Back to Burma in search of lost planes, comrades

Pilot: An Oxford man joins an expedition to the mountains where he and other Americans flew supplies to Chinese in World War II.

October 11, 2003|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

OXFORD - Fletcher "Christy" Hanks is 86 years old, but he is as excited as a child about what will likely be the last, great adventure of a life that already reads like fiction.

Hanks is on a 30- to 90-day expedition to "the Hump," a remote and inhospitable triangle of the Himalayas bordered by China, India and Burma where he and other U.S. civilian pilots played out a daring and often unsung chapter of World War II.

The Eastern Shore native flew 347 runs for the China National Aviation Corp. to supply the Nationalist Chinese army in its war with Japan. Now, Hanks hopes to find in the jungle the sites of crashed planes.

If the mission sounds far-fetched - as it does to some of his aged colleagues and assorted U.S. government officials - consider that Hanks pulled off a similar search expedition at age 79.

In 1997, with help from the Chinese government, Hanks located the shattered plane of one of his comrades in northern Burma, a country now called Myanmar by some. The plane has become the centerpiece of a commemorative display in Kunming, China.

"Fletcher has a passion for this, and he can't understand that other people aren't going to open their wallets and risk their lives," says Judith Mills, a University of Hawaii professor who served as a translator on part of the 1997 trip.

"He was by far the most fit of anyone, and he is incredibly disciplined."

Hanks wrote and directed a 30-minute video about that trip and he has penned a self-published book due out this month. He sees the current journey as his last chance to add to his research.

"I think it's important to document this part of history. I want to be sure that no one forgets these men who died," Hanks says. "If they're forgotten, they died for nothing. If this proves too much for me, so be it. I'd rather die out there than in some hospital."

Rail-thin and weathered, Hanks is all grit and sinew, stoked by a daily regimen of two 18-minute miles and 1,000 steps up and down the steep pine stairway of the clapboard house where he has lived for more than 50 years.

Hanks began his latest journey last weekend with a 48-hour trip to Rangoon, the launch point for an arduous trip to Burma's northern provinces.

There, in mountains of 16,000 feet or more along the border with China, he will search for as many as 600 unarmed cargo planes that crashed or were shot down while trying to deliver food, ammunition and other supplies to Chinese soldiers in their struggle with 1 million Japanese troops.

The supplies also went to the famous American pilots known as the Flying Tigers who, as civilians, chose to join the Chinese war effort.

In Rangoon, Hanks was to meet up with a partner, 49-year-old Clayton Kuhles, an Arizona businessman, amateur adventurer and expert climber whose world travels include a harrowing but successful trip to Burma last year to find and search a downed WWII plane.

So far, the two have been incommunicado, as they told their families they would be, and they are likely to remain out of touch. Once they head north, Hanks and Kuhles hope to communicate via satellite phone.

The unlikely pair met after Kuhles posted an Internet message seeking expedition members and investors brave or foolhardy enough to join another search for wrecked planes from 60 years ago.

Hanks jumped at the chance, putting up nearly $20,000 and raising several thousand more from other CNAC veterans.

Kuhles has traveled the world, including visits to Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Libya and Kenya and mountain-climbing trips to Tibet and Nepal. A recent fascination with crashed planes from the war seems to have made him a perfect match for Hanks, an acknowledged expert on the subject.

Kuhles "has no wife and kids at home. He's traveled all over the globe for years," says Warren Kuhles, a partner with his brother in a landfill, waste and recycling business near Prescott, Ariz. "He's the type who runs circles around everyone else. It's just the adventure and the excitement that's at the root of it all for him."

A year ago, Clayton Kuhles and his guides went nearly a week in Burma eating only beetles when supplies ran out and mountain villagers refused to sell them food, his brother says. The diet left Kuhles 25 to 35 pounds lighter.

According to the plan Hanks and Kuhles worked out last month during an annual convention of former CNAC pilots, they will be accompanied by a government-approved translator/guide and a party of 15 local "bearers," who will help haul food and gear.

They'll stay as long as supplies and strength hold out.

Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon, as well as forensics experts at the Department of Defense who have searched planes all over the world to identify the remains of American servicemen, are not keen on such ventures.

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