John R. Alison, a retired Air Force major general and World War II fighter ace who helped lead a nighttime invasion by glider into enemy-held Burma — a logistical feat that included the transport of troops, heavy machinery and even mules, died June 6 at his home in Washington.
He was 98 and his family declined to give a cause of death.
Gen. Alison, a highly decorated fighter pilot, flew in the China-Burma-India theater during World War II with the Army Air Forces. He served in the 75th Fighter Squadron, a group led by Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault and known as the Flying Tigers and recognized by the shark teeth painted on the nose of their planes.
During the war, Gen. Alison had seven confirmed victories, including six air-to-air kills, qualifying him as an ace. In one of his aerial battles, Gen. Alison said he shot down at least two Japanese bombers before crash-landing his bullet-ridden fighter plane in a river.
In 1943, Gen. Alison was handpicked by Army Air Forces commander Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold for a top-secret mission.
At the time, the Japanese occupied much of the jungle and mountain territory in Burma and were advancing toward India.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, on the advice of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, directed Arnold to create a specialized unit to help British forces engage in guerrilla warfare with the Japanese.
In response, Arnold made Gen. Alison and Philip Cochran co-leaders of “Project 9,” a classified task force that operated outside the military chain of command.
Gen. Alison and Cochran received orders directly from Arnold and were given virtually unlimited authority. “To hell with the paperwork,” Arnold told them. “Go out and fight.”
Arnold instructed them to join British army Maj. Gen. Orde C. Wingate in India and arrange the stealthy airlift of thousands of Wingate’s men and supplies into Burma.
The mission, known as Operation Thursday, began in the middle of the night on March 5, 1944.
Gen. Alison piloted one of the 54 glider planes that took off that night towed behind American cargo aircraft. When they were 200 miles beyond the Burmese border, the gliders unhooked from their nylon tow line and headed for the landing zone code-named “Broadway.”
Because of the harrowing conditions, only 37 planes made it to the landing area, and 24 men died as gliders crashed in the jungle.
When the first planes landed, the invasion force included 539 troops and three Missouri mules. Additional gliders came in loaded with bulldozers, tractors and lights.
“Everything,” Gen. Alison told reporters in 1944, “to make a modern airport deep in the jungle, deep in the heart of enemy territory.”
In six days, Gen. Alison and Cochran had overseen the movement of 9,052 troops, 175 horses, 1,283 mules and 509,083 pounds of supplies into the Burmese jungle.
Wingate’s forces, called the “Chindits,” wreaked havoc on the Japanese while American pilots resupplied the British troops and evacuated the wounded.
Gen. Alison and Cochran’s unit, soon renamed the 1st Air Commando Group, has been credited as one of the American military’s first special operations forces. According to the Air Force, the mission in Burma marked the first U.S. aerial invasion into enemy territory and the first nighttime heavy glider assault landing. The 1st Air Commando Group also was the first American military unit to use helicopters in combat.
Called back to the United States after the mission, Gen. Alison briefed Allied commander Dwight D. Eisenhower on his successful use of the gliders for the planning of D-Day. Cochran died in 1979.
John Richardson Alison was born Nov. 21, 1912, in Micanopy, Fla. He was a 1935 engineering graduate of the University of Florida.
At 5-foot-5 and 3 / 4 inches, he was rejected from the Navy as too short and instead received pilot training with the Army.
He served as a P-40 flight instructor for the British air force and Soviet pilots before seeing combat in China. After the Burma invasion, he participated in combat over the Philippines and Japan.
He later served in Korea and Vietnam as a military adviser with the Strategic Air Command and retired from the Air Force in 1972. He was a past president of the Air Force Association and senior vice president of Northrop Grumman.
His decorations included the Silver Star, two awards of the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart.
His first marriage, to Louise Muncie, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife, Kathleen Acidno Alison of Washington; two sons from his second marriage, John R. Alison III of Falls Church and David Alison of Phoenix; and three grandchildren.
In late 1940, then-Lt. Alison was picked to give a demonstration of the Curtiss P-40 fighter plane in Washington for a group of Chinese military attaches and for Flying Tigers leader Chennault.
Lt. Alison spent less than two minutes in the air buzzing in tight circles only feet above the ground.
When he landed, the Chinese pointed to the P-40 and said, “We need 100 of these.”
“No,” Chennault said, pointing to the daring pilot, “you need 100 of these.”