A glacier shifted, and now a son may be able to bury a father lost 50 years


June 30, 1995|By DAN RODRICKS

Michael Stepanovich never believed he would get to bury the father he never knew. "Not in this lifetime," he says. His father was 1st Lt. Frank Ramos, Army Air Forces, lost to the winds of war 51 years ago. To Ramos' survivors, the possibility of someone finding his remains and bringing them home always seemed as remote as the ice-encrusted Himalayan slope where the young lieutenant died.

But somewhere a glacier shifted, and therein lies a story.

Frank Miguel Ramos Jr. was 25, the co-pilot of a cargo plane, when he disappeared in January 1944 in one of the frozen, distant terrains of World War II. Two years later, his widow in Texas received a two-page letter from the Army that made official and final the presumption of her husband's death. In time, Doris Ramos married another man, George Stepanovich. She, her new husband and son, Michael, moved East and eventually settled in Baltimore. Michael, born the same month his father had disappeared, was almost a teen-ager when he stopped thinking about Frank Ramos.

"As a boy," Michael says, "I tried not to bother my mother too much with questions about my father because I saw how much it upset her. And I felt disloyal to my stepfather. I was always told [Ramos] was missing and presumed dead. Finally, when I was about 11, maybe 12, it was as if I finally said to myself, 'That's it. It's a dead issue,' and I stopped thinking about it. It wasn't until after my stepfather died [1983] that I started asking more questions, and my mother showed me the silk flier's scarf and the scrapbook."

I saw both for the first time in 1990, when Michael invited me to his home in Randallstown. We sat in the kitchen and he showed me photographs of the father he never knew and the yellowed newspaper clippings that reported Lieutenant Ramos, a native of Austin, Texas, missing and presumed dead.

Here's what the clippings told us: On Jan. 31, 1944, Ramos and four other crewmen were in a C-87, the cargo version of a B-24 Liberator bomber, on a return flight of several hundred miles from Kunming, China, to Jorhat, India. They were flying "The Hump," the high Himalayas, taking part in the Air Transport Command's massive airlift of supplies to the Chinese National Army of Chiang Kai-shek, an ally who was fighting Japanese invaders.

Ramos' four-engine aircraft was flying over spectacular mountains its crew probably could not see and through ferocious Himalayan winds known for turning planes upside down. "Weather conditions were reported to be overcast at 30,000 feet, bad icing conditions at 10,000 feet and up," says a report on the plane's disappearance. The plane, No. 41-23862, never reached Jorhat. A search for it was unsuccessful.

Frank Ramos became one of more than 900 airmen who, according to historians, lost their lives in the hazardous Hump missions between 1942 and 1945. He became one of more than 78,000 American servicemen who were listed as missing in action, and unaccounted for, during the war.

"I was 19 years old and my whole world crashed," says his widow, Doris Ramos Stepanovich, who still lives in Baltimore. "My son, Michael, was born Jan. 7, 1944, and [Ramos] disappeared Jan. 31. He never saw a picture of Michael but he knew he had been born."

Though she rarely spoke of her husband in Michael's presence, questions about Frank Ramos' disappearance over The Hump were never far from mind. "I've prayed over it all these years," she says, "that one day we would know what happened to him."

Amazingly, those quiet prayers, offered at different intervals over half a century, appear to have been answered.

Nearly two years ago, in the fall of 1993, some hunters found the scattered wreckage of what turned out to be a C-87 on the slope of a glaciered mountain in Tibet. The remains of three bodies were recovered and returned to the United States, marking the first time since the Communists took power in 1949 that China had returned American war dead. Last September, a team of searchers from the Army's Central Identification Laboratory (CIL) in Hawaii returned to the Himalayas, hiking four days to reach the site of the C-87. The glacier that gave up the first three bodies had melted a bit and shifted again. Two more sets of remains were recovered.

Col. William H. Jordan, commander of the CIL in Honolulu, says he knows of no other recovery of a World War II Hump mission plane from the Himalayas. He says the wreckage of the C-87 was scattered over a swath approximately 200 meters wide and 1,200 meters long. He says many pieces of the plane had this is where jump begins been moved by glacial shifting.

The Army still has not positively identified all of the remains. But one thing is clear: The plane was No. 41-23862. It was Frank Ramos' plane, according to records. Doris and Michael Stepanovich were told that much by Army officials. So was Mary Lanier Boykin, the 83-year-old sister of the plane's pilot, 1st Lt. Frank Lanier of North Carolina.

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