FLETCHER HANKS 2003 CBI TRIP
Back to Burma in search of lost planes, comrades Pilot: An Oxford man joins an expedition to the mountains where he and other Americans flew supplies to Chinese in World War II.Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun
By Chris Guy
Originally published October 11, 2003
OXFORD - Fletcher "Christy" Hanks is 86 years old, but he is as excited as a child about what will likely be the last, great adventure of a life that already reads like fiction. Hanks is on a 30- to 90-day expedition to "the Hump," a remote and inhospitable triangle of the Himalayas bordered by China, India and Burma where he and other U.S. civilian pilots played out a daring and often unsung chapter of World War II.
The Eastern Shore native flew 347 runs for the China National Aviation Corp. to supply the Nationalist Chinese army in its war with Japan. Now, Hanks hopes to find in the jungle the sites of crashed planes.
If the mission sounds far-fetched - as it does to some of his aged colleagues and assorted U.S. government officials - consider that Hanks pulled off a similar search expedition at age 79.
In 1997, with help from the Chinese government, Hanks located the shattered plane of one of his comrades in northern Burma, a country now called Myanmar by some. The plane has become the centerpiece of a commemorative display in Kunming, China.
"Fletcher has a passion for this, and he can't understand that other people aren't going to open their wallets and risk their lives," says Judith Mills, a University of Hawaii professor who served as a translator on part of the 1997 trip.
"He was by far the most fit of anyone, and he is incredibly disciplined."
Hanks wrote and directed a 30-minute video about that trip and he has penned a self-published book due out this month. He sees the current journey as his last chance to add to his research.
"I think it's important to document this part of history. I want to be sure that no one forgets these men who died," Hanks says. "If they're forgotten, they died for nothing. If this proves too much for me, so be it. I'd rather die out there than in some hospital."
Rail-thin and weathered, Hanks is all grit and sinew, stoked by a daily regimen of two 18-minute miles and 1,000 steps up and down the steep pine stairway of the clapboard house where he has lived for more than 50 years.
Hanks began his latest journey last weekend with a 48-hour trip to Rangoon, the launch point for an arduous trip to Burma's northern provinces.
There, in mountains of 16,000 feet or more along the border with China, he will search for as many as 600 unarmed cargo planes that crashed or were shot down while trying to deliver food, ammunition and other supplies to Chinese soldiers in their struggle with 1 million Japanese troops.
The supplies also went to the famous American pilots known as the Flying Tigers who, as civilians, chose to join the Chinese war effort.
In Rangoon, Hanks was to meet up with a partner, 49-year-old Clayton Kuhles, an Arizona businessman, amateur adventurer and expert climber whose world travels include a harrowing but successful trip to Burma last year to find and search a downed WWII plane.
So far, the two have been incommunicado, as they told their families they would be, and they are likely to remain out of touch. Once they head north, Hanks and Kuhles hope to communicate via satellite phone.
The unlikely pair met after Kuhles posted an Internet message seeking expedition members and investors brave or foolhardy enough to join another search for wrecked planes from 60 years ago.
Hanks jumped at the chance, putting up nearly $20,000 and raising several thousand more from other CNAC veterans.
Kuhles has traveled the world, including visits to Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Libya and Kenya and mountain-climbing trips to Tibet and Nepal. A recent fascination with crashed planes from the war seems to have made him a perfect match for Hanks, an acknowledged expert on the subject.
Kuhles "has no wife and kids at home. He's traveled all over the globe for years," says Warren Kuhles, a partner with his brother in a landfill, waste and recycling business near Prescott, Ariz. "He's the type who runs circles around everyone else. It's just the adventure and the excitement that's at the root of it all for him."
A year ago, Clayton Kuhles and his guides went nearly a week in Burma eating only beetles when supplies ran out and mountain villagers refused to sell them food, his brother says. The diet left Kuhles 25 to 35 pounds lighter.
According to the plan Hanks and Kuhles worked out last month during an annual convention of former CNAC pilots, they will be accompanied by a government-approved translator/guide and a party of 15 local "bearers," who will help haul food and gear.
They'll stay as long as supplies and strength hold out.
Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon, as well as forensics experts at the Department of Defense who have searched planes all over the world to identify the remains of American servicemen, are not keen on such ventures.
"I'm shocked that an individual would have the wherewithal to undertake something like this," said Larry Greer, a spokesman for the Pentagon office that deals with Americans listed as missing in action. "We encourage people to get in touch with us, particularly if there are human remains found. But they are on their own. I know I wouldn't feel safe out there."
In addition to perilous conditions, the mountains of north Burma are at the center of a thriving drug trade and home for armed guerrillas who oppose the country's military government, U.S. officials say.
"Maybe I'm making too much of this, but I have to wonder if he has some kind of death wish," says former CNAC pilot Gerald R. Shrawder. "I'm 86, too. That's why I know he's crazy.
"But Christy is the damn toughest little guy you'll ever meet. If they don't find these planes, nobody else will."
Always fanatically fit, Hanks competed in triathlons well past age 70 until a broken pelvis and a cracked vertebra sustained in two bicycle spills slowed him.
He was an organizer of the annual Bay Bridge Swim until 1992, when he was replaced as director after a swift current forced the rescue of dozens of swimmers.
In 1980, while serving on the Oxford town commission, he got into hot water for insensitive racial remarks during a debate on an anti-loitering bill.
Hanks last piloted a plane in 1946 because, after flying over the Himalayas, "an airliner is pretty damned boring."
He first worked as a pilot after graduating in 1941 from Lehigh University, flying transport planes in Alaska with Pan American World Airways. Before his work for the Chinese, he was at the controls of a DC-3 cargo plane over 1,500 miles in the first nonstop flight from Kodiak, Alaska, to Seattle.
Hanks likes to brag that he has "never saluted anyone in my life."
He notes that CNAC pilots made as much as $2,500 a month - about what it cost back then to buy a house in Oxford. He came home from the war to the waterfront village where his ancestors settled in the 1600s, then he patented a hydraulic harvester that jump-started the Chesapeake Bay's soft shell clam industry. The invention landed him an appearance on television's What's My Line? show.
His seafood-packing business, a publicly traded company, went belly-up in 1978, and he sold out to a larger competitor.
After his first marriage, which produced five children, failed, Hanks met the former Jane Foster at a pilots reunion. She had worked as a nurse for the Flying Tigers and was the widow of one of its pilots, who was shot down in 1942. She and Hanks married in 1964.
At 87 and in frail health, Jane Hanks is stoic about her husband's journey. She has lived in Oxford nearly half her life and she remains here now, waiting for his return. Neighbors and friends telephone, look in on her daily and drive her on errands. Her daughter calls every day from upstate New York.
"The last time was easier, I could drive," Jane Hanks says.
Her husband says he had to make this trip to honor the men who went down with the planes he hopes to find.
"I don't want anything to minimize the sacrifice my friends made," he says. "It was a just cause. It saved China from the Japanese."
Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun
This story was sent to you by: Khaing Fredricks (Khine) email@example.com
Some of you may already heard about Fletcher's return. I went to see him yesterday at his house. It was just wonderful to be able to talk with him and Jane.
For a World War II cargo pilot, adventure ends early but safely
Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun