James (Jim) Cavan

Pilot took to the skies in the 'flying coffin'

Oct. 13, 2012

World War II veteran Jim Cavan lived in Palm Desert.

Jim Cavan, of Palm Desert, during his service in the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II. / Provided photo


Born: July 26, 1922

Died: November 14, 2021

Hometown: Maquoketa, Iowa

Branch of service: U.S. Army Air Corps; 5th Airforce; 375th Troop Carrier Group; 57th Troop Carrier Squadron

Years served: September, 1942 - September, 1946

Rank: 1st Lieutenant

U.S. Army Air Corps pilot Jim Cavan flew the Curtis C-46 Commando, a massive military transport plane that delivered tons of cargo to faraway destinations during World War II.

Also known as “The Whale” or the “flying coffin,” Cavan had his own description of what was, then, the largest and heaviest twin-engine aircraft in service during the war.

“I told my girlfriend at the time, ‘It’s like sitting on a front porch, flying a house,’” he said, laughing.

Cavan, who grew up on a ranch in Iowa, has been interested in planes since he was a little kid.

Somewhere around 1932, Cavan took to the skies for the first time. It was a $5 ride in an old Ford Trimotor, which, ironically, was a transport aircraft. The three-engined plane was first produced in 1925.

Cavan received his pilot’s wings in March, 1944, at Marfa Army Airfield, Texas, and after spending the rest of the year there as an instructor, he was assigned to duty in the Pacific in January, 1945.

Cavan, a member of the 375th Troop Carrier Group, was stationed on Biak, a small island in New Guinea, before moving on to Mindoro, Philippines.

The C-46 carried a five man crew –– comprised of a pilot, co-pilot, engineer, radio operator, and navigator –– and hauled just about every kind of equipment imaginable to the men fighting on the lines.

Especially when ships or ground troops were unable to get into certain areas.

“We carried badly needed supplies up front ... even hauled 55-gallon barrels of gasoline. Jeeps. We carried bombs. When they were running low on munitions, we’d carry it up to them.”

A normal trip between the Philippines and Okinawa, one way, took about five hours, he said.

Landing the behemoth could be a challenge, especially on bombed out airstrips that had been repaired with coral or the steel matting that was used as a makeshift runway.

“It was OK if it wasn’t wet,” Cavan said. “One time we landed on Peleliu when it was raining and the coral was wet. It was like landing on ice.”

His squadron was in Okinawa when the U.S. dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August, 1945.

“A week later is when the Japanese decided to quit,” he said. “We flew the 11th Airborne in from Okinawa to Tokyo to set up a military perimeter.”

They were some of the first U.S. military personnel to set foot in Japan after the fighting stopped — and before Japan signed surrender papers aboard the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945.

“The first time we landed at Sugi, Japan, five of us, with .45’s on our side — we thought we were big, tough guys — got on a train and the Japanese all stood up and bowed and would not sit down until we were seated.”

On one of his trips between Okinawa and Tokyo during this time, Cavan was flying at 9,000 feet when something strange happened.

“All at once it became silent,” he said. “I thought something was wrong with my ears. Both engines had quit, simultaneously. When that happens, you start gliding down.”

“The navigator had the raft ready and we were going to ditch.”

One of his crewmates suggested an alternate plan. He thought they could set the plane down in the water.

There was a big fleet of U.S. ships sailing below, and the crewman said, “‘Let’s land beside them and they’ll pick us up,’” Cavan said, laughing.

At 4,000 feet, one of the engines started. No need to bail.

“I circled around, keeping the ships in sight, and climbed back up.”

After the war, Cavan was assigned to Tachikawa, a major Japanese airfield, where he served as his squadron’s operations officer.

After he was discharged in 1946, he moved to the Philippines to take a job as a pilot with the Philippine airlines, where he was paid much better — $1,500 a month — than he would have made back in the states.

But as the years passed, he knew he would have to make a critical decision.

“If I didn’t get back in college by July 1, 1951, I would lose five years of GI bill education.”

Cavan, who completed a year of college at the University of California, Los Angeles before going into the military, didn’t want to give up the benefits before determining if he wanted to continue his education.

So Cavan worked a deal with the airlines and took a six-month leave of absence.

School turned out to be a great fit for Cavan, who, after completing college, went on to graduate from dental school at the University of the Pacific in 1957.