External Affairs

No Closure Yet as US, India Continue to Resist Returning the Remains of WWII Dead in Arunachal

Among the remains excavated from Arunachal Pradesh, of US fighters from the Second World War,  might be Gary’s uncle First Lieutenant Irwin Zartz, the navigator of the B-34 bomber fondly named “Hot as Hell”.

Gary Zaetz at the crash site of his Uncle Irwin's aircraft: Credit: Zaetz' Facebook page

Gary Zaetz at the crash site of his Uncle Irwin’s aircraft: Credit: Zaetz’ Facebook page

New Delhi: For the past decade, Gary Zaetz’s family, along with many others, have been lobbying with both the Indian and the US governments to get back to America the remains of their loved ones from India’s North East.

The confirmed remains of airmen on board as many as 15 US Air Force planes which crashed during the Second World War have been reportedly lying unidentified across the mountainous areas of Arunachal Pradesh. In 2007, a private investigator for those Missing in Action (MIA) recovered the remains of what is presumed to be an American C-109 aircraft that crashed in Arunachal in 1945; he then went on to identify 14 such sites in the state. Hope brewed among the families that they would finally be able to bury the remains of their loved ones lost in the war.

Chabua-Kunming, as the crow flies. Credit: Google Maps

Chabua-Kunming, as the crow flies. Credit: Google Maps

Last week, on April 12, India handed over some human remains and bits of aircraft debris recovered from two sites in Arunachal at a repatriation ceremony held in New Delhi. While one site is presumed to be where a B-24 bomber aircraft crashed on January 24, 1944 during a sortie between Kunming in China and Chabua in India, the other is possibly where a C-109 aircraft crashed on July 17, 1945 while flying from Jorhat in Assam to Hsinching in China.

Among the human remains excavated from the sites after 70 years might be Gary’s uncle First Lieutenant Irwin Zartz, the navigator of the B-34 bomber fondly named “Hot as Hell”.

Yet Gary doesn’t sound pleased. On April 15, he had uploaded on social media a list of those “who deserve thanks” from the organisation of the family members of the airmen – Families and Supporters of America’s Arunachal Missing in Action – and “those who do not.” Among “those who do not” included “senior officials” of not only the Indian and the US Governments, but also officials of China.

In an email interview from his home in California, Gary, the spokesperson of the organisation, speaks to The Wire not only about the reason the families are unhappy with the governments of three countries but also relates the long struggle to get “a sense of closure.”


How many bodies of American airmen did the Indian government hand over to the US government on April 12? From which area of Arunachal were they recovered?

Remains of only one or two of the eight men aboard the B-4 Liberator bomber ‘Hot as Hell’ were recovered. The crash site is at the Indo-China border, in the Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh, a three-day trek from Damroh village. It is on the side of a mountain at about 9,400 feet altitude.

The Indian government also handed over the suspected remains of four crew members of the C-109, recovered in 2009, at the ceremony. That site is at an elevation of 8,227 feet, about a three-day trek from the village of Bishmaknagar in Arunachal.

The remains have been flown to Hawaii where a US Defense Department forensics laboratory will identify them by using DNA and other methods of identification.

Did any family member attend the repatriation ceremony?

The ceremony’s objective was to hand over of the bodies by the Indian government to the US government, not to the families. The families of the ‘Hot as Hell’ crew were invited but none were able to come. In my case, my wife was having a surgery that day.

In the case of the families of the C-109 tanker aircraft, the US Defense Department gave them no notice about the remains of their loved ones were being repatriated.

You expressed disappointment on social media not only at “the senior officials “of three countries but also at the repatriation ceremony.

The ceremony was extremely disappointing for the families of both the B24 crew members and the 76 other airmen whose crash sites in Arunachal Pradesh have been discovered in recent years. Although US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter attended it, we had been promised by the US Ambassador to India Richard Verma, who is the US State Department’s senior representative in India, that he would attend the ceremony.  He did not, which indicates the low priority the Obama administration attaches to the recovery of its war dead in India.

We had looked forward to a significant representation from senior officials of the Indian Ministry of Defence and the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) as a sign of India’s commitment to honouring in the future its obligations to permit more recoveries at other crash sites in Arunachal Pradesh. Disappointingly, the photos of the ceremony indicate that only mid-level officials of the defence ministry and the MEA attended it, clearly indicating that like the Manmohan Singh government, the Narendra Modi government also attaches little importance to honouring these obligations. In view of the fact that Carter attended it, protocol required that a man of comparable rank – perhaps Minister of Defence Manohar Parrikar – also be in attendance.

Why were only the remains of “one or two” crew members of the bomber recovered?

By its own admission, the US Defense Department left significant areas of the “Hot as Hell” crash site un-investigated for human remains. It claims that the recovery operation was aborted early because of terrain instability but that explanation is highly suspicious. Both American private MIA investigator Clayton Kuhles and I have been to the crash site and we found no evidence of instability.

The much more convincing explanation is that the Indian government, concerned about China’s reaction to a prolonged recovery operation in Arunachal, forced an early end to the recovery operation, especially in view of the fact that the Chinese government has for several years been, on public record, opposing all US recovery operations in Arunachal.

This was also the reported reason behind the Indian moratorium on an earlier US recovery operations in Arunachal.

Yes. That operation was begun by the Pentagon in 2008, intending to trace the remains of all the eight members of the “Hot as Hell” crew. However, in deference to China’s illegitimate concerns, the previous UPA government expelled that team from the crash site in December, 2009, and barred MIA recovery operations anywhere in Arunachal.

The NDA government continued this de facto moratorium for well over a year. While the moratorium was in effect, ten close relatives of the 84 missing American airmen from the 15 known crash sites in Arunachal passed away. Only after major articles appeared in the Indian press criticising the Modi government for continuing the moratorium, did it finally permit resumption of the operation at the “Hot as Hell” crash site, only to terminate it prematurely after 35 days.  The recovery work was allowed from September 12, 2015 to November 17, 2015.

Clayton Kuhles in one of the crash sites. Credit: by arrangement

Clayton Kuhles in one of the crash sites. Credit: by arrangement

Were the remains recovered in 2009 by the Pentagon not the same as the ones discovered by Clayton Kuhles in 2007?

Yes, most of the remains recovered from the C-109 crash site were not by the US Government. Instead, they were recovered by private American MIA investigator Clayton Kuhles in 2007. Shortly thereafter, Kuhles turned them over to the official US representatives in India.  The US government then turned the remains over to the Indian government which insisted that its own personnel would examine all the recovered remains before it allowed them to be repatriated to the US. The reason given was that it wanted to ensure that no indigenous Indian citizens’ remains were among the recovered remains.

That the India government kept those remains in storage for more than seven years — far longer than necessary — is a huge affront to the families of these men, as well as a flagrant violation of the explicit provisions of the Geneva Conventions governing the return of war dead to their families.

Not just these aircraft, there were reportedly many other aircraft that crashed in that area during the second world war due to difficult terrain.

The recovery job is actually much less than half done. The Pentagon estimates that 350 to 400 US airmen are still lying in various crash site locations throughout Northeast India, including in Nagaland, Assam and Tripura. Though the vast majority of that number is believed to be at crash sites in Arunachal Pradesh. Of that number, the remains of 84 airmen are believed to be located at 15 crash sites discovered by Clayton Kuhles in recent years in Arunachal. These crash sites are well-documented: their GPS coordinates are known, the wreckages have been photographed by Kuhles and his discoveries have been confirmed by the US Defense Department satellite photography.  Also, the serial numbers of each of these 15 aircraft have been identified. Consequently, we know the names of the men believed to lie unburied at each of those 15 crash sites. Those names are also listed on Kuhles’ website.

There are more crash sites in Arunachal Pradesh, aside from those 15, which remain to be discovered.

I understand that the organisation of the families was formed after Kuhles’ discovery. But, was there any informal prior contact among the families of those dead anyway?

Initially on the suggestion of  Kuhles’, whom I met for the first time in India after I returned from visiting my uncle’s crash site, I tracked down the living relatives of most of the other members of the “Hot as Hell” crew through genealogical searches.

Relatives of the crews of other missing planes found by Kuhles in Arunachal  – like the planes “Haley’s Comet” (lost on the same day as the “Hot as Hell”), the “Pregnant Swan”, the “Dreamboat” and “Blackie’s Gang” – came across Kuhles’ website by accident or by reading about his discoveries in the US newspapers.

There had been no contact among the families of the crew members prior to Kuhles’ discovery of my uncle’s aircraft. It was eventually decided that an organisation of these families and their supporters must be created to effectively lobby both the India and US Governments.

Now that so many other bodies are yet to be recovered, what will be the organisation’s next course of action?

The organisation has a few goals. One, the Indian government must publicly apologise to the families of all the US airmen lost in Arunachal for the seven-year moratorium on the recovery operation and concede that permitting it was an obligation imposed on it by the Geneva Conventions. The Modi government and the Manmohan Singh government claimed that permitting MIA recoveries to proceed without legal or moral justification that was a “humanitarian gesture” – implying that it is doing a favour. That is absolutely untrue. International law experts agree that, according to the Geneva Conventions, permitting MIA recoveries as soon as possible after the termination of hostilities is a legal requirement, not merely an option.

Two, the Indian government must commit publicly to allow all known crash sites in Arunachal to be fully recovered in the next three to five years. Given the advanced age of still-living siblings of many of these airmen, the recoveries from these 15 crash sites must be completed within that time frame for the Indian government to honour the rights of these surviving relatives to bury their loved ones before they themselves die.

What I mean by “fully recovered” is that the entire crash site must be thoroughly investigated. The US government has conceded in its statements that the “Hot as Hell” crash site was not even close to being “fully recovered”. So India must also permit the full recovery of the crash site, no matter how long it takes. Token recovery operations which are cut short after a set number of days arbitrarily decided upon beforehand are unacceptable to the families who have been waiting for a sense of closure for so many decades.

  • gzaetz

    Thank you, Ms. Pisharoty and The Wire, for this excellent article. Gary Zaetz (North Carolina), Founder and Chairman of Families and Supporters of America’s Arunachal Missing in Action.