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.

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.

"I don't think the Chinese really understood the mission of bringing bodies home because that's not something they're familiar with. They just think that it happened and that's it," Willett said.

Orville Schell believes the disconnect highlights larger differences between the Chinese and American historical memory. Wanting to bring every soldier home highlights Western "reverence for individual life, or at least respect for individual life," Schell said. In China, on the other hand, "There is less of an emphasis because individual sacrifice is not emphasized. Collective sacrifice is memorialized in its place. You might see a plaque or marker for a unit or group but rarely an individual."

Willett's search for his cousin is an extension of his scholarship on the China-Burma-India Theater of World War II. He has been researching the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC) for 30 years and published a book on the subject. CNAC was a partnership between Pan Am Airlines and the Chinese government. CNAC proved that flying over the Hump could supply the fledgling Chinese army, and it continued to aid the Chinese Nationalist government through the Civil War against Communist forces. CNAC #60 was the first CNAC plane to crash crossing the Hump.

When Willett went to Yunnan in 2010, he met a young Chinese writer, Liu Xiatong, who helped him find the last radio transmission from his cousin's plane, which proved to be the key to finding the wreckage. An hour after taking off from Kunming, CNAC #60 had radioed an inbound plane saying that the plane was icing badly and asked if there was milder weather further south.

Willett passed this information to Clayton Kuhles, 58, an Arizona-based entrepreneur and experienced mountaineer who has spent over $100,000 of his own money to recover planes downed in the China-Burma-India Theater. Kuhles describes his missions as a "humanitarian project" and posts his findings on his website, From the radio transmission that Willett found, Kuhles reasoned that CNAC #60 banked to the southwest in search of milder weather. He charted the plane's trajectory on a map and looked for a place where a mountain's elevation exceeded that possible of the fully loaded plane with ice on its wings.

The results were promising. At 13,700 feet, Cang Shan was in the plane's path and too high for CNAC #60 to cross. Kuhles marked the spot on the map, believing it had brought down the plane. In September of 2011, Kuhles went to Yunnan to see for himself. The villagers said they knew of the crash site, but Kuhles had trouble getting anyone to take him up the mountain because the terrain was too severe. Eventually two villagers agreed to guide him, but after several days hacking through the jungle, they refused to go any further and Kuhles had to turn around.

When Kuhles was regrouping in Dali, he met a 59-year old local man who said he had been to the crash site numerous times and sent his two sons with Kuhles to guide him to the spot. He headed up the mountain for the second time. After crossing rivers and scrambling up boulders, the three reached the crash site just as the skies opened into a torrential downpour. One of Kuhles' guides was nursing an injured wrist and had already turned around.

The way back was slick and dangerous. Water rushed along the steep decline that Kuhles described as "life-threatening." When they finally made it to camp, they discovered that the tents had been washed away, along with all their gear. They found a rock overhang, made a sputtering fire, and passed the night in near-hypothermia. When they made it back to the guides' village the next day, both guides refused to take Kuhles back up the mountain.

The third time Kuhles began his ascent, he prepared to document the crash site. He had six porters in addition to a new guide who took a longer but more gentle route, carrying digging tools and a professional grade metal detector brought from Kunming. Near the wreckage, Kuhles' metal detector indicated large chunks of wreckage buried under the mountain boulders that probably had shifted on top of the wreckage after a major earthquake in 1950. One visible shard had a small number series etched into it: 4681. This matched the plane's construction number. Almost sixty years after it disappeared, CNAC #60 was found.

While the exact location of CNAC #60 is no longer a mystery, the fallen American pilots have yet to come home. Kuhles passed along his findings to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, which is the Department of Defense's special task force to recover missing Americans from past conflicts.

JPAC is a huge operation, with over 500 employees and an annual budget of roughly US$90 million. There are still 84,000 Americans missing from past conflicts, 90% of whom were lost World War II. Since JPAC began recovering fallen Americans in the 1970s, approximately 1,700 have been accounted for. Much of JPAC's staff spends their days in offices sifting through the roughly 1,000 active case files, researching various leads and making recommendations regarding where to send their recovery teams.

According to JPAC spokesman Lee Tucker, JPAC has eighteen deployable teams that conduct missions around the world. These teams often face extreme weather and difficult terrain. For one mission into the Himalayas to recover a plane that crashed crossing the Hump at 14,000 feet above sea level, the JPAC team trained for three weeks in Denali National Park and Mt. McKinley. The recovery teams spend from one to two months digging and sifting through the ground for human remains or other evidence, an effort led by a forensic anthropologist. If human remains are found, they are sent to JPAC's laboratory in Hawaii for identification. If a positive identification can be made, the relevant military branch's mortuary affairs officers notify the deceased's next-of-kin in the same manner as if they had been killed in a live conflict. This happens an average of six times a month.

With so many sites to visit, those that could soon disappear get first priority. "In Southeast Asia, for example, the soil is very acidic and tends to break everything down, even bone," Tucker explained.

The remote mountain terrain nesting CNAC #60 actually helps conserve the wreckage. The site is buried and difficult to reach, which protects it from would-be scrap metal scavengers. Still, a magnitude 5.5 earthquake in Dali that destroyed around 1,700 homes in early March of this year serves as a reminder that time is of the essence there as well.

Even before the earthquake, Robert Willett was frustrated that JPAC has not explored CNAC #60. He feels that he and Clayton Kuhles did all the heavy lifting, essentially doing the government's job. Though Tucker says that JPAC has a "great working relationship" with China--JPAC has positively identified 20 individuals recovered from sites in China--the Chinese government has not granted JPAC permission to explore the site. JPAC is hoping to send a recovery mission to CNAC #60 by 2014, at the earliest.

Nestled in the mountains of Yunnan, CNAC #60 continues to act as a barometer of the collaboration between the two countries that lost men in its crash. It started in a fit of cooperation against a common enemy, then became a token of perceived American imperialism in Communist China. In today's China, the government celebrates the American contribution to the war effort, but it still inflicts the same bureaucratic caprice that has frustrated many attempts at a true partnership. It is better than it used to be, but not as good as it once was.

This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.