After the bodies of ten American airmen in their B-24 Liberator were found in the Mao'er Mountains in a remote area of central China, the local villagers did the most extraordinary thing: They banded together to dig an entirely new road to make sure those airmen could be retrieved and returned to their families.
In 1997, the remains of these World War II-era airmen were repatriated to the United States from China. The bodies were entombed in the B-24 where they died, at the very top of China's tallest mountain, impassable by most. But Chinese farmers on the hunt for herbs came across the rusted sarcophagus in October 1996.
From that day on, it was the mission of the locals to get these ten airmen home.
The summit of Mao'er Mountain is not the easiest place to get to.
Some 52 years before they were found, the ten airmen were flying their second mission in complete darkness. They had just come from a successful raid against Japanese ships of the coast of Taiwan in August, 1944. They could not have predicted they were about to run into the 6,000-foot-tall mountain.
The crash spread debris across the mountain's dangerous steep and slippery slopes, where it all stayed exactly as it landed for more than half a century before the two farmers came across the wreckage. When discovered, Chinese officials sent video and photo of the site to then-President Bill Clinton. In a show of gratitude for the United States' wartime efforts, 500 locals of Xingan County banded together for two months to cut a path and dig a road to the crash site so the bodies could be extracted.
American C-47 carrying supplies for Chinese troops. Flying the mountains in China was dangerous for even the more experienced pilots.
By January, 1997, a team of forensics experts from the U.S. POW/MIA Office were able to traverse the mountain path the the site. It was still a treacherous climb, but the road made it all possible. Without the locals' effort, getting the remains of the airmen back to the U.S. would have been nearly impossible.
"Fifty years ago these brave young men scattered their blood over this beautiful region," Liang Ziwei, director of foreign affairs in Xingan told a group of assembled reporters.
Identified by their dog tags, they were indeed young – the youngest was just 19 and the oldest was only 27. Their families were notified and the remains sent to Hawaii for official identification.
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