'So many questions': Botched recovery mission didn't follow JPAC's own protocol
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 6, 2014
SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — World War II officially ended with the surrender of the Japanese on Sept. 2, 1945, but it was far from over for 1st Lt. Horace Joe Gabbart.
The Army Air Corps pilot fought the urge to rush home to see family and friends, instead choosing to stay behind to help complete the daunting task of repatriating war dead from across the Pacific.
On May 17, 1946, Gabbart was behind the controls of a C-47B heading from Rangoon, Burma, to Barrackpore, India, with two other crewmembers, eight American Graves Registration Service personnel and the remains of 38 recovered American servicemembers when they disappeared.
Almost 67 years later, his niece Neva Gabbart Erbacher is no closer to seeing Gabbart come home. She and other families of those onboard blame the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command, which launched a fruitless recovery mission last year in India.
At the outset, the November 2013 recovery mission looked good; an independent MIA hunter claimed to have identified the crash and burial sites years earlier. But a Stars and Stripes investigation of the mission revealed that the site was never properly vetted by the JPAC excavation decision board, and was instead fast-tracked based on questionable assumptions and procedural missteps.
Issues emerged just a few days into the $502,000, 49-day mission, when the JPAC recovery team realized they were excavating the wrong site, according to JPAC situation reports. Their site contained remnants of a commercial airplane, not Gabbart’s C-47B. Still, they continued to dig, spending half of their budget before scrapping the mission. The team left the country after 33 days.
JPAC has since closed the case on Gabbart and the missing, saying the plane is believed to have been lost in the Bay of Bengal, according to internal documents. No future digs are planned unless new evidence surfaces, according to JPAC recovery team leader William Belcher.
Internal JPAC documents show JPAC “never investigated this site” before the mission, and suddenly the search was over.
“I think it’s totally irresponsible and it’s a misuse of funds,” Erbacher said. “There are so many questions.”
The case is the latest example of the systemic troubles plaguing the Defense Department’s accounting apparatus.
Last month, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel gave the Pentagon 30 days to come up with a plan to consolidate all Defense Department assets into a single, more accountable entity that will manage personnel accounting resources, research and operations.
The review comes on the heels of numerous reports of misconduct and poor management practices. A Stars and Stripes investigation in January alleged JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory had possibly desecrated remains and botched investigations into recovering remains from virtually every modern war.
Stars and Stripes has previously reported charges that JPAC and the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office have routinely ignored leads on MIAs in Southeast Asia, prematurely declared Southeast Asia MIAs deceased and unrecoverable, and actively argued against identifying unknown World War II remains in government custody when evidence suggested they could be identified.
In 2010, Congress directed the agency to increase their annual recoveries from 70 to more than 200 by 2015, but the numbers have changed little, or in some years have actually fallen.
More than 73,000 Americans who served in World War II remain unaccounted for, according to DPMO.
'Still a job to do'
Gabbart, like many Americans, joined the military after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The Oklahoma native was the middle child of three boys, all of whom signed up to serve. He went right into flight school, training to be a pilot. After the war, his brothers returned home, but something kept him behind.
“He could have come home after the war,” Erbacher said. “I asked my dad why. He said that he would have felt there was still a job to do.”
So while a mass migration of sailors, Marines, airmen and GIs headed home to an America transformed by years of war, some like Gabbart were bringing fallen heroes like 2nd Lt. Joseph Rich home.
Rich was navigator in a plane shot down Nov. 27, 1943, according to his great-niece Lisa Phillips. The plane burst into flames and he was stuck in the navigator’s position, suffering severe burns.
Rich lived and was taken prisoner by Japanese troops.
He survived in the prison camp until Sept. 13, 1944, when he died from a lack of medical attention, malnutrition and disease. He weighed just 80 pounds.
Phillips said her family didn’t know he had been taken prisoner until after the war.
“There was always crying on Thanksgiving and Christmas,” said Phillips, who has taken up the cause of finding his remains as president of WWII Families for the Return of the Missing.
Neither Phillips nor Erbacher knew the men they are working to see returned home, but the women are drawn together by duty and honor.
Erbacher seeks her uncle on behalf of her father, Bobby Bacon Gabbart, who passed away about five years ago, still hoping to see his brother buried on American soil. He gave a family reference DNA sample before he died.
In the aftermath of the plane’s disappearance in 1946, the U.S. military conducted aerial and ground searches for the missing plane but found nothing, according to internal JPAC documents.
The case lay dormant for 63 years.
Then, on Nov. 5, 2009, an independent MIA hunter claimed to have found Gabbart’s C-47B.
Clayton Kuhles, an avid climber, was mountaineering in Burma in 2002 when a guide told him about a wrecked American aircraft from World War II. He decided to take a two-week detour to locate the wreck out of curiosity, he told Stars and Stripes. He said he pried the ID plates off the aircraft and took them to the U.S. Embassy.
From then on, the Arizona adventurer was hooked. Kuhles began researching wrecks in the region and found out the plane was one of hundreds lost by the U.S. in the theater encompassing China, India and Burma during the war. The most notorious stretch was an inhospitable mountainous region between U.S. airbases in northeastern India and airfields in China, called “the Hump.” Due to weather and the terrain, many of these aircraft were never found and their crews declared dead, unrecoverable or MIA.
Kuhles joined organizations, talked to veterans as well as families of the missing, and pored over crash reports and documents as he expanded his operation, known today as the non-profit MIA Recoveries Inc. He claims to have found 26 aircraft, four of which could not be positively identified.
From the 22 planes he says he has correlated, there are 193 personnel that he believes could be recovered.
“I felt it was something that needed to be done,” he said. “It seemed like nobody looked for these men.”
Kuhles said he submitted a contract offer to JPAC for recovery operations and agreed to give input, but he said they have not responded. He said JPAC has obtained information from his website for their own missions in an effort to take credit for his discoveries.
Belcher denied the claims, saying Kuhles had not responded to numerous JPAC inquiries.
Despite their tenuous relationship, Kuhles and JPAC often crossed paths in their searches.
In 2006, Kuhles claimed to have located the wreckage of the B-24J Liberator known as Hot As Hell, according to his website. The aircraft disappeared Jan. 25, 1944, while on a routine ferrying mission between Kunming, China, and Chabua, India. Eight men were lost.
In 2008, JPAC investigators went to the crash site that Kuhles had identified as belonging to Hot As Hell. The site was directly correlated to the crash.
After getting approval from its excavation decision board, JPAC launched a full-scale recovery mission to the site in 2009, according to former JPAC employees speaking anonymously for fear of reprisal. However, the mission was abruptly suspended before any remains could be collected. According to Gary Zaetz, nephew of Hot As Hell navigator 1st Lt. Irwin Zaetz, the families were not informed of the reason the mission was stopped. JPAC recovery operations wouldn’t resume again in India until a diplomatic agreement was reached in 2013.
All the while, Kuhles continued to search. Later in 2009, he claimed to have found the wreckage of Gabbart’s C-47B, about a one-day trek from the town of Birmani Kami.
Kuhles said he had heard about the site through a trekking guide. His travels were complicated by a terrorist threat in the area, but after securing an armed police escort, he made it to the crash site, which was on a hillside extending half a mile down a stream bed.
Locals shared longstanding stories about the crash into Long Thrai Mountain, he said, including how villagers had carried the bodies down to an impromptu cemetery. Kuhles claimed to have visited the cemetery near the crash site, and described it as “neatly fenced with woven bamboo” and “currently planted with ginger.”
He took photos of wreckage, including one with a stenciled number that matched the C-47B, he said, and posted those as well as global positioning coordinates on his website. JPAC did not acknowledge his work, he said.
In September 2013, then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced an agreement between American and Indian officials to allow JPAC operations to resume in India. JPAC began planning its return, but instead of going to the site of Hot As Hell in Arunachal Pradesh to finish the dig there, JPAC decided to pursue remains from Gabbart’s C-47B in Tripura state. Belcher said this was done because of weather concerns, fiscal preparation and political sensitivities in the northeast Indian states.
Before JPAC can excavate a site, there is clear protocol they have to follow, according to its standard operating procedure manual, obtained by Stars and Stripes. They first have to go before an investigation decision board, which determines whether there is enough circumstantial evidence to fund a mission to investigate a site. If there is, a small-scale mission is launched to the site, where investigators might dig test pits, search for plane parts or correlating evidence, and interview potential witnesses.
The case is then brought back to JPAC’s offices, where it is presented to JPAC and CIL leadership on an excavation decision board that meets almost monthly.
For a more costly and labor intensive excavation to be approved, the evidence must point to the likelihood that Americans will be recovered at the given site.
If an excavation decision board approves a site, it is put on the master list, where families of the missing say it could be years before an excavation is launched. There are a multitude of factors that dictate which sites are chosen each year, including funding, weather windows or looming construction.
“All cases being considered for future recovery team operations go before the EDB,” JPAC spokesman Army Maj. Jamie Dobson previously told Stars and Stripes. “The excavation board, in part, helps ensure we are good stewards of the tax payers’ money by not sending out recovery teams (and expending funds) on sites that are not solidly vetted.”
The alleged crash site of Gabbart’s C-47B, however, was seemingly fast-tracked through the process. It was never investigated, never correlated to the plane with any evidence and was never brought before an excavation decision board, former JPAC employees told Stars and Stripes.
Internal JPAC documents obtained by Stars and Stripes explicitly state JPAC had “never investigated this site” before the 2013 mission.
Team leader Belcher said that was true, but told Stars and Stripes that procedures were followed. “I don’t know if I would characterize this as skipping the procedures,” he said. “We were really in a discovery mode … We would have launched into recovery operations if it got to that point.”
Belcher repeatedly called the mission an “investigation” and not a “recovery.” He said that if remains were found, they would have gone back and convened an excavation decision board before the excavation took place.
However, internal JPAC documents paint a different picture.
“From 05 NOV — 14 DEC 2013, JPAC will conduct recovery operations and site surveys with one recovery team, consisting of nine JPAC personnel,” the mission planning statement said. “This team will operate in the State of Tripura in the Republic of India in order to locate and recover the remains of 49 U.S. Service Members who were lost in an alleged aircraft crash in 1946.”
Photographs show a large area of excavated land. Internal JPAC reports state that by Nov. 17, they had excavated 48 square meters of surface area.
The documents never mention going back to convene the board if remains were found.
Current and former JPAC employees said the mission was launched without investigation and the excavation decision board, saying it would not have made it through the scrutiny of the process.
Kuhles, as an independent contractor, was not involved in planning the JPAC mission. The site the JPAC team chose did not match the GPS coordinates and elevation of those posted on Kuhles’ website, and no correlating wreckage was found there, according to Kuhles, Erbacher and JPAC officials.
Belcher said they found a site that matched photographs of wreckage posted on Kuhles’ website, but Kuhles’ coordinates were about seven miles to the west. JPAC officials reported finding a remote burial site at least five miles away from their crash site. According to documents, an investigation was planned for the crash site after the excavation of the burial site.
“This demonstrates a complete departure of normal established procedure which requires an investigation team locate and correlate the site and recommend the site for excavation to the Excavation Decision Board prior to the site excavation,” a former JPAC employee said.
Within a few days of digging, it became apparent that the JPAC recovery team was excavating the wrong site, according to Belcher and situation reports drafted during the mission. About 20 interviews, a book by an Indian government official and newspaper articles written at the time confirmed this.
The crash site they had been digging was for a commercial airliner.
The team did not check the nearby site that Kuhles had identified.
“They were in the neighborhood and never bothered to check there,” Erbacher said. “Why did you continue there, spending all of that money? Why didn’t you go seven miles west?”
Belcher said that would have meant more planning, meetings with local officials and fresh permissions that take time.
“It isn’t as easy as just running down the road,” he said.
Belcher said he wasn’t embarrassed the mission failed and it did not harm relations between the U.S. and Indian governments. Despite the $234,000 price tag, the mission is viewed positively at JPAC.
“We view this mission as a success because it channeled us for future operations in India,” he said.
Families of the missing were angered by the unsuccessful mission. Two were invited by JPAC officials to their headquarters in Hawaii for a briefing — all expenses paid, according to internal JPAC emails.
Stars and Stripes obtained a copy of a PowerPoint presentation given at the briefing in which experts were cited questioning the authenticity of Kuhles’ correlating photo: “Aircraft expert reviews photo in December 2013 and advises metal is not from a C-47 and not WWII-era — high temperature metal based on appearance. … Experts question validity of the construction number reporting format and location.”
In the presentation, JPAC stated that it now believes the plane was lost over water in the Bay of Bengal. Gabbart, Rich and the others onboard the C-47B were declared “non-recoverable.”
Erbacher said she was told JPAC has no plans to locate the plane unless families find more evidence.
“They said they would pursue any evidence we could give them,” Erbacher said. “Why don’t they find the evidence?”
Erbacher said the families are taking a whole new look at the recovery efforts, although not all agree on what should happen next. Phillips said that about half the C-47B families agree with the JPAC decision. Some are considering hiring Kuhles to go back to the site he found. He said he was still actively trying to get government contracts to recover remains from the theater.
Lost in all of this are the families from Hot As Hell.
Zaetz feels betrayed. He said that JPAC has found his uncle’s crash site yet hasn’t brought him home. Years have gone by, and Zaetz’s 89-year-old father — Irwin’s surviving younger brother — is in failing health.
“There are still close relatives of these people still alive,” he said. “If the Indians and JPAC don’t do what was promised to them, they will die” before they see their loved ones home.
Belcher said they have plans to return to Hot As Hell in the fall.
Timeline complied by Noga Ami-Rav/Stars and Stripes. Software by TimelineJS