During World War II, the United States lost hundreds of aircraft over the “Hump” route in the eastern Himalayas. The United States and India have worked together to conduct recovery missions to bring the missing servicemen home and have reiterated their commitment to these important missions.
Army Air Corps First Lieutenant Irwin G. Zaetz (left) and Army Air Forces First Lieutenant Charles Howard Mortimer.
In 1942, as World War II raged around the globe, the U.S. Army Air Force began a daring and unprecedented campaign to help tie down more than a million Japanese soldiers who were fighting Chinese troops and therefore could not be deployed against Allied forces engaged elsewhere in the war’s Pacific Theater.
At the time, the United States was sending supplies to Chinese forces through a circuitous route that started in the Burmese port of Rangoon (now Yangon), continued to the city of Lashio in eastern Burma (now Myanmar), and then connected with Kunming in China via the famous Burma Road. This supply line was critically important to the Chinese military because Japan had cut off other sources and finally closed the route completely by capturing Rangoon in March 1942.
In response, the United States started an airlift from bases in Assam Province to Kunming, eventually delivering thousands of tons of gasoline, equipment, food and other war supplies via an extremely perilous route through some of the world’s tallest mountains that came to be known as the “Himalayan Hump.”
The Hump pilots, many of them young and newly trained, faced a number of dangers. Their planes—heavily-loaded, unpressurized, two-propeller aircraft, unarmed and without oxygen—encountered extreme weather conditions and Japanese Zero fighter planes intent on shooting them down.
Storm winds exceeded 100 mph, with monsoon rains, icing and crude navigation aids making it very difficult for pilots to maintain control of their aircraft, determine their positions and find their way to their destinations. Despite all this, the airlift operation over the Hump quickly became what is believed to be the first 24-hour, all-weather military supply line operation in history.
It is estimated that more than 1,000 men and 600 planes were lost over the 530-mile stretch of rugged terrain that came to also be known as the “Aluminum Trail” due to the number of planes that went down.
The U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) conducts global search, recovery and laboratory operations to identify unaccounted-for Americans from past conflicts in order to support the Department of Defense’s personnel accounting efforts.
“The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency is charged with fulfilling the United States of America’s steadfast commitment to search for and recover those missing from past wars and to provide long-sought answers to their families,” says Kelly McKeague, Director of the DPAA. “But, as it is with the 46 countries we work in, we are only successful in India because of the critical partnerships we have forged. We are grateful to the Government of India at national and state levels, to the U.S. Embassy New Delhi team, and to private partners like Abor Country, RIMO, and the National Forensic Sciences University in Gujarat for supporting this noble mission to account for Americans who made the supreme sacrifice defending freedom.”
The pilots who flew the Hump were ordinary Americans thrust into the middle of an unprecedented military operation. The stories of two such fliers, both lost on the Hump, illustrate the human side of the campaign.
Members from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) excavate in Arunachal Pradesh during the search and recovery efforts to retrieve eight U.S. Army Air Corps members that went down with the aircraft in 1942. (DoD photo by SSgt Erik Cardenas/U.S. Air Force)
The missing fliers
Army Air Forces First Lieutenant Charles Howard Mortimer was 32 when he enlisted after obtaining his medical degree, completing his internship and marrying his wife, Madge. He entered into service as Flight Surgeon with the 308th Bomber Group and was a passenger on January 25, 1944, on the B-24J Liberator “Haley’s Comet,” when it took off from Kunming Airfield in China bound for Chabua Airfield in India. The plane never arrived, and all aboard were declared missing in action. Mrs. Mortimer was notified by an official telegram from the Secretary of War, on January 30, 1944, stating that her husband’s flight had disappeared on 25 January 1944. Mortimer, who was officially declared dead on January 26, 1946, was awarded the Air Medal and Purple Heart.
As with all relatives of the missing fliers, the Mortimer family suffered both from his loss and from not knowing the details of his death.
“His disappearance was a shock to the entire Mortimer clan,” his great-niece recalled in a letter. “His brother, my grandfather, never really recovered. My maternal grandfather and grandmother ended up divorcing not long after the disappearance of my great uncle. As a direct result of the distress caused by the loss of his older brother, my mother lost her father, and my sister and I never met my maternal grandfather.”
Flying the same Kunming to Chabua route on January 25, 1944, was the B-24 “Hot as Hell”, whose navigator was Army Air Corps First Lieutenant Irwin G. Zaetz. He had enlisted shortly after the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. His plane encountered the same fierce weather as Mortimer’s and went down on the Aluminum Trail. All eight members of the crew were initially classified as “missing in action,” changed a year later to “missing presumed dead.”
Zaetz, who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal, left behind a large family–his parents, three brothers, his sister and his wife. The Zaetz family was particularly troubled because his remains were never found.
“For decades, my family’s grief over his death was left in a kind of cruel limbo, because his remains were never recovered,” his nephew wrote in a letter. “He was one of the 74,000 American servicemen and servicewomen missing in action from World War II, their remains still not found even many decades after their deaths. He was also one of 400 American servicemen still estimated, by the Defense Department, to remain unrecovered at crash sites in northeast India, primarily Arunachal Pradesh.”
The Hump was officially closed down on November 15, 1945, three months after Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Imperial Japan. Mortimer and Zaetz had made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.