Tell a little about yourself and your interest in this history
I'm a businessman / entrepreneur in Prescott, AZ. None of my relatives were directly involved in the CBI theater, nor were they aviators. My father was with the Navy during WWII. I've always had an interest in mountaineering and also an interest in history, particularly in military history. My interest in CBI history was fueled by my discovery of a C-47 aircraft wreck in the mountains of northern Burma along the Indian border in 2001. Subsequently I discovery that hundreds of US aircraft crashed and were ultimately listed as MIA along the Hump route, and well in excess of 1,000 US military personnel were basically "written-off" as MIA or unrecoverable because the crash sites were typically very remote.
What got you interested in searching for aircraft?
I've always been an adventurer and a "searcher". I like to find things and solve mysteries, especially if it helps people; that's just part of my character. I don't like to accept "No" or "Impossible" or other easy answers to seemingly tough problems. My first expedition started by visiting WW II battle sites in Burma. My Burmese guide asked me if I might be interested in visiting an old airplane wreck he had heard about in far northern Burma. I immediately said "Of course!", and we set off on a 2-week side trip to find it. It all happened very spontaneously.
I feel this project is very much appreciated and valued by the surviving family members of these MIA airmen. Their letters and comments attest to this. My first expedition was a real education for me in many ways, i.e.: history, logistics planning, interviewing techniques, working with tribal peoples, methods of identifying the aircraft by model and then by serial number, etc. Once I had a general idea of the total losses on the Hump route and the approximate flight routes flown, then it was easy to develop leads on more potential crash sites to visit.
My search technique is quite simple and straight-forward. I interview local villagers and hunters in areas along the primary flight routes where there is a high probability of aircraft crashes. The locals are invariably happy to talk with me and share any knowledge or stories they have on aircraft wrecks. The word spreads quickly about "the crazy American" asking about aircraft wrecks, and soon a steady stream of intel starts coming in. The local's knowledge is usually of a specific geographic area that defines their tribal / village property where they traditionally hunt for game animals and gather medicinal plants. Keep in mind that this tribal / village property usually covers a vast area and frequently crosses an international border into a neighboring country. I do search for specific planes, but in the process I often find other planes. My sweeping an area would consist of interviewing local villagers and hunters about any wrecks they are aware of or have heard about, then trying to induce them to guide me to those wrecks.
Tell about your self-funded expeditions to CBI
I have declined to take other Westerners on any of my expeditions, instead preferring to keep the team limited to local personnel and myself. The reason for this is the paramount need to be fast-moving and highly flexible to maximize the chances for success. I define success as reaching and documenting as many sites as possible within the projected length of the expedition. Since I'm paying for these search expedition from my own wallet, I'm not keen on wasting any time or other resources.
My guide and I develop a short-list of potential crash sites from a longer list of intel that has filtered-in. We plan a logical route based on terrain and try to work around weather issues (like dangerously high rivers). The biggest problem to overcome is recruiting the locals to assist us in reaching the sites, and reaching them on our time schedule. They frequently cite chores or family / village obligations that prevent them from going to the field right away. Money often solves this issue, but not always.
My trekking guide and I try to make arrangements in advance with the villagers to work with us, so they often are expecting us to arrive on a certain date and are ready for us. This has proven to be the best way to prevent lost days. Once we arrive in the village nearest the reported wreck, we recruit a local hunter to serve as our guide and also recruit a few local young men to work as porters. We supply all the camp gear, cooking equipment and food supplies. Gear is redistributed amongst the porters and guides, planned routes are briefly discussed, and off we go.
Without the knowledge, cooperation and assistance of the local people in my search areas, it would be essentially impossible for any outsider to locate these long-missing US aircraft. I have good relations with these people, and I feel they have a high regard for me.
The CBI Hump Pilots Association, the CNAC Association, and many of their individual members have provided invaluable first-person knowledge of the CBI theater and the Hump route. Craig Fuller of Aviation Archeology Investigation and Research has provided the Missing Air Crew Reports (MACR), Accident Reports and other archival records that are critical for the identification of these aircraft wrecks and helpful for locating the surviving family members.
Pre-trip research mainly consists of filtering the intel on prospective sites and developing a logical search itinerary. I always bring along info on specific sites that family members have asked my assistance on. Post-trip research consists of analyzing data and photos collected at the crash sites visited, reviewing archival records and data found on various websites and databases, ordering and reviewing MACR's and Accident Reports, confirming aircraft ID's, posting my site reports and related photos on MIA Recoveries then start locating and notifying the surviving family members.
Are you the only person who has searched these areas?
To the best of my knowledge, I'm the only person who is or ever has actively searched the former Hump route for MIA US aircraft and airmen's remains. The US Army fielded search and rescue teams during the war to attempt the recovery of airmen, and they had many successes. The AGRS conducted several search and recovery expeditions for a few years directly after the war, and was able to close a few more cases. Since the late 1940's, there has been no organized governmental or private effort to locate and document the hundreds of US aircraft lost on the Hump and recover the 1000+ US personnel who died on those aircraft. JPAC has made only a few site assessments or recovery expeditions in CBI.
I have visited a couple wrecks that took significant time to ID. I can invariably establish the aircraft model number soon after reaching the crash site and examining the wreckage. The serial number is not nearly as easy to determine. Sometimes I can find the aircraft data plate, sometimes I can find the tail number, sometimes I can find the construction number, and sometimes other details can be found that will assist in the ID process.
Various methods are sometimes employed during the ID process. For example, an aircraft might be identified by gathering numerous details from local villagers and hunters and corroborating that info, then searching the databases for missing aircraft of that specific model that met all or most of the details gathered from the locals. This will help narrow the search field significantly. Then more details need to be studied, until the process of elimination leaves the final ID.
What is the status of the MIA aircraft you have found?
I'm aware of JPAC having recently done a site assessment visit to B-24J "Hot as Hell" 42-73308, which I found on Pearl Harbor Day, 2006. Beyond that, I'm not aware of JPAC having taken any action to visit or recover any of the 15 US crash sites that I've reached to date in CBI.
These wrecks are invariably in very remote areas, areas which are sparsely inhabited by simple-living tribal groups. These tribal people are very poor, and regard any aircraft wrecks as a potential source of building materials, pot-making materials, or as a source of revenue if it can be carried out and sold for scrap metal. They have no emotional tie to WW II, or to any US aircraft wrecks, or to any Western remains that may be there.
However, by spreading the word that I'll hire locals to guide me to any crash sites which they're aware of, it will surely change their viewpoint towards these wrecks. I'm not aware of any laws that protect these crash sites from salvaging. The sites are too remote, the people too poor, and the governments too involved in far more pressing issues for any such laws to be effective. In short, time is of the essence; and if I can get the local tribal people to view the wreck as a source of revenues from guiding me there, then some additional time can be gained.
What are your plans for the next expedition?
My plans are to return to the search in CBI as soon as funds permit. Before leaving NE India last month, I already had solid leads on 4 additional US wrecks to investigate. I also have numerous US crash sites to reach in Bangladesh, Burma and China. All it takes is funding. I've made it real easy for interested persons to donate towards my ongoing MIA search expeditions. The funding page on my website has a convenient credit card feature as well as instructions for writing a donation check.
Media publicity has helped to direct interested family members to my website to learn more about this project. What I really need is funding. I'm hoping the media publicity will eventually lead to some funding to continue my MIA search expeditions.
List of CBI aircraft wrecks visited by Kuhles
Kuhles has visited 17 crash sites that contain a total of 164 MIA / KIA personnel (as of 2010)
C-87 41-23696 discovered October 19, 2003
C-47 42-23734 (CNAC-77) crashed January 6, 1945 discovered October 20, 2003
C-47 42-24360 crashed November 2, 1943 discovered November 11, 2003
C-53 42-15890 (CNAC 58) discovered December 14, 2005
B-24J "Hot as Hell" 42-73308 crashed January 25, 1944 discovered December 7, 2006
C-46 41-24724 February 20, 1944 discovered October 1, 2007
C-109 44-49628 crashed July 17, 1945 discovered October 22, 2007
C-46 41-24717 crashed March 24, 1944 discovered October 27, 2007
B-24D 42-40069 crashed March 20, 1943 discovered September 20, 2008 north of Itanagar
C-46A Commando 42-107386 crashed February 4, 1945 discovered September 23, 2008 west of Saga lee
C-47 Dakota 41-18518 crashed July 13, 1943 discovered September 28, 2008 northwest of Anini
C-87 42-107259 crashed August 9, 1943 discovered October 3, 2008 southeast of Donli
C-46 Commando 41-24739 crashed January 29, 1944 discovered October 10, 2008 south of Along
C-87 41-23791 crashed April 9, 1943 discovered October 16, 2008 north of Tezu
B-24J 42-100184 crashed May 25, 1944 discovered October 26, 2008 north of Damroh
C-47 43-48308 crashed May 17, 1946 discovered November 5, 2009
C-47 Dakota 42-61067 crashed September 17, 1944 discovered November 23, 2009
Thank you Mr. Kuhles for the interview
Washington Post - A Himalayan Mission to Bring Closure to Kin of WWII Troops November 11, 2008
MIA Recoveries.org Clayton Kuhles' website