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600 U.S. planes crashed in the Himalayas during WWII. A new museum shows the artifacts


American pilots in World War II called it the Hump, the perilous route they flew from India over the Himalayas and into China to bring war supplies to Chinese forces battling the Japanese. The Allies prevailed, but some 600 U.S. planes are estimated to have crashed in that remote region, killing more than 1,500 pilots and passengers. Now a new museum in India is displaying some of the artifacts from the wreckage that have been discovered over the years, including oxygen tanks, machine guns and the bracelet of a missing airman. Professor William Belcher, a forensic anthropologist from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, participated in several expeditions to crash sites, and he joins us now. Professor, thanks so much for being with us.

WILLIAM BELCHER: Lovely to be here. Thank you.

SIMON: Help us remember how vital was this military campaign during World War II?

BELCHER: Well, I think war effort is always based on getting supplies from your supply depot to the troops that need it. And so this was extremely vital for the Chinese operations against the Japanese Empire during World War II. And so without this airlift and the support for military equipment and materiel, the war effort could have been very different for Asia.

SIMON: Which is to say, Japanese forces could have prevailed.

BELCHER: Correct.

SIMON: I was about to ask you, why was this route so dangerous? But then, of course, it's over the Himalayas. Of course it's dangerous. What was it like to fly that in the 1940s?

BELCHER: Well, the storms are often unpredictable. Sometimes the aircraft are newer aircraft, and sometimes they don't handle as well as the designs that were coming out. And so there's a lot of accounts of a pilot and co-pilot and the crew just dealing with the eccentricities of the design of the aircraft. And also you're flying in excess of tens of thousands of feet, which is something that was relatively new. I mean, I think that we forget with our modern air travel, where we get the notation that we're flying at 33,000 feet so that we can now turn on all of our devices - I think that we forget that these aircraft were not pressurized. Some of the aircraft that I've excavated were some of the first pressurized cabins. So there's that aspect, and there's just the aspect that we just didn't know the elevations of some of these mountains. And so a lot of the aircraft crashed right into the side of a mountain because of the maps and the information that they had was incorrect.

SIMON: How did you and other teams get to crash sites? They must have been very hard to get to.

BELCHER: It's called boots on the ground. We do a lot of interviews with local villagers based on the historical records that we have, which were pretty slim because sometimes in the aircraft it's like - from point A to point B, somewhere in there it disappeared. And so we just go out and start interviewing local hunters, and they usually have ideas about where aircraft went down, or they've seen something. And so I'd say much of what we find is through local intervention. And so this is why the museum that has opened up with Oken Tayeng as the director is so important because Oken owns a outfitting company, so he knows this area extremely well. And he's also from some of the areas that we were looking for with some of these aircraft.

SIMON: What are some of the things you've found over the years that have particularly stayed with you?

BELCHER: It's the little things. It's like when you find a coin that you know was in the pocket of one of the individuals that is missing or something that they touched or worked with. And it's not just the wreckage that we found 'cause we found a massive amount of wreckage, engines and things like that. And so we find much of the plane is still there in - particularly in the very remote areas. But it's the little things that is a tangible thing that you can hold and touch, and it connects you with that crew member.

SIMON: You talk about tangible things. That's coins in the pocket - I don't know, keys, handkerchiefs, pictures.

BELCHER: Keys, handkerchiefs, occasionally we'll find photographs. There's ID bracelets, the identification tags or dog tags. We found a pistol once, and we know that that was a sidearm of one of the officers. To me, it's the mundane, everyday things that you find. And so you would find keys to their storage lockers at their base when they were probably based out of India. And it's just amazing that, you know, you get that, and it's just - that's a personal thing. That's the kind of stuff I have in my pocket right now.

SIMON: Why is this important, Professor Belcher? You must have heard people who say, oh, leave them alone.

BELCHER: They do. But on one level, it's a promise that the military and the U.S. government has made to these service members that no matter what happens, we will recover your remains and return you to your family for burial. But for me, on another level, it's dealing with promises and expectations, I think, that we make to each other from one sibling to another, to our spouses, to our children, and our children make these promises to our parents that we're going to do everything we can to make sure that you're home. I think when we think about it in a contemporary living sense, it's like keeping everybody safe. But that continues on after death where we want to bring people home.

SIMON: Professor William Belcher from the University of Nebraska, thank you so much for being with us, sir.

BELCHER: Oh, you're welcome. Thank you very much for the opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.