At the U-Tapao Naval Air Base off the east coast of Thailand, military personnel, along with Thai and American officials, paid their respects. A casket of the remains was covered with a U.S. flag before being flown to the United States by a C-17 transport plane.
Tests at a special laboratory in Hawaii will determine if the remains are human and possibly identifiable. But circumstantial evidence suggests the casket contains a long-lost member of the U.S. military air force.
“You know, it promises to never leave anyone behind. Anyone who has served in the war in any way, regardless of the country or race, has formed a bond. To find those answers, we owe it to the families to bring those people back home, “said Marine Colonel Matt Brennan, head of the Indo-Pacific Directorate of Defense POW / MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA, the U.S. agency responsible for the missing war.
Thailand was officially allied with Japan in World War II and was occupied by its military forces, making it a target for British and American bombers. Inevitably, allied aircraft crews were lost in action.
Today, only a handful of American planes missing over Thailand are still unknown. As time goes on, the chances of finding them disappear – unless something extraordinary happens.
In 2011, the Thai Air Force Museum in Bangkok was flooded due to massive flooding in the country. The concern was that its archives could be damaged by mold. Retired Thai Air Chief Marshal Sakpinit Promethep, who worked part-time in the archives department to indulge his passion for World War II history, spent several months examining their condition through a series of files.
That’s how he found himself looking at a faded document from a dirty, dusty folder. It was a handwritten police officer’s report dated November 1944. It details the crash of a US P-38 plane, which was reported to have been struck by lightning during a storm.
It’s a “Eureka!” The reaction of historians who heard rumors of a World War II plane crash in Lampang Province but found no record of it.
“It’s a great moment in life, that we find such a thing in front of you!” He told the Associated Press. “Imagine, you are looking for something, you like to see it and there is no hope of finding it, almost no hope. Just page, open the page and then – Hoof! – In front of your eyes. That’s great! That’s what I’m looking for, “he said, smiling broadly.
He said he held the report in his hand that day, wondering if the pilot’s ghost was on his shoulder.
“He probably knew I was looking for him, looking for him for a long time,” said Sakpinit, suggesting that perhaps, the pilot’s spirit had put those pages in front of him in that file. “Otherwise, if there had been no flood, the document would have been hidden for another year or so, … maybe for a long time.”
The U.S. War Department’s files on the disappearance of World War II aircraft crew members include a pilot who flew from southern China to Myanmar and northern Thailand for a recovery mission and did not return, the location and cause of the crash being “unknown”.
But his P-38 went missing the day a similar plane crashed in the village of Mae Kua. U.S. records identify the aircraft as an F-5E, a P-38 hijacked and modified for reconnaissance duty.
The AP has kept the pilot’s name secret, with positive identification of the remains and notification of relatives pending.
Importantly, the police officer’s report in the Thai archives gave a precise position. Even so, owning one is still beyond the reach of the average person. An interview with a 100-year-old woman who heard of the crash was among the evidence that DPAA investigators have site qualifications.
In February, a joint U.S.-Thai search team excavated a paddy field in the village of Mae Kua in Lampang.
In April, the team found many small pieces of metal compatible with a crash, as well as “ossicular material” – teeth and bones.
“We are approaching the 80th anniversary of World War II, so to be able to get that information so that our historians and analysts and researchers can develop those cases, it is definitely a race against time,” said DPA’s Brannan.
Of the 72,335 U.S. service personnel still missing since World War II, about 47,000 are missing in Asian war zones, according to the DPAA.
Bank of the Associated Press writer Grant Peck contributed to this report.