February Edition, Special Story, NET Bureau, Sayantani Deb
Even after 73 years, a large number of American airmen who went missing in Arunachal Pradesh during World War II still remain unaccounted. Gary Zaetz along with some of his associates have been lobbying with both Indian and US governments to find these men and take their remains back home. The group has also formed an organization- Families and Supporters of America’s Arunachal Missing in Action…
On October 19, 2003, independent US MIA investigator Clayton Kuhles traced that the precise location in Arunachal Pradesh as the crash site of C-87 transport 41-23696, whose five crew members were still listed as missing in action during World War II. After few days, he again discovered that another aircraft, a C-47A, crashed somewhere in Arunachal. Kuhles, accordingly reported his discovery to the US Defense Department’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC). A year later, on November 24, deputy assistantmsecretary of defense for POW/MIA affairs, Jerry Jennings met with Indian government officials in New Delhi and announced that the senior American official responsible for US policies to account for its missing servicemen has concluded a two-day visit to New Delhi for discussions with the ministries of External Affairs, Defense and other officials.
Jennings further outlined the commitment of the United States to its worldwide effort in returning missing US servicemen to their families. “I have discussed with the Indian government for joining us in searching and recovering remains of Americans who are missing from World War II.” Stressing his emphasis on safety of US teams operating worldwide, Jennings noted that more than 500 aircraft and 1200 crew members are still missing in World War II’s China-Burma-India theater of operations. It is believed that approximately 416 men are still missing in India.
On June 28, 2005, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and then Defense minister Pranab Mukherjee signed a new framework for Indo-US defense relationship, stating that the leaders of the two countries are building a US-India strategic partnership in pursuit of these principles and interests. Besides, a joint statement was passed between American president George W Bush and prime minister Manmohan Singh declaring their resolve to transform the relationship between their countries and establish a global partnership.
On April 12, 2016, India handed over some human remains and bits of aircraft debris recovered from two sites in Arunachal at a repatriation ceremony held in New Delhi. While one site is presumed to be where a B-24 bomber aircraft crashed on January 24, 1944 during a sortie between Kunming in China and Chabua in India, the other is possibly where a C-109 aircraft crashed on July 17, 1945 while flying from Jorhat in Assam to Hsinching in China. According to the United States, it had successfully located more remains of the country’s servicemen who went missing in Arunachal Pradesh during World War II.
Speaking to Northeast Today, Gary Zaetz, founder of Families and Supporters of America’s Arunachal Missing in Action vilsaid, “The basic idea of this operation is human decency. A fundamental aspect of basic human decency, shared by all religions and all cultures worldwide is that families have not only a right but an obligation to honor the mortal remains of their deceased and loved ones ceremonially with a funeral ceremony as soon as possible after they die.” Gary further adds, “However, if families are refused to access the mortal remains of their loved ones, they are illegitimately deprived of the ability to exercise this right. Gary informs that still 400 US servicemen are unrecovered from WorldWar II crash sites in Arunachal.
“From the late 1970s until 2008, and then from 2010 to 2015, the government of India did not permit US defense department recovery teams into the region of India – Arunachal Pradesh – where most of the remains of US airmen in India lie unburied,” he informed, adding, “For a brief time (late 2008 to late 2009), the government of India gave us permission to do investigation in one of the many well-known crash sites in Arunachal Pradesh. A crash site is located on a mountainside in Upper Siang district near the village of Damroh.”
However, in late 2009 the UPA government withdrew that permission, without a word of protest by the Obama administration, before any human remains could be recovered. From early 2010 until the assumption of the Modi government, a de facto moratorium was imposed on Arunachal recoveries. “Even after the Modi government took over, the de facto moratorium continued for well over a year, until the government faced with bad publicity over this situation in the press, finally relented and permitted some token recovery efforts.” During these years (2010-2015), many close relatives of these airmen died, forever deprived of their right.
Further speaking about his organisation, he said, “To reunite with the remains of their loved ones killed in wartime, and give them the honored funerals they deserve, our organisation was formed. Secondarily, our efforts are focused on trying to get our own government (i.e the US government) to pressurise the government of India to honor these obligations. “Considering that the Obama administration has been more concerned with selling arms to India, conducting joint military exercises and concluding lucrative commercial contracts with Indian companies than recovering our war dead, this aspect of lobbying campaign has been an uphill struggle to say the least,” he stated.
Lobbying Chinese Official
Gary and his associates have also lobbied Chinese officials. China claims Arunachal Pradesh as its own territory, and its media in 2008 attacked the recovery operations being conducted then as evidence of a joint Indo-US conspiracy to contain China. The Chinese made this specious argument solely to undermine India’s claim to Arunachal Pradesh, and score propaganda points against both India and the US. The campaign undertaken by Gary and his associates started mid-2007, shortly after families of the crew of the ill-fated B-24 bomber “Hot as Hell” found out that Clayton Kuhles, has located photograph and other documents of the crash sites of missing US soldiers in India, China, Burma, and Bhutan.
The campaign gained momentum after Gary’s visit to the crash site in September-October 2008. “This crash site was only one of 15 crash sites in Arunachal Pradesh alone that Clayton Kuhles photographed and documented on his website.” Sharing about their strategies, he discloses, “Initially we the families of these men did not create an organization to focus our lobbying efforts. Instead, as individuals we talked to reporters, wrote to the Pentagon, our members of Congress and even contacted Indian leaders. Finally, after repeatedly being treated contemptuously by both Indian and US bureaucrats, we created Families and Supporters of America’s Arunachal Missing in Action in October 2014 to show these governments the strength of our organizational commitment to this cause.”
“We have grown to over 800 members around the world, including many from India,” he adds.
When asked about the success of his mission, Gary shared, “The ultimate measure of our success can only be the number of American servicemen the Indian government permits to be recovered in the next few years.”
“However by this measurement, we have been relatively unsuccessful. Though no fault of our own, the Indian government, since 2008 has permitted the recoveries and repatriation of the remains of at most two of the 400 missing US servicemen in Arunachal Pradesh,” he informs. “But we do feel that, without our efforts, even those recoveries would not have occurred. In the absence of numerous Indian media articles about our group we believe that the Modi government would still be perpetuating the illegal and inhumane recovery ban originally imposed by the UPA Government in late 2009,” he quips.
Regarding the support from Arunachal Pradesh and Indian government, Gary tells, “Some Arunachal Pradesh government officials like the late chief minister Dorjee Khandu, have been supportive, but their support doesn’t carry much weight, since Arunachal Pradesh cannot conduct its own foreign policy. It is the Union government in New Delhi – the office of the Prime Minister and National Security Advisor, the ministry of External Affairs, Defense ministry and Home ministry who has the power to decide what level of cooperation India should give to US Government in their recovery efforts, not the state government in Itanagar.”
This level of cooperation, even after the apparent lifting of the moratorium in October 2015, is minimal at best. “Despite the fact that the Modi Government has vehemently criticised the previous UPA Government’s policies in many areas of domestic and foreign policy, the Modi Government has never criticised the UPA Government for the moratorium it imposed on US MIA recoveries,” Gary claims, adding, “This is a serious source of concern for the families of these men.”
“We are concerned that the reason for this refusal to criticize this policy is that the Modi government wants to retain the option of reimposing the moratorium in the future. We are also concerned about the failure of the Modi government to commit to a large-scale operation to recover the vast majority of these remains in the near future, before more of these heroes’ close relatives pass on,” reveals Gary.
NET: In which districts/parts of Arunachal Pradesh you are doing this extensive research?
US: We believe there to be crash sites in multiple locations throughout the Arunachal region based on heavy losses during the Second World War over the Eastern Himalayas.
NET: How are the local residents looking at the issue? Are you receiving any help or support from state government?
US: The state and national government are extremely supportive of our mission. The local populace is also highly supportive and often gives tip to our team about possible crash sites.
NET: How Northeast India will be benefited by it?
US: We hire local guides and indigenous people of NE India for all aspects of support of our missions including guides, porters, cooks, and transportation. All this activity benefits the people of the region.
NET: Do you have any plan with the Indian soldier who were martyred in different wars, like 1962 Indo-China war?
Richard Verma speaks…
“The United States is committed to making sure all the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who served our country come home. Our mission in India is a vital part of that commitment,” said American Ambassador to India Richard Verma.
Besides, in a statement by the American embassy here, Mission Commander Lt Col Pritz said, “We want to thank the government of India, the ministry of External Affairs, the government of Arunachal Pradesh, and the Indian Air Force for their invaluable assistance and cooperation in conducting this mission. Without their support, this mission would not have been successful”.