Obama Suspends Expeditions to Recover Bodies of Missing WW II Vets

A US military expedition hiking to a crash site in Arunachal Pradesh. (India Today)

Barack Obama suspended search and recovery expeditions into Arunachal Pradesh after complaints from the Chinese. Over 400 US airmen died in crashes while flying resupply missions between Assam and Kunming, China, during World War II. Obama doesn’t want to upset the Chinese.

India Today reported:

Chinese concerns over what it sees as American “intrusion” into Arunachal Pradesh have prompted the Obama administration to suspend plans for recovering bodies of crewmen who went missing there during the Second World War.

Two expeditions planned in 2010 and 2011 were cancelled ostensibly because of the Chinese claiming that this was disputed territory. China considers the whole of Arunachal Pradesh as ‘South Tibet’ and protested expeditions by India and the US to recover the bodies of over 400 US aircrew who died in crashes while flying resupply missions between Assam and Kunming, China, during the war.

The US Department of Defense states that over 500 aircraft are still listed missing in the China-India-Burma theatre of the Second World War. The wreckage of nearly 19 aircraft was discovered north of Itanagar, south of Walong, upper Siang and at other sites in 2006 by a US-based private explorer, Clayton Kuhles.

After pressure from the families of those who perished, joint operations to recover the remains of servicemen were started by the US and India in late 2008. The operations were, however, inexplicably cancelled by both governments in 2010 and 2011. The US has also put on hold joint military exercises in Arunachal Pradesh. Also on hold are trilateral exercises between India, Japan and the US.

The five-nation quadrilateral exercises like Malabar which involved Singapore, Australia, India and the US have also been put on hold. “The US is keen on not doing anything in Arunachal Pradesh that raises the hackles of the Chinese,” says strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney. “They convey a stance of tacit neutrality in border disputes that do not concern them,” he adds. In disputes that concern them, however, the US is proactive. On the South China Sea, over which China has claimed ‘indisputable sovereignty’ and is currently locked in dispute with the Philippines and Vietnam, the US has demanded freedom of navigation and held joint military exercises with the two Southeast Asian countries.

The relatives of American Second World War dead are incensed at this duality in policy affecting what they say is a purely humanitarian exercise of recovering the remains of their loved ones. “It is probably not a coincidence that these operations were cancelled not long after China publicly started criticising these operations as an infringement on its sovereignty,” says Gary Zaetz, whose uncle 1st Lt Irwin Zaetz died in an air crash in Arunachal Pradesh in 1944.