A Himalayan Mission to Bring Closure to Kin of WWII Troops

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

SAGALI, India -- After trekking for five hours up steep Himalayan slopes, crossing numerous creeks and hacking a trail through bamboo forests, Clayton Kuhles and his guide reached the spot where a U.S. military plane had fallen more than six decades ago.

Out of breath and sweating, he rummaged through the forest-floor vegetation and excitedly pulled out rusted parts of an aircraft engine strewn atop a hill here in India's northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. His eyes scanned for clues as he sifted through the debris.

"It's a C-46 plane. It has two engines. Two sets of 18 cylinders. Four propeller blades are intact. Two landing gears. I can see evidence of fire," said Kuhles, a 54-year-old businessman from Prescott, Ariz.

The veteran mountaineer, dressed in a black T-shirt and green cargo pants, photographed the debris and wrote down the engine number on his notepad.

The journey Kuhles has undertaken from Arizona to Arunachal Pradesh is part Himalayan adventure, part historical quest and part humanitarian mission. In the past two years, he has climbed treacherous peaks and combed tropical forests to find the wreckage of more than a dozen U.S. planes that crashed in the Himalayan regions of India, Burma and China during World War II. More than 1,300 people went missing while flying in the area and were declared dead. About 415 people from 90 aircraft were lost over India alone.

By locating the wreckage, Kuhles has provided answers and mementos to the families of scores of missing American servicemen. "In 65 years, there has been no effort to investigate the sites of these crashes. So many lives were just written off and forgotten as if the men went into a black hole," he said. "The family members want answers till this day. They want closure. And that is what I provide."

The Himalayas formed part of a major resupply route during World War II, a mission that was dubbed "flying over the hump." Pilots flew the infamous route to avoid Japanese-occupied Burma, and it was the Allies' only option after the Japanese blocked the Burma Road.

The route -- which started at the eastern end of the Himalayas, wrapped over Burma and dropped down into China -- was hazardous because of cloud-knifing mountain peaks and turbulent weather, including gales, thunderstorms and freezing temperatures.

"Ice would often develop on the surface of the airplane, and it would become heavy and lose altitude," Kuhles said. "It was like a suicide mission."

Kuhles's passion is well-known in this remote Indian region of verdant, picturesque mountains. Unendingly energetic, he often leaves even his local guides panting in his wake as he ascends peak after peak. He has had several close calls with cobras and always carries a venom-suction kit, as well as lemon and eucalyptus bug spray. He has made seven trips to India, mostly paid for by himself, but he has not found the time to visit tourist sites such as the Taj Mahal. In many villages, he finds that salvaged aluminum from the planes has been turned into doors, roof panels and cooking pots.

So far, he has reached 14 crash sites in India and one in Burma.

"The word is out that there is an American on the lookout for plane crash sites," said Oken Tayeng, the tour operator who is Kuhles's point man for local logistics. "All kinds of people call me now, and I tap into my wide networks of cousins and friends for information. Some villagers mistakenly think there is big money to be made by letting us know of sites. Others fear that the American wants to hunt in their forests."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company