NEW DELHI: The likely remains of US airmen who went missing over the Himalayas more than 70 years ago during a daring World War II mission were finally headed home on Wednesday after a major search in an Indian jungle.
The men were among the Allied pilots who flew the extraordinarily perilous route over the world's highest mountains to deliver military supplies from hundreds of Indian airfields to Chinese forces from 1942.
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US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Wednesday oversaw a ceremony at an air force base in New Delhi as the remains were shipped to the United States, after they were recovered from the mountainous jungles of Arunachal Pradesh in India's northeast.
The remains, which are being flown to Hawaii for DNA testing, are the first to be recovered under an agreement with the Indian authorities.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), the US agency that deals with soldiers missing in action, sent a team to Arunachal Pradesh last September to try to locate the wreckage of a B-24 Liberator plane downed in 1944 with eight men on board.
"They had to hike in for three days to get to the site," said US Marine Corps captain Greg Lynch, a veteran of such searches.
Once there the team, which also included Indian representatives, spent eight hours a day conducting detailed searches on a vertiginous slope, often roped together.
They painstakingly sifted through the soil around the wreckage of the plane to try to locate the airmen's remains, but the risk of landslides stopped them conducting detailed searches of the entire site.
They found what they believe to be the remains of one or two of the eight missing airmen, which will be identified using DNA testing.
Gary Stark, who heads the India desk at the DPAA, said the remains found at the site could fit into a ziplock sandwich bag.
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But to the families, he said, that does not matter.
"To have something that they can put in a casket and know that this was Grandpa Joe and they can bring to a cemetery of their choice and have buried with military honours is closure for them," said Stark.
Allied airmen ferried about 650,000 tonnes of fuel, munitions and equipment over the eastern Himalayas -- which they nicknamed "The Hump" -- from 1942, when the Japanese cut off the main land route through Burma (now Myanmar).
According to the China-Burma-India Hump Pilots Association, 590 planes went down with the loss of more than 1,650 lives.
Many crashed in the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh bordering China, Bhutan and Myanmar.
Stark said around 90 percent of the 350 US servicemen still missing in India had disappeared while flying over the Hump.
A second set of remains being flown out on Wednesday were turned over to the US authorities by an individual who found them in Arunachal Pradesh.
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They are thought to be from a plane that crashed in 1945 while returning from China with a four-man air force crew on board.
A bugler played Taps -- the call traditionally played at US military funerals -- at a ceremony on Wednesday morning as the remains from both planes were placed in metal caskets draped with the US flag before being flown out.
Carter told reporters after the ceremony he hoped to be able to conduct more such searches in India.
"They have given us reason to believe that it will be possible to do this," he said. "It means a lot to us."