Pt. 1 Over Himalayas and Internet, lost flights found

Discussion in 'Aviation' started by syscom3, Feb 25, 2008.

  1. syscom3

    syscom3 Pacific Historian

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    By Jay Price, Staff Writer

    The Hump, American air crews called it. Or, when they were in a darker mood, the Aluminum Trail. The World War II supply route from India into China was dotted with their wreckage.
    By whatever name, the route was critical, an aerial highway over some of the world's highest mountains, a path flown by hundreds of U.S. aircraft ferrying supplies to the Chinese Army so it could stay in the fight against Japan.

    The cost in planes and lives was staggering. More than 400 U.S. aircraft carrying nearly 1,400 troops disappeared there during the war.

    For decades, no one tried to recover their remains.

    But now two men -- a self-financed Arizona adventurer and a Cary computer expert -- are fighting to make sure the U.S. government brings those missing fliers home.

    And they may be winning.

    Night comes suddenly to the Himalayas in winter, so at dusk Clayton Kuhles was ready to give up.

    It was Dec. 7, 2006 -- Pearl Harbor Day -- and he had been rummaging for five hours among snow, shredded aluminum and bent propellers on the side of a nameless mountain nearly 2 miles up. He had found pieces of parachute, whole engines, even an intact landing gear retracted into a wing. Kuhles had not, though, found the one reason he had hiked to this remote corner of India: an identification number for the shattered World War II-era bomber.

    The businessman from Prescott, Ariz., started hunting such wrecks almost by accident. On his way home from a mountaineering expedition in Nepal, he made a side-trip to explore Burma. A guide that Kuhles hired there noticed his interest in World War II sites and asked if he wanted to see a wreck. Sure, he said.

    A reason to climb

    Only later, after Kuhles got home, did he read up on The Hump. The number of wrecks, and the number of families who still didn't know what happened to their loved ones, surprised him and gave him an idea. Climbing just for the sake of bagging another difficult peak had begun to lose its luster. But here, he thought, was a way not only to feed his hunger for adventure but also do some good.

    Before the 2006 expedition, Kuhles had identified four wrecks on other trips to the region. This time he hoped to find numbers that would lead to names, but he was having no luck. As he wrapped up his final fruitless inspection that Dec. 7, he knew the winter weather was about to force him out of the mountains for the year.

    Time to go, he told the local tribesmen who had guided him to the site. The men started down the trail to their high camp for the night. They were hungry, cold and already thinking about the 10-mile slog the next day over frozen ridges and through jungle-clogged valleys to the nearest village.

    Then Kuhles noticed another pile of wreckage beside the trail. One last stack of torn aluminum, one last chance to figure out who had died here. One last stab at an answer for aged brothers, sisters and widows back home who had wondered for six decades about the fate of the plane's crew.

    He switched on his headlamp and began flipping over the panels.

    Googling in Cary

    Six months later, Gary Zaetz idly booted up Google on his home computer in Cary. On a whim, the IBM software technician typed "1st Lt. Irwin Zaetz" into the search field.

    His uncle -- along with the rest of an eight-man crew that included Sgt. James Hinson of Greensboro -- had been missing for 63 years, but with the speed of a broadband Internet connection, that family mystery was about to end.

    Up came Kuhles' Web site, www.miarecoveries. org, and with it a startling array of information. There were photos of scattered wreckage, the GPS-measured longitude and latitude of the crash site and a copy of the government form that Kuhles filled out in his concise, almost scientific style for the U.S. military unit that recovers missing remains.

    "... construction number was researched, crosses to serial #4277308."

    Also on the site was the crew manifest for the plane that bore that serial number, a B-24J dubbed "Hot As Hell" by its crew. The navigator was Irwin Zaetz.

    Gary Zaetz didn't think much about the ramifications of the plane being found, of the steps that remained before the story would end. He picked up the phone to break the news to his father, Larry, a younger brother of the missing man.

    "It's quite a thing," Larry Zaetz said in a recent interview. "For 63 years, we didn't know anything, and there wasn't really any way for us to find out much."

    After the initial news sank in, it became clear that the story was far from done. Not only did the U.S. government not have a plan to investigate the site, but didn't even have an arrangement with India for U.S. military teams to recover remains there.

    Kuhles had used his unusual expertise to good effect. Now it was Zaetz's turn.

    Picture caption: "A later incarnation of the B-24 dubbed 'Hot as Hell' crashed Jan. 25, 1944, and its crew of nine was lost. Courtesy of Gary Zaetz"
     

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  2. syscom3

    syscom3 Pacific Historian

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    Families join effort

    At his keyboard, he harnessed the Internet to hunt for surviving relatives of the other seven crew members. He Googled genealogy experts and asked them for help, searched online census records for the names of the fliers' siblings and Googled contacts at libraries in the crew members' hometowns. Then he e-mailed the library researchers to find the missing men's newspaper obituaries. With those, he could glean the names of their survivors.

    Along the way, he enlisted family members in a campaign to open India to U.S. recovery teams. The group has contacted military officials, members of Congress and newspapers in the United States, as well as journalists and government officials in India.

    With every new article they sparked, every electronic letter to the editor, every blog posting, the visibility on the Web of their multi-pronged lobbying effort grew.

    Zaetz and other members of crew families also began appearing at the monthly meetings for MIA families held around the country by the military, and they joined forces with a group that is pressing the government to put more emphasis on recovering World War II missing.

    The Hawaii-based unit responsible for recovering the remains of missing U.S. service members was formed in response to public pressure to find troops who went missing during the Vietnam War, and still concentrates its missions in Southeast Asia, where its three foreign satellite offices are located.

    Heat is on Pentagon

    The Pentagon is feeling new pressure from the World War II families, pressure made possible by the Internet, said Larry Greer of Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office in Washington who is familiar with the "Hot as Hell" case.

    "These are the nieces and nephews and grandchildren, and they've discovered how effective they can be with modern means of communication, " Greer said. "They have discovered that they can reach out and touch the government in a way that's similar to what the [Vietnam War] families did a generation ago."

    The United States devotes more money -- about $105 million annually, Greer said -- to recovering and identifying missing troops than any other country, but the mission is vast. There are 1,700 troops still missing in Vietnam and surrounding countries from the war there, about 8,100 from the Korean War and 78,000 from World War II, with 35,000 from that war thought to be recoverable.

    Along the Hump alone, there are nearly as many missing U.S. troops as in Southeast Asia.

    Many can be recovered, Kuhles thinks. In just a few months of searching spread over the past few years, he has positively identified eight wrecks and has at least 14 more solid leads to investigate on future expeditions.

    Because he's having to pay for the trips himself, it will be a while before he can check them all. He has talked with the government about funding his expeditions, but to no avail.

    The military thinks about 430 U.S. planes are missing in the areas where Kuhles has been searching. The missing include more than 100 in India, about 100 in Burma, now called Myanmar, and more than 170 in China, said Troy Kitch, spokesman for the Joint POW/ MIA Accounting Command.

    There also are British, Canadian and Chinese aircraft missing along that route, too.

    The missing troops in Burma are probably out of bounds until the totalitarian regime there ends, and Kitch's unit has recovered only a handful of remains in China and none in India.

    The Hump in a fog

    U.S. air crews flying The Hump were sometimes attacked by Japanese fighters, but their toughest foes were the mountains and weather. In summer, monsoon rains made the mountains hard to see. In winter, fierce storms and heavy icing knocked planes out of the sky.

    It was that winter weather the crew of "Hot as Hell" must have been pondering as it boarded the boxy bomber on Jan. 25, 1944, at their base in Kunming, China.

    While most planes that flew The Hump were transport aircraft moving supplies to bolster the Chinese military, "Hot as Hell" was a bomber. Like the others in its unit, said Gary Zaetz, the crew had to ferry in its own bombs and other supplies. It took about three trips over The Hump to supply each combat run.

    First Lt. Irwin Zaetz, 26, had already flown a host of harrowing combat missions and had earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. It was just chance, though, that he was flying on this mission.

    His regular plane was another B-24, "Chug-a-Lug Junior," but for some reason he was asked to fill in on "Hot as Hell." His family isn't sure why. According to different sources, the plane's regular navigator was either late or sick.

    Zaetz, a star athlete in three sports at Burlington High School in Burlington, Vt., had earned the nickname "Zipper" because of the way he moved up and down the basketball court. A sharp dresser, he had always been careful to act the gentleman, to say and do the right things, even in high school, said Larry Zaetz, who idolized his athletic sibling and attended not just his games but even his practices.

    Irwin Zaetz had been married for less than two years to his high school sweetheart, Ethel. The other crew members were single, Gary Zaetz said, but two were engaged, including one of the gunners, Hinson of Greensboro.

    There was reportedly thick fog that day over part of the route, almost down to ground level, said Zaetz, who has scoured federal archives and practically every other available record for information about his uncle and the crash.

    It was one of those days that The Hump lived up to its deadly reputation. Five planes flew the same route that day, Zaetz said, and all five crashed. Some crew members on three of the planes survived, but those on "Hot as Hell" and another plane vanished.
    India to allow recovery

    In January, during a regular meeting in Washington between officials from the United States and India, the Indians agreed to host American recovery teams for the first time.

    Next month, the commanding general of Kitch's unit will travel to India to negotiate the details of the first recovery efforts there.

    And among the first six wrecks to be officially investigated, Greer said -- all of them found by Kuhles -- will be "Hot as Hell."

    Still, there are enough wreck sites to keep Kuhles busy for several lifetimes, and Zaetz said his battle isn't over, either, because the Pentagon has said it will probably be 2009 before it can send its first mission to India. First would come a small group to assess the site, and only afterwards could a recovery mission be scheduled.

    What's more, the military ID lab is meticulous -- it has to be -- and even after remains are recovered, it can take a year or more to identify them properly.

    Time is short

    Meanwhile, the last family members who knew missing World War II troops are dying off quickly. Among those for the "Hot as Hell" crew, a brother of the bombardier, 1st Lt. Robert E. Oxford, is 95 years old, Zaetz said. A sister of co-pilot Sheldon L. Chambers is 90, and two brothers are in their 70s; Larry Zaetz is 83 and Irwin Zaetz' widow, Ethel Wolfe, is 89.

    "That's just way too long to make us wait," Gary Zaetz said. "The families see no reason to delay it that long."

    There are two weather windows between the winter storms and the summer monsoons, he said, and there is time to organize, at the very least, for the fall window, from September to November.

    Kitch, though, said that JPAC's work for 2008 is already scheduled. The Pentagon is trying to be fair, but with limited resources and the need to plan the complex expeditions far in advance, it can't move more quickly.

    "It's really exciting that we're getting into India, but when you are dealing with other families who have also been waiting decades, how do you put one above the other?" he said. "We bend over backwards to be as fair as possible to meet all the families' expectations, but it's just not possible."

    The military hopes to set its schedule for initial site checks in India during the meeting there next month.

    And Gary Zaetz said he won't be finished even when the government schedules a recovery expedition to the "Hot as Hell" site. He wants to shift from pursuing his uncle's fate in cyberspace to hunting it in person, to step into Kuhles' world.

    He has begun getting inoculations, with an eye toward flying to India and hiking to the crash site.
     
  3. ccheese

    ccheese Member In Perpetuity
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    It would be wonderful if all the planes that went down over the hump were
    found and the bodies recovered and sent home for burial. It's been at least
    65 years.... and I can understand that the ones at home are getting old and
    dying. But why the push, now ? Why didn't they push right after the war ?
    Yea, DNA and all that stuff, but had they looked after the war, a lot of them
    would already be home.

    Charles
     
  4. SteveChambers

    SteveChambers New Member

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    My uncle, Flight Officer Sheldon Chambers, was the Hot as Hell co-pilot. In September 2007, Gary Zaetz tracked me down to inform me that my uncle's B24 had been found in Northeast India.

    Since that time, Gary, myself, and the families of all eight crew members have sought to return our long missed loved ones to U.S. soil. There have been countless letters to DMPO and JPAC officials and countless letters to U.S. congressmen and senators. Despite these efforts, the only real progress we have seen towards a recovery has been a result of media coverage.

    As Jay Price mentions in his article, there are family of the crew in advanced age. I have a 90-year old aunt and two uncles in their 70s. If the recovery of the Hot as Hell crew is not complete very, very soon, there will be few, if any, left who grew up with the crew members and saw them off to war.

    Readers, join our efforts! Contact Admiral Keating at PACOM and demand that the Hot as Hell crew to returned. Also ask Admiral Keating for formal negotiations with the Indian government that will lead to the return of the more than 400 missing U.S. airmen that remain missing.

    Steve Chambers
    Flagstaff, Arizona
     
  5. ccheese

    ccheese Member In Perpetuity
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    Good first post, Steve. I'm kinda chummy with one of the local delegates,
    Rep. Thelma Drake. I'll drop her a note this evening.

    Charles
     
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