Intermission (3) – Current News on The Hump

"Hot as Hell"

“Hot as Hell”

At 7:40 a.m. Jan. 25, 1944, five B-24 Liberator heavy bombers from the 308th Bombardment Group, 425th Squadron, took off from their base at Kunming, China, on a routine supply run to India. Their route took them over the Hump, a treacherous eastern stretch of tall peaks in the Himalayan mountains.

At 10:45 a.m., flying at 15,000 feet, the formation “was forced to break up due to extreme instrument weather conditions,” according to World War II documents on the mission. Clouds obscured the mountains’ tree lines; visibility was less than a mile. Each aircraft was on its own, trying to land safely in valleys or at the nearest airstrip.

All five bombers crashed.


Crews parachuted out of two aircraft and survived; a third bomber crashed, with two survivors. The fourth and fifth B-24s — Hot as Hell and Haley’s Comet — disappeared. Their crews were presumed dead.

After many years of work, the remains of some of Hot as Hell’s crew are making their final journey home. A repatriation ceremony is planned next week in New Delhi as part of Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s trip to India.

The return of the remains marks a victory in an incomplete recovery that started with luck and continues through determined persistence.

Hot as Hell’s final resting place, where the wing section and engines are visible, is about 9,400 feet up the outer Himalayas in northeastern India, near China. The crash site is a three-day climb from a village called Damroh. Most of the bomber’s broken pieces are blanketed by leaf litter.

The location was initially reported by Arizona mountaineer Clayton Kuhles, who had climbed the region’s mountains as a hobbyist for years until he saw his first World War II crash site. Then he combined those two passions — mountain climbing and recovery work — building a network of villagers who would report things they’d seen in the mountains and experts who helped identify wreckage and crews. To Kuhles, there were too many airmen who’d never come home. He has found the crash sites of more than 80 missing airmen, and he is driven to find more. Along the India-China route alone, DOD estimates there are remains of more than 400 airmen.

In 2006 Kuhles was led to a crash site by a villager who once cut aluminum from an aircraft and carried it on his back down the mountain to salvage it. But when he grew frustrated with the difficult process, the 60-year-old hunter left the last stack he had cut at the site. He hadn’t gone back until he brought Kuhles to the wreckage.

Even though there were engine parts, Kuhles could find no serial numbers – a key to identifying an aircraft. They looked all over the site. Nothing. Then the villager led him to the aluminum stack.

The last sheet had the aircraft construction number 2878 stenciled on it. Research confirmed the link: Hot as Hell, the long-lost bomber named for its pinup girl nose art, had been found.


crash location

crash location

In 2007 Gary Zaetz found Kuhles’ report about the crash on the Internet, and he knew he had to go to the site. His uncle Irwin — his father Larry’s favorite sibling — was on the Hot as Hell when it crashed. Both brothers served in the war; Irwin was a navigator, and Larry was a pharmacist’s mate 3rd class on the USS Hornet, CV-12, and at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

Larry Zaetz had gone a lifetime missing his younger brother, whom he nicknamed “Zipper” for his speediness on the basketball court. But Zaetz, now 91, was ill so it was up to Gary to bring Irwin home.

Gary Zaetz was out of shape and had never climbed a mountain. His co-workers had a betting pool in their North Carolina office that he wouldn’t come back.

“They lost the pool,” he said. “I was determined.  There was certainly a sense of relief that I’d finally made it,” Gary Zaetz said. “I personally was exhausted by the time I got to crash site.”

He had told the families of the Hot as Hell crew about his plans, and had gotten to know their stories. He wanted to honor the lost. At the site he took out papers and began to recite Jewish and Christian prayers, reflecting the religions of the crew.

'Haley's Comet'

‘Haley’s Comet’

Haley’s Comet

In January 2011, Kuhles reached Haley’s Comet. Its crash site is about 100 miles to the west of Hot as Hell, and the wreckage contains many more personal artifacts. There are shoes, bone fragments and clothing that Kuhles photographed and posted on his website, The crash site has not been processed by Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. DPAA was notified about both sites years ago, and the same challenges that delayed Hot as Hell from being recovered for a decade haunt Haley’s Comet, such as political sensitivities within the Indian government that have hindered U.S. government teams from searching.

A senior defense official who will be traveling with Carter to the repatriation ceremony said he hopes this return is the first of many.

“We’ve been interested in working more closely with India in repatriation, and we are delighted by this latest activity,” the official said. “We are delighted that we are able to return the remains of American [servicemembers] as part of the secretary’s trip. We’re going to work closely with the Indians on further MIA remains recovery efforts.”

Those closest to Hot as Hell want to ensure future excavations are not handled like theirs was.


When DPAA arrived at the Hot as Hell site, it did an incomplete excavation, Kuhles and Zaetz said, leading both men to believe that if a more thorough job had been done, more remains could be on their way home. Time constraints by the Indian government hampered the effort.

“It’s really difficult,” said Zaetz, who is founder and chairman of Families and Supporters of America’s Arunachal Missing in Action.

Family members of the Hot as Hell crew were notified by letter that the remains of one or two of the eight airmen have been collected. After the ceremony in India, the remains will be flown to DPAA’s center in Hawaii for analysis and DNA identification.

“I’ll be happy for the one or two families that get loved one’s remains,” Zaetz said. “It’s hard to get a sense of closure when you know as many as six of eight remains are still there. It goes beyond just my uncle.”

  • 1st Lt. William A. Swanson, pilot

    Crew of the 'Hot as Hell'

    Crew of the ‘Hot as Hell’

  • 1st Officer Sheldon L. Chambers, co-pilot
  • 1st Lt. Irwin Zaetz, navigator
  • 1st Lt. Robert E. Oxford, bombardier
  • Staff Sgt. Charles D. Ginn, engineer
  • Staff Sgt. Harry B. Queen, radio operator
  • Sgt. James E. Hinson, gunner
  • Sgt. Alfred H. Gerrans Jr., gunner

Courtesy of the Stars and Stripes.

Click on images to enlarge.


Military Pilot Humor – military-humor-funny-joke-air-force-aircraft-survival-kit-pilot











Farewell Salutes – 

Stanley Atkins – Yeager, OK; US Army, WWII, ETO, 75th Infantry Division

Robert Booher – Phoenix, AZ; US Army Air Corps, WWII, PTO, 188th/11th Airborne Division

Harley Cox – Denver, CO; US Navy, WWII, PTO, USS Tulagi, pilottribute

Peter Gernat – Bridgeport, CT; US Army, WWII

Elmer Harry – Vancouver, WA; US Army Air Corps, WWII

Robert Klein – Leesburg, FL; US Army, WWII, CBI

Stephen Marszalek – Brighton Park, IL; US Army Air Corps, WWII

John Smeck – Houston, TX; US Navy, WWII, submarine USS Hardhead

Walter Peace – Palm Springs, FL; US Air Force, Korea, (Ret. 26 years)

William Vanner – Calgary, CAN; RC Air Force, WWII


About GP

Everett Smith served with the Headquarters Company, 187th Regiment, 11th A/B Division during WWII. This site is in tribute to my father, "Smitty." GP is a member of the 11th Airborne Association. Member # 4511 and extremely proud of that fact!

Posted on April 14, 2016, in Current News, First-hand Accounts, Uncategorized, WWII and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 81 Comments.

  1. I had missed that post GP. I didn’t know the story behind my B-24 D model airplane on My Forgotten Hobby. My model will never be the same.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My grandfather, Lt. Toney W. Gochnauer, was the Co-Pilot of Haley’s Comet. Thank you Clayton and Gary for your tireless, meaningful work. I have no words, just prayers that we can bring our MIA’s home.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am very sorry for your your family’s loss, the world lost far too many good men! If you have any stories you’d like to share about your grandfather, please feel free to include them here.


  3. What a wonderfully touching stories – Kuhles and Zaetz the modern day heroes for fighting to repatriate and honour as many as they had a chance. Thank you for sharing with us.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. GP; It’s staggering that a B-29, capable of high altitude, and far stronger than a B-24, should have been among the victims. Indian “political sensitivities”, good grief. They owe us, not the other way around..
    I wanted to provide a link to my latest post; and one from Sharia unveiled, with a video, banned from Facebook.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow,, closure after all this time. A wonderful story, GP.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. The families can finally have closure… Thank you for presenting us such an amazing story!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Isn’t the internet wonderful in helping make all these connections? I just heard a story this evening about a local doctor, now departed, who was given the Legion of Merit medal for his assistance with injuries in a Solomon Island plane crash on San Cristobal. His name was Captain Earl Conaway, M.D.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great post, GP. So glad those families will get closure at long last.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. What a wonderful, informative story. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. GP, I think you might like this military article. I know he’d appreciate your thoughts. Cheers, CB

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Thnk you auch eine wunderschönes Weekend liebe Grüße Gislinde

    Liked by 3 people

  12. That is wonderful humanitarian work by Clayton Kuhles. Bringing home the dead provides closure for families.

    We saw movie “The Water Diviner”, one man’s mission to bring his sons home against all odds. A good film.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for the link, Lavinia, I’ll check it out. Yes, I have to admire the efforts of these people and other groups doing similar work to bring closure for the families and follow through with the motto – “No man left behind!”


  13. The politics of these kinds of recovery efforts blows the mind. Thanks for the post on these two crews.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Hi GP

    Can’t open this one on my Mac using Safari, Opera or Firefox—but I could read the text in my ‘Mail’ notification (about your posts, as a ‘Follow).

    Must be a problem unique to me, judging by all the comments.

    Again, unsung heroes …



    Liked by 1 person

  15. Let’s hope that the Indian government realise their responsibilities to the families of these brave men and a 100% thorough search can be carried out.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Clayton Kuhles is to be commended for his efforts in locating the crash sites. Nothing is more depressing than the information: Last resting place unknown as was the case of thousands of soldiers, sailors and pilots of WWII on both sides.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Another great, Great article.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Excellent news that the remains of Hot as Hell crew are coming home.
    Clayton Kuhles is to be commended on his exceptional work in locating the resting sites of eighty downed Airmen.
    Great post gp with a closure for those families who never knew the fate of their loved ones.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. Thanks for the look back Brad. I heard just recently that it is believed there are still MIA left in VN. No one left behind. That is the motto and must be carried out. Thank you for the good work!<3

    Liked by 3 people

  20. What a great story. And well done to Gary for making that arduous trip too.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 3 people

  21. Hopefully the politicians in both countries can sort it out going forward. Very moving story and a great post as always GP.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Lloyd. It would be great if everyone got along, but…..

      Liked by 1 person

      • Indians were in that war and know the stakes as much as anybody. My own brother in law had a grandfather who served and was a POW. His hair turned white and stayed that way for the rest of his life. Whatever religious, cultural, financial considerations have to be overcome I can’t believe the majority of Indians wouldn’t be happy to see these servicemen repatriated. So it just comes down to political dealings, looks like we’re headed in the right direction albeit too slowly.

        Liked by 1 person

  22. Pierre Lagacé

    Thanks GP.

    Liked by 3 people

  23. Pierre Lagacé

    Reblogged this on My Forgotten Hobby and commented:
    The story of B-24D Hot as Hell and its crew.

    Liked by 3 people

  24. Mixed emotions here. I’m glad these remains have been found. I always wonder about moving remains to a final resting place, but I think it completes the journey home. Lastly, I’m always amazed how politics still gets in the way of a simple humanitarian gesture. What’s wrong with people?

    Liked by 3 people

    • I have no explanation as to why the Indian gov’t would hinder the progress – they obviously didn’t trust somebody, I suppose.
      As far as moving the remains, there are 2 trains of thought…
      1- our Navy believes they should rest together in the vessel that became their tomb.
      2- the army and air force believe they should come home to their families.
      There is plainly no good or bad opinion here, so I thank you for yours, Dan.

      Liked by 3 people

  25. Thank you very much for sharing these memories.


  26. Thank you very much.


  27. Thank you for honoring these men as they come home to rest.


  28. Thank you, Pierre!!


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