FLETCHER HANKS 2003 CBI TRIP
By Fletcher Hanks, October 23, 2003
Travelogue of my trip to Myanmar (Burma) in search of CNAC #58, Joe Rosbert’s plane that crashed April 7, 1943.
I left BWI airport at Baltimore, MD at 5:35 PM on October 5, 2003. At 2345 I departed Newark, NJ aboard Singapore Airlines on a 747 for a 23:30 flight to Singapore. From there, I flew Silk Air to Yangon, Burma October 7, 2003.
A strange thing happened to me while the plane was flying at 37,000 feet over Asia in smooth air when the plane started jumping around. The captain made the announcement that everyone be seated at once as they were in very turbulent air. The thought hit me that it felt like the Hump. Sure enough we were passing over north Burma and we were flying in turbulent clouds at 37,000 feet. I thought how turbulent it was at 24 to 17,000 feet where the maximum updrafts were. That was the altitude we flew in C-47s and C-46s during WW II. The captain didn’t realize he was flying over the greatest graveyard of the world for transports. After the stewardesses had grabbed all the loose glasses, I asked a stewardess to ask the captain where we were and report back to me. She came back and said, “North Myanmar”. I thanked her and asked her to bring me a scotch on the rocks as I thought I should celebrate crossing the Hump one more time.
Clayton Kuhles met me at the airport and helped me with my five bags with 100 pounds of dehydrated food, 4 quarts of peanut butter and 132 Power Bars to eat on the trail. I had a GPS, a metal detector and other special tools to locate and investigate the plane wrecks, recover dogtags and give the altitude, latitude and longitude of the planes.
In Yangon, we stayed at a small old hotel for $20 a night, which included breakfast. As I left home with a head cold, the pollution of Yangon (Rangoon) aggregated it into an infected sinus which I have two weeks later.
Major James McAndrews, Deputy Defense Attaché of the Myanmar Embassy of the USA, invited Clayton and me for dinner. We had had several e-mail exchanges with him during the past year, so we had a basis for a long talk. His office was well protected by sandbags and barriers to protect it from car-bomb terrorists.
We discussed our expedition with Major McAndrews over a three-hour meal in one of the finest restaurant. We would use him as a last resort in case the expedition turned sour, that is if we could reach him on our satellite telephone which costs $1.50 a minute.
Jim McAndrews drove a new American car, which looked conspicuous on a road jammed with old "junkers" that spewed smoke. Driving in Yangon is wild and dangerous. We stopped in front of the government building that housed the Silver Grill where Jane (my present wife) and John Petach, AVG fighter pilot, met frequently for drinks and dancing to a band that played only American Jazz, in the fall of 1941. There she fell in love with John and they were married with the blessing of the AVG commander Claire Chennault in February 1942.
The next day, October 8th, we flew in a Fokkers 28 to Myitkyina (now Metena). After two hours flying we landed at a new field, not the one I landed at downtown by the Irrawaddy River during WW II. We did not stay in the city because while I was flying three trips of ammunition a day into the airport from Dinjan, India, the Japs held the city. Getting unloaded quickly was a problem until CNAC mechanic “Mac” Mangun took over and put the Army officers to work. That was one of the impressive moves I ever saw during the war – Mangun, a civilian, putting captains and majors to work and telling them to, “Speed it up”. The pilots and crews were unloading their planes and sweating bullets to get off the field before the Japs got their range with their mortars.
The reconstruction of the Myitkyina airport building had been stopped except for five men with hand tools. The airport building has to be the worst building for 4.5 million people in the world. There is practically no modern construction in Burma. I saw only one high modern construction crane at Yangon airport and that project had stopped whereas at the Singapore Airport there was 12 in full use. There were free baggage carts throughout the huge Singapore Airport, which certainly is a big improvement over the antiquated carts for rent for $2 at the BWI. Information booths were well located throughout the Singapore Airport.
After a brief stop at Myitkyina Airport, where all freight was handle by hand from carts with wood wheels. In Burma all planes park about 100 yards from the terminal and everyone climbs steps to the plane, rain or shine. The passengers who got on there were tribesmen from the north with different features from those in Myitkyina. No suitcases, everything in woven baskets. Several hauled empty plastic water bottles, which have a market in Putao. Being that I was the only occidental on the plane, I enjoyed the seat closest to the front. One of the annoying features of the best seat in the plane was the ice water and ice that dripped from the air-conditioner duct. The stewardess wiped it regularly with a rag but I still got wet and I almost froze. Since I had a cold, it didn’t help that.
In thirty minutes, we landed at Putao (known to us CNACs as Fort Hertz). An army vehicle met us and took us the three miles to Putao and then the two miles to an unused army barracks, as there are no hotels in Putao. Each of us had a bed with mosquito netting to prevent us from dropping a few rungs on the food ladder. Plumbing was adequate but of WW II vintage.
When it was time for dinner, we walked the 2 miles to Putao. There were two restaurants. The old restaurant had a separate room for movies or TV every night from 7 to 9 for 15 cents. A cheerful Chinwin lady and her family ran the new restaurant across the street. There we had a Snakehead fish dinner, which was very good. No one ate the head.
We walked home after dinner without getting rained on. The rainfall in the area is about the most anywhere. They grow two crops of rice annually without irrigation. Within a quarter-of-a mile of our barracks was the largest building north of Myitkyina, maybe even the largest north of Yangon. When the ruler of Cambodia or Laos, thought he needed a new safe home, he arranged to have a palace built for him, his family and servants. It must have cost many millions of dollars. It looked to be 400 feet square (NOTE: that's 160,000 square feet-very big). The Burma Army now uses it as a retreat.
On October 9th we reworked the bags, leaving half of the things there in storage as we expected to return there for more supplies after three or four weeks. Each pile of things to be taken on the first march was put in 40-pound lots. That was what each bearer was expected to carry. There were two bearers for my things and two for Clayton’s as we each carried dehydrated food for the trip so we didn’t have to eat steamed rice and mustard greens three meals a day. There were ten 40-pound bags of rice for ten bearers. So the expedition had 14 bearers, Clayton, the two lead bearers and me from the Trekking office in Yangon, who could speak English. Win, number one leader would march with Clayton and Win number 2 would march with me.
Unfortunately, Win number 2 was a last minute thought at the Trekking office in Yangon and he could not get a seat on the plane with us. He was to fly up two days later, spend the night in Putao, hire a motor bike and driver to take him to the end of the road and then hike fast to catch up with the expedition that day.
October 10th, the expedition left in the morning riding a Toyota Land Cruiser which was about twice as large as a Jeep. On the hills, the bearers got off to lighten the load so the Land Cruiser could make it in four-wheel drive, double low 1st gear. The Cruiser was also lightened to make it safer when crossing the many bridges. After an hour or so we came to the end of the road and unloaded. Everyone grabbed their assigned load and took off. Clayton was the first one on the trail. As he left he told me to change from my lightweight running shoes to my Jungle Boots so I would keep my feet dry. By the time I changed shoes and hit the trail, Clayton was three-quarters of a mile ahead of me.
I held a good pace until we had to cross a flooded stream. It had rained steadily for two days which was normal. The stream was very rapid and it flooded my boots and they took on a few more pounds. I made the mistake of not changing back to running shoes. After three hours, I was struggling and fell backwards dangerously three times. Win number one told me I had to go back. After contemplating many days on the trail with no one to carry my bag or help me when I was struggling to keep up, I could see that Win was a threat to me. Although I was paying for the bearers, I had no power over them to assist me. If I hurt myself after being told to quit, would they leave me to get back to Putao as best I could without being able to speak the language?
Once I said, “I’m quitting”, Win said, “I’ll take your bag”. I started down the trail and he followed. I asked him if he was going to go back with me to the end of the road. He said he would because I didn’t speak the language. He also relayed a message ahead to the expedition to have two bearers carrying my belonging to return with us.
We went back to the sect (basha) at the end of the road without incident. An over-night at the basha was the highlight of the trip for me. It was at the edge of the jungle in a clearing approximately 150 feet square. It required two cows continuously grassing to keep the jungle from growing back. It took a serious curly-tailed light-brown dog to keep the fox from eating the many chickens that fed in the clearing and into the edge of the jungle. The dog also ran the piglets from under the sect because the dry earth was swept clean. The dog also protected the piglets from jungle animals. The sows and boors were kept in separate small strong bamboo pens and were fed swill as they did in America when I lived on a farm.
The sect was approximately fifty by forty feet with the living quarter’s nine feet off the ground. The farm tools, wood rakes, plows and a cart for oxen with large iron-rimmed wheels where kept out of the weather. The chicken rested there at night and the rooster started crowing at 2:30 in the morning. The iron on the tools indicated that there was a blacksmith somewhere in the vicinity.
I asked how this sect was the biggest and best I’d seen and it is at the end of the road. I was told that the owner was the great hunter of the area. His wealth came from the horns of rhinoceros that he killed. No one else knew where the rhinos were. Each horn was worth a fortune in China coastal cities. He traveled with a rifle and metal cutting saw for months during the dry winter season. He lived off the land. He was the toughest looking creature on two legs that I had ever seen. I don’t know why he bothered to take a rifle. He looked as tough as any rhino. Perhaps it was to protect him from the game wardens.
The living area consisted of five rooms. The common room was large enough for two fires, one for the men and one for the women and children. The fires are on top of sandboxes approximately 48 inches square with a teak bottom. Above the fires are woven platforms to hold the rice to be dried. The smoke was drafted up by the air coming up from the cracks in the floor and out through the thatch roof. The rice drying platforms prevent the sparks from the fire from reaching the thatch that would burn easily and destroy everything but the frame of the sect. The thatch was easily replaced.
Also in the common room is a five-foot square dining table with 12-inch tall legs. The diners either sit on their haunches or on 6-inch high stools. When not eating, they sit around the fires and smoke cigarettes and talk. A couple of the babies are played with and talked to continuously. There were five children approximately one year apart. The grandmother spent most of her time tending the children in the nursery who never cried or complained. I never experienced such quite children. The nursery was approximately seven feet by ten. The two adjacent rooms of approximately 20 feet by 10 feet had no furniture but both had one firebox in he center, which would be used in the winter when the nights were almost freezing. The floors of the living area were constructed of split bamboo, three pieces split from bamboo approximately 1 ¼ inch in diameter. With the oval side up, it was easy to walk on and you could look through the cracks at the activities below.
I slept in one room and Win and the two bearers slept in the other. I slept in my sleeping bag with my mosquito net over my head. I was too warm but slept well until the rooster started crowing at 2:30 and the dog battled something at the edge of the jungle. The children did not cuddle the dog or play with him. He was a policeman on duty 24 hours a day. I was told not to try and pet him or he would probably bit me. After dark they brought a very small fluorescent electric light bulb to the room and stuck it through a hole in the wall so both rooms would be lighted. I found out all sects have a stream nearby and the rich have a water wheel that supplies a little electricity.
I looked for nails used in the construction but could not find any. The pilings that the sect sat on was 12 inches in diameter and the cross members were 6 by 6-inch teak wood neatly notched so there was no need of nails. All rooms had wood doors and windows, no screens and no glass. The five-foot overhang of the thatched roof prevented the rain from coming inside the open windows. In one corner of my room were several bags of rice. There was no evidence of mice or rats. Apparently the dog took care of that too.
The toilet was 75 feet from the house, which was the usual slot in the floor connected to a field drain. All the toilet slots are white porcelain now whereas during WW II they were bamboo that sometimes collapsed when a heavy American used it. Water and a bamboo cup was provided in place of toilet paper. Since I anticipated I would need a trip to the toilet at night, I used a bike bottle for that.
Before we left in the morning, Win #2 walked in. He had hired a motor bike ($350 new Chinese made) with driver to take him from Putao. He released the driver before he found I was heading back to Putao so I would have to walk to Putao. There was no voice communication with Putao. The two bags I had started with were reduced to one bag. Win #2 hired a bearer to take my one bag back with me and Win #1 took the other bag on the expedition. This included the medal detector. When Win #1 read in the instructions it would detect gold and could be used under water, he became excited as there was had been a gold strike at Shwingbiang south of the area.
This was October 11th. Win #2 had recommend that I get a day of rest before walking to Putao. He predicted it would take me seven hours. I told him I would leave at once. Win #2 and I left at 8 and arrived at 2 with a break of one hour. It was one of the hottest walks I’d ever experienced. I was taking anti-malaria pills which made my skin more sensitive to the sun so I had to keep on my jungle clothes. The rain had stopped and the sun was bright. We walked a zigzag course to miss the deep streams and mud puddles and to miss the cow paddies that the water buffalo and the cattle dropped every few feet. At noon a stranger invited us to come into his sect for a rest, tea and fruit. The fruit looked like a green grapefruit. I peeled it with a knife and ate it. It was delicious. It was a great break in our walk. The topic of conversation was my age. They had never known anyone over 55 to have ever made the walk from the end of the road.
The most interesting part of the trip was the many beautiful butterflies along the road. I recalled how Vic McHenry and I would be eager to hunt butterflies after a two or three day rain when we were at Dinjan, Assam during WW II. After a rain, the butterflies came out of hiding and start feeding and flying to find their mates. Vic and I supplied an outstanding collection of the Assam butterflies for the Los Angeles museum.
At the army barracks, I repacked my bags. I left the entire foodstuff for Clayton. The next morning, October 12th, we set our bags out for a truck to pick up and walked to Putao for breakfast. On our way we saw many families dressed in their best on the way to church. There were usually five or six children following the mother carrying a child on her back. An older child would be carrying the youngest that could walk. When we arrived in Putao all the Christian shops and restaurant was closed because it was Sunday. Fortunately, the Buddhist owned restaurant was open and we had our usual breakfast of noodles and tea.
Although we were told the check-in for the plane flight was at 7 AM, Win #2 knew how the system worked. When the truck with our bags arrived at Putao at 8, the driver had his breakfast.
We left Putao at 10 and arrived at the airport and watched the manager make up the planeload. He signaled for many of the standbys, a hundred yards away, to move into the airport area for processing. The natives pay very little to fly to Myitkyina so they can make it a profitable trip by carrying several woven baskets of fruit for sale. The fruit is stacked in every conceivable place on the plane including the seats. One young hustler handed the stewardess something for the captain. Upon his receipt of it, the captain looked back at the man and smiled so he was allowed to pile baskets of fruit in the area behind the cockpit. The land of baksheesh had not changed everything and every service has its price. If the plane crashed, I might have been saved by a fruit salad. The carry-on luggage was not weighed. The pilots flew CNAC style – if you can get the door closed, fly it.
When we arrived at Myitkyina, Win #2 immediately called the office in Yangon to report in and to tell him to activate my return trip two days hence. He had my tickets in his office safe. A woman near the airport operated the phone. There were no public phones. We would spend the night in Myitkyina. Since Win #2 was born there, grew up there and had three siblings there, he was pleased. We stayed at the Xing Xiang Hotel. It was quaint but it had a shower, a TV, air-conditioning and toilet paper. The only shortcoming was there was no drain in the floor of the bathroom so the shower water ran into the bedroom. They provided free flip-flops to compensate for the water on the floor. The hotel provided an opportunity to get my laundry dried which the houseboy in Putao had washed. At the time I asked him to wash it, he had told me he could wash them but they would not dry because it rained every day.
Win #2 was anxious to show me the sights of Myitkyina. He took me for a late lunch at a sidewalk restaurant. I ordered chicken and rice and cooked greens. I received a chicken wing but with Win’s help I received a drumstick. He took me to the market place which was like all cities in the orient during WW II with small (6 X 10 foot) stalls that sold everything. It covered about a four-block area. He found friends there.
When it was time to go for dinner, I told him I had enough of the sidewalk restaurants and was ready for a sit-down restaurant meal. We had an elegant meal but I refused to walk the market place at night. We went back to the hotel where I called Jane at $6 a minute to tell her I would be home in a few days. It was 8 o’clock at night so it was 8 o’clock in the morning in Maryland. Win went off to visit his siblings and friends.
The next day we flew to Yangon. I went to the office of Myanmar Himalaya Trekking & Culture Co. in the Summit Parkview Hotel to learn when I was scheduled to fly home and to pickup the part of the $5,000 cash I had deposited with them that was not used on the expedition. There was no problem and I was scheduled to leave the next day via Silk Air. Shota Kanazawa, president of the trekking company promised me he would report, via e-mail, as soon as he received word from Clayton on his satellite phone.
I over-nighted at the Summit Hotel and left by cab for the airport in the morning. Since the cabs don’t have meters, I had to haggle with the driver to get the correct price. Silk Air took me to Singapore.
Singapore Airlines took me from Singapore to Newark, NJ, another 23:30 hour flight. An 82-year-old woman, from Baton Rouge, LA, in the row ahead of me refused to wake up when it was time to eat. She had died in her sleep. She was put in a body bag and given four adjacent seats in the middle of the plane. The beautiful stewardesses served us anything we wanted. The meals were delicious. We deplaned in Amsterdam for an hour while they cleaned the plane and prepared for a fresh crew and new passengers. Many were Americans returning from European tours. These were the first obese people I had seen since leaving home.
At Newark all flights were canceled into BWI because there had been small tornadoes in the area. I arrived home late at night on the 15th.
Burma’s population is exploding and there is much poverty. Although the United States has severe economic sanctions against the government, I don’t expect any change in the government. The inflation rate of its currency is 1000 to one dollars and credit cards are not acceptable. Cash dollars only. I saw a large Japanese tour at the hotel but no occidentals. Being on a tour whereby you stay at only the best hotels, travel in air-conditioned buses and eat at the restaurants recommended by the tour guide, the trip could be enjoyable. The Burmese people like Americans and are very friendly. Since there are so few Burmese who speak English, a tour company is essential in traveling.
Although I was very disappointed with the results of the expedition, it remains to be seen how it will play out. I paid for half of the camera equipment Clayton bought for the trip so I should get copies of all pictures he makes. I expect pictures of airplanes he visits. I don’t know if he will get into the sects of the Mishmi people and learn the location of CNAC #58 from them because the Mishmis are only in India and Tibet (China).
Since returning home, I have received enhanced images from the satellite photographs taken last January of what could be a C-47 or C-46. Wim Chalmet, the sales manager of Terraengines, estimated the wingspan of the object he found to be about 90 feet. The wingspan of the C-47 was 95 feet and the wingspan of the C-46 was 108 feet, it could be either one. From the intelligence I have of CNAC #58, the image Wim referred to is on the longitude of CNAC #58 but eleven miles too far south.
I think Clayton will visit the area where that image is as that ridge was the second priority when we planned the trip in Albuquerque.
If the image is an airplane, I think it will be an ATC plane. I think it is above the timberline or it would be covered with vegetation. It is also below the snow line, as it is not covered with snow. My guess it is at 11,000 feet. Any wing of a plane that flew the Hump deserves to be in a museum. The right wing of CNAC #53 is the only wing anyone has of a plane that flew the Hump.
Wim said a search for the sole purpose of finding CNAC #58 would cost $7,800.
I know there is that much money in CNAC veterans possession that they can’t take with them when they die. How to get a commitment from them is another matter.
I will report to you the progress of the ongoing expedition led by Clayton Kuhles. Without me, he will travel faster and get to CNAC #58 before the heavy snows start in December. I think my lack of speed caused me to get dumped. At 86 I can’t get any acceleration when I put the “pedal to the metal”. I apologize for not having done a better job but the results aren’t in yet.
I thank those who contributed to the “CNAC #53 Fund” that made it possible for me to go as far as I did.