By Michael R. Moser
When Lake Tansi resident Harry Ellis was a 12-year-old, he saw his first airplane and then wrote in his journal that he would be flying one by the time he was 20-years-old. Harry did become a pilot — but he never dreamed at such a young age he would be piloting wings without an engine.
The 90-year-old veteran of the China-Burma-India Theater of WWII will receive his long overdue medals relating to his service.
“Well, you know, they are attendance medals,” Ellis laughs. “They are presented because I was there, I didn’t get into trouble and I did what I was supposed to do.”
The Arkansas native graduated from Arkansas Tech in 1942 with a degree in engineering, and immediately enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Less than perfect eyesight knocked him out of being a traditional pilot, but when Ellis volunteered for glider training, he was quickly accepted.
“They couldn’t get enough volunteers,” Ellis remembers, but he found it to be a way to serve his country in the air. What followed was months of training in “dead stick” flying as well as training flying light planes.
The early glider training consisted of being towed off a runaway by a BT-13, rising to between 3-4,000 feet up and then cutting off the cable and landing the motorless craft. That was followed by glider mechanic school where Ellis learned to assemble the craft and to repair them.
He finally graduated on his 21st birthday with the rank of Staff Sgt. with flight officer privileges. His first post-training assignment was ferrying gliders from his station in Louisville to the East coast in preparation for the D-Day invasion. None of the pilots knew about the D-Day plans.
Then it was back to weapons training on a host of weapons, ranging from side arms and machine guns to light artillery.
As his unit waited for orders to go to England, the American Red Cross sent word that his wife had delivered a premature and very sick baby in Texas and that both were hospitalized. He got a rare war time pass to return home to be with his family and while he was gone, his unit received their orders to go to England.
“I would have preferred to have gone to England with my buddies,” Ellis said this week. “It just wasn’t meant to be, I guess, and while they went to England, I went to China.”
The British troops charged with protecting England’s interest in India were having a hard time turning back the threat of Japanese forces that were in Burma and China. The British were losing troops on long marches into the jungle to confront the Japanese troops, so a plan was devised to use gliders to deliver troops (up to 15 men per glider) and equipment (Case caterpillars, small artillery), ammunition and medical supplies.
In Burma, mules were flown into the jungle to assist with moving supplies to where the fighting was taking place.
The glider pilots in the outfit Ellis was assigned to flew under Maj. Gen. Claire L. Chennault.
Ellis flew about a dozen glider missions. He also flew a light plane (an L-5 liaison aircraft with modified design to allow for cargo or air ambulance work) into remote and rugged make-shift landing strips, delivering oil and other supplies, and taking out wounded on the return trip to Inphal, India.
During his time in the CBI Theater, Ellis also went out as a spotter to identify air strike targets.
Ellis says he had trouble for years with nightmares of crashing with his cargo of a drum of oil and burning alive. There was also the fear of crashing and being captured.
“We all knew if the Japanese captured you, you would not come out alive and you wouldn’t die fast.”
When word came that the Japanese had surrendered, Ellis was told to double the guard at the landing site where he was at in China. The Chinese warlords immediately returned to fighting each other and the allies knew they had to get out quick.
As his service came to an end, Ellis came home by sea in what ended up being a month-long trip. When he arrived home, he felt a sick feeling that he still recalls.
“I remember thinking for three and a half years ... all I wanted to do was get out. I arrived back in Texas and I stood there staring at me in-law’s home, scared to go to the house. I just stood there and thought, what do I do now?”
Ellis eventually went back to school, got his law degree, opened up a private practice, went to work for the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency and as a treasury agent. He also worked in the Criminal Investigative Division of the Internal Revenue Service (after going back to school to get a required accounting degree) and ended up as regional counsel for the IRS.
In retirement, he and his wife, Anne, traveled for four years in a travel trailer before discovering Lake Tansi and finally calling it home.
While history is full of the tales of the role glider pilots played in the Normandy invasion, not many know of the role glider pilots played in places like Burma and China. But Harry knows because a quirk in fate sent him there.