PRESCOTT, AZ (3TV/CBS 5)--A self-funded Arizona explorer has found nearly two dozen plane crashes from World War II, helping account for the remains of 193 American casualties that have been missing since World War II in the eastern Himalayas.
Clayton Kuhles of Prescott has been searching for missing aircraft wrecks near the borders of China, Myanmar and India since 2002. The 65-year-old mountaineer cuts through thick jungles and summits rocky peaks with a team of porters in hopes of bringing fallen American airmen home for a proper burial.
He has found and successfully identified 22 plane crashes from WWII.
Just last month, 1st Lt. Allen R. Turner was buried because of one of Kuhles’ discoveries. Turner was the pilot of a C-109 aircraft that crashed on July 17, 1945.
Relatives were able to bury another airman from that crash, flight engineer Pvt. Joseph I. Natvik, in November in Wisconsin. A third airman, 2nd Lt. Frederick W. Langhorst, was positively identified through DNA and buried in 2016.
Kuhles was invited to speak several years ago at the burial of a Petaluma, CA airman he found, and calls it “the most emotionally powerful experience of my life.”
“I’ve climbed mountains. I’ve seen people die in front of me. I’ve almost died a bunch of times. That experience in Petaluma, connecting with that family… to this day, it was the most emotionally powerful experience in my life,” he said.
But the Prescott man remains as committed as ever to finding more missing airmen. More than 72,000 U.S. personnel killed in WWII are still unaccounted for to this day. (Click here or read on for how you can help.)
A life changed on Hkakabo Razi
Kuhles said he grew up an avid outdoorsman, and got his start climbing mountains as a kid on summer trips in Colorado. He started going on major mountaineering expeditions in the 1970s, climbing peaks in Nepal, Tibet, South America and Antarctica.
While climbing the highest peak in mainland Southeast Asia in 2002, he overheard a conversation between Kachin porters about an aircraft wreck that changed his life.
After the climb up Hkakabo Razi, he decided to hire a team of locals and search for the wreck. They found it after a three-day trek through jungles, across rivers, and eventually up the slopes of a mountain.
Afterwards, Kuhles started researching WWII history and spoke with several veterans at reunions.
“I know this sounds corny, but they reminded me of my dad. My dad was an electrician in Norfolk Navy Yard in WWII,” he said.
The Aluminum Trail
The downed warplane Kuhles found was one of about 600 that crashed along what’s known as “the Hump Route.” The route was a dangerous airlift mission over the Himalayas that U.S. airmen flew to resupply the Chinese in their fight against the Japanese during WWII.
Most of the planes were downed by severe icing or turbulence amid the notoriously wicked weather and harsh flying conditions.
Historian David Sears said the route was so dangerous it earned another nickname: the Aluminum Trail.
“It was called the Aluminum Trail because if you were flying over the Himalayas on the routes that these planes covered, there were so many crashes that occurred, you could see wings and fuselages and tail pieces and other debris reflecting the sunlight,” he said.
“The wrecks are there to be reached.”
At her home in Pensacola, Florida, Ellen Vinson keeps a binder full of memories of a man she never knew.
“He was my mother's sweetheart at Ohio State,” she said, flipping through black-and-white photos of her mother and Capt. John Porter.
Porter was her mother’s first husband. “They got married three days after Pearl Harbor,” she said.
Porter gained fame during the war for commanding the military’s first-ever air search-and-rescue group, and is credited with saving 127 people. But on Dec. 10, 1943, his second wedding anniversary, Porter was killed when his plane was shot down.
Kuhles found the wreckage of Porter’s plane in 2011, but the government has yet to excavate the crash site and recover the remains.
“Our government doesn't have to go and find the crash site. We know the exact GPS location. We've known for years, we have photographs. We have everything they need,” Vinson said.
In December, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) said it has three teams actively working in the region to recover remains, but there are still hundreds of undiscovered wrecks. Kuhles said most of the crashes he has found have not yet been excavated by the government.
DPAA said its efforts in the area are hampered by the "austere, remote and dangerous" terrain and the "high cost of deploying teams."
Sears, the historian, said there may be another issue: the apathy of time.
“Vietnam is a conflict closer in time, so there’s more political advocacy to have those remains returned to the United States,” he said.
How you can help
Kuhles said he is planning two more expeditions this year to search for wrecks and remains.
He said his trips are almost entirely self-funded, but he has organized his one-man search organization as a non-profit called MIA Recoveries in hopes of attracting donors.
With more funding, he said he can mount longer expeditions, and he’s confident he can find more missing wrecks. “No doubt whatsoever,” he said.
Said Vinson, “They made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. The least we can do is bring them home.”