By Soutik BiswasIndia correspondent
Getty ImagesPilots dubbed the flight route “The Hump” – a reference to the treacherous heights of the eastern Himalayas
A newly opened museum in India houses the remains of American planes that crashed in the Himalayas during World War II. The BBC’s Soutik Biswas reports on an extremely risky air operation that took place as the global war began in India.
Since 2009, Indian and American teams have been combing the mountains in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, searching for the debris and remains of lost crews from hundreds of planes that crashed here more than 80 years ago.
It is estimated that about 600 American transport planes crashed in the remote region, killing at least 1,500 airmen and passengers during a remarkable and often forgotten 42-month World War II military operation in India. Among the victims were American and Chinese pilots, radio operators and soldiers.
The operation maintained a key air transport route from the Indian states of Assam and Bengal in support of Chinese forces in Kunming and Chunking (now Chongqing).
The war between the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, Japan) and the Allies (France, Great Britain, USA, Soviet Union, China) had reached the northeastern part of British-ruled India. The air corridor became a lifeline after the Japanese advanced on India’s borders, effectively closing the land route to China through northern Myanmar (then known as Burma).
The U.S. military operation launched in April 1942 successfully transported 650,000 tons of war supplies through the route – an achievement that significantly strengthened the Allied victory.
Getty ImagesThis operation maintained a key air transport route from India in support of Chinese forces in Kunming and Chunking
Pilots called the dangerous flight route “The Hump,” a reference to the treacherous heights of the eastern Himalayas, particularly in what is now Arunachal Pradesh, that they had to navigate.
For the past 14 years, Indo-American teams of mountaineers, students, medics, forensic archaeologists and rescue experts have traversed dense tropical jungles and scaled heights of up to 15,000 feet (4,572 m) in Arunachal Pradesh on the border with Myanmar and China. They also included members of the US Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), the US agency that deals with missing soldiers.
With the help of local tribesmen, they reached the crash sites on months-long expeditions and located at least 20 aircraft and the remains of several missing airmen.
It’s a challenging task – a six-day hike, preceded by a two-day road trip, led to the discovery of a single crash site. A mission was stranded in the mountains for three weeks after being hit by a freak snowstorm.
“From flat alluvial plains to the mountains, it is challenging terrain. Weather can be a problem and we usually only have late fall and early winter to work with,” says William Belcher, a forensic anthropologist involved in the expeditions.
Hump MuseumA machine gun, debris, a camera: some of the recovered artifacts in the newly opened museum
There are lots of discoveries: oxygen tanks, machine guns, hull sections. Skulls, bones, shoes and watches were found in the rubble and DNA samples were taken to identify the dead. A missing airman’s initialed bracelet, a poignant relic, changed hands with a villager who found it in the rubble. Some crash sites have been cleaned up by villagers over the years and the aluminum remains sold as scrap.
These and other artifacts and stories related to these doomed aircraft now have a home at the newly opened The Hump Museum in Pasighat, a picturesque town in Arunachal Pradesh at the foothills of the Himalayas.
US Ambassador to India Eric Garcetti inaugurated the collection on November 29 and said: “This is not just a gift to Arunachal Pradesh or the affected families, but a gift to India and the world.” Oken Tayeng, director of the Museum, added, “This is also a recognition of all the locals of Arunachal Pradesh who have been and are an integral part of this mission to respect the memory of others.”
The museum clearly highlights the dangers of flying this route. In his vivid memoir of the operation, Maj. Gen. William Turner, a U.S. Air Force pilot, remembers navigating his C-46 cargo plane over villages on steep slopes, wide valleys, deep ravines, narrow streams and dark brown rivers.
William BelcherIn recent years, wreckage of many aircraft have been found in the mountains
The flights, often led by young and newly trained pilots, were turbulent. According to Turner, the weather on The Hump changed “from minute to minute, from mile to mile”: one end lay in the low, steamy jungles of India; the other on the mile-high plateau in western China.
Heavily loaded transport aircraft caught in a downdraft could quickly descend 5,000 feet and then quickly rise again at a similar speed. Turner writes about a plane that fell on its back after encountering a downdraft at 25,000 feet.
Spring thunderstorms with howling winds, sleet and hail posed the greatest challenge to controlling aircraft with rudimentary navigation instruments. Theodore White, a Life magazine journalist who flew the route five times for an article, wrote that the pilot of one aircraft with Chinese soldiers without parachutes decided to crash after his plane became icy.
The co-pilot and radio operator managed to eject and land on a “large tropical tree, and they wandered for 15 days before friendly natives found them.” Local communities in remote villages often rescued and cared for injured survivors of the accidents until they recovered. (It was later learned that the plane landed safely and no life was lost.)
Not surprisingly, the radio was filled with distress calls. Planes were so off course that they crashed into mountains that the pilots didn’t even know were within 50 miles, Turner recalled. One storm alone crashed nine planes and killed 27 crew and passengers. “Turbulence would build up in these clouds along the entire route, as strong as I have ever seen in the world before or since,” he wrote.
Parents of missing airmen hoped their children were still alive. “Where is my son? I want the world to know./Has his mission fulfilled and left the earth beneath them?/Is he up there in that fair land drinking at the wells, or is he still a wanderer in the jungles of India?” Mountains ?” Pearl Dunaway, the mother of a missing airman, Joseph Dunaway, asked herself in a poem in 1945.
Getty ImagesThe US transport planes flying to China took off from air bases in Assam, India
The missing pilots are now legendary. “These Hump men fight the Japanese, the jungle, the mountains and the monsoon all day and all night, every day and every night, all year round. The only world they know is airplanes. They never stop hearing, flying and mending them.” “They cursed them. “Yet they never tire of watching the planes fly to China,” White said.
The operation was indeed a daring feat of air logistics in the wake of the global war that reached India’s doorstep. “The hills and people of Arunachal Pradesh were drawn into the drama, heroism and tragedies of the Second World War through the Hump operation,” says Mr. Tayeng. It’s a story that few people know.
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