The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 2 November 2017

Lost in Tibet

The Untold Story of Five American Airmen,
a Doomed Plane, and the Will to Survive

by Richard Starks and Miriam Murcutt

During World War 2, the United States and Britain were interested in keeping Japan busy fighting China. A million Japanese troops were engaged in a war with the Nationalist Chinese, and had been, on and off, for many years at this point. It served the Allies' interests, however, to keep the Chinese supplied. Otherwise, China would have fallen and a strengthened Japan would have been harder to beat. The infamous Burma road was constructed to carry supplies and munitions into southwest China. When Burma fell to the Japanese, a massive airlift was undertaken. For years, British and American cargo craft flew "The Hump" over the southeastern Himalayas from eastern India to Kunming, China. Thousands of flights traveled this route, and hundreds of aircraft were lost in the mountains. It is a dramatic, if now somewhat obscure, engagement during that global war. In the middle of all of this, there were other politics at work. The Communist Chinese had momentarily joined with the Nationalist army to defeat Japan. But that was an uneasy alliance. The erstwhile nation of Tibet, as well, tried to stay out of the fray, but maintain its autonomy. The Tibetans soon learned that they, too, would have to join the global community if their interests were to be protected. But Tibet became an acceptable loss within the long chess game of Anglo-Chinese and American-Chinese politics.

Late in 1943, a C-87 aircraft (the cargo version of the B-24 bomber) took off from Kunming on its return journey to India. Over the Himalayas, the plane, like many others before it, encountered an icy storm that blew the plane far off course. In an adventure worthy of the movies, the five crewmembers tried to make their way through the storm to India, but became increasingly lost. As the plane ran out of fuel, and in darkness, the airmen bailed out (none of them having ever parachuted before). Falling less far than they expected, all five slammed into a mountain in what turned out to be Tibet, not far from the Tsangpo river. They weren't supposed to be over Tibetan territory at all. What ensued was several weeks of travel across the Tibetan plateau, during which they met with Tibetan, Chinese and British officials and became a political inconvenience for all of them.

Two of the men were seriously injured, and one suffered from serious frostbite. Yet they walked to the nearest village, where they were greeted with suspicion and curiosity. Later, they were escorted to Lhasa, a legendary city seen by just a handful of Americans before them. They weren't entirely aware of the political mess they'd parachuted into. Both the Tibetans and the Chinese wanted to assert their authority in this international incident. Tibet wanted to appear independent. China wanted to make it clear that they considered Tibet to be Chinese territory. The British had long endorsed a political fiction that toed a line between these two positions, one that soon proved impractical and unrealistic. But there was a war on. Tibet saw these airmen as a useful tool to get the attention of America and the rest of the world. But the world was already distracted with the project of blowing itself up. It became clear that the best course for all concerned was to just get rid of these five men. And so, again worthy of a movie, the airment walked south, out of Tibet, at the start of winter, crossing snowy mountain passes and camping in strange and exotic conditions.

In the literature of modern Tibetan history, this story is often seen as a footnote, part of the very short catalog of Western travelers who had ever had the chance to visit Tibet before the ultimate Chinese invasion in 1950. At the time, their story was the stuff of magazine articles and radio programs, but they were soon forgotten. Here, using some newly-available information, the authors re-tell the story of these five airmen, setting them within their context both geographical and political. It is quite an adventure, both into and out of Tibet. The men themselves hardly knew their political significance, and once escaped from Tibet, they resumed the normal lives of World War 2 veterans. Other figures, such as the British and Chinese consuls in Lhasa, were bigger players. Their drama ultimately sacrificed Tibet's claims of sovereignty, claims that remain unresolved to this day, in a world whose attentions rarely reach the plateaus beyond the Himalayas.

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