Blackie in Burma: Pararescue Operations in the CBI Theater

Margaret Dudley

When pilots from the US Air Transport Command (ATC) began flying through the perilous Himalayas to supply the China-Burma-India Theater of operations in World War Two, there was no established unit or organization for search-and-rescue.

When the Japanese cut off the Burma Road in early 1942, effectively ending the land-based Allied supply line to China, flights over treacherous 14,000 foot peaks had to be considered. The “Hump,” as this route was often called, became the only way to reinforce or supply the CBI Theater. As materiel needs increased exponentially over the course of the war, ATC crews rose to the challenge, increasing their loads and their flights to meet the demand. This meant more supplies, more planes, and more accidents and fatalities. Experienced air crews were scarce, and the weather conditions in the region made it difficult to make plane repairs in a timely manner, adding to the mounting number of accidents.

It was safer to take a bomber deep into Germany than to fly a transport plane over the Rockpile from one friendly nation to another.

General William H. Turner

Initial search-and-rescue procedures were simple: when a plane went down, the next available crew took the next available aircraft to search for them. Although simple, this method proved mostly ineffective, and it became apparent that the ATC needed an organized search-and-rescue unit. One man, Captain John L. “Blackie” Porter, rose to meet this challenge.

Captain Porter was a former stunt pilot before serving in the United States Army Air Corps as a transport pilot. Using two old C-47s, Porter established “Blackie’s Gang,” a search-and-rescue team based out of Chabua. Blackie’s Gang flew daily missions, scouring the mountainous jungles for aircrews who crashed or bailed out over the Hump. The Gang also carried machine guns to help defend their planes during rescue operations, and even shot down a Japanese fighter during one flight. One of Blackie’s Gang’s first missions was to rescue a group of crewmen and passengers of a C-46, all of whom had bailed out the middle of headhunter territory filled with Japanese.

Fourteen men posed inside or in front of a plane bearing nose art of a swan next to the words "Blackie's Gang."

Photo from the Pensacola News Journal, Porter/Vinson Family Archives.

On 2 August 1943, a C-46 flying over the Naga hill country of northern Burma experienced engine troubles and began to crash. The crew quickly donned parachutes and leaped from the diving plane. One crew member was killed, his parachute caught in the tail assembly as he jumped, but miraculously, the other 21 men survived and landed safely on the ground. Among the survivors were officers, diplomats, and even famed CBS journalist and reporter Eric Sevareid. According to several sources, it was Blackie Porter and his crew that set out and located the crew, enabling C-47s to drop supplies and medics to the survivors. They were able to help the wounded and injured, and began to make their way through the enemy-filled territory. It took 22 days, but the group managed to hike to safety and escape the Burmese jungle relatively unscathed.

Although exact numbers are difficult to obtain, hundreds of lives were saved as a result of search-and-rescue efforts by Captain Porter and his crew. Eventually, Porter himself gave his life in a rescue mission to save another Blackie’s Gang crew in a firefight with Japanese Zeros. His plane was shot down and crashed in the Himalayas on 10 December 1943—incidentally, his second wedding anniversary. Porter’s widow, Ellen Jane Watson, later remarried and had a daughter, Ellen Vinson. In 2019, Vinson began a personal quest to bring home the remains of her mother’s first husband after an explorer believed he had found the crash site. These efforts are still ongoing.

Despite the tragedy of Porter’s death, the continued successes of Blackie’s Gang encouraged military leaders and became the foundations of US pararescue operations. An official search-and-rescue unit was created in 1943, born from the efforts of Porter and his Gang.


Margaret Dudley, Content Creation Coordinator, National Museum of the Pacific War