For One World War II Vet, Unfinished Business in China

An American octogenarian traveled to remote Yunnan Province, China, to seek the remains of his long-dead cousin.
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A Chinese soldier guards a Flying Tigers airplane. (Wikimedia Commons)

"When you go into the military, one of the things you are told is, 'No matter what happens to you, we'll get you home.' That's a slogan, but that's not what happens in the real world."

So says Robert Willett, a Korean War and World War II veteran who is still waiting for the U.S. government to recover the wreckage of his cousin's plane, CNAC #60. The plane disappeared over the mountains near the China-Burma border in the early stages of World War II.

After 30 years of research and three treacherous treks, CNAC #60 has been found. The wreckage sits at 25°38'59"N 100°05'30"E, on the western flank of the Cang Shan mountain range, outside the city of Dali in Yunnan province. But the remains of Mr. Willett's cousin are still missing; and Willett, now 86, is getting impatient.

Dali is a tourist mecca in China's southwest, roughly 100 miles from the China-Burma border. In the summer of 2011, I visited the city and became one of the many thousands to climb Cang Shan -- now they even have a chairlift --completely unaware that, as the crow flies, I was just over a mile from the wreckage of CNAC #60. The plane crashed crossing "the Hump," killing Captain John Dean, co-pilot James Browne, and the Chinese radioman K. L. Yang. Co-pilot James Browne was Willett's cousin.

Before flying with CNAC, Captain John Dean of St. Peter, Minnesota was a fighter pilot with the China-based volunteer fighter group known as the Flying Tigers. Dean scored kills against Japanese fighters before the Flying Tigers disbanded, and he transferred to CNAC. He was 26 when he died, leaving behind a young family.

Robert Willett fondly recalls growing up with his cousin, co-pilot James "Jimmy" Browne, in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka. "He was a really good looking kid. He rode a motorcycle and he flew an airplane and he dated girls who were the prettiest things in the county," Willett recalls.

Although Browne died when he was only twenty-one, he was already an experienced flier, with missions in Canada, Europe, Africa, and Asia. He flew to keep out of trouble, or at least to stay in an acceptable amount of trouble. In his second year of high school, his parents sent him to military school where he first learned to fly. Before Pearl Harbor, Browne was a pilot in England, but he was discharged for buzzing the headquarters and recklessly breaking the tail off of his Spitfire.

Unfortunately, little is known about the Chinese radioman, K.L. Yang.

The route was ripe for disaster. Weather was erratic and extreme, crews were under-resourced, navigation equipment was primitive, and losses were heavy.

Nearly every American living in Yunnan has heard of the Hump, which is the tongue-in-cheek nickname that Allied airmen gave to the treacherous trans-Himalayan air supply route from India to China. After the Japanese cut off the Burma Road in April 1942, the Allies had to airlift supplies to support General Chiang Kai-shek's forces. Supplies were typically loaded into planes in Northeast India, which then crossed the Himalayas, and landed in Yunnan's capital city of Kunming.

The route was ripe for disaster. Weather was erratic and extreme; crews, mechanics, and loaders were under resourced; navigation equipment was primitive; escort fighters were scant; and losses were heavy. CNAC #60 was one of over 700 airplanes lost, with personnel losses more than doubling that figure. The route was relatively short, about the distance from Boston to Pittsburgh, so the concentration of wreckage was dense, earning the nickname "The Aluminum Trail."

In Yunnan, the Hump's historical memory is pervasive. Until the Berlin Airlift surpassed it, the Hump was the largest aerial supply route in history, and the Chinese remember efforts to resist the Japanese. Kunming's Jiaoye Park has a large monument dedicated to the efforts and sacrifice of those who made the airlift possible. Popular Kunming bars and a hostel are named after the Hump with wartime pictures and maps hanging on the walls. In these places, soldiers look on from framed yellowed photographs as young Chinese and American travelers drink beers together. The wartime American presence even has a lasting impression on the local language. According to Yang Bin, an associate professor of history at National University of Singapore who specializes in Yunnan, in the Kunming dialect the transliterated word "nice," which was introduced by American airmen, continues to refer to something extraordinary.

The Hump's resonance is amplified by the memory of the Flying Tigers -- a group of American volunteer fighter squadrons who scored many victories over the Japanese fighters early in the war, and the subject of John Wayne's first war movie. The Flying Tigers also have a restaurant named after them in Kunming.

Because the memory of the Allied presence is so strong, Americans living in this part of China get a more favorable reception. When I lived in Yunnan, I could defuse tense moments by talking about our airmen's contributions in World War II. When someone was angry with me about American foreign policy, things calmed down when I said that my grandfather fought against the Japanese.

China's coziness with the memory of the Allied presence is a product of a new epoch in Sino-U.S. relations. The American military was not always remembered so fondly. Americans supplied the Nationalist, or KMT, forces that later faced off against the Communists in a civil war. After the Communists took power under Mao Zedong, an anti-foreign and anti-KMT wave swept the country, and having any foreign or KMT connections was grounds for life-threatening political persecution.

Memorializing the American involvement in the war only became acceptable after "Reform and Opening" began in earnest in the 1980s. Orville Schell, the director of the Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations, told Tea Leaf Nation, "It is very interesting how, of late, the Chinese have returned to this moment in history when there was close collaboration, particularly with the Flying Tigers and the Hump." He continued, "It is telling that they have to go back to the 1940s to find a positive moment with good relations. There was a time when the KMT and everything associated with it was taboo. But that is past now."

Robert Willett, whose cousin died in CNAC #60, found a very warm reception when he went on a research trip to Yunnan in 2010. "We were treated like kings," he said. "Every place we went, they had a banquet. They gave us plaques and gifts. In spite of all the tension between the Chinese government and our government, it shows how much the people, particularly in Yunnan, appreciate the American involvement in World War II," Willett said.

Despite the red-carpet treatment, Willett found local Chinese somewhat puzzled that he would go through so much trouble to find his cousin's body. Returning the deceased to his or her hometown is important in traditional Chinese culture, but the Chinese government does not, at least publically, recover missing soldiers from domestic or foreign conflicts, according to Professor Yang Bin.

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Christopher Magoon is a contributor to Tea Leaf Nation.

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