U.S. finds remains of fliers lost over Himalayas


Published: Tuesday, October 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, September 30, 2002 at 10:31 p.m.
BEIJING - Lost to their country and their families, they lay on a lonely Himalayan mountainside for six decades - enough time for their war to end and others to begin, for children to grow and have their own children, for the enemy they were fighting to become a friend again.
But this week, remains believed to be those of four American airmen killed during World War II when their cargo plane crashed onto a lofty meadow in eastern Tibet are finally on their way home - thanks to the cooperation of two governments that spent many of the intervening years as suspicious rivals.
No one is certain yet who they are, though the U.S. military has the crew manifest of the C-46 transport that went down in March 1944 along the "hump route," named for the spectacular lumps of snow-shrouded majesty that pilots see when crossing high above the Himalayas.
The remains were retrieved from the plateau, about 1,250 miles southwest of Beijing, during a nearly two-month operation conducted with Chinese government searchers during the summer. Another C-46 crash site several mountains away was investigated and its contents tagged for future retrieval.
"It's like winning the jackpot, getting up there and finding these," U.S. Army Capt. Daniel N. Rouse, leader of the search team from the Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, said at a news conference Monday at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
The C-46, pressurized for high-altitude wartime runs, crashed during a return trip along the hump route, a supply run from India to the Chinese wartime capital of Kunming and back that took goods to China-based U.S. forces and Chinese Nationalist government forces battling the Japanese.
Five years later, the communists drove the Nationalists from the mainland and established a government the United States regarded as a threat, precluding for decades any chance of cooperative searches.
The airplane slammed into the mountain high above the Tibetan village of Langko and wound up in a pasture - an unusual sight amid the rocky terrain typical at 15,650 feet.
The wings, sheared off on impact, were found nearby; the fuselage, damaged but recognizable, still shone in the sun. Its landing gear was still up when found and thick clouds were visible across that level of the mountain.
"They probably got lost, ran out of fuel and simply hit the mountain," search team member James T. Pokines said. The crew likely died instantly, but the instant depressurization might well have killed them if they survived impact, he said.
That C-46 was one of more than 500 U.S. planes believed to have crashed over the Himalayan Mountains during World War II. More than 1,000 U.S. airmen are believed to have perished in such crashes between 1942 and 1945 along what became known as the "Aluminum Trail" for its many lost planes.
"There was very little knowledge," Rouse said. "This is very, very rugged, sparsely populated terrain. There aren't a lot of people to find them."
Neither the Chinese nor the American government knew of the plane's location until 2000, when two Langko villagers - a farmer and an elderly woman in their 80s - told regional authorities about the site.
"I assume all the locals knew about it, probably visited it once or twice in their lives to pick over it," Pokines said. "We know that people visited the site and carried off whatever was useful to them."
The airmen's remains arrived in Beijing on Saturday under the team's care and are being stored in a U.S. Embassy compound. They depart Thursday for the United States, where they will be examined and tested for DNA matches to produce positive identification.
That could take months, though Pokines suggested that relatives of the airmen on the crew manifest may have contributed DNA samples for comparison.
The 14-member U.S. search team trained for weeks, ascending Hawaiian and Alaskan mountains to prepare for the grueling, high-altitude Tibetan terrain. To reach the site, they crossed rushing rivers on jerry-rigged rope bridges and faced rain, hail and thin air during the salvage operation, which they rushed to complete before winter snows began.
The second site investigated, high above the Tibetan village of Damnyu, is even more remote. It was discovered in 1999 by a pair of hunters, and the Chinese government informed Washington the following year, said Tonga, the Tibetan official in charge of salvage operations.
He said the memories of witnesses may be sketchy after so long. "Remember," he said, "this story is almost 60 years old."

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