When Howard J. “Howie” Ross and his fellow soldiers were told they were going to India, they figured the training officers had made a mistake and meant Italy, where there would be plenty of action in freeing the people from the Axis.
But India and beyond were indeed where they headed, to one of the lesser-known theaters of operation during World War II. And little did they know they would come in contact with tribal headhunters.
It would turn out to be an unforgettable journey for Ross, who had been working as an 18-year-old cabdriver in the City of Tonawanda.
He and other members of the 556th Signal Aircraft Warning Battalion were trained at Drew Field in Tampa, Fla., for the hazardous job of going out beyond the front lines to spot enemy aircraft. They learned not only how to distinguish enemy planes from those of the Allies, but survival skills, as well, since supplies arrived by airdrops, which weren’t always dependable because of monsoons.
“Radar was new, and the machines were bulky, so we were the radar,” Ross recalls. “We could tell the types of planes by sight and the sounds of their engines. We were able to tell the altitude, the direction and the weather conditions.”
Ross and his colleagues had volunteered for the job when faced with the choice of that or working as cooks.
“I wanted to get in the Army Air Forces,” he says, “and so I took something a little more daring than working as a cook.”
He thought for certain when they landed in Africa that they were indeed bound for Italy.
“We spent two months in Africa loading merchant ships with supplies going to Italy,” he says. “Then we came to find out we were waiting for a ship to take us to India. They told us we would be sneaking past Cyprus, where the Germans were.”
The voyage to India took about two weeks, south through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea and then to the Arabian Sea, at last arriving in Bombay.
But there was no time for sightseeing.
“They put us on a train,” Ross remembers. “We headed for Calcutta beside the Bay of Bengal.”
Again, as they cut across India, there was no time for sightseeing, except for what they could see from their less than luxurious train.
“Then they put us on a riverboat and we headed north,” he says. “Then there was another train, and that took us past Dibrugarh to a little town that was home base for our company in a portion of India between China and Burma.”
The trip was still not over, however.
“We flew, we took a Jeep, were on another riverboat, and ended up walking 150 miles in 12 days through jungles to get to our post,” he recalls. “We were up about 6,500 feet between a range of mountains in Burma. … There were blank spots on the government maps we were given that represented unexplored territory we were in.”
But one thing was known: Members of a Naga tribe lived in the region, and they were headhunters.
Ross and the other nine soldiers, plus 25 Gurkhas from Nepal, lived in a stockade built from timbers. At night, its two gates were locked. Fields around the rudimentary fort were protected with bamboo spears to fend off animals or anything else that might turn hostile.
For the most part, Ross says, the headhunters were friendly.
“We gave them salt, and we would buy chickens and eggs from them,” he says. “But you never knew quite how to take them. You’d get natives from miles away coming to see a white man for the first time.”
On journeys to the tribal villages, Ross remembers, it had not escaped his notice that members of the tribe proudly displayed human skulls.
“I have pictures from one of the villages where 200 skulls were on display,” he says. “The skulls might have belonged to members of the Chinese army who didn’t know about the tribe.”
Fortunately, he and his colleagues never experienced hostile treatment, he says. In fact, the soldiers felt so comfortable, they volunteered for an additional six months at the fort.
“We went hunting any time we had time off,” Ross says. “We hunted deer that barked like dogs. The meat was great.”
Leisure though was sometimes interrupted by lifesaving work.
While they didn’t spot any enemy planes, since by this time the Japanese had been driven out of eastern India, they rescued a total of eight American airmen from crashes.
“The B-29s had come in, and for a month, they had to fly to China to haul fuel before they could make raids into Japan. We spotted them all the time,” Ross says.
“Then one day a native came up to us wearing an airman’s leather jacket and handed us a note from the airman. It said, ‘If anyone gets this, come rescue us.’ The native knew where the crew was, and we went and got three out. A fourth had died, and the natives had already buried him.”
Two of the rescued airmen had been severely injured. A doctor was needed.
“We radioed for a doctor,” Ross says, “and a B-25 flew overhead and a doctor and first officer parachuted in.”
And the airmen survived.
The same could not be said for Ross’ brother, Everett, who had served as a machine-gunner on a B-17 bomber. Just before Ross had left India for Burma, a letter from his mother had caught up with him.
“The letter started out that he was missing,” Ross says. “It was his fifth flight over Germany.”
In time, Ross says, word reached him that his brother and the other crew members had been killed.
“It had been under foggy conditions. They were buried in Belgium but later were returned to the United States and buried at a military cemetery in St. Louis,” he says.
At the time of his death, Everett Ross was 21.
“It was war, and you couldn’t do anything about it,” Ross reflects.
That tragedy aside, Ross says, he relishes his war memories and the great adventure of serving in the China- Burma-India Theater.
When he returned home, he found work at his father’s gas and auto repair station on Payne Avenue in North Tonawanda.
“I worked there 45 years before I sold it,” Ross says. “The station still has our name on it: Ross Service.”
Howard J. Ross, 89
• Hometown: Buffalo
• Residence: North Tonawanda
• Branch: Army
• Rank: Private first class
• War zones: European-African-
Middle Eastern Theater,
• Years of service: 1943-46