By DENIS D. GRAY, Associated Press
LAIZA, Myanmar (AP) — Forced to skim the ground under a 100-foot (30-meter) cloud ceiling, fighting rain and wretched visibility, the C-47 Skytrain probably proved an easy target for Japanese gunners. Packed with ammunition, the aircraft exploded, plunging into a jungle that swallowed it up for 57 years.
Today, the remains of seven U.S. airmen on that ill-fated flight lie in the military's Arlington Cemetery. They were the last to be recovered before Myanmar halted a search for 730 other Americans still missing from World War II in the Southeast Asian country.
But now, as bilateral relations improve, there's hope others missing in action will be brought home.
Negotiations with senior U.S. officials began last month, following up on a visit in December by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Most of the MIAs were airmen flying some of the war's most dangerous missions as they hauled supplies to beleaguered Allied forces over snowy Himalayan ranges and boundless jungles.
Clinton urged Myanmar leaders to cooperate in short-lived recovery operations suspended eight years ago.
This time around there are grounds for optimism. After decades of isolation and often brutal rule by the military, the regime is initiating some democratic reforms and appears bent on bettering ties with the United States, which continues to impose economic sanctions on Myanmar, also known as Burma. The MIA talks offer one of the few avenues now open toward normalization.
"We are happy to hear that Mrs. Clinton's trip to Burma has made it possible for more of our men to come home to their families," said Robert Frantz, brother of one of those who perished in the 1944 Skytrain crash, U.S. Army Air Force Sgt. Clarence E. Frantz.
"Our group of families has been behind any and all efforts to recover more of our men from anywhere," Frantz said.
Although Washington insists the MIA search will be a strictly "stand-alone humanitarian matter," a joint search could bear political fruit as it did in Vietnam. Following the Vietnam War, dialogue between the one-time enemies was restricted to the MIA issue.
"The U.S. and Burma could come together through the search for missing Americans much like happened in Vietnam two decades ago," said Murray Hiebert, an analyst with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Cooperation by Myanmar, he said, could help its government build goodwill with the U.S. Congress and administration, making it easier to lift the sanctions, provided the reforms also proceed.
However, even with full-fledged teamwork, recovery missions will face major obstacles.
Most of the crash sites are known to be in the country's northern Kachin state, a remote region of dense jungles, high mountains, poor roads and an ongoing insurgency. The Kachin ethnic minority have been fighting for autonomy from the central government for decades.
Continued conflict would certainly place many areas off-limits to U.S. search parties, although the rebel Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) is decidedly pro-American. Kachin and American soldiers forged close bonds fighting the Japanese and the bush-wise guerrillas rescued many downed airmen.
KIO spokesman La Nan, interviewed at the rebel headquarters here, said the Kachin were ready to help once a peace agreement is reached.
"When the country is at peace, we hope that we and a new (American) generation of their descendants will be able to identify their human remains," he said.
The carefully orchestrated U.S. MIA operations everywhere require sound security, medical evacuation, communications and transport before a green light is given, said Lt. Col. Marc E. Geller, commander of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) unit which would undertake the Myanmar search.
Tasks of the Hawaii-based JPAC include the search for 1,680 missing servicemen from the Vietnam War and 74,180 still unaccounted for from World War II.
In Myanmar, many sites would require landing zones for helicopters — scarce in the country — to be cut out of triple canopy jungle, he said.
As many as 30 sites already investigated or excavated in 2003 and 2004, when the U.S. was forced to pull out, would probably be revisited. Some remains from those searches have yet to be identified.