Twelve years after the process of repatriating the remains of American soldiers who died on Indian soil in the Second World War in air crashes first began, the excavated remains and artefacts of a US Air Force B-24 bomber crash site will be sent to the US next month. The repatriation ceremony at Delhi will be the highlight of the India visit of US Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter in second week of April.
The repatriation of remains of these American soldiers is a very emotive political issue in the US and featured in the joint statement issued by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Barack Obama at Delhi in January 2015. It also points to increasing US-India cooperation under the BJP government as the previous UPA government had stopped recovery of remains in 2009.
The US government expects this repatriation to establish a template for undertaking more such recovery missions in the sensitive border state of Arunachal Pradesh. An informal agreement between the Pentagon and defence ministry is expected during Carter’s India visit.
“The repatriation of American servicemen who died on Indian soil during World War II remains a huge priority. We are grateful for the support we have received from the Government of India for recent recovery efforts, and are hopeful that this will set a template for future missions. We, the United States government, owe it to the family members and these brave Americans, who made the ultimate sacrifice, to ensure that recovery and repatriation efforts continue,” US Ambassador to India, Richard Verma told The Indian Express.
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More than 400 American soldiers are supposed to have gone missing in air crashes while crossing the ‘The Hump’ from India to China. The Hump, over the Himalayas, was the main air resupply route from India to China during the Second World War after Japanese troops had captured Burma.
The remains being repatriated next month are of the US Air Force B-24 ‘Hot As Hell’ (tail number 42-73308, MACR 2140) bomber which was flying from Kunming in China to Chabua in Assam on January 25, 1944. It had eight crew members and is the only bomber among the many transport USAF planes that crashed in the North East. The crash site at Damroh in Siang Valley of Arunachal Pradesh was identified in 2006.
A 10-member specialised identification and recovery team from the US Defense Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency (DPAA) undertook the recovery mission, along with an Assam based private company, Remo Expeditions. More than two dozen local guides and labourers were also employed by the DPAA at the site.
The initial recovery was carried out by DPAA in 2008 and 2009, after which the UPA government denied it the permission to continue the exercise. The working season at crash site is limited to only three months every year, from September to December, and the BJP government finally gave the DPAA permission to resume the recovery in September 2015.
The human remains recovered by the DPAA underwent a forensic review by the Anthropological Survey of India to certify that they were not remains of Indians which were being repatriated to the US. They were then given a No Objection certificate to be moved out of India.
According to an American official, “this recovery and repatriation was possible only after India’s External Affairs Ministry became the nodal agency. It coordinated with at least 10 ministries, including Home, Defence, Forest and Environment, Tribal Affairs, Customs, Finance, the state government besides the Indian Air Force and the Army.”
Around 20 crash sites have been identified by American authorities in the region. Most of them are in Arunachal Pradesh but some planes also crashed in Assam and Nagaland. Most of these sites have been identified through a combination of historical data and locals talking about a crash which they may have heard from their parents or grandparents.
Two new crash sites have been identified in the last two years while an air crash site found in Tripura three years ago, which was thought to be of a USAF C47 transport plane, turned out to be of a DC-3 civilian airliner.