John R. Alison
Late in 1940, a Chinese delegation representing Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek needed to purchase airplanes through America’s lend-lease program. American advisor, Claire Chennault, arranged for a demonstration of the new P-40 Warhawk. Chennault wasn’t necessarily a big fan of the P-40, but he chose John Alison to demonstrate the airplane. After the brief exhibition, the delegation proclaimed, “We need a hundred of those.” Chennault replied, “No. You need a hundred Johnny Alison’s.”
- Spring 1941 served as Military attaché in helping transition British, and later Russian, pilots to the P-40.
- Became a 14th Air Force/23rd Fighter Group “Flying Tiger” squadron commander in China.
- General Arnold selected Alison and Phil Cochran to head up the newly formed 1st Air Commando Force established to help General Wingate in Burma.
- OPERATION THURSDAY, March 5, 1944 was the first nighttime, air invasion. It was also the first time rockets and helicopters were used in a combat operation.
Born in rural Florida November 21, 1912, John Alison probably had the longest route to World War II as any GI. John was sitting in a high school study hall in Gainesville, Florida when he heard a Curtiss P-1 fighter go into a dive. He said the prop revved up, the exhaust made a beautiful sound, the study windows rattled and he decided that he wanted to be an Army pilot.
He graduated from the University of Florida in 1936 with a commission in the Field Artillery but applied and entered the Army Air Corps flying school in San Antonio. His class was the first to train on monoplanes. He conquered each plane’s characteristics easily and earned his wings in 1937.
Shortly after his awe-inspiring display of the P-40 capabilities to the Chinese delegation, John was assigned as a military attaché. In the spring of 1941, he left the states for London with friend Hub Zemke to train British pilots to fly and maintain the American P-40.
Only months later, John was summoned to the London Embassy for a secret mission to Russia. He left in the middle of the night with Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt’s most trusted advisor.
John spent much of his free time in Russia on the roof of the U.S. ambassador’s residence watching the Germans advance to Moscow until artillery shrapnel fell too close for comfort. When the Germans reached the outskirts of Moscow, John and Hub, along with the entire diplomatic community, Russian factory workers and equipment, were moved over 500 miles further into Russia during the dead of winter. It was here that John and Hub heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s declaration of war.
The relationship between Russian and American military diplomats was extremely difficult and often futile. So difficult in fact that Gen. Marshal sent Col. Towson Griffiths, as his own personal representative, to arbitrate the dispute. Col Griffiths quickly recognized the problem and stated that he would leave immediately to report back to General Marshall in Washington. It was then that Alison requested that Griffiths take him back to the States as well. John wanted to be reassigned to his combat group, which was preparing to leave for England.
John and Col. Griffiths left Russia to the south thru Tehran. There, Col. Griffiths decided it would be better for him to travel alone and would recall Alison as soon as he arrived in Washington. John now found himself in Iran with no money, uniform or official orders. Ultimately this was only a minor problem to Alison, as tragically the aircraft he was to be on was misidentified entering England and shot down killing Col. Griffiths and everyone on board.
No one in the army air corps quite knew where John was. He sent penciled messages to Hap Arnold, each including a request to be assigned to a combat mission. His orders finally came directly from Gen. Arnold. He would finally get the opportunity to serve his country by defending the Burma Road in China with the 23rd Fighter Group the newly evolved American Volunteer Group the Flying Tigers.
When John arrived in China in June 1942, Japanese bombers were mercilessly attacking Chinese airfields and cities mostly at night. He asked Tex Hill if the AVG had any success defending at night. Tex replied “NO” and John vowed that he would be in the air the next time.
With John positioned at 12,000 feet, a radio call advised that three bombers were making their way to the base. John cut them off when they made their turn for the bombing run. But he misjudged the distance in the black of night, and when he dove to attack, bullets riddled his airplane, hitting his radio and grazing his arm. One bullet went through his parachute and one went thru the engine. Undeterred, Alison chose the bomber to his left, then on the right and then the leader. In all, Alison shot down three bombers that night, an amazing feat in his first combat experience.
John’s plane came down fast, caught fire and he overshot the runway and headed for the river only two miles away where he ditched and was rescued by locals. As a result of his experimental night mission, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
John returned to the US and was given command of a fighter group headed for England. But in June 1943, John and Philip Cochran were selected by General Arnold to lead the newly formed 1st Air Commando Force to support the renowned British guerilla fighter Gen. Wingate. They were going to take the war to the Japanese.
March 5, 1944 was a long night. C-47 transports were loaded with the British assault force, equipment and mules –each towing two WACO C-4A gliders. John had never flown a glider, but he was with his troops piloting in the first wave.
“Operation Thursday” was the first nighttime behind-enemy-lines airfield seizure. They carried out the wounded, harassed the enemy, provided air cover and supplied the forces. The commandos are credited with a number of other innovation such as, the first combat aircrew rescue by helicopter, the first combat use of air-to-ground rockets, multiple ground targets destroyed, and a number of enemy aircraft shot down.
John took the 3rd air commando group to the South Pacific then moved into moved to a staff position with the newly formed Far East Air Forces under General George Kenney and ended his World War II duty as a deputy for operations for the Fifth Air Force.
Shortly after John retired from active duty in 1947, he became an executive with Northrop Corporation until his retirement in 1979.
For service to his country as a “top gun” and as a courageous and innovative military strategist, John Alison has earned his place in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.