Heartwarming tale of WW2 American Soldiers found
PRESCOTT, Ariz. (March 5) -- For more than 66 years, Ruth Garmong has thought daily of her beloved Bill, the high school sweetheart she wed just before he left for World War II and died in a plane crash in Burma.
Garmong, now 85, was pregnant when Staff Sgt. William C. Fetterman perished in 1943. She remarried and had two more children, but her late second husband, with whom she shared most of her life, "always knew he was second choice."
Because of a second tragedy, though, Garmong was never able to bury Fetterman. In 1946, his remains were unearthed along with about 40 other American war dead buried in Burma by Japanese occupiers. They were put on a plane headed to India en route to the U.S. for a stateside burial, but that aircraft crashed too and was never found.
Never, that is, until three months ago, when Arizona adventurer Clayton Kuhles located its wreckage in the jungle of the eastern Indian state of Tripura. Researchers took the serial numbers he found and matched them last month with government records to determine that this was, in fact, the C-47 that had carried Garmong's husband's body.
It was, by far, the largest and most significant find for Kuhles, 55, since he began his one-man mission in 2000 to locate American planes that went missing during World War II across south-central Asia. He's located 16 never before found wrecks in India, Myanmar and China and provided an accounting of the whereabouts of the remains of at least 100 service members. But this C-47 discovery has the potential to resolve lifelong questions for dozens of grieving families.
"My God, what a disaster," Kuhles said. "Here they had just dug up all these remains, and on top of that, they had written records of additional places to go check for more remains. And you not only lost the crew, you lost all the remains they had, plus you lost all the paper records they had with them."
Kuhles, who lives in Prescott, has funded his research, travel and searches out of his own pocket as a hobby since he learned that hundreds of planes piloted by Allied Forces during World War II crashed in the treacherous mountains. The U.S. government largely abandoned those missing aircraft after the war ended.
The C-47 that Kuhles located was different than his other discoveries, in part because it went down after the war.
In 1946, the U.S. military established the American Graves Registration Service, a unit tasked with visiting enemy prisoner-of-war camps and locating remains of Allied soldiers who had died there.
Eight members of that service were on the C-47 along with a three-member flight crew as they visited a former POW camp in Rangoon, Burma (now known as Myanmar). Japanese captors had buried nearly 40 bodies in clearly marked cemeteries at their prisons, so the American operatives exhumed those remains and put them in 12 wooden crates to return to the U.S. But the C-47 crashed en route to Calcutta, India.
Kuhles was led to the site in Tripura through information he got from a network of guides he has developed in his frequent trips to the region. When he arrived in India in early November to begin one of his treks, a guide urged him to follow up on information about the C-47.
It was challenging to get there. Local police authorities would not allow him to enter because of insurgent activity in the Bangladesh-bordering region, so the state's police superintendent assigned a 32-man paramilitary brigade to accompany Kuhles and his guide.
The C-47 evidently hit a storm and crashed in the rocky jungle of Tripura. Local Baptists who had been converted earlier in the century gathered the bodies and buried them in a mass grave surrounded by a woven bamboo fence. They salvaged the plane for parts and sold the scrap metal.
For decades, natives told Kuhles, a large metal cross towered over the grave. It was made of aluminum from the plane wreckage, but it eroded and washed into a nearby river a few years ago.
Kuhles took photos and video and marked down whatever serial numbers he could find on the pieces of plane engine that remain at the crash site. Upon his return to the U.S. in late December, he passed his information along to his researchers, who learned the history of the crash and notified long-waiting survivors.
His crash report has now been submitted to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, a U.S. agency responsible for locating the remains of missing service members.
More than 74,000 service members remain unaccounted for from World War II, far more than the 1,700 still missing from the Vietnam War, 8,000 from the Korean War and 127 from skirmishes that broke out during the Cold War.
Many of those missing from World War II are presumed to be casualties in Europe who were buried by locals in unmarked graves, or naval officers who sank to unreachable depths. But hundreds also perished flying supply and attack missions from Allied bases in northern India to southwestern parts of Japanese-occupied China.
It could be years before JPAC follows up on the C-47 Kuhles found. Spokesman Lt. Col. Wayne Perry did not return several calls for comment this week, but in an earlier interview he said that cases are prioritized based partly on the agency's budget and partly on whether sites are in some way threatened by physical conditions.
"To those families, it's very important, but that mission is one of thousands for us," Perry told AOL News in October. "Unless that mountainside is going to be developed or something, there's not a reason for us to rush to go there."
Yet Lisa Phillips, founder of World War II Families for the Return of the Missing, said the nation owes it to the dwindling number of survivors of World War II dead to resolve these cases first and bring the bodies home.
The remains of Phillips' uncle, 2nd Lt. Joseph Rich, also was on the C-47 located by Kuhles. Rich's widow died two years ago, having never moved from the Connecticut home she bought after the war "so they could find me if they found anything out," Phillips recalled her aunt often saying.
And Ruth Garmong, 85, knows she's not getting any younger either. She lives in Leechburg, Pa., just a couple of miles from Vandergrist High, where she met Bill when he was 15 and she was 14. He left for war on Nov. 1, 1943, and was shot down a month later, on Dec. 1.
The call from Kuhles' researcher, Gary Zaetz, last month informing her of Kuhles' discovery gave her hope she may be able to give Bill a proper burial before she dies.
"Oh my, it matters so much to me," she said. "I've always said if I only had a bone, just one bone. I had a tree planted and his name is there, but he's not. I'm gonna live until they find him."