As commander of the 803d Air Evacuation Squadron, based in northeast India, flight surgeon Maj. Morris Kaplan was responsible for air evacuation throughout the China-Burma-India theater. In the summer of 1944, he was informed that an American lieutenant, a member of a mapping party in a remote area of southwest China, was at a Christian mission in Lanping directed by British cleric Rev. Harry Fisher. The lieutenant was suffering from acute polio and needed to be evacuated. Major Kaplan knew this was an urgent mission that he must lead himself. He immediately flew over the Hump to Kunming, where he learned there was no landing area in the mountainous terrain near Lanping, more than 200 miles northwest of Kunming.
Against the advice of old hands, Major Kaplan insisted on being flown to Lanping, where he would bail out with his medical supplies. Twice, the flight was turned back by violent weather, with no forecast of immediate improvement. Major Kaplan then set out in a jeep with three companions on the five-day trip to Lanping. When the road became impassable, the mayor of a small village agreed to store the jeep and provide horses and an armed guard to get them through bandit-controlled territory. Once beyond that, the guards departed with the horses, leaving Major Kaplan and his men to finish the last 25 difficult miles to Lanping on foot. At the mission, they found 6-foot-3-inch Lt. Robert Wesselhoeft totally paralyzed, being kept alive with artificial respiration administered by a team of Chinese peasants Reverend Fisher had recruited.
Major Kaplan’s problems seemed insurmountable. The Lieutenant could not be carried the 75 miles to the jeep while manual respiration was continued. They needed a mechanical respirator and an airplane to transport Wesselhoeft.
Major Kaplan and his companions built the mechanical respirator using two boards hinged on one side at a separation slightly less than the thickness of Wesselhoeft’s chest. A handle was attached to the upper board. By pressing on the handle, air was pushed from Wesselhoeft’s lungs. As the pressure was released, fresh air flowed in.
Now, where to land an airplane at Lanping? The rescuers finally found a small flat island in the Lanping River, but it was covered with stones, small boulders, and vegetation. That problem was solved by the local warlord–with whom Reverend Fisher had a good relationship–who rounded up 200 Chinese laborers to clear a runway where a skillful pilot could land an L-5. This took three days. The next day an L-5 from Kunming touched down, flown by gung ho pilot Maj. Freddy Welsh, who had volunteered.
Everything that could be removed from the L-5 was discarded so that Lieutenant Wesselhoeft could be laid on his back with his head just behind and to the left of the pilot’s seat. Some changes to the respirator also were made, among them a handle that Major Welsh could operate every 25 seconds with his left hand while flying the plane with his right. The Lieutenant and his respirator were laboriously fitted into the available space.
Freddy Welsh had to abort his first takeoff but succeeded on a second attempt. He later described the circuitous three-hour flight to Kunming: “I finally gained enough altitude to clear a 9,300-foot ridge . . . into the worst weather I have ever flown in. But I did not miss a single stroke with the respirator lever.” He ran into torrential rain “such as I had never seen. I became alarmed that the thermal currents would tear the wings off that little plane.” At times flying at less than 100-feet altitude for visual navigation, he saw a familiar river and followed it to his base. With the fuel gauge on empty, he landed at Kunming as the engine quit.
Lieutenant Wesselhoeft, a nephew of Massachusetts Sen. Leverett Saltonstall, was flown to Calcutta, placed in an iron lung, then flown to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. He remained in an iron lung for a year before recovering enough to leave the hospital in a wheelchair. He later earned a doctorate and taught for several years. He owed his life to many caring people, including the Fisher family, but foremost among them are Morris Kaplan and Freddy Welsh.
Thanks to Capt. Allen Balint for calling this story to our attention and to Colonel Kaplan for providing details.
Published December 1996. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.