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US Experts to Identify Possible WWII Pilot Remains in China - 2002-10-01

U.S. and Chinese experts have recovered what they think are the remains of American pilots lost in the remote mountains of Tibet during World War II. The evidence paints a terrifying picture of the crew's final hours.

In 1944, a U.S. cargo plane was headed back to India after delivering war supplies to Chinese and American forces fighting Japanese invaders.

The twin-engine plane, with a crew of four, was straining to stay above the Himalaya Mountains when it got lost in foul weather.

Pilots called the air route "The Hump" because it took them over the world's highest mountains. Others labeled it the "aluminum trail" because 600 U.S. cargo planes crashed along the way, littering the path with wreckage and the bodies of 1,600 American airmen.

The lack of flame damage at this particular crash site shows the plane ran out of fuel, so the crew members undoubtedly knew they were doomed.

Forensic anthropologist James Pokines says they hit the ground at hundreds of kilometers per hour. "The plane crashed into a gully and sheared off both wings and then hit the cliff," he said.

The impact shredded the plane and shattered the bodies of the crew. Their remains were strewn throughout the wreckage embedded in the side of a mountain.

Over the years, the remains have been reduced to about 100 fragments of bone. Scientists can use the unique DNA found in all cells to identify these pieces, even after all these decades. "Because of the extreme fragmentation of these remains, the co-mingling that they went under and the loss due to weathering on the mountain, this is primarily a DNA case," he said.

The complex scientific process will take months at a special laboratory in the United States.

More than 40 U.S. and Chinese soldiers and experts made the difficult trek to the crash site on horseback, on foot, and even crawling along ropes across mountain rivers.

At a press conference in Beijing, team members said they investigated another crash location. They suspect the remains of three more missing Americans may be found at that site.

This is just one of a series of joint U.S.-Chinese efforts to recover Americans lost during World War II. These projects help smooth the sometimes difficult relations between the two countries.