The Forgotten War of Captain Craik

C-47 Transport Plane. Al Blunk Photograph Collection (996PC13-511)

C-47 Transport Plane. Al Blunk Photograph Collection (996PC13-511)

Captain James S. Craik (1921-2004) of Louisville was proud of his service as a C-47 transport pilot in the Army Air Corps during World War II. From an airfield in northwestern India, he flew over 211 missions deep into Burma, a land of treacherous weather, forbidding mountains and vast jungle terrain. He also completed three missions flying "The Hump", the Himalayan Mountains, to supply Chinese Nationalist forces in their struggle against both Japanese invaders and Mao Zedong's Communist forces.

However, as he shared in a 1997 letter with then Filson director Dr. Mark Wetherington, he was often frustrated by the fact that no one, even fellow veterans, wanted to listen to his adventures in the air during what one modern historian has termed the "forgotten war" in the China-Burma-India Theater. Craik accordingly donated a copy of his handwritten wartime recollections to the Filson largely because he believed that "no one had any idea of the Burma campaign."

Following the conquest of Burma (present day Myanmar), Japanese forces prepared to invade British controlled India in early 1944. Anglo-Indian forces halted the Japanese offensive in the decisive battles of Kohima and Imphal and forced the Japanese to retreat into Burma in the summer of 1944.

It was during this phase of the struggle that Capt. Craik, who served with the U.S. 3rd Combat Cargo Group, arrived in the theater. In his recollections he describes the operations of Chinese forces under the hard-fighting American General "Vinegar Joe" Stillwell and the exploits of General Frank Merrill's American special operations forces ("Merrill's Marauders") which besieged the Japanese airstrip at Myitkyina, Burma in the spring of 1944. Captain Craik flew several supply drop missions to Merrill's men during the fighting which resulted in an American victory on August 4.

A page from Capt. Craik’s Flight Log Book (Mss. C C, James S. Craik, Jr. Papers)

A page from Capt. Craik’s Flight Log Book (Mss. C C, James S. Craik, Jr. Papers)

Craik's missions took him to Myitkyina often for the remainder of his service and it was near this base that he experienced close brushes with pursuing Japanese fighters. On one occasion, after being ordered by the tower to take evasive action he flew over "20 frightened miles " up a nearby valley before the pursuing Japanese Zero was shot down. On another mission over Myitkyina he spotted a Zero on his tail and swooped through a narrow, rugged valley in a heavy thunderstorm. He recalled, the Zero "follows but catches up too late and disappears in the rain. Did it hit the side of the narrow valley? I claimed it did but no one confirmed it."

Not all of Craik's service was arduous. On one occasion, in the late summer of 1944, his passengers included two USO performers, Hollywood's Ann Sheridan, the legendary "Oomph Girl" and Robert Armstrong, best remembered for his role in King Kong. He also revealed that time between missions was tedious and the bored airmen often drank more than they should. On one occasion, after passing the bottle around for some time, he and a comrade jumped into their plane and "several times dive bombed the base CO's (Commanding Officer) tent, chasing him into a flooded foxhole."

In addition to his wartime recollections, Craik's papers also include photocopies of Armed Services newspapers including the British Army's S. E. A. C. Souvenir (ca. 1945), which provides a detailed overview of Anglo-American operations in the theater, and a 7 September 1944 article from the American Army's C. B. I. Roundup which mentions Craik's late summer mission to Myitkyina. This valuable collection sheds considerable light on the courage and sacrifice of those Americans who fought far from home in one of the most crucial but largely forgotten campaigns of the great global conflict which ended 70 years ago.

China-Burma-India Theater Map from a S.E.A.C. Souvenir, 1945 (Mss. C C - James S. Craik, Jr. Papers)

China-Burma-India Theater Map from a S.E.A.C. Souvenir, 1945 (Mss. C C - James S. Craik, Jr. Papers)

James Prichard

3 comments on “The Forgotten War of Captain Craik

  1. Barbara Haines

    This is why I love the Filson. I had no idea you had this in your archives! Although I’m not related, Craik family research is a topic of particular interest to me. Capt. Craik’s American ancestor was Scots-born Dr. James Craik (ca. 1730-1814).

    Dr. Craik’s father, William, owned an estate near Kirkbean called ‘Arbigland.’ To William’s dismay, his son James supported the American cause in the Revolution and became America’s first Physician General, appointed by his close friend Gen. George Washington. (He was also Washington’s personal physician, and attended him in his last illness.)

    To make matters work, the son of William Craik’s groundskeeper–a lad named John Paul–also sided with the Americans. This fellow also proved somewhat useful to the cause of liberty, although he’s known by the name he later adopted: John Paul Jones.

    What are the odds that two men so important to the founding of this country came from the identical small patch of Scottish soil?

    Dr. Craik had several children, among them a son, George Washington Craik. He, in turn, had a son called James. This James also became a doctor, but of divinity, not of medicine. He came to Louisville and was ordained a Deacon at Christ Church in 1839. The Rev. Dr. Craik served Christ Church as Rector from 1844 until his death in 1882, and was succeeded by his son Charles E. Craik, who became the church’s first Dean after it was elevated to the status of a Cathedral in 1894.

    It is from this family that Capt. James S. Craik was descended–one which has provided countless leaders of medicine, industry, government, and divinity to their communities, and set us all an example to follow.

    Guess I’m headed your way to do some more research!

    1. Jennie Cole

      Thanks for your response, Barbara! We look forward to your visit, adn I will pass this information along to Mr. Prichard, who cataloged the collection!
      Best wishes,

  2. Gene

    Barbara,do you know anything about the early life of Dr. James Craik, physician to George Washington?


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