U-TAPAO – The remains of an American pilot who went missing in World War II may have finally returned home, thanks to the accidental discovery of records in archives that are at risk of flooding in Thailand.
U.S. and local authorities held a ceremony Wednesday at an air base in eastern Thailand to honor and repatriate the remains recently found from a rice field in the north.
At U-Tapao Naval Air Base on the east coast of Thailand, the military along with Thai and US officials paid tribute. The box with the remains found was draped with a U.S. flag before being delivered to the United States aboard a C-17 transport aircraft.
Tests in a special laboratory in Hawaii will determine whether the remains are human, and possibly identify a person. But circumstantial evidence has raised expectations that the box contains a long-lost U.S. Air Force soldier.
“You know, it’s a fulfillment of the promise that we never leave a person. Anyone who has served in combat in any case, who has fought alongside someone, regardless of country or nation, has a connection that is built. We owe it to families to find these answers, to bring these people home, ”said Marine Colonel Matt Brennan, who heads the Indo-Pacific Directorate of the U.S. POW Accounting Agency, or DPAA, the U.S. body tasked with finding war.
Thailand was an official ally of Japan in World War II and occupied by its military, making it a target for British and American bombers. Inevitably the flight crews of the Allies were lost in battle.
Today, only a handful of American pilots who have disappeared over Thailand are still considered insignificant. Over time, the chances of finding them almost disappear – unless something unusual happens.
In 2011, major floods hit the country, flooding the Thai Air Force Museum in Bangkok. There were concerns that his archives could be damaged by mold. Retired Chief Aviation Marshal of Thailand Sachpinit Promthep, who indulged in his passion for World War II history while working part-time in the archives department, spent months after reviewing his files one by one to check on their condition.
That’s how he turned out to be examining a faded document from a musty dusty folder. It was a police handwritten report from November 1944. It detailed the crash of an American P-38 plane that was reportedly struck by lightning during a storm.
This caused “Eureka!” a reaction for a history buff who heard rumors of a plane crash during World War II in Lampang province but never found any information about it.
“It’s a wonderful moment in life that we find such a thing just before you pop up!” he told the Associated Press. “You imagine you’re looking for something, you love to see it, and there’s no hope, almost no hope of finding it. Just open the page, page and then – cheers! – before my eyes. Wow! That’s what I’m looking for, ”he said enthusiastically, smiling broadly.
He said that, holding the report in his hands that day, he wondered if the ghost of the pilot was lying on his shoulder.
“He may know I’m looking for him, I’ve been looking for him for a long time,” Sackpinit said, suggesting that perhaps the pilot’s spirit put those pages in front of him in this file. “Otherwise, if there was no flood, the document would be hidden, maybe another year or many, …. maybe a long time.”
U.S. Department of War files on missing World War II crew members include a pilot who flew out of southern China for a reconnaissance mission over Myanmar and northern Thailand and did not return, the location and cause of the crash recorded as “unknown.”
But his P-38 disappeared the same day as the same type of plane that crashed in the village of Mae Kua. U.S. records identify the aircraft as F-5E, P-38, disassembled and modified for reconnaissance.
The AP did not name the pilot pending positive identification of the remains and notification of relatives.
Importantly, the police report in the Thai archives indicates the exact location. However, it took ten years to move from the musty folder of Sacpinit to real excavations. An interview with a 100-year-old woman who heard the crash was one piece of evidence that convinced DPAA investigators that the site had merit.
In February, a joint U.S.-Thailand search team dug up a rice field in the village of Mae Kua in Lampang.
By April, the team had found many small metal fragments corresponding to the accident, as well as “bone material” – teeth and bones.
“We are approaching the 80th anniversary of World War II, so the opportunity to get this information so that our historians, analysts and researchers can develop these cases is definitely a race against time,” said Brannen of the DPAA.
According to the DPAA, of the 72,335 U.S. servicemen still missing during World War II, nearly 47,000 went missing in Asian war zones.
Associated Press writer Grant Peck of Bangkok contributed to this report.
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or distributed without permission.