Members of a U.S. search team used a screen to sift through the wreckage of a C-46 transport plane that crashed in Tibet in 1944. The team included, from left, Sgt. Michael Harris (with earphones), Staff Sgt. Thomas Woods, anthropologist James Pokines, Staff Sgt. Daniel Krug and Sgt. 1st Class Sean Bendele.

Eight weeks in Tibet

By Gregg K. Kakesako

Air Force flight surgeon Col. Bart Iddins is 5 feet 9 and normally weighs 130 pounds. But after spending more than eight weeks in Tibet this summer searching for remains of U.S. servicemen killed in World War II, he lost 12 pounds.

It was the most strenuous mission in the 29-year history of the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory based at Hickam Air Force Base. A 14-man team was trying to recover what are believed to be the remains of four Americans whose C-46 transport plane crashed in the Tibetan Himalayas in March 1944.

The aircraft was based in Sookerating, India, and was reported missing in a flight en route to Kumming, China. It is believed to have run into the mountain after losing its way and running out of gas. It was on a supply run, ferrying goods to China-based U.S. forces and Chinese Nationalists fighting the Japanese.

Army Capt. Dan Rouse, team leader, said "one guy lost more than 40 pounds" in conditions where the temperature ranged from 25 degrees at night to almost 70 degrees at noon.

Marine Cpl. Ricardo Morales, the unit's forensic photographer, said that while working at more than 15,000 feet in the Himalayas, "snow would be covering the ground when we got up in the morning." Then there would be a break and there would be nice weather, and the temperature would be up in the 50s.

"By early afternoon it would start to hail, and then it would turn to rain and then there would be snow flurries by nightfall."

The team of one Air Force doctor, one Marine Corps photographer and 12 Army mortuary and identification specialists, linguists and mountaineering specialists began training in April, but three of them interviewed at Hickam Air Force Base yesterday acknowledged that there were many things they had not anticipated.

The 14 members of the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory's search and recovery team crossed a meadow on their way to Langko village in southeastern Tibet, about nine miles from the Indian border.

"The training we did was enough to get started, but it wasn't enough for five days of hiking at 15,000 feet," said Army Sgt. Michael Harris, mortuary affairs specialist.

Before leaving for Tibet, the team hiked Oahu's rain forests, climbed to the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island and hiked mountains in Alaska.

"We hiked three to five hours a day before we left," said Rouse, a 35-year-old infantry officer, "but even that wasn't enough."

Morales, 23, said "the scariest part of the operation was the combination of acute mountain sickness and the terrain. ... I don't think anything could have prepared us for what we encountered. I learned to respect the mountain really quickly."

Rouse said his team took medication to help it acclimate to the higher altitude.

The team traveled to Lhasa, Tibet, where they spent time getting acclimated to the higher altitude. From there they drove more than 372 miles to Naelong village, where they had to switch from vehicles to pack animals for the three-day hike to Langko village in southeastern Tibet.

Army Sgt. Daniel Krug used a bucket to excavate the wreckage of a C-46 transport plane that crashed in the Tibetan Himalayas in March 1944 after losing its way and running out of gas.

The trek involved complicated river crossings and steep, mountainous terrain.

Rouse said once the team reached Langko, it took another day to reach the 15,500-foot level to set up a base camp. The crash site, about 1,250 miles southwest of Beijing, was located another 1,500 feet above the camp, and it took two hours to reach the upper base camp. The aircraft wreckage was located in a cliff face above a ravine.

Rouse estimated that the C-46 must have been traveling at about 200 miles an hour when it smashed into the mountain.

"The cockpit didn't exist any longer," Rouse said.

Its wings had been sheared off on impact. They were found nearby. The cargo plane's landing gear was still up.

The team excavated the mountain site from Sept. 1 to 16.

"We found a lot of stuff in the wreckage," Rouse added.

The remains were taken to the Army's forensic laboratory at Hickam Air Force Base, where they will be examined and tested for DNA matches to produce positive identification.

The wing section of the C-46 transport plane was examined by, from left, Staff Sgt. Brian Flanders, Sgt. Thomas Kowalevicz and Staff Sgt. Robert Kamaka.

Toward the end of the mission, four team members spent seven days climbing three 15,000-foot mountains to get to another C-46 crash site, at Damnya, northeast of Langko.

It was discovered in 1999 by a pair of hunters, and the Chinese government informed Washington the following year.

Rouse added that only one day was spent investigating the site since the team's mission was just to verify and confirm the crash site, which it did using the tail number of the aircraft.

Authorities believe that there were three American servicemen on the plane.

The C-46 cargo planes were two of more than 500 U.S. planes believed to have crashed over the Himalayan Mountains during World War II. More than 1,000 U.S. airmen are believed to have died in such crashes between 1942 and 1945 along what became known as the "Aluminum Trail" for its many lost planes.

Harris said that despite the region's remoteness, he would be willing to return.

"It's worth it. It's our job. It's what we do."

Morales quickly added, "I would be there in a sec."

Sgt. Michael Harris was pulled across a river in Tibet in August.

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