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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, October 28, 2002

'Hump' over Himalayas yields human remains

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

For the military pilots who flew the "Hump" over the Himalayas to supply China during World War II, it was weather — and less so Japanese fighters — that was the greatest threat.

The CILHI team journeys through Tibet during a mission to recover remains of plane crews from World War II.

Central identification laboratory, Hawai'i • U.S. Army

U.S. crews sizzled in heat so intense in India that plane parts were too hot to touch, while monsoons sometimes dumped as much as 200 inches of rainfall in a six-month span.

Planes pressed into service in the China-Burma-India theater included the C-46, C-47, C-53 and C-87, the cargo version of the B-24.

Flying at 14,000 to 16,000 feet over the Santsung Range between the Salween and Mekong Rivers — the main "Hump" — meant a nail-biting ride through cloud cover, snowstorms and buffeting head winds that could run a cargo plane's fuel tanks dry before reaching an airstrip.

Despite the obstacles, The U.S. Air Transport Command delivered 650,000 tons of gasoline, munitions and materiel between 1942 and 1945 after the Japanese cut off land routes to China.

But the success came at a heavy cost in aircraft and lives.

More than 500 U.S. planes and their crews were lost to accidents and enemy gunfire on the route, so littered with wreckage that it was called the "aluminum trail."

The commander of the India-China Division of Air Transport Command, Lt. Gen. William Tunner, wrote in his memoirs: "It was safer to take a bomber deep into Germany than to fly a transport plane over the Rockpile from one friendly nation to another."

More than 300 service personnel are still thought to be missing in the region, but four crew members were recently returned to U.S. soil.

A 14-member team from the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, Hawai'i at Hickam Air Force Base returned earlier this month with crew remains from a C-46 Commando that crashed in the Tibetan Himalayas in March 1944.

The cargo plane was based at Sookerating, India, and was returning from Kunming, China, when it was reported missing.

Team members from the lab, which will seek to identify the crew members, say the region still is as remote and forbidding as the "Hump" pilots must have found it more than 50 years ago.

Traveling from Beijing to Lhasa in Tibet, the team drove more than 370 miles to Naelong village, where the road ended, and then trekked for three days across rivers and up steep terrain on foot and horseback to reach the village of Langko.

The CILHI team searches the remains of a C-46 Commando.

Central identification laboratory, Hawai'i • U.S. Army

A base camp was set up at 15,500 feet below the crash site.

"I've done about 12 missions with CILHI and they've ranged from Papua, New Guinea, to North Korea, South Korea, Vietnam and Laos, and at this point in my career and the missions I've been on, this has been the most remote area I've ever seen," said Staff Sgt. Thomas Woods, whose job was mortuary affairs specialist.

The use of helicopters was out of the question because in that region, the Chinese don't have helicopter support. Also, they don't have choppers that can fly that high, Woods said.

Col. Bart Iddins, an Air Force flight surgeon out of Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico and the team's physician, said his impression was the 30 farmers and yak herders who lived in the village had never seen Westerners before.

Anything that was used in the village had to be brought in by pack horse from the start of a Jeep trail 28 miles below.

"It was breathtakingly beautiful and it was one of the more rugged places that I have ever seen," Iddins said. "To compare it to the Rockies — the Rockies are 14,000 or so feet high — where we were, we were that high, and you could still look up and see the mountains."

In the time spent at Langko during the more than eight-week mission, Iddins said he did not see a single aircraft fly overhead.

The lab team included a team leader and sergeant, a forensic anthropologist, two mortuary affairs specialists, a forensic photographer, and several augmentees from units worldwide including three mountaineering specialists, one medic, a flight surgeon, two linguists and one embassy representative.

"A few of the members had tattoos, and the Tibetans were fascinated by the tattoos," Iddins recalled. "So much so that the men on our mission that had tattoos, the Tibetans would come up and want to feel the tattoos, to see if there was a texture to it."

Although team members tried to condition themselves by climbing to the top of Mauna Kea and hiking three to five hours a day before they left, the altitude and climate took its toll.

"Every day it was either snow, rain, sleet or hail — sometimes all in one day," Woods said.

The higher they climbed, the less appetite they had, and Woods said, "You had to force yourself to eat lunch and dinner."

Woods, normally 150 pounds, dropped to 135. Iddins lost 12 pounds, and one team member lost 41 pounds.

Altitude and weather in the Himalayas make it rough.

Central identification laboratory, Hawai'i • U.S. Army

Several team members had to be treated for altitude sickness.

Work at the crash site, meanwhile, meant digging through rocks and sifting material through screens.

It's believed the C-46 crashed against a sheer rock face after it lost its bearings and ran out of gas. Woods said it appeared the aircraft bounced off the ground before hitting the cliff face straight on.

"It looks like it came in, hit, it's wings broke off, and it just buried into the face of the cliff," he said.

The wings were still relatively intact, along with the rear section of the fuselage, but "the cockpit, there was no cockpit left," Woods said. "From where the radio guy sat to the nose, there was nothing."

The central identification lab does not talk about specifics of remains it finds out of deference to family members, but Iddins did say "it appeared to be a very high G-force crash and did not look as if it could be survived."

Woods also said it was apparent some of the metal had been stripped out for use in the village.

Near the end of the mission, a four-man team broke off and traveled by horseback and foot to reach another C-46 crash site to the northeast.

U.S. officials had been shown pictures by the Chinese of the second crash site, and from those pictures, the aircraft was determined to be a Commando.

Capt. Dan Rouse, the team leader who made the second trek with three other Americans, three to four Chinese representatives and some Tibetan porters, said it was apparent "the plane went in full bore into the side of the mountain."

Three crew members had been unaccounted for from the flight.

"We found life support up in the area — leather flight jackets," Rouse said, adding there were no obvious remains.

"The wreck is in amongst big rocks and dirt, and after that many years, anything that has survived probably — like in the Langko site — has buried itself," Rouse said.

The trip to the second site was intended to map out a route to the site and the wreck location itself for a follow-up excavation.

The recovery mission, which preceded China President Jiang Zemin's visit last week with President Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, follows a pattern of China making diplomatic gestures that coincide with occasions of national importance.

Jiang will step down from the leadership position two weeks after returning home when the 16th Party Congress convenes.

In December 1993, a joint Chinese-American team recovered remains of five crew members in Tibet who disappeared with their C-87 transport on Jan. 31, 1944 while flying the "Hump.'

The central identification lab is hoping to negotiate future recoveries to Tibet.

Iddins, meanwhile, said it was an honor to be part of the mission.

"Looking at that aircraft so far away from home, knowing (that there) were young men on that aircraft, and then to find remains ... (it) was a tremendous honor to bring those people back here," Iddins said. "They made the supreme sacrifice for their country."

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-5459.