An Open Letter from Families and Supporters of America’s Arunachal Missing in Action to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump: Time to Bring Home America’s 400 Missing in Action Servicemen from India.
Dear Prime Minister Modi and President Trump,
According to the US Defense Department, the bodies of an estimated 400 American military airmen killed in air crashes in northeast India during World War II still lie unrecovered at their crash sites in remote parts of the Indian Himalayas. You need to know their names, for you, as the leaders of the two countries most directly involved in this little-known humanitarian problem, are ultimately responsible for the fact that their families are still waiting for their bodies to be returned to them. Men like 1st Lt. Irwin “Zipper” Zaetz, Flight Officer Sheldon “Shel” Chambers, SSgt. Louis F. Verhaegen, Captain John L. “Blackie” Porter, and SSgt. Charles D. “Buck” Ginn are only a few of these 400 who made the ultimate sacrifice, and whose remains still lie unburied far from home.
For the families of these heroic men, killed while flying supplies to China to aid the Chinese war effort against Japan, this situation has become intolerable. International law recognizes their right to know the fate of their loved ones, and their right to receive their loved ones’ remains for proper burial. As the International Committee of the Red Cross has pointed out, “Everyone has a right to know about the fate of his/her missing relative(s), including their whereabouts or, if dead, the circumstances of their death and place of burial if known, and to receive mortal remains.” But many close relatives of these men have died in recent years, knowing that their loved ones’ crash sites had been definitively located, but that little or no efforts have been made by the Governments of India and the US to honor this right. More close relatives of these men are reaching the age where they fear that they, too, will die without their right to bury their relatives’ remains being honored.
Here are the facts of this troubling situation:
1. In December 2009, after initially permitting the first US Government recovery team into India in more than 30 years, to recover human remains from the crash site of the B-24 “Hot as Hell”, the Government of India expelled that team before any remains could be recovered. The Indian Government never gave the eight families of this crew any credible explanation for the expulsion. Not only did the Administration of President Barack Obama fail to file a formal diplomatic protest against this expulsion, it refused to even mildly criticize it.
2. From January 2010 – September 2015, the Government of India did not permit ANY US government recovery teams into the northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, where the vast majority of these crashes occurred, despite repeated requests for permission by the US Government. This de facto moratorium had no legal basis under the Geneva Conventions. Your Government, Prime Minister Modi, has never apologized for the psychological pain and suffering this moratorium inflicted on the US families of airmen killed in Arunachal Pradesh during World War II. Nor has your Government apologized for its denial of their legal rights to their relatives’ remains. Alarmingly, your Government has also refused to pledge that such a moratorium will never again be imposed. The Obama Administration, following pattern, never filed a diplomatic protest against this moratorium; nor did it publicly criticize it at any time.
3. In September 2015, your Government, Prime Minister Modi, finally relaxed this moratorium by permitting a Defense Department recovery team to return to the “Hot as Hell” crash site. But your party, the BJP, was in office for well over a year before permitting this relaxation to occur. And during that entire time, your Government never once criticized the previous Government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for imposing this moratorium.
4. In each of the years 2015 and 2016, despite the fact that there are at least 15 documented US crash sites in Arunachal Pradesh, the Government of India permitted only one crash site in the entire territory of India to be investigated for the mortal remains of US airmen. This arbitrary restriction is also a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
5. In April 2016, when an official ceremony for the turnover of remains recovered in late 2015 was held at an airbase in New Delhi, no senior Indian civilian or military officials were present, despite the fact that US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter was present; nor was there an Indian military honor guard present. These absences reflect the very low priority the Indian Government attaches to these recoveries. They also represent a violation by the Indian Government of traditional military repatriation protocol, protocol adhered to by many other Governments.
6. During calendar year 2017, the Government of India has refused permission for recovery operations anywhere in India. We have searched all Indian Government public websites and failed to find any announcement of permission for 2017. From what we can tell, contrary to a statement made earlier this year by Brig. Ravi Murugan, India’s Defence Attache in Washington, to Gary Zaetz, leader of the group Families and Supporters of America’s Arunachal MIAs, US-India cooperation on MIA recoveries during the year 2017 is not a “matter of record.”
7. President Trump, since your Administration took office, no official of yours has ever criticized the previous Obama Administration for its lack of pressure on the Indian Government to cooperate more fully with US recovery efforts. Nor has any official of yours criticized the Indian Government for its lack of full cooperation with such efforts.
8. President Trump, on 27 July 2017, the Indian media reported that Secretary of State Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Mattis submitted a joint report to Congress on the Trump Administration’s relations with the Government of Prime Minister Modi. Among the areas discussed in this report was US-India cooperation to recover hundreds of US war dead from World War II crash sites in India: “The United States and India continue to work together to locate, identify, recover, and honorably repatriate the remains of approximately 400 unaccounted-for US service members from World War II.” Unfortunately, President Trump, there is no evidence to support this statement. Official reports released by the Defense Department’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency on its global recovery efforts for 2017 have not mentioned any efforts to date in India, and its reports on future recovery activities this year omit any mention of India as well. The Tillerson-Mattis statement appears to be merely public relations boilerplate intended to placate both the Congress and the families of the missing, and mislead them into thinking that real cooperation during 2017 is ongoing.
9. The Government of India, from reading the communications we have received from it over the last decade, clearly fails to understand that, under the Geneva Conventions, associated Protocols, and customary international humanitarian law, the PRIMARY responsibility for the recovery of missing in action servicemen lies with the government of the host country of the suspected locations of remains, not with the government of the country of the missing servicemen. Consequently, India, as host country, bears primary responsibility for this intolerable humanitarian situation. Even if the US Government decided it could not send a recovery team of its own, or was prevented from doing so by India, it is the legal responsibility of the Indian Government ON ITS OWN to make sure that the remains are recovered as quickly as possible, and turned over to US authorities. In 2011, Col. H. Wayne Elliott, US Army (Ret’d), Former Head of the International Law Department, Judge Advocate General School, made a number of observations, in his Crimes of War article entitled “Dead and Wounded”, that, when applied to the Indian Government’s moratorium on US war dead recoveries in Arunachal, amount to a scathing indictment of the Indian Government for violations of the laws of war regarding recovery of US war dead. Among his observations was this one: “…if the dead are left on the battlefield for some time after the fighting has ended, their very presence is evidence of failure to meet the obligations imposed by law….” (http://pegasus.law.columbia.edu/record=b719714)
10. President Trump, even one of India’s most outspoken Congressional advocates has felt compelled to publicly criticize India’s poor level of cooperation with US efforts to recover its war dead. On 13 June 2017 Congressman George Holding, co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans, gave a speech entitled “U.S. WWII MIA RECOVERY OPERATIONS IN INDIA.” In this speech, made on the floor of the House of Representatives, he assessed India’s record of MIA cooperation and gave it a mediocre grade: “To this day Mr. Speaker, U.S. airmen remain unrecovered and unburied. Efforts to locate and document these crash sites have been intermittently undertaken by both private citizens and the U.S. Department of Defense…the tempo of recovery operations could be categorized as slow at best for a variety of reasons, leaving the families of the deceased without closure…Unfortunately Mr. Speaker, the single largest impediment to these recovery operations came when the Government of India placed a de facto moratorium on operations in Arunachal Pradesh for the vast majority of 2010 until 2015….As co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, I urge the Governments of the United States and India to increase their collaboration and accelerate the recovery of these remains. The families of those lost during World War II deserve closure. We need to bring our airmen home. “
11. Despite the fact that the US Government initially discussed initiation of MIA recoveries with the Government of India in 2004, the remains of only one US airman has been positively confirmed to be recovered by US Government recovery teams from 2004-2017, a period of 13 years ! During this time, the families of missing American airmen in India have been irreparably harmed by this failure of cooperation: a number of relatives of these men died knowing that their relatives’ crash sites had been identified but before their right to bury their relatives’ remains could be honored. These relatives were Dr. Stephen L. Chambers, Ethyle Renee Wolfe, Frances E. Lenox, Theopa Christine Owens Sheen, Forrest T. Riley, Jr., Susan Brown Parham, Fred Morris Oxford, Helen Patricia Campanaro, Ulysses Franklin Coker, Jr. , Edwin Grant Dewsnup, Suzanne Emma Maupin Johnson, Muriel E. Clare, Robert J. Frazier, Anna Catherine Swanson, Dorothy Mae Brizzi, William Verhaegen, Dale George Catalano, and Gladys Mohn Terry. This year, the sister of one of these airmen – Verna Chambers Martin – is reaching the age of 100, and, given the fact that the Pentagon tells us that it has abandoned his well-documented India crash site, she fears that she will be dead before she can bury her brother’s body.
Families and Supporters of America’s Arunachal Missing in Action seek the immediate implementation by the Indian and US Governments of this 12-point action plan intended to institutionalize and significantly accelerate the recovery of our MIAs from India:
(1) Clarification as to whether DoD plans any recovery operations anywhere in India during the entirety of the calendar year 2017. At the present time, open-source documents indicate that no such operations are planned for 2017. If that is indeed the case, that would signify a breach of faith on the part of the Modi Government.
(2) A public commitment by the Indian Government to permitting multiple concurrent US recovery operations at crash sites in Arunachal Pradesh every year from now until all known US crash sites are fully recovered, no later than the end of Fiscal Year 2022. Up to the present time, the Indian Government has only permitted one crash site to be investigated in the entire territory of India during any given year. At that rate, it will be 2030 before the US crash sites documented at the present time will be investigated, long after the death of any close relatives of the servicemen known to have died at those crash sites. That rate of recovery operations is absolutely unacceptable.
(3) A public commitment by the Indian Government to permitting each recovery operation to continue until forensic anthropologists have confirmed that the entire physical area of the recovery operation has been exhaustively searched.
(4) A public apology by the Government of India for the 5-year-long (2010-2015) moratorium on MIA recovery operations in Arunachal Pradesh. This public apology must include explicit recognition that this moratorium violated the internationally recognized legal rights of the families to the remains of their loved ones, and that it also caused great psychological pain and suffering to these families.
(5) A public commitment by the Government of India never to impose such a moratorium again, with exceptions allowed only for the outbreak of international hostilities in the immediate area of a recovery operation, or a serious natural disaster in the immediate area of a recovery operation.
(6) A public recognition by the Indian Government that, under international law, it bears primary responsibility for the recovery of missing in action servicemen on its national territory. Together with this recognition, the Indian Government must commit to complete recovery operations on its own by the end of Fiscal Year 2022 if the US Government is unable to do so.
(7) Finalization of points (2)-(6) above in the form of a formal, signed Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the US Defense and State Departments, on the one hand, and the Indian Ministry of Defence, Indian Ministry of External Affairs, and Indian Ministry of Home Affairs, on the other.
(8) In view of the fact that the B-24 Hot as Hell (MACR 2140) crash site had been visited by DPAA/JPAC teams on three separate occasions (late 2008, early 2009, and late 2009) without the Defense Department ever mentioning a terrain instability issue during those separate occasions (with that consideration being cited by DoD as the main reason for discontinuing recovery operations only during the fourth visit, in late 2015), we seek a commitment from the Defense Department to return to that crash site prior to the end of Fiscal Year 2018 to recover the remains of the 7 unrecovered members of the 8-man crew.
(9) In the event that DPAA lacks sufficient manpower of its own to mount multiple concurrent operations in India every year, we seek a DPAA commitment to contracting recovery operations with a private MIA recovery organization, giving priority to an organization which can demonstrate that it has successfully conducted recovery operations in India in the past.
(10) An official statement by the Government of the People’s Republic of China that it has no objection whatsoever to the unconditional resumption of US Government MIA recoveries anywhere in the disputed territory of Arunachal Pradesh. The US and Indian Governments must take the initiative to persuade the Government of the PRC to make this statement.
(11) Passage by the Congress of a Sense of the Congress resolution expressing the Sense of the Congress that (a) the level of cooperation on the part of the Government of India with US efforts to recover our war dead has been unsatisfactory, and (b) that the Trump Administration must serve a formal diplomatic protest with the Government of India over the Indian Government’s long record of either nonexistent or minimal cooperation.
(12) Public announcement by the Trump White House that the level of cooperation on the part of the Government of India with US efforts to recover our war dead has been unsatisfactory, and must be significantly enhanced.
Nephew of Arunachal MIA 1st Lt. Irwin Zaetz, who, as navigator of the lost B-24 Liberator “Hot as Hell”, has been missing in action in India since 25 January 1944
Founder and Chairman, Families and Supporters of America’s Arunachal Missing in Action
Cary, North Carolina
Gary Zaetz is the founder and chairman of the US-based advocacy group Families and Supporters of America’s Arunachal Missing in Action, founded to press the Indian and US Governments to permit recovery operations for the remains of 400 missing in action US servicemen killed in air crashes in Arunachal Pradesh during World War II. He trekked to his uncle’s crash site in the mountains of Arunachal in 2008. He earned a master’s degree in political science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1978.