The "Hump" was considered one of the most treacherous air routes of WWI,…but it was “the only route by which Allied forces in China could be supplied with war materials." It was this route that was flown by five airmen, and the route that nearly killed them. On a routine mission but caught up in a raging storm, their plane was scooped and dumped, forcing a desperate jump onto the rocky face of the Himalayas. Later they saw the local people tearing the plane apart, randomly grappling for the charred wreckage. That was when they realized how close they’d been to death.
Starks, an award-winning journalist, and Murcutt, a writer and world-traveler, walked the route the airmen took, both on the short but frightening journey by foot to Lhasa, and the equally dangerous return on mule back to India. At both ends of the harsh trek, the men were horribly affected by altitude sickness, assaying mountain passes as high as 20,000 feet with no special equipment.
On their unceremonious arrival, all were lucky to have landed alive, though some were in worse physical condition than others. They had no idea they were in Tibet, but were greatly helped by the fact that one of them had taken the trouble to learn some basic Hindi. They also didn’t realize that one of their jackets bore a Chinese insignia which would put them at risk once they got to Lhasa, where Tibetans hated the subtle incursion of the Chinese. The usually friendly and curious Tibetans, who had been helpful before they arrived in the city, began to riot and even try to stone their visitors, who were totally innocent of any sort of international intriguing.
Not so the Chinese themselves, who sought to gain favor with the American government by treating the airmen royally. They hoped thereby to upstage the Tibetans and establish more firmly their tenuous diplomatic foothold in the country. Not knowing they were being manipulated, the airman took food and strong drink offered by the Chinese emissaries. Lots of strong drink.
The book explores not only the intimate details of the Americans’ experience, but the “big game” being played out in the region in which they were unknowing pawns. The British, Chinese, Tibetans and Russians all had a hand in the action, and some of the resulting confusion caused permanent damage in the relations between the US and Tibet.
The men were remarkable in every way, though really just ordinary flyboys trying to survive in a perplexing, dangerous and painful set of circumstances. Their leader, Crozier, instituted a no-class system shortly after they bailed out – there were to be no officers, no inferiors. They were all in this together and equally co-dependent. One of their number, McCallum, did fifty push-ups a day on his thumbs and provided no small inspiration to the others with his personal strength and determination.
The journey home, as fraught with danger as the walk that took them to the seat of the Dalai Lama, is told with a certain bemusement. They dubbed their Tibetan companions Rain, Shine, Duncan Hines and Fort Knox (their guide with a grin of gold). They had in general found Tibet to be boring and dirty, the people ragged and bizarre. The Tibetans “knew nothing of the outside world,” and for entertainment watched the same Laurel and Hardy film over and over with continued delight.
But on balance, the Americans had to admire their hosts. Their determination and bravery as they led their visitors out was generous and laudable. "They lived in an unforgiving land...but had managed to create a society that was based on...shared acceptance."