NEW DELHI (Reuters) - In honor of the crouching, naked blonde painted on its nose, its pilot had named his bomber the “Hot as Hell.”
But it was a freezing and stormy day as the American B-24 Liberator made its way across the Himalayas on Jan 25, 1944, flying what was known as “the Hump,” perhaps the most dangerous route in air transport history.
It was one of nine American planes that went down that day as they tried to resupply China’s besieged army in the city of Kunming, desperately trying to hold out against the invading Japanese during World War Two.
Many of the wrecks have never been found.
The Hot as Hell’s crew of eight were listed as Missing in Action and later presumed dead. Its fate was a mystery the crewmen’s families lived with for 60 years.
That is until Clayton Kuhles, an Arizona businessmen who spends his free time trekking through the mountains of northeastern India in search of World War Two plane wrecks, found the debris of the plane in thick jungle on December 2006.
Kuhles has found the remains of nine planes in the remote state of Arunachal Pradesh in the past five years, doggedly logging his discoveries, informing American military authorities and posting them on his website (www.miarecoveries.org).
Now, after determined lobbying from relatives of the dead airmen, the U.S. military is finally swinging into action.
This month it announced it was in discussions with the Indian government to conduct a joint operation to search for some of the planes and bring the airmen’s remains home.
“We were very, very happy to see that,” said Gary Zaetz, nephew of the Hot as Hell’s Navigator First Lieutenant Irwin Zaetz. “We would like them to do it some time this year.”
By the end of the war, 650,000 tonnes of gasoline, munitions and other supplies were flown over the Hump, from northeastern India across Burma to Kunming. On a single day in August 1945, more than a thousand round-trips were made across the mountains, carrying a payload of more than 5,000 tonnes.
With just a map, a compass and a radio signal to navigate by, the route, passing over 4,500 meter (15,000-foot) ridges, was so hazardous airmen also nicknamed it “the Aluminum Trail.”
Many planes suffered from icing, some ran out of fuel, others lost their way in storms and simply crashed into the mountains. Rescue missions were mounted but with sketchy results.
The U.S. Department of Defense says than more than 500 U.S. aircraft and 1,200 crewmembers are still missing in the China-Burma-India theatre from World War Two, with 416 Americans missing in India alone.
But with so many more missing in places like Korea and Vietnam, its attention and efforts appeared to be elsewhere - until Kuhles entered the scene.
It all began, he says, with a chance comment from a guide while holidaying in Myanmar, as Burma is now known.
Hearing of Kuhles’ interest in military history, he mentioned that a Kachin hunter had once told him about a plane wreck in the northern jungles, close to the Indian border.
Kuhles decided it would be fun to take a look, and off they set, interviewing the hunter, eventually finding the wreck.
“It was so remote I am absolutely positive no Westerner has even been to that site - or to any of the others I have found,” he said. “Locals know about them from hunting trips, when they are looking for game animals or medicinal herbs.”
The search then moved to India, where Kuhles relies on local guide Oken Tayeng to track down crash sites, most of them high in the mountains in almost impassable jungle in Arunachal Pradesh, where tales of the wrecks have passed into local folklore.
“We have known about the aircraft since were children,” Tayeng said. “But most people think they are English planes, because for them white people mean English.”
Tribal contacts and distant relatives have helped Tayeng trace the planes. He says he has information about at least five or six more for Kuhles to look into on his next expedition.
They found the Hot As Hell close to Tayeng’s ancestral village of Damroh. The crucial tail number was missing, but another amateur military enthusiast, Matthew Poole from Maryland, helped identify the plane from serial numbers found on individual parts - a painstaking process in itself.
Zaetz had always been interested in his father’s and his uncle’s military careers. He was aimlessly cruising the internet when he googled his uncle Irwin’s name in the summer of 2007. Up popped Kuhles’ website, listing the entire crew.
“I was totally flabbergasted,” he said. “Our family had always regretted we had never found out what happened to my uncle’s flight.”
It was Zaetz’ turn to play detective, spending the next six months tracking down the surviving relatives of the crew.
Their parents have all died, but the pilot’s 92-year-old sister, the co-pilot’s 90-year-old sister, the bombardier’s 95-year-old brother and his uncle Irwin’s 88-year-old wife Ethel are still alive.
Then there are people like Susan Parham, who was engaged to be married to the plane’s bombardier, First Lieutenant Robert Oxford and who still remembers the young man who took to country music programs at the local school in Concord, GA.
“Our efforts are really time critical,” said Zaetz. “We don’t know how long these very, very elderly relatives have with us.”
“We want to ensure they have meaningful closure before their time runs out.”
But it has been “frustrating” dealing with U.S. officials over the past year, Zaetz says, as he and his 83-year old father Larry tried to interest them in Kuhles’ discoveries.
Officials from the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action (MIA/POW) Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hawaii rebuffed them at first, saying the area, a disputed zone near the India-China border was too dangerous or too politically sensitive to explore.
But the Zaetz family stirred up Congress and the American press, and looks to have got what they wanted.
JPAC’s commander, Rear Admiral Donna L. Crisp, is in New Delhi this week and is expected to announce an expedition will be mounted before the snows set in.
If remains are recovered, JPAC will conduct DNA tests on the bones to match them to records of the crewmen’s relatives. All will be entitled to a burial with a military honor guard at a National Cemetery if relatives wish.
But Zaetz says his family want their uncle with them.
“We want his remains buried at the family plot in Burlington, Vermont,” he said. “There is a marker for my uncle there in the Jewish cemetery, and also for Captain William Swanson.”
Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Megan Goldin