The Escape Artist

Born in 1907, Donald D. Flickinger first gained renown during World War II for parachuting into the jungles of Burma to save downed airmen. He went on to help develop life-support systems for high-altitude flight and space travel.

  1. August 1943: The German war machine was running down, the U.S. Navy was decimating the Japanese fleet in the Pacific, but a problem still lurked in the jungles of Burma. Japanese forces, determined to cut China off from the outside world, had severed the Burma Road, the last overland supply route for the beleaguered forces of Chiang Kai-shek. All Chiang had left were his air bases, and if those were overrun, his army would collapse. The Japanese would effectively control China, and from there, it was feared, they could wage war for years.

    The Allies planned a big push into northern Burma in the winter of ’43-’44 to drive the Japanese from their jungle bases, but in the meantime, they had to keep Chiang propped up. From air bases in India, American pilots started playing Russian roulette over “the Hump,” a 500-mile stretch of mountains between them and Chiang’s forces. The route took them over the Himalayas, where the weather was so severe it could flip a transport plane upside down, and across the jungles of Burma. More planes were lost flying supplies across the Hump than were lost in combat over China.

    Over the course of these missions, a young flight surgeon named Donald Flickinger started making a name for himself. Handsome, brave and hopelessly charming, over and over again he parachuted into the Burmese jungle—an area simply marked “unexplored territory” on the map and inhabited by Naga headhunters—to treat downed airmen and lead them to safety.

    Flickinger’s most fam...