Crash History on the “Hump” Route Holds Pointers to the “Mysterious” Disappearance of the Antonov An-32
13 service personnel on board
The on-going Indian Air Force (IAF) search-and-rescue mission for its Antonov An-32 ‘Cline’ transport military aircraft, that disappeared on June 4 with 13 service personnel on board was operating broadly in a region that has a disastrous record for accidents dating back to WW2.
Some 416 US airmen and navigators crashed between 1943-44 in thickly-forested Arunachal Pradesh state bordering Tibet and Myanmar (Burma)-then known as the North East Frontier Agency-whilst operating a perilous air-lift to sustain Allied troops and China's Kuomintang army fighting the advancing Japanese.
The route, known as the ‘hump’ because of the 15,000 feet high ridges which the rudimentary aircraft had to navigate with little or no instrumentation in winds of over 100 mph, came to be known as the ‘aluminium trail’ due to the number of transporters that marked its path.
Over decades families of the dead pilots and teams from the US Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Honolulu that executes investigation and recovery missions for missing American military personnel, had successfully identified several crash sites.
They estimated that the remains of at least over 400 US transport pilots lay scattered across the mountainous region and lobbied with New Delhi to ferry them home for a proper military burial, but to no avail.
During the Cold-war decades India obviously denied the US access to the region, but Washington persisted at the diplomatic, military and political levels to try and effect the recovery of their pilots’ remains.
From the 1990’s thereafter, successive Indian governments remained wary of allowing US army teams into the area for largely illogical strategic reasons.
These included a desire not to offend China that claim Arunachal Pradesh as part of their territory in their interminable border dispute with India, and also a fear of the US whose missionaries were blamed largely for fomenting tribal insurrections in the region in the Fifties, especially in Nagaland.
Exploratory US groups, however, were allowed into the region 2010-11 onwards by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress Party-led federal coalition government, but it was more a stop-go-stop affair that was not to Washington’s satisfaction.
Eventually, the US Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) mounted a massive expedition to the WW2 crash sites after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP government assumed power in May 2014.
And in April 2016 US military personnel and officials paid their final respects in New Delhi to what they believed were the remains of two American airmen, who crashed running supply missions to Allied forces fighting the Japanese military.
Their tiny bone fragments, along with some other artefacts had been recovered by the US Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) from remote jungles in Arunachal Pradesh.
At the time DPAA officials said the two airmen were part of an eight-member B-24 bomber crew, assigned to the 308th Bomb Group of the 14th Air Force, which crashed on 25 January 1944 during a routine mission from Kunming in China, to Chabua in India’s northeast.
The remains, which were received amongst others by then US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, concluding his three-day India visit, were placed in ceremonial boxes and then into flag-draped caskets.
These were sent for DNA testing to Hawaii, for further identification, which doubtlessly was carried out.
The B-24 was part of the US Air Force (USAF) contingent supporting the Allied effort against the Japanese advance into northeastern India, which was eventually halted at the Battle of Kohima in mid-1944.
Some of the crash sites, however, lie across the border in Myanmar and were not accessible to US reconnaissance teams for a variety of diplomatic and political reasons.
This, however, does not infer that the IAF An-32 too disappeared along the Hump. But almost a week after it disappeared its established that the IAF pilots operate in treacherous conditions in the north eastern region that have changed little since WW2.
Note: The IAF has announced Rs five lakhs to any one bringing information about the An-32. At least one television news channel has carried a program asking whether ‘aliens’ could have swallowed the aircraft!