Great Power Politics versus the Families of Missing US Airmen

by Mar 7, 2022Defence & Foreign Policy1 comment

What would make 400 US families, with no ties to any of South Asia’s major ethnic groups, emotionally obsess for years about the little-known Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, of all places? Why would these families focus so intently on the turbulent international politics surrounding this disputed, strategically vital territory that most Americans have never even heard of?

The Deadly “Hump”

The answers go back to World War II, when hundreds of US Army Air Force aircraft involved in operations against the Japanese Empire crashed in northeast India while traversing the Himalayan “Hump”, the victims of Japanese Air Force aircraft and treacherous Himalayan storms. Dozens of those aircraft simply disappeared, their crews written off by US Army Air Force leaders as presumed dead and unrecoverable. Many of these airmen crashed in countries like China, Myanmar, and the area now known as Bangladesh, but 400 were estimated to have died in crashes in India, the vast majority in the mountainous and remote northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.

The Forgotten Families

For decades the surviving relatives of these heroic men – wives, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters – have lived in their private Hells, powerless to do the one thing they wanted and needed to do most: reunite with their missing loved one a final time, to give their dead soldier a dignified burial.

Those institutions with the power to find their loved ones’ remains and return them home, in the meantime, conveniently forgot about them. Their own Governmental officials ensconced in the Defense Department, State Department, Congress, and the White House abandoned their duty toward them, making the obligatory Memorial Day proclamations and speeches but otherwise doing nothing to bring them home. For the governments of the South Asia region, these airmen became nonentities, none of their concern. Major nongovernmental international organizations that label themselves humanitarian, like the United Nations and the International Committee for the Red Cross, said much but did nothing, either proactively or reactively, to expedite the recovery of the remains of the American missing in action military personnel in South Asia.

The Mountain-Climbing Humanitarian

With the dawn of the 21st century, the families were suddenly given a spark of hope when news appeared on the Internet that a private US-based investigator, Clayton Kuhles, had discovered the crash sites of a number of heretofore missing US aircraft in Arunachal Pradesh, had received confirmation of his discoveries from the US Defense Department, and had even been able to associate the crash sites he found with the names of the crewmen who were apparently killed at each crash site he discovered. Kuhles, an experienced mountain climber, had a unique talent for locating the crash sites of lost military aircraft in some of the most remote areas of the world: scouring missing aircraft reports, interviewing local inhabitants, and trekking through swamps and deep snow to these crash sites on foot, aided by native guides. He then photographed the crash sites and posted the photos to his website. Kuhles’ efforts were not-for-profit. His sole goal was to help the families of these men by bringing a final resolution to their decades of pain and loss.

The Bureaucrats Say No

The families of the men whose crash sites Kuhles found in Arunachal Pradesh fully expected that their government, now that it knew the precise locations of these crash sites, would rapidly move to recover and repatriate their remains. Such was not to be the case, however. Their initial approaches to the Defense Department’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) were, in fact, met with a flat refusal. It was only after much negative publicity about the Pentagon’s decision appeared in newspapers in India, the US, and other areas of the world did the Bush Administration’s Pentagon reverse itself and complete in early 2008 an agreement with the Manmohan Singh Government’s Ministry of Defence to permit US Defense Department recovery teams into Arunachal Pradesh to recover human remains from the crash sites Clayton Kuhles had documented.

In late 2008, a recovery operation began at the crash site of the B-24 Liberator bomber “Hot as Hell II”, which Kuhles had determined had crashed on a mountainside near the Upper Siang village of Damroh on 25 January 1944, with the presumed death of all 8 aboard.

India’s de facto Moratorium

Mysteriously, that recovery operation, suspended during the monsoon-swept summer months of 2009 and resumed in the autumn of 2009, was canceled in late 2009 at the behest of the Indian Government. In fact, no recovery operations at all were permitted at any of the documented US World War II crash sites for the next six years!

What had caused this sudden reversal by the Manmohan Singh Government? All evidence points to a 2008 Radio China International broadcast attacking plans for MIA recovery operations in Arunachal as just a cover operation for joint US-India activities intended to encircle China. As is well known, the CCP regime in China has long claimed the entirety of Arunachal Pradesh as its own, calling it Southern Tibet or, in Chinese, Zangnan. Because of the proximity of these crash sites to the Chinese border, when the US and India first started serious discussions about allowing US recovery teams in that area in 2008, the CCP saw an opportunity to exploit the issue.

Confronted by this propaganda attack, the Manmohan Singh Government, as well as the newly elected Obama Administration, came to have second thoughts about continuing these operations, resulting in the cancellation of the Hot as Hell II crash site operation and the institution of a de facto moratorium on crash site recoveries throughout Arunachal Pradesh. Both the Singh Government and the Obama Administration came to see these recovery operations as needless provocations of China, and therefore dispensable.

Half-measures by the Modi Government

The newly elected BJP government of Narendra Modi permitted a resumption of the “Hot as Hell II” recovery in late 2015. Even after the Modi Government permitted this resumption, it forced a premature halt to the recovery operation, leaving much of the crash site uninvestigated for human remains. The remains of only one of the eight members of the crew, 1st Lt. Robert Eugene Oxford of Georgia, was recovered. The Modi Government continued to impose arbitrary restrictions on the number of recovery operations that could be scheduled on India’s territory during the course of any given year. Recovery operations became so infrequent that they were reduced to exercises in tokenism. Demands from the families that the Modi Government publicly repudiate and apologize for the moratorium, which had continued for over a year after the BJP took power, were repeatedly ignored.

“Holding” the Line

In 2017, another spark of hope initially raised the spirits of “America’s Arunachal MIA” families when a key US Congressman, Rep. George Holding, who served at the time as co-chair of the highly influential bipartisan Congressional India Caucus, devoted an entire speech on the floor of the US House to assess the state of MIA recovery operations for missing US airmen in India. His assessment was that India’s level of cooperation was, at best, mediocre. As he said in his speech, “Unfortunately, Mr. Speaker, the single largest impediment to these recovery operations came when the Government of India placed a de facto moratorium on operations in Arunachal Pradesh for the vast majority of 2010 until 2015.”

Finally, a major player in India’s powerful Capitol Hill lobby had publicly recognized the seriousness of the US MIA situation in India. The families hoped that other Congressional leaders would follow suit, and that the Administration, now led by President Trump, would finally respond with real pressure on India to step up MIA recovery progress.

But those hopes were soon to be dashed. The Holding speech got very little attention in the media. Other well-known pro-India Congressional leaders like Senator John Cornyn and Congressman Brad Sherman remained silent. And Trump Administration leaders like Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and US Ambassador to India Kenneth Juster refused to utter a single word of criticism of India’s poor level of MIA recovery cooperation. On the contrary, the Trump Administration went so far as to claim, flying in the fact of the facts, that the Indian Government had always cooperated fully with the Pentagon’s MIA recovery efforts in India.

Pinning the Blame

Naturally, the families of America’s Arunachal MIAs were heartbroken by this turn of events, and desperately sought answers. Who is responsible, they asked?

The US Government, in private communications with the families, blamed the Indian Government for the decision but it absolutely refused to condemn India’s decision in public, asserting in press releases in fact that the Indian Government had always cooperated fully with MIA recovery efforts! At the same time, the families were taken aback by the fact that while little or no progress was being made to return their loved ones, big progress was being made in other areas of US-India relations, such as trade, joint US-India military exercises, and US arms sales. So the families rightly criticized their own Government for ignoring their plight while at the same time it was advocating strenuously for US corporations doing business in India.

The families also knew that China had to shoulder a big part of the blame. Chinese Communist Party’s well-earned reputation for hypocrisy in so many areas of policy was also evident in how it handled the issue of American aviators lost flying the Hump. On the one hand, it had erected numerous monuments and memorials to their memory throughout China. On the other hand, it had mounted a vicious propaganda attack baselessly accusing US MIA recovery operations in Arunachal Pradesh of being just a pretext for joint US-India “encirclement” of China.

But the families knew that the main culprit was not the United States and not the Chinese. It was India. It was India that, by spinelessly knuckling under to Chinese propaganda attacks against India for granting permission in 2008 to US recovery operations in Arunachal, undermined India’s oft-repeated verbal claims to sovereignty over Arunachal. It was India that turned its back on promises publicly made to the United States to permit reasonable access to US crash sites. It was India that ignored its obligations under the Geneva Conventions and other international treaties to which India is a signatory to do its utmost to permit the return of the remains of US war dead to their families.

“They’re just waiting for us to die”

Over the years, the families of America’s Arunachal MIAs inevitably came to the conclusion that their right to bury their loved ones just wasn’t a priority for India’s foreign policy bureaucrats, America’s foreign policy bureaucrats, and the elected politicians they reported to. Considering that so many of the surviving relatives were extremely elderly, with many passing away with each year, they could hardly be blamed for concluding that these bureaucrats and politicians were just waiting for them to die. Dead relatives, after all, can’t harass them with emails and letters demanding that their right to bury their loved ones lost in military service be honored.

(Gary Zaetz is Founder and Chairman of the human rights advocacy group Families and Supporters of America’s Arunachal Missing in Action)

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