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US-Myanmar search for WWII MIAs could improve ties, but faces treacherous terrain, insurgency
LAIZA, Myanmar (AP) ' Forced to skim the ground under a 100-foot (30-meter) cloud ceiling, fighting rain and wretched visibility, the C-47 Skytrain probably proved an easy target for Japanese gunners. Packed with ammunition, the aircraft exploded, plunging into a jungle that swallowed it up for 57 years.
Today, the remains of seven U.S. airmen on that ill-fated flight lie in the military's Arlington Cemetery. They were the last to be recovered before Myanmar halted a search for 730 other Americans still missing from World War II in the Southeast Asian country.
But now, as bilateral relations improve, there's hope others missing in action will be brought home.
Negotiations with senior U.S. officials began last month, following up on a visit in December by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Most of the MIAs were airmen flying some of the war's most dangerous missions as they hauled supplies to beleaguered Allied forces over snowy Himalayan ranges and boundless jungles.
Clinton urged Myanmar leaders to cooperate in short-lived recovery operations suspended eight years ago.
This time around there are grounds for optimism. After decades of isolation and often brutal rule by the military, the regime is initiating some democratic reforms and appears bent on bettering ties with the United States, which continues to impose economic sanctions on Myanmar, also known as Burma. The MIA talks offer one of the few avenues now open toward normalization.
"We are happy to hear that Mrs. Clinton's trip to Burma has made it possible for more of our men to come home to their families," said Robert Frantz, brother of one of those who perished in the 1944 Skytrain crash, U.S. Army Air Force Sgt. Clarence E. Frantz.
"Our group of families has been behind any and all efforts to recover more of our men from anywhere," Frantz said.
Although Washington insists the MIA search will be a strictly "stand-alone humanitarian matter," a joint search could bear political fruit as it did in Vietnam. Following the Vietnam War, dialogue between the one-time enemies was restricted to the MIA issue.
"The U.S. and Burma could come together through the search for missing Americans much like happened in Vietnam two decades ago," said Murray Hiebert, an analyst with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Cooperation by Myanmar, he said, could help its government build goodwill with the U.S. Congress and administration, making it easier to lift the sanctions, provided the reforms also proceed.
However, even with full-fledged teamwork, recovery missions will face major obstacles.
Most of the crash sites are known to be in the country's northern Kachin state, a remote region of dense jungles, high mountains, poor roads and an ongoing insurgency. The Kachin ethnic minority have been fighting for autonomy from the central government for decades.
Continued conflict would certainly place many areas off-limits to U.S. search parties, although the rebel Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) is decidedly pro-American. Kachin and American soldiers forged close bonds fighting the Japanese and the bush-wise guerrillas rescued many downed airmen.
KIO spokesman La Nan, interviewed at the rebel headquarters here, said the Kachin were ready to help once a peace agreement is reached.
"When the country is at peace, we hope that we and a new (American) generation of their descendants will be able to identify their human remains," he said.
The carefully orchestrated U.S. MIA operations everywhere require sound security, medical evacuation, communications and transport before a green light is given, said Lt. Col. Marc E. Geller, commander of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) unit which would undertake the Myanmar search.
Tasks of the Hawaii-based JPAC include the search for 1,680 missing servicemen from the Vietnam War and 74,180 still unaccounted for from World War II.
In Myanmar, many sites would require landing zones for helicopters ' scarce in the country ' to be cut out of triple canopy jungle, he said.
As many as 30 sites already investigated or excavated in 2003 and 2004, when the U.S. was forced to pull out, would probably be revisited. Some remains from those searches have yet to be identified.
"Just the sheer numbers of missing make it very important. There's a lot of work left to be done there, a huge potential. We are in a waiting mode but incredibly excited," Geller said.
If recovery operations resume, it is unlikely to happen before next January, during the dry, winter season in Kachin state.
Although it's been decades, many family members of the missing, including grandchildren, have not forgotten.
"We always had pictures of him on the piano and around the house. He never left us," Robert Frantz said of his brother in an interview from Elkton, Maryland.
One of his sisters wrote the U.S. government, year after year, asking for any news. She died a month before Clarence's remains were found in 2001 by an American missionary who ran into an old man describing wreckage of an aircraft near his village.
Clarence had volunteered in 1941, serving in the U.S. Cavalry until it was disbanded. He was then sent to fly as a radio operator on resupply missions along a 600-mile (965-kilometer) route between northeastern India and China, dubbed the "Skyway to Hell" and the "Aluminum Trail" for the number of planes that didn't make it.
Writes military historian Frank McLynn in his 2010 book, "The Burma Campaign":
"Take off was often in heavy weather with no radar, no traffic control and inadequate radios. After fighting through zero visibility, the pilots would often get above the cloud canopy into clear air to find a plane flying straight at them; mid-air collisions were frequent."
Pilots spoke of being "tossed about like an egg in a tin" by roiling clouds and savage crosswinds that could tear an airplane apart. In 1943 alone, nearly 400 airmen went down, with only 125 of them rescued.
Clarence's plane, according to accounts pieced together from the MIA search and other sources, took off from India, made it over a Himalayan range known as "The Hump" but probably veered off course as it prepared to drop desperately needed food and mortar shells for embattled U.S. troops at Mytikyina in northern Myanmar.
Japanese ground fire appears to have brought down the aircraft some 60 miles (96 kilometers) northwest of Laiza. Searchers, delayed by poor weather for 2 1/2 days, scoured the area for 66 hours but found no trace of the two-engine plane.
The JPAC team discovered a number of airplane parts along with six teeth and bone fragments. Two of the crewmen were identified through DNA testing, and the others were confirmed dead from other evidence. All seven were buried with full honors in 2010.
Robert Frantz, the only one of six brothers and sisters still living, received an identification bracelet that was found at the crash site; their mother had given it to Clarence. Before his death at age 24, he had mailed an engagement ring to his high school sweetheart.
"But he never got home to get married," Robert said.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.