An Interview with Ralph Echols (1922-2006)

March 30th, 2007

In 2003 I had the pleasure of interviewing Ralph Echols, a World War II veteran who fought against the Japanese in northern Burma, at his home in north Dallas. Surrounded by his family, Mr. Echols relayed his experiences, some of which his children and grandchildren had never heard. This was one of the very first veteran interviews I conducted, and I was heart-broken when the audio from the interview was lost when my laptop completely crashed on me. However, Mr. Echols did provide me with some hand-written notes in preparation for our interview. Those notes are included here…

Note: Ralph H. Echols was born in Houston, Texas, on January 12th, 1922. He died on May 5, 2006. His obituary states: “ECHOLS, JR., RALPH H. Born on January 12, 1922 and died on May 5, 2006. Survived by his beloved wife of 50 years Phyllis Lesh Echols; daughters, Carole White, Barbara Kieschnick; son, Ralph Echols, III; grandchildren, Kelle and Brandon Kieschnick, Courtney Kieschnick Smith and husband Matthew Smith, Matthew White and Paul Echols. Ralph served in the US Army Air Corp. during WWII with the Flying Tigers as a P-40 Captain. He also received the Distinguished Flying Cross and other medals. Ralph graduated from SMU after the war. After graduating from SMU he went to work for ARCO as an electrical engineer.”

I was in the Army Air Corps, 14th Air Force in China. I enlisted in January of 1942, and I was discharged in the Fall of 1945. No injuries, except I do have a bum knee that I got from jumping off of a tent, of all things. I was trying to fix a stove, and those tents were made out of 2×4′s, and as I came back down, I jumped off, and that’s where I got my knee.

4 Air Medals, 2 Distinguished Flying Crosses, maybe 3.

I first heard we were at war at A&M.. I was playing touch football. Some idiot came out and said that Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Well, I had never heard of Pearl Harbor. There was never any question- I was ready to go to war after being down there… We were all raised to go to war down there at A&M.. I was a freshman at A&M, 19 years old, no money. Tuition was 5 dollars. When the war started, I was ready to go to war… they had beaten my ass enough down there.

When I first got to boot camp they didn’t have any instructors, rooms, planes. It wasn’t until March that I got to Lackland in San Antonio. So that’s where we started. And we stayed there 3 or 4 weeks, and they drilled us, etc. I had never seen an airplane- none of us had ever seen an airplane- I’m serious about that. But I knew that I wanted to fly; mainly because you got 50% more pay, instead of $200 a month, you got $300 a month. That was a lot.

First time I went up in a training plane it was frightening I guess, but not overly so. The instructors were all old cropduster pilots; we did not get the cream of the crop, so to speak. I remember my first instructor would tell me “kick the stick”, which really meant to position the stick in a certain way. Well, I didn’t know that, so I would literally kick that stick. But everyone wanted to be a fighter pilot. At least half washed out, though. I was fortunate; actually I was pretty bad. I was on the brink of being washed out at least twice, maybe three times. And they knew my grades weren’t the best. Thankfully, we were given a check ride by an Army guy who knew what he was doing. And so, I passed.

After San Antonio, we went to Oklahoma City at Cimarron Field, and that was the beginning of flight training. We were there about two months. Each stage was about two months, except basic which was 6 weeks or so. I got to learn how to fly P-17′s.

I took my tactical training, after I got my Wings, in Tampa Bay. Mostly the guys down there were flying B-26′s. We were trying to ship us out as soon as possible. I originally thought, and thought that I was really suited for, going down to Panama. I had all the training for that, but then we really didn’t know where we were going to go. One morning they woke us up at 4:00 am, put us on a plane, and off we went on a plane to Brazil. We were on Ascension Island, then off through Chad, then on to India. As soon as we got to India, we were sent to Harachi, Pakistan. The real Flying Tigers- I wasn’t a real Flying Tiger, I was one of the guys that came in after the Flying Tigers- were coming out, out and we were coming in. Well, I don’t know if they arranged this or not, but we got a chance to be with those guys for about three weeks. We flew with them, talked with them about what they did, got a lot of insight and good advice, which was great. I really, really enjoyed that.

I really don’t remember my first mission; I remember most of them, but I don’t remember the first. One I do remember… I got the nickname “Dud” towards the end of the war. I had two or three nicknames during the war, but that was one of them. I bombed a place in northern Burma- kind of a fortress-looking thing, and my bomb went straight down a well- I mean right down that thing, and a big plume of smoke came right up, believe it or not. Just right up in the air, a big smoke ring, and everyone kidded me about that and started calling me Dud.

Most of the things I did were against the Japanese in northern Burma. It wasn’t a bad deal there- plenty to eat… if you notice, whenever I talk about China, we didn’t have much too eat over there. But it was OK in Burma. We were in there for a while, through the summer of ’43 we moved up to the Bama Kutra River, and stayed there though the late summer. Then we were all transferred, as a group, to China. This was about early Fall of ’43, down to Yun-Yang-Yi in China.

I flew P-40′s. Typical flying day in China started with us all reporting down at the flying line at 4:30 for instructions.. I don’t know why the hell we had to wake up that early, but we did. We didn’t have anything like radar, but we did have a fairly sophisticated radio system, which was actually operated by the Chinese, they would report what was going on- a plane spotted here or there, or troop movements, etc. Anyway, we would go eat breakfast after being briefed, and we would eat eggs. Not powdered, I mean fresh eggs. In fact that’s all we ever ate in China were goddamn fresh eggs! To this day, I can’t stand fresh eggs! We would go to the mess hall- it was pretty nice… we didn’t have electricity, but we had coal stoves. This was about 8-9k feet, so it got pretty cold. Lived with a constant headache the whole time we were there.

Depending on whether or not we thought we could catch a convoy or something early, we would take off pretty early when it was still dark. The P-40 has the ability to hold a single bomb, and we would use an electric switch to release it. Lots of times it just wouldn’t release; not mine, but it did happen to others, and we would lose those guys. We could carry up to a 500 pounder. Sometimes we would need to carry a gas tank underneath the plane if we were going far enough.

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