Published May 24, 2012
Nothing James Browne learned in flight school prepared him for “The Hump,” a perilous, Himalayan no-man’s land that became a graveyard for hundreds of fearless WWII-era fliers who battled Japanese fighters, impossible weather and a supply route from hell.
Just 21 years old on Nov. 17, 1942, when he took the co-pilot’s seat of a C-47 bound for Dinjan, India, from Kunming, China, Browne was one of hundreds of fearless American fliers who took the infamous supply route over the Himalayas, ferrying supplies to China as it battled Imperial Japan. Browne, like many others, had signed on before the U.S. entered the war that was rapidly engulfing the globe.
“He was deeply aware of the threat to this country even though we were yet to declare war,” recalled Browne’s cousin, Bob Willett, now 85 and retired in Florida. “He said to himself, they need fliers and I’m a good one.”
Somewhere high above the Himalayas, the aircraft’s wings iced over. The best guess is that it stalled out and dropped like a rock, landing in the rugged mountain jungle, its location a mystery that would endure for more than 70 years. Browne, who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, Capt. John Dean, the pilot and a veteran of the legendary Flying Tigers, and a Chinese crewman were listed as missing in action.
The plane was one of hundreds to go down in the rugged and remote mountain region fliers dubbed “The Hump” by American fliers who dodged Japanese fighter planes, steering their unarmed and rickety aircraft for 20-hour stretches with unreliable instruments in winds that could reach 200 mph. Experts believe more than 700 planes crashed trying to surmount the Hump, making the Himalayan region an inaccessible tomb of legendary fliers and rusted fuselages.
Other names earned by the dangerous route, from northeastern India, over Burma and into western China, included “Skyway to Hell” and “Aluminum Trail,” both testament to the hazardous path and the courage of the men who flew it.
"I'm so impressed by the sheer courage of those Hump airmen, flying their almost suicidal missions over the Himalayas, while knowing all the time that the odds were heavily against their safe return," said Clayton Kuhles, a self-described “professional adventurer” from Arizona who has made it his cause to seek out crash sites and bring closure to the families of the lost fliers.
"In fact, many of their buddies never did return, but simply vanished up there in those rugged and remote mountains," he added. "They were good men."
In eight separate trips, Kuhles has located 22 crash sites and helped account for some 193 U.S. airmen once classified as missing in action. Kuhles, 58, an avid mountaineer, was in India in 2002 when he first heard of old crash sites in the treacherous mountains. His guide mentioned in passing that he had heard of a plane wreck buried in the jungle.
“He could’ve been B.S.ing me in hopes of racking up a few extra days of guide fees but, in my gut, I knew he was probably telling the truth,” recalled Kuhles.
The tale intrigued Kuhles, and launched him on a crusade he says has already cost him $100,000 of his own money. Sometimes, the only sign of crew left in the tangled metal is a dogtag, a few scattered bones or the garments worn by long-dead pilots and crewmen.
“I find a lot of shoes,” Kuhles said.
Among the U.S. airmen Kuhles has accounted for is Browne, who had learned to fly at the Riverside Academy in Gainesville, Ga. With the U.S. still not engaged in the war, the young flier signed on with the legendary English Royal Air Force where he flew non-combat missions in Britain in the months after the Battle of Britain. After getting discharged in 1941, Browne returned home, where he was recruited by PanAmerican Airlines to help man the world’s first – and history’s most dangerous – airlift.
Initially, the lift was handled by the China National Aviation Corp., a quasi-airline in which PanAmerican Airways owned a 45 percent interest and which was under contract with the U.S. Army to ferry supplies to China. With all other supply lines cut off by the fearsome Japanese Air Force, the lift covered a 500-mile span between India, Burma and China, a trek that included “The Hump.”
Browne had been flying missions for China for less than a month when his plane went down. Willett recalls the anguish of his aunt and uncle after they lost their only child.
“They never recovered, or became the people they were before,” he recalled. “It would have been easier if he was killed in action, but because he was MIA, there was no closure, and it made the grieving process continuous. It never stopped.
“They expected him to walk in the back door one day and resume his life and be their son again.”
The death of an older cousin whom he idolized was “like an open wound” for Willett, who joined the China National Aviation Corp. Association, a collection of former pilots who had once flown The Hump. He met Kuhles at a 2005 reunion in San Francisco, and told him about Jimmy’s plane and how his loved one was never recovered.
“All we knew at that point was the plane took off Kunming and was headed back to India,” said Willett. “Clayton told me, ‘I think I can find that plane,’ and I thought, ‘That’s nice, but we have nothing to go on.’”
Working off the last transmission from the plane, Kuhles eventually zeroed in on the summit ridge of Cangshan Mountain in Burma as the likely site of the crash. But it would take three trips, over five years, before he hacked through bamboo and high-altitude grass to finally lay his eyes on the plane he’d promised to find.
After climbing 14,000 feet, and being abandoned by all his guides and porters except a 17-year-old boy who spoke no English, “the impenetrable wall of bamboo, as tough as iron and sharp as razor-blades” yielded to Kuhles' machete. Gleaming in the sun was the wreckage of the C-47 transport plane in which Dean and his crew had been entombed.
“It was like stepping into an ancient Egyptian (pyramid),” recalled Kuhles. “I knew it was the plane I was looking for. Finally, Dean and the others would have a chance to come home.”
Finding service members missing in action, including nearly 75,000 from World War II, officially falls to the Hawaii-based Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC). The command requires sound security, medical evacuation, communications and transport to conduct searches, something that has been impossible in recent years due to diplomatic strain. Still, as many as 30 sites already investigated or excavated in 2003 and 2004, when the U.S. was forced to pull out, will likely be revisited under new terms negotiated between the State Department and Myanmar.
Kuhles, meanwhile, carefully documents his finds, but does not have the resources to recover planes. On rare occasions, he has brought back the possessions or remains of fliers, but is wary because of international laws prohibiting the unauthorized transport of human remains.
But for Willett, Kuhles brought back plenty from his trip to The Hump.
“I know what happened to Jimmy,” he said. “I know where he is, who is with him.”