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Remains of Bomber Crew Make Final Journey Home

B-24 Liberator flying over Mt. Lassen, California.
B-24 Liberator flying over Mt. Lassen, California.

At 7:40 a.m. Jan. 25, 1944, five B-24 Liberator heavy bombers from the 308th Bombardment Group, 425th Squadron, took off from their base at Kunming, China, on a routine supply run to India. Their route took them over the Hump, a treacherous eastern stretch of tall peaks in the Himalayan mountains.

At 10:45 a.m., flying at 15,000 feet, the formation "was forced to break up due to extreme instrument weather conditions," according to World War II documents on the mission. Clouds obscured the mountains' tree lines; visibility was less than a mile. Each aircraft was on its own, trying to land safely in valleys or at the nearest airstrip.

All five bombers crashed.

Crews parachuted out of two aircraft and survived; a third bomber crashed, with two survivors. The fourth and fifth B-24s -- Hot as Hell and Haley's Comet -- disappeared. Their crews were presumed dead.

After many years of work, the remains of some of Hot as Hell's crew are making their final journey home. A repatriation ceremony is planned next week in New Delhi as part of Defense Secretary Ash Carter's trip to India.

The return of the remains marks a victory in an incomplete recovery that started with luck and continues through determined persistence.

Making the ID

The Hump was a deadly cargo route from China to India. The flight path included constant severe weather and 15,000-foot peaks that claimed 600 aircraft and more than 1,000 lives over the course of World War II.

Hot as Hell's final resting place, where the wing section and engines are visible, is about 9,400 feet up the outer Himalayas in northeastern India, near China. The crash site is a three-day climb from a village called Damroh. Most of the bomber's broken pieces are blanketed by leaf litter.

The location was initially reported by Arizona mountaineer Clayton Kuhles, who had climbed the region's mountains as a hobbyist for years until he saw his first World War II crash site. Then he combined those two passions -- mountain climbing and recovery work -- building a network of villagers who would report things they'd seen in the mountains and experts who helped identify wreckage and crews. To Kuhles, there were too many airmen who'd never come home. He has found the crash sites of more than 80 missing airmen, and he is driven to find more. Along the India-China route alone, DoD estimates there are remains of more than 400 airmen.

In 2006 Kuhles was led to a crash site by a villager who once cut aluminum from an aircraft and carried it on his back down the mountain to salvage it. But when he grew frustrated with the difficult process, the 60-year-old hunter left the last stack he had cut at the site. He hadn't gone back until he brought Kuhles to the wreckage.

Even though there were engine parts, Kuhles could find no serial numbers -- a key to identifying an aircraft. They looked all over the site. Nothing. Then the villager led him to the aluminum stack.

The last sheet had the aircraft construction number 2878 stenciled on it. Research confirmed the link: Hot as Hell, the long-lost bomber named for its pinup girl nose art, had been found.

Recovery process

In 2007 Gary Zaetz found Kuhles' report about the crash on the Internet, and he knew he had to go to the site. His uncle Irwin -- his father Larry's favorite sibling -- was on the Hot as Hell when it crashed. Both brothers served in the war; Irwin was a navigator, and Larry was a pharmacist's mate 3rd class on the USS Hornet, CV-12, and at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

Larry Zaetz had gone a lifetime missing his younger brother, whom he nicknamed "Zipper" for his speediness on the basketball court. But Zaetz, now 91, was ill so it was up to Gary to bring Irwin home.

Gary Zaetz was out of shape and had never climbed a mountain. His co-workers had a betting pool in their North Carolina office that he wouldn't come back.

"They lost the pool," he said. "I was determined."

In September 2008 he climbed the Himalayas with the same guide who took Kuhles. For three days he persisted. He was out of breath in the thinning air and in constant pain from his feet, which were beaten up from the climb.

But he succeeded.

"There was certainly a sense of relief that I'd finally made it," Gary Zaetz said. "I personally was exhausted by the time I got to crash site."

He had told the families of the Hot as Hell crew about his plans, and had gotten to know their stories. He wanted to honor the lost. At the site he took out papers and began to recite Jewish and Christian prayers, reflecting the religions of the crew.

Then he read each of their names out loud.

Haley's Comet

In January 2011, Kuhles reached Haley's Comet. Its crash site is about 100 miles to the west of Hot as Hell, and the wreckage contains many more personal artifacts. There are shoes, bone fragments and clothing that Kuhles photographed and posted on his website, www.miarecoveries.org. The crash site has not been processed by Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. DPAA was notified about both sites years ago, and the same challenges that delayed Hot as Hell from being recovered for a decade haunt Haley's Comet, such as political sensitivities within the Indian government that have hindered US government teams from searching.

A senior defense official who will be traveling with Carter to the repatriation ceremony said he hopes this return is the first of many.

"We've been interested in working more closely with India in repatriation, and we are delighted by this latest activity," the official said. "We are delighted that we are able to return the remains of American [servicemembers] as part of the secretary's trip. We're going to work closely with the Indians on further MIA remains recovery efforts."

Those closest to Hot as Hell want to ensure future excavations are not handled like theirs was.

When DPAA arrived at the Hot as Hell site, it did an incomplete excavation, Kuhles and Zaetz said, leading both men to believe that if a more thorough job had been done, more remains could be on their way home. Time constraints by the Indian government hampered the effort.

"It's really difficult," said Zaetz, who is founder and chairman of Families and Supporters of America's Arunachal Missing in Action.

Family members of the Hot as Hell crew were notified by letter that the remains of one or two of the eight airmen have been collected. After the ceremony in India, the remains will be flown to DPAA's center in Hawaii for analysis and DNA identification.

"I'll be happy for the one or two families that get loved one's remains," Zaetz said. "It's hard to get a sense of closure when you know as many as six of eight remains are still there. It goes beyond just my uncle."

 

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World War II India