Why This Himalayan Region Is Home to 400 American Graves

Why you should care

The failure of India and America to repatriate the remains of hundreds of U.S. soldiers remains a bitter memory for families.  

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Strapped into their seats on a B-24 bomber called “Hot as Hell,” 1st Lt. Irwin Zaetz, a bombardier, and his seven crew members took off from Kunming in southwest China for a journey over the Himalayas to Chabua in British India. It was Jan. 25, 1944, and the airmen — part of an American unit tasked with bombing Japanese installations in occupied China — were crossing into friendly terrain to pick up supplies. But as they entered India, visibility dropped to 1 mile, and clouds were at treetop level. They never reached Chabua.

The aircraft crashed in what is today the state of Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India. Everyone on the B-24 died. They were among more than 600 U.S. personnel who died in air crashes while flying over that part of the Himalayas, called the Hump, during World War II — making it one of the most treacherous routes airmen had to take. Of the 17 crash sites that have since been discovered, 15 are in Arunachal Pradesh, says Clayton Kuhles, a Prescott, Arizona–based investigator who has worked for a decade and a half with the Department of Defense on finding these sites and retrieving remains.

But a combination of the region’s remoteness and its complex geopolitics (China claims parts of Arunachal Pradesh), coupled with what family members of the missing soldiers call apathy from successive American and Indian governments, has meant that the region remains a graveyard for many of those airmen.

The Indian government has basically shot itself in the foot.

Gary Zaetz, nephew of 1st Lt. Irwin Zaetz, MIA in Arunachal Pradesh

When the telegram arrived at Zaetz’s home informing his family that he was missing in action (MIA) in India, the family didn’t conduct a funeral, says Zaetz’s nephew Gary Zaetz, “in hopes that his body might someday be recovered.” More than seven decades later, the Zaetz family — and a majority of the families of the American MIA soldiers in India — is still waiting for that closure. India has allowed only very restricted access to the crash sites, and even more limited repatriation of remains. And the U.S., keen to preserve its strategic partnership with a country vital to balancing the growing influence of China, has avoided pressuring India. That, says Gary, has had an impact.

B 24 hot as hell

Irwin Zaetz and crew pose with the ill-fated B-24 bomber.

“The Indian government has basically shot itself in the foot,” says Gary, who is the founder of Families and Supporters of America’s Arunachal Missing in Action, an organization that lobbies to bring remains from the crash sites back to the U.S., “permanently alienating the families and supporters of America’s India MIAs.” He also says American governments have “attached the lowest possible priority to recovering our India war dead.”

The search for the MIA personnel began with a special U.S. Army Air Force unit assigned to the task in 1943. In early 1945, the American Graves Registration Service (AGRS), an arm of the U.S. military, took over the operation. By the end of 1946, the AGRS had recovered nearly 200 bodies in the present-day states of Assam and West Bengal in India.

 

But after gaining independence in 1947, India mostly barred search operations in its northeast, parts of which were hit by separatist movements, while sections of Arunachal Pradesh became embroiled in New Delhi-Beijing tensions. In 1962, India and China fought a bloody war in the Himalayas during which the People’s Liberation Army briefly occupied parts of Arunachal Pradesh. India’s strategic establishment closed access to the region for most foreigners and required even Indian citizens to obtain a special pass to visit parts of the country’s northeast. One search operation allowed in 1973 saw the remains of five American crew members returned to the U.S. But as of 2004, says Kuhles, the Department of Defense estimated that 416 American airmen were still “missing” in India.

By then, Kuhles, a mountaineering enthusiast, had stumbled upon his first World War II plane crash debris while trekking in neighboring Myanmar. In 2003, Kuhles crossed over into India illegally and found a crash site there. “I decided to refocus my love of mountaineering adventures toward finding and recovering our MIAs,” says Kuhles, who soon became the go-to person for the U.S. Defense Department and families of missing airmen in their search for answers in Arunachal Pradesh.

For 15 years, Kuhles has worked with local partners to search for potential wreckage. Once he finds one, Kuhles works with the Department of Defense to identify the specific plane that crashed, and thus the people who likely died there. Unlike Gary Zaetz, Kuhles has no complaints with the Indian government. 

But repatriating remains has proved harder than searching for crash sites. After committing to the U.S. in 2008 that it would allow search and repatriation efforts, the government of then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh withdrew that permission, worried about provoking Beijing by having American soldiers so close to the Chinese border. That moratorium has largely continued since, says Gary, though in 2015, the newly elected government of current Prime Minister Narendra Modi allowed the return of the remains of 1st Lt. Robert Eugene Oxford, who was part of Zaetz’s “Hot as Hell” team.

Gary insists India’s refusal to allow the search and repatriation of other MIA Americans violates a clutch of international laws. But he isn’t giving up — he’s still writing letters to politicians and pressuring the Indian and American governments to answer his questions. “We will continue to honor our military missing by working to get them home,” he says.

Nor is Kuhles done. He has two expeditions planned in northeast India this year, aimed at reaching new crash sites he has “preliminary information” about. The tragic but lingering bond that ties Arunachal Pradesh to the U.S. remains as tight as ever.

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