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Elite Wainwright troops scale Asian mountains to recover remains

Posted: Monday, October 21, 2002

(Fairbanks-AP) -- Three elite soldiers from Fort Wainwright are back home in Alaska after a visit to Tibet.

(AP) -- Mountaineers from Fort Wainwright's Northern Warfare Training Center are trying to bring closure to the families of those who died when American and British planes went down supplying the Chinese forces by flying over the treacherous Himalayas during World War II.

An estimated 600 mangled airplanes still litter the Himalayan mountains. The cargo planes available at the time couldn't fly at higher elevations and had to navigate the treacherous mountain valleys of Tibet.

Even now, the remoteness and high elevations of the largest mountain range in the world makes it nearly impossible to find the crash sites, and political considerations have kept Americans out of the area until recently.

But when the call came, the elite soldiers at Fort Wainwright were up to the job.

''Well, we found two, but we still got a lot more to find,'' said Army Staff Sgt. Mark Gilbertson.

Gilbertson was one of the three Fort Wainwright mountaineers from the Northern Warfare Training Center who spent two weeks excavating a crash site looking for the remains of four crew members who died in a CH-46 crash in the Tibetan Himalayas.

It is believed the crew got lost flying from Kunming, China, to their home base in Sookerating, India, then ran out of gas and crashed into a mountain in March 1944.

Gilbertson said the wreckage was still pretty intact and preserved, indicating the plane was traveling fairly slowly when it hit.

After the two weeks of excavating, two of the mountaineers were part of a group who went to a second and more remote crash, located at the end of an even more treacherous hike over peaks and valleys.

Sgt. Luke Forbing said the 33-mile round trip had them climbing a total of 21,000 vertical feet. And that was just to investigate the crash site for possible future excavation.

There, the four Americans, two Chinese officials and 10 Tibetan porters helped piece together the tail number to identify a second CH-46 transport that could hold the remains of three Americans.

The three soldiers were part of a 14-member team assembled by the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii to work in China's Xizang province, or Tibet.

It was the first time Westerners were allowed in the restricted area since the Chinese took over Tibet in 1949.

''We go in strictly on a humanitarian mission,'' said CIHLI spokesman Army Staff Sgt. Sebastian Harris. ''The government was very helpful with allowing us to go in and do the excavation.''

The three from Fort Wainwright were selected because of their skill scaling dangerous terrain and their ability to work at high elevations.

Once the team reached the site, the three mountaineers and the est of the team spent 12 to 14 hours a day excavating the wreckage at an elevation of 15,500 feet.

They camped close to the work area, but even a five-minute walk to the site would leave them breathless.

''Every day you'd wake up and there would be a fresh dusting of snow,'' said Staff Sgt. Daniel Krug, another mountaineer at Fort Wainwright. ''By 2 p.m. it would be raining, but 4 p.m. it would be hailing. There was a one- to three-hour hail storm every day.''

Krug said they recovered 112 pieces of bone and personal effects that were taken back to Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu.

There, it will take at least seven months to identify the remains. The crew's family members will be the first ones notified after the identification.

Harris said the U.S. has recovered the remains of more than 1,000 people all over the world since 1976. Fort Wainwright mountaineers have been included on three previous missions, two to Laos in 2000 and earlier this year and one to China in 1999.

Forbing, Krug and Gilbertson consider this one special.

''It's a real meaningful mission,'' Forbing said. ''Traveling to a place that no Westerners have been to and bringing home service members from World War II and bringing home closure.''

Throughout the trip they were welcomed into homes and yurts, and treated like family, eating an assortment of local cuisine such as pig ears, chicken feet, duck tongue and yak testicles, Krug said.

''The Chinese and the Tibetans were among the most hard working and helpful people I've ever met,'' Krug said.

The three men returned home last week. Krug is 41 pounds lighter because of the journey, but all three came back with an experience that no other American has shared.

''This says a lot for how much effort they put into bringing home MIAs,'' Forbing said. ''It really says something for the U.S. military because there's no other country in the world that does this.''



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