In the final years of the China-Burma-India Theater of operations during World War II, three American military planes crashed in Bhutan. 12 crew members and 42 passengers lost their lives. Operated by the U.S Army Air Force, two were Douglas C-47 Skytrain (DC-3) and one was a Douglas C-54G Skymaster. 

Founded in Geneva in 1990, the Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives (B3A) is responsible for managing information related to aviation accidentology. The B3A records show that the DC-3s crashed in Sakteng. Located in northeast Bhutan bordering the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, the crash site now falls in the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary.

According to B3A, the first USAAF plane crash took place on 25 May 1944. Bearing registration number 43-15398, the DC3 had taken off from Lalmonirhat air force base but never reached the Chabua air force base in Assam. 

The crash resulted in the loss of all three crew members on board. The B3A attributes the aircraft’s failure to reach its destination as, ‘deviating from the correct flight path.’ Initially, the search and rescue efforts yielded no results, but later the archive report otherwise.

Interestingly, in 2010, the founder and president of MIA Recoveries Inc., Clayton Kuhles discovered some parts of the DC-3 wreckage in a small stream in Sakteng at an elevation of 13,197 feet. On his web page, he mentions that after two-days trek, on 23 November, he also came across human bones on the ground surface. The comprehensive results of his investigation are recorded in the ‘Crashed Aircraft Site Report’ available on his website, where he also shared captivating images of his search expedition.

More than a year after the first DC3 crashed, the second one met a similar fate in Sakteng.

All five crew and the two passengers on board did not survive. According to B3A, the plane with tail number 41-38746 manufactured in 1942 crashed on 5 June 1945 in the mountainous area south of Sakteng. The American Army Airforce plane had taken off from Calcutta and was en route to Jorhat in the state of Assam but never reached its destination. 

The third USAAF plane crashed in Chukha. According to B3A, the Douglas C-54G Skymaster, with tail number 45-0528 crashed on 3 November 1945 at 0200 local time. It had 44 people on board, including four crew members. None of them survived. The wreckage of was located a month after the incident. According to the archives, the flight originated from Karachi but never made it to Dibrugarh. However, another database, the aviation safety network has the route reversed i.e., departure Chabua enroute to Karachi. It also reports of the aircraft been written off.

The B3A cites that as the aircraft was flying at a night-time altitude of 8,000 feet when its right wing reportedly struck trees, leading to the crash in the densely forested terrain. Although details regarding the search and rescue efforts remains scanty, new information has emerged regarding the third air crash. However, before delving into this, let us first explore the historical context of the era.

What was going on?

In 1941, Japan had sealed off China’s ports and transportation system. This cut off China’s Nationalist government from the rest of the world. In response, a new air route was established across the lower Himalayas, famously known as “The Hump.” The Chief Pilot of the China National Aviation Corporation pioneered this air corridor from India to Kunming. It enabled the transport of essential supplies to the Nationalist Chinese and the Allied Forces. 

In the same year, a group of American pilots voluntarily resigned from the U.S. Air Force and Navy to establish the “Flying Tigers.” Teaming up with the Republic of China Air Force, the Flying Tigers combated Japanese aggression and safeguarded supply routes for military assistance to China.  Given the strategic importance of the region in containing Japanese expansion in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, the United States got engaged in the China-India-Burma Theatre.

The American shipped the supplies to the port Kolkata. It was then carted by rail to air bases in Assam before being flown to Kunming over the Hump. 

Flying the Hump was incredibly dangerous and considered one of the most perilous missions of World War II. Numerous aircraft crashes and many lives were lost. Also known as the Graveyard of the Himalayas, some report, estimate the loss of over 1,556 planes in four years. But, in her book “The Aluminium Trail,” Chick Marrs Quinn documents 696 fatal airplane crashes in the CBI Theatre. The treacherous Himalayan weather conditions and constant threat from Japanese aircraft made flying over the Hump not easy.

Indo China Plane Crash in Bhutan

Coming back to the search and rescue efforts of the third air USAAF crash in Chukha some information has recently surfaced. These details are contained in File No. 90 of 1946, titled “Indo China Plane Crash in Bhutan.” 

Among the 13 documents found, nine consist of telegrams exchanged between the British Political Officer in Gangtok, the American Graves Registration Services, and the Bhutan Agent in Kalimpong. 

At the time, the P.O was Arthur J. Hopkinson (1894-1953). The Bhutan agent was Dasho Jigme Palden Dorji (1919-1964) and Major John J. Gussak, was in charge of Assam Operations of the AGRS. Based in Jorhat, the Major was responsible for tracking American military war casualties and aircraft accidents. 

It is noteworthy that the first telegram regarding this incident was sent on 23 March 1946. This is more than four months after the air crash occurred. In a telegram message from Mr. Peter V Oscar to the Bhutan Agent, it was mentioned that the American Airforce requested permission for a ground party to enter Bhutan to retrieve the bodies, with the number of personnel yet to be determined. Efforts were made to arrange for 80 porters for this purpose.

In a telegram, sent on 25 October 1946, the P.O asks that the matter be reconsidered. His request states, “delay in granting permission to visit for obviously humanitarian purposes will not be understood by American authorities and that it would be advisable to assist Major Gussak in every way possible.” 

Five days later, on 30 October 1946, the P.O dispatches another telegram to Dasho Dorji in Kalimpong.  The three-page message has some information concerning the location of the plane crash which was said to be five miles north of Carramore tea estate in Darrang district near the Bhutan border.

The Bhutan Agent’s response is that of regret and the reason cited was the inability to obtain permission from the King of Bhutan at such short notice. Dasho Dorji also mentions that Jhullendra Pradhan was away in Bombay and that the reparation team had to wait till he returned.  

Popularly known as Commissioner Pradhan, Dasho Jhullendra Bahadur Pradhan (1894-1975) looked after the affairs of Southern Bhutan. He dealt with both the British administration and the local authorities of Assam.  

As Sibsoo Kazi had already been to the crash site, he was considered the most suitable guide.  After a month, on 26 November 1946, the Bhutan Agent is able to send the King’s approval to the P.O. The approval is for American Airforce personnel to enter Bhutan to recover the bodies of the plane crash victims but under their own arrangements. Dasho Dorji also writes a letter to the P.O explaining the reason for the delay in granting the Americans permission to enter Bhutan to carry out a humanitarian duty. 

As the in charge of Assam Operations of the AGRS, Major’s duties included overseeing the tracking of American war dead and plane crashes in the area. While in Assam, he made maps and an atlas that are now archived in the National Archives in Maryland along with his diary. 

Used by the American Major while on duty, the maps included annotations showing locations of planes downed while flying the “Burma Hump” from India to China. Included also in the collection is an atlas of road and railway of the state of Assam. But none of them contains details of the crashes in Bhutan. 

In 2004, the U.S Department of Defence reported over 500 U.S aircraft still unaccounted for from the CBI Theatre. Among the 1,200 missing personnel, approximately 416 were in India. Just prior to the conclusion of World War II, three USAAF military aircraft tragically crashed in the Bhutanese mountains in their attempt to fly over the hump, resulting in the loss of 54 lives. The wreckage of the first DC-3 was located, but the same cannot be said for the second crash. Details of the search and rescue operation of the third air crash have surfaced, yet the complete story of the three crashes remains sketchy.

Contributed by

Tshering Tashi