For a World War II cargo pilot, adventure ends early but safely

86-year-old man traveled to Myanmar to find planes lost during fighting in '40s

October 17, 2003|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

OXFORD - Fletcher "Christy" Hanks is back, safe and sound in his Eastern Shore hometown. He is not admitting failure, mind you. But he is all in one piece.

At age 86, after a grueling trek to the other side of the world, three or four days traveling over primitive roads and hiking with a 20-pound pack across his gaunt shoulders through thick jungle in the mountains of northern Myanmar, that's a lot to be thankful for.

Nearly two weeks after he left on an expedition to pinpoint the wrecks of World War II cargo planes like those he and other civilian pilots flew over the "the Hump" - a remote corner of the Himalayas where China, Myanmar (then called Burma) and India share borders -Hanks concedes that old age has caught up with him. At least a bit.

The plan, hatched last month by Hanks and Clayton Kuhles, a 49-year-old amateur explorer and expert mountain climber from Arizona, was to spend anywhere from a month to three months documenting as many crash sites as possible of the nearly 600 American planes that went down hauling supplies to the Chinese nationalist army in its war with Japan.

Yesterday, looking a little bedraggled but sounding as chipper as ever despite jet lag, Hanks - who was oblivious to the worries of friends and family before his trip - said he could have kept going through the mountainous terrain that rises 13,000 feet to 16,000 feet or more. He just couldn't keep pace with Kuhles and a party of 15 guides and bearers who were hired to lead the way and to carry food and gear.

"I certainly could have kept going, but I realized I would jeopardize the whole mission if I couldn't keep up," Hanks said. "It was six to eight hours of climbing every day. I climbed the best I could, as fast as I could. I just wasn't fast enough."

Half-way through the first day, in a region more than 700 miles from Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, the lead guide pulled Hanks aside and urged him to head back.

With the local guides dressed only in light clothing and rubber sandals, Hanks was told, the party needed to make 16 miles to 18 miles each day to reach scattered jungle villages or individual huts that would provide shelter at night.

Hanks has been a fitness fanatic all his life, and he organized and competed in triathlons well into his 70s. He completed a similar trip to China in 1997 to find a wrecked plane from his old unit, the China National Aviation Corp. This time, however, he realized he had bitten off more than he could chew.

"I've always been one who challenged my abilities to the fullest extent," said Hanks, who flew 347 round-trips over the Himalayas between the Assam Valley of India and remote air strips inside China and Burma from 1943 to 1945. "Sometimes, I push beyond my limits."

Hanks had one chore to perform in Yangon for Jane Foster Petach Hanks, his wife since 1964 - to search out the Silver Grill, the restaurant and bar where as a young nurse she met her first husband, John Petach, a pilot with the famed Flying Tigers unit who was shot down in 1942.

He dutifully reported to her yesterday that the building remains in the city but has been taken over by the military government.

It was 10 days after Hanks left the United States before he contacted his 87-year-old wife, leaving a voice mail message that he was on his way home. She waited up until he arrived about 11:30 p.m. Wednesday. "I don't have much to say; I'll let him tell his story," Jane Hanks said.

Old colleagues such as Joe Rosbert thought maybe Hanks was crazy to even attempt such a journey. Some even thought it might be a suicide mission. But Rosbert says, he a little surprised Hanks had to quit.

"He's exactly the type of guy who would try something like this to begin with," said Rosbert, who piloted planes for China National and the Flying Tigers during the war. "I'm just glad he's all right. For Fletcher to come home gives you an idea of how tough it is in that part of the world."

Rosbert, who is retired and lives in Katy, Texas, is the one person alive who knows exactly how tough it might be.

Hanks and Kuhles were beginning their journey looking for the wreck of CNAC #58, the C-53 cargo plane Rosbert crashed on April 7, 1943. Their radio operator was killed, but Rosbert and his co-pilot survived. The engines and landing gear were sheared off, but the plane is believed to be nearly intact.

Now, Hanks is awaiting word from Kuhles or from the Yangon-based outfitter company that helped organize the trip. Once the plane is found, Hanks plans to begin raising funds to haul the craft out of the jungle and place it in a museum. He said it's the only way for fighters who died in the little-known WWII arena to be remembered.

Hanks isn't sure where the money will come from or if there's a museum willing to take the craft. But that's just the next step, he says.

"I guess if I didn't have this desire to go and do, I could just be an old man," Hanks said. "I haven't always accomplished as much as I wanted, but I've walked away to try something else. I'm not afraid to fail or to look like a fool doing it."

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