Nothing James Browne learned in flight school prepared him for “The Hump,” a perilous, Himalayan no-man’s land that became a graveyard for hundreds of fearless WWII-era fliers who battled Japanese fighters, impossible weather and a supply route from hell. Just 21 years old on Nov. 17, 1942, when he took the co-pilot’s seat of a C-47 bound for Dinjan, India, from Kunming, China, Browne was one of hundreds of fearless American fliers who took the infamous supply route over the Himalayas, ferrying supplies to China as it battled Imperial Japan. Browne, like many others, had signed on before the U.S. entered the war that was rapidly engulfing the globe.
“He was deeply aware of the threat to this country even though we were yet to declare war,” recalled Browne’s cousin, Bob Willett, now 85 and retired in Florida. “He said to himself, they need fliers and I’m a good one.”
"I find a lot of shoes."
Somewhere high above the Himalayas, the aircraft’s wings iced over. The best guess is that it stalled out and dropped like a rock, landing in the rugged mountain jungle, its location a mystery that would endure for more than 70 years. Browne, who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, Capt. John Dean, the pilot and a veteran of the legendary Flying Tigers, and a Chinese crewman were listed as missing in action. The plane was one of hundreds to go down in the rugged and remote mountain region fliers dubbed “The Hump” by American fliers who dodged Japanese fighter planes, steering their unarmed and rickety aircraft for 20-hour stretches with unreliable instruments in winds that could reach 200 mph. Experts believe more than 700 planes crashed trying to surmount the Hump, making the Himalayan region an inaccessible tomb of legendary fliers and rusted fuselages.
Other names earned by the dangerous route, from northeastern India, over Burma and into western China, included “Skyway to Hell” and “Aluminum Trail,” both testament to the hazardous path and the courage of the men who flew it.
"I'm so impressed by the sheer courage of those Hump airmen, flying their almost suicidal missions over the Himalayas, while knowing all the time that the odds were heavily against their safe return," said Clayton Kuhles, a self-described “professional adventurer” from Arizona who has made it his cause to seek out crash sites and bring closure to the families of the lost fliers. "In fact, many of their buddies never did return, but simply vanished up there in those rugged and remote mountains," he added. "They were good men."
In eight separate trips, Kuhles has located 22 crash sites and helped account for some 193 U.S. airmen once classified as missing in action. Kuhles, 58, an avid mountaineer, was in India in 2002 when he first heard of old crash sites in the treacherous mountains. His guide mentioned in passing that he had heard of a plane wreck buried in the jungle.
“He could’ve been B.S.ing me in hopes of racking up a few extra days of guide fees but, in my gut, I knew he was probably telling the truth,” recalled Kuhles. The tale intrigued Kuhles, and launched him on a crusade he says has already cost him $100,000 of his own money. Sometimes, the only sign of crew left in the tangled metal is a dogtag, a few scattered bones or the garments worn by long-dead pilots and crewmen.
“I find a lot of shoes,” Kuhles said.