|A Solemn Path Back to Myanmar for the U.S. |
Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times
Howa Zau Gam, 84, helped fight the Japanese and still lives in northern Myanmar, an area where hundreds of Americans died.
By JANE PERLEZ Published: April 14, 2012
MYITKYINA, Myanmar — In the fog-swathed mountains north of here toward the border with China, more than 700 American airmen, flying cumbersome cargo planes loaded with war supplies, perished in the last stages of World War II.
A statue of an American soldier and a local guide is kept at the American Embassy.
Now, as relations improve between the United States and Myanmar, then known as Burma, the Pentagon is seeking permission from the Burmese to recover the remains of the lost Americans scattered over some of the toughest terrain in Southeast Asia.
The spots where the planes crashed are so well hidden that even on a bus journey along part of the Ledo Road that American forces hacked through the jungle, residents pointed to the horizon, saying, “Over there,” or “Far from here,” when asked for exact locations of the crash sites.
Historically, the United States has tried to repair relations with former enemies by requesting permission to recover the remains of Americans listed as missing in action or prisoners of war. That practice allows two opposing militaries to meet over humanitarian issues, rather than security matters, and offers Americans an opportunity to enter previously forbidden territory that over time may become more welcoming.
Some of the first official postwar contacts with Vietnam developed a decade after the end of the fighting when the American and Vietnamese militaries began tentative cooperation that gradually strengthened as the search for missing American soldiers progressed.
The Pentagon had reached out to North Korea for help in recovering the remains of American soldiers missing in action from the Korean War, but that plan was canceled last month after North Korea announced its intention to launch the rocket that broke apart after takeoff Friday.
A deputy assistant secretary of defense, Robert Newberry, visited Myanmar in February to start negotiations for operations that would allow American military officials and forensic experts to excavate crash sites, and carry any remains discovered back to the United States.
Efforts in 2003 and 2004 yielded only modest results and stirred some anger.
On two separate missions, American teams began the search for remains at crash sites around Myitkyina, but made little headway before Myanmar’s political climate soured and they had to leave, said Johnie E. Webb Jr., deputy to the commander of the Joint P.O.W./M.I.A. Accounting Command of the Department of Defense in Hawaii.
The headquarters for renewed operations could well be here again in Myitkyina, the town that American forces led by Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell captured after mastering some of the most grueling territory of the war in the summer of 1944, Mr. Webb said.
The fight to take Myitkyina, now a bustling commercial center with growing Chinese influence, was undertaken, in large part, to help the American airmen who had to fly far to the north to evade Japanese artillery clustered around the town. But the more northern route took the planes over the Himalayas — or “The Hump,” as it was known during the war.
With only rudimentary navigation equipment in the C-47 cargo planes, the pilots essentially flew by the seat of their pants. An estimated 180 American aircraft and about 730 airmen were lost, Mr. Webb said.
The cargo planes, with crews of two or three, ferried supplies from allied bases in India to China, where General Stilwell was trying to persuade an obstinate Gen. Chiang Kai-shek to fight the Japanese rather than the Communist forces of Mao Zedong. American bombers, with crews of 9 to 11 men, sent on missions against the Japanese also crashed into the jungle.
Howa Zau Gam, 84, a member of the Kachin ethnic group in Myanmar, fought alongside the Americans against the Japanese. In an interview at his home in Myitkyina, he said he would be happy to assist in a renewed recovery effort.
“It is my duty to help because the Americans liberated us from the Japanese and the British colonials,” he said, in the flawless English that he used as a young man when he gathered intelligence and interpreted for the American ground forces.
A certificate on Mr. Howa’s living room wall, signed by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, noted that he had been among 400 Kachin rangers who had fought 700 Japanese soldiers in a 12-hour battle. The Japanese, according to the citation, were supported by artillery, but the Kachin killed 281 of the enemy, losing only seven of their own fighters.
The attempts in 2003 and 2004 at finding the remains of some of the downed airmen were fraught with problems, Mr. Howa said.
Wrecked planes were found at three or four sites, but the local workers who had guided the Americans there were underpaid by a Burmese middleman and became disgruntled, hindering the efficiency and success of the operations, Mr. Howa said. In one instance, the Americans were led astray by the guides and sifted sand around a wrecked plane that had already been examined at the end of the war, he said.
In all, the remains of seven Americans were returned to their relatives after the 2004 operation, Mr. Webb said. The chances of identifying many more through recovered bones, teeth or gear are quite good, he said.
The soil in Myanmar is not as acidic as it is in Vietnam, where forensic specialists sometimes struggled to identify the fragments they found, Mr. Webb said. Even so, more than 900 sets of remains of missing American service members from the Vietnam War have been returned to their families, he said.
The intense tropical heat in northern Myanmar is not necessarily an obstacle. In Papua New Guinea, where American servicemen died in mountainous, humid jungles, remains unearthed by Pentagon teams were quite well preserved, Mr. Webb said.
An unofficial effort to recover remains, led by an American, Clayton Kuhles, has unearthed six crash sites of American planes around Myitkyina, Mr. Kuhles said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Kuhles, who worked with Kachin guides, porters and interpreters, said that he believed there were remains of American fliers at the locations, and that he was in touch with the Pentagon about further exploration.
Although the previous decade’s searches for American remains were supposed to pave the way to better relations with Myanmar, that did not turn out to be the case. In an effort to honor the American servicemen who died in the ground battles in northern Myanmar, a Burmese sculptor cast a statue of an American soldier with a Kachin guide at the request of American veterans of the war, Mr. Howa said. The intention was to place it in Myitkyina, where several memorials to Japanese fighters have been erected with the permission of Myanmar’s authorities.
But in 2004, during an especially fraught period in the diplomatic relationship between Myanmar and the United States, the statue was deemed unsuitable for public display. The sculptor had to flee the country, fearing persecution from Myanmar’s army, Mr. Howa said.
The life-size statue is now sequestered behind the walls of the American Embassy in Yangon, waiting for the kind of reconciliation between the United States and Myanmar that would allow it to be unveiled in public in Myitkyina.