they flew.

"What they did was awesome," said Woody Thomas, Bill Thomas' 14-year-old grandson. "I could never do it. I could never have the courage he did."

Asked what he thinks of it all, if he misses those days, Bill Thomas stops to consider, then grins.

"There's been a lot of progress in aviation," he said. "It's amazing to go someplace and spend more time in the terminal than in the aircraft."