A U.S. recovery team has returned to a remote part of India to try to retrieve the remains of troops killed in World War II. Family members say a border dispute between India and China has delayed recovery efforts for years.
It’s not unusual to get an odd contact from your past through Classmates.com. But not like the one that reached Bill Verhaegen in 2008.
Verhaegen, a retired chemical equipment salesman, received an email asking if he was the nephew of a Louis F. Verhaegen, a World War II Army flier whose plane disappeared in 1943 during a flight from India to China.
The wreckage of the plane had been found.
“When I heard, I was in shock,” Verhaegen said from his Aliso Viejo, California home.
Verhaegen’s Uncle Louis holds a central place in family lore. Before he vanished into the sky at age 21, Louis’ family thought he might be headed for a career in professional baseball.
“He was tall, he was an athlete,” Bill Verhaegen said. “Over the years I had heard that he had signed a contract with the Philadelphia Athletics at that time. I have no idea how much truth is in all that, but I guess he was a pretty good left-handed baseball player.”
On March 20, 1943, Louis was an assistant radio operator on a B-24 dubbed “Pregnant Swan.” A crew of 10 was flying it from India to Kunming, China to join the fight against Japan. It never arrived.
Bill Verhaegen’s father immediately tried to enlist in the Marines even though he was too young.
“The family was affected quite a bit, especially my Dad,” Verhaegen said. “I’m sure at 16 years old or 17 years old, he is thinking he can find him, or have vengeance.”
It took 65 years, but in 2008, someone did find his plane -- a mountaineer from Arizona named Clayton Kuhles, who has made a personal mission of finding and identifying lost American aircraft in Asia.
After a two-day trek from the nearest village, Kuhles climbed up the jungled walls of a ravine at the eastern end of the Himalayas and began picking through piles of crumpled and shredded aluminum. Eventually he found what he was looking for: a serial number.
A few months later, Bill Verhaegen got that email from an MIA activist who works with Kuhles.
“The first thing I did was call the cemetery where my grandparents are buried to find out if they have room for my uncle if his remains are found. Two of my female cousins already had their DNA done that would help identify his remains.”
As clock ticks, recoveries stop
But in the seven years since Kuhles' discovery, there’s been no need for that cemetery plot or DNA tests. Not long after the plane was discovered, the government of India kicked out an American recovery team working in the region.
The Indian government gave little explanation, but Indian media linked the decision to a longstanding border dispute between India and China in the remote Indian state known as Arunachal Pradesh.
That meant Louis Verhaegen’s plane remained untouched by recovery teams, and they stopped work on another World War II plane -- a B-24 named "Hot As Hell" -- where a recovery had already begun.
The wait has been frustrating for families of 84 men who were aboard those and other planes that Kuhles has found and identified in India.
“We lobbied the Indian ambassador to the United States. We sent notes to numerous officials,” said Gary Zaetz, a North Carolina activist who locates families of downed fliers after Kuhles finds their planes. It was Zaetz who sent the 2008 email to Verhaegen.
Zaetz’ own uncle, Irwin “Zipper” Zaetz, was the navigator of "Hot As Hell." He says he’s working with more than 100 relatives of World War II veterans who are waiting for their loved ones’ remains to be recovered and returned from Arunachal Pradesh.
But with each year of inaction, Zaetz says that group gets a little smaller, as service members’ siblings, children, nieces, and nephews grow older or pass away.
Gary’s father, Larry — the brother of the missing flier — is 91 and not strong enough to talk.
“One of the people who was one of our closest colleagues in this effort, a guy named Stephen Chambers, nephew of Sheldon Chambers, my uncle’s co-pilot, he passed away,” Zaetz said. “Because of this moratorium he will never get to see the remains of his uncle.”
“The clock is very much ticking, absolutely, absolutely,” Zaetz said.
A dangerous and disputed region
In all, nearly 600 U.S. aircraft were lost along the route called the Hump, moving supplies and aircraft from India over the mountains and into China.
Unpredictable weather, the towering peaks and rudimentary navigation aids of the time made it startlingly dangerous. The crashes claimed the lives of almost 1,700 troops. All the crashes gave the Hump another nickname: The Aluminum Trail.
The place where the majority of the estimated 416 missing in India are believed to be, Arunachal Pradesh, is a crossroads and mixing pot. Strong Burmese and Tibetan influences. Dozens of tribes and languages, a host of religions, including many that worship nature. Rivers, jungle and rocky ridges rising into the Himalayas.
The U.S. sent a recovery team there in 2008.
But the next year, before it could finish, India imposed the unannounced moratorium on recoveries.
China had complained about India allowing U.S. recovery teams into the remote, mountainous territory, which it considers its own.
“China is prickly about this particular area because it is occupied by India but claimed by China,” said MIT political scientist Taylor Fravel, an expert on Chinese border issues. “They have a long border and the entire length of that border is disputed.”
But this spring, something changed. India loosened the moratorium – again with little explanation. And in September, one of the small U.S. recovery teams quietly flew back in. Zaetz has been told that it’s gone back to his uncle’s plane to try to finish the job there.
The Indian Embassy in Washington didn’t respond to requests for comment, and a U.S. State Department spokeswoman declined to talk about any negotiations.
Zaetz says the families aren’t sure what to think.
“Is this really an end to this moratorium, or is it just PR?” he asks. He worries that the Indian government will allow recovery teams to work on one crash site to placate the families and the U.S. government, then again impose the moratorium.
“That’s unacceptable as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
Families' long wait continues
Even if India allows the recoveries to continue without interruption, it could take years, or even decades to investigate just the sites Kuhles has already found.
While they wait and hope for their turn, families like the Verhaegens think about how to keep the memory of the men from becoming an echo that fades away as it passes down each generation.
“We talked about how this is handed down, how it affects this second set of cousins who didn’t have benefit of everybody talking about my Uncle Louis all the time,” said Bill Verhaegen.
So, he talks to his own son. Maybe Verhaegen can’t bring uncle Louis to life as clearly and powerfully as his own aunts and uncles did for him. But he can pass down some things.
“I have one of my uncle’s flight suits, the lightweight flight suits, and I actually had it cleaned and I had my son put that on,” Verhaegen said
“My son is 15 years old and he’s 5-foot-10 and it looks like it fits him perfectly. So when they talked about how tall my uncle was, I was a little surprised how the suit fit my son so well.”
Some of the men who went off to World War II and didn’t come back will always seem a little taller and bit more handsome. And maybe even a little better at baseball.
At least, for as long as someone keeps remembering.