NEW DELHI: On April 18, Indian official sources said the US had sought resumption in the recovery operation for the remains of their soldiers in the northeast who were killed during the World War II. There was no categorical ‘yes’ from the Indian side, but only a cautious ‘possibility to accept the request’.
Though it was a sidelight at the India-US political-military dialogue, for Gary Zaetz and scores of other relatives of missing American soldiers it was the main take away from the talks.
For 57-year-old software programmer Zaetz, who is fighting a personal mission, even this tentative news was more than welcome after the silence of over two years.
“The families are very hopeful that recovery will now proceed,” he told Express on phone from his home in North Carolina.
Sixty-eight years ago, his uncle, first lieutenant Irwin Zaetz, left Kunming in China to travel to Chabua, Assam, in his B-24 bomber, fondly nicknamed ‘Hot as Hell’. He, along with seven other crew members, was never seen again.
He was among over 400 defence personnel who are believed to have died in the China-Burma-India theatre.
After several negotiations, a team from the US military’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command had finally got permission to travel to the ‘Hot as Hell’ crash site in 2008. There were two more expeditions in 2009, but they were abruptly stopped.
“A lot of it (Indian concerns) has to do with the boundary issue,” said Zaetz, referring to the sensitive location of the crash site in Arunachal Pradesh - a large part of which is also claimed by China.
Zaetz is purportedly the first relative of the crash victims to visit the site when he went on a torturous four-day trek to remote Damroh in Arunachal Pradesh.
The suspension of recovery operation by India in 2009 had never been fully explained. US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs Robert Newberry, in a September 2010 letter written to Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, said: “This relatively under developed area is the scene of three international borders, territorial disputes and several insurgent groups. Under the circumstances, although sympathetic to the humanitarian nature of our work, the Indian government closely manages all entry to and activity in this area, including our own.”
The letter came in response to queries of the son of another ‘Hot as Hell’ crew member, Flight Officer Sheldon Chambers.
Zaetz also referred to the China angle, pointing to a paper written by an Indian strategic analyst in March 2008. The paper quoted a transcript of a commentary by China Radio International stating that India was allowing the US recovery operation to ‘legitimise’ its claim in the region.
Meanwhile, Zaetz and other relatives continued with their lobbying efforts, both online and offline, with politicians, bureaucrats and media. Not surprisingly, Zaetz is rather impatient with the Indian Government’s intransigence. “In terms of hurdles set up by nations on recovery operations, it is a tie between North Korea and India,” he said.
At times, his efforts had also seemed an impossible competition with time. “My father, who is in his eighties, was his (Irwin’s) younger brother. I want to do this before he dies,” said Zaetz.
Along with the Indian government’s change of heart, there is another piece of good news for Zaetz. Clayton Kuhles, an avid mountain climber, had been in talks to raise funds to finance a private recovery operation in Arunachal Pradesh as a personal service to the families. Kuhles had discovered more than 20 crash sites of WWII, including the ‘Hot as Hell’ crash site, in 2007.
“There is a strong possibility that a US TV network or cable channel will cover the costs of the recovery of remains expedition. I am currently in discussions
with them,” Kuhles told Express.