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Little Cat Mountain

 

On the Other Side of the World, a
Nevada Family Finds Its Lost Son

by J. D. Deming

he black skies above southern China that last day of August, 1944, were not a healthy place for a young B-24J crew on its first mission. The bombing raid against the Imperial Japanese Navy in Takao, Formosa had been successful, though the American planes of the 14th Air Force had met heavy resistance. The return to home base in China was no better. The crew’s airfield in Liuzhou was under attack from the Japanese air force while an alternate base in Guilin was socked in by bad weather. The tired bomber circled to find somewhere, anywhere, safe to land.

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The maps of the area provided to 2nd Lt. Robert Lincoln Deming, navigator, had no elevations, and had in fact been drawn from French exploration maps of the 1860s. The spectacular mountains had been hailed by artists for centuries, but were now invisible. The B-24 made one last call and was never heard from again. Pierpont, Tomenendale, Deming, DeLucia, Ward, Kelley, Kearsey, Drager, Netherwood, Buckley—World War II had swallowed up another 10 men.

rldeming.gif (10503 bytes)The first sign of trouble for Deming’s parents and two brothers in the States was the return, with little explanation, of mail sent to Robert. Finally in October 1944, the Pentagon declared the bomber crew missing in action. Stories swirled at the time of downed plane crews miraculously climbing out of jungles months later. A mother maintained hope until she died. Robert’s older brother Joe would live into his 80s and tell his sprawling family of his lost red-haired brother who probably was at the bottom of the South China Sea.

The Herb Collectors

China still has bona fide peasants. Central casting for The Good Earth couldn’t find a better pair than the two young Chinese farmers who’d gone into the wilds of Mao’er Shan (Little Cat Mountain), southern China’s highest peak, in the autumn of 1996 to hunt for medicinal herbs. Jiang Jan and Pan Qiwen knew the remote area well, but after a time, even they had gotten lost. Finally one of them climbed a tree to get a bearing and something strange caught his eye. Up the steep drop of the mountain, something glistened and shone in a place that, at 7,000 feet up, shouldn’t have anything glistening or shining. This was jungle. This was the land of the “Five Step Snake” (five steps after a bite you die). What was it? The Chinese climbed through the dense undergrowth to a jagged cliff face and discovered something that brought these obscure men into the klieg lights of the modern world.

President William J. Clinton had been briefed on every angle his counterpart Chinese President Jiang Zemin might throw at him during their summit meeting in November 1996, in Manila, but he wasn’t prepared for the photos Zemin handed him. Pictures of an isolated mountainous crash site and American dog tags discovered by two peasant farmers.

Perhaps if this plane had been found during the Cultural Revolution, the Red Chinese would never have even let America know. But it was the mid-1990s—a time when POW/MIA affairs had seized post-Vietnam America’s imagination, and when the People’s Republic of China was looking for bargaining ground with the United States. So the diplomatic environment was ripe when long-lost bones of American warriors from the epic joint Chinese-American struggle against Imperial Japan suddenly spilled onto the negotiating table.

The Ensuing Sensation

In both China and America, the lost bomber’s discovery caused a sensation. Military forensic teams from the States rushed to the site. In China, the two farmers became local celebrities, as Chinese media extolled the event. In America, the major networks all ran stories. The Los Angeles Times tracked down an old Japanese Zero ace who said he had shot at the B-24. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran a front-page story on the Deming family. ABC News began a 3-years-the-making documentary, which finally aired on 20/20 this past summer. The Discovery Channel ran and reran a documentary called “The Lost Liberator.” City newspapers around the country did stories on the local relatives of crew members. National Public Radio and the CNN website provided updates. The Zippo company even developed a special memorial lighter for the families involved. In 1996, the widow of legendary Fighting Tiger General Claire Chennault handed out flowers to the families in a somber military ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. The Northern Nevada press, being what it is, missed the whole thing.

Drager’s Plaque

Jim Drager, the son of the B-24’s tail-gunner, Staff Sgt. William A. Drager, flew out to the site the fall of 1997 to search for remnants of a father he never knew. As this story goes to press his father remains the only member of the 10-man crew still unaccounted for. Drager took along a memorial plaque he’d designed to tell anyone who happened to be dangling down the steep and slippery granite cliff what had happened there in 1944.

plaque.gif (9256 bytes)To affix his plaque, Drager had also developed a special adhesive. It would last longer than the mountain, he swore. Proud of his glue creation, he rappelled down the mountain on tough nylon ropes to secure the plaque on the rock face. Shortly thereafter, however, the Chinese rock rejected the American glue, and the plaque fell off. The U.S. recovery team would later quietly bolt it back up.

In 1998, for the Clinton visit to China, Beijing had placed on Mao’er Shan a massive stone memorial to the downed B-24 crew bearing all their names. Despite being in nearby Guilin, Clinton never bothered to see it. I decided though—as a Deming and grand-nephew of the navigator—I would. In September of this year, six members of my family spent two weeks in China traveling to the crash site. We flew in via Hong Kong though the same skies Lt. Deming had flown, above the Dr. Seuss-style mountains. Now, though, it was the 50th year of the People’s Republic of China.

Mao’er Shan is a rugged four-hour drive from the touristy town of Guilin. The area is what the Alps would look like if covered in lush Hawaiian vegetation. On the narrow dirt road up the mountain we passed antique Chinese farm villages amidst astonishing vistas of 20 shades of green. Baby water buffaloes sloshed through terraced rice paddies beneath swaying bamboo forests. This is the China that Pearl S. Buck knew—worlds apart from the Dairy Queens, Burger Kings and KFCs of modern Beijing and Shanghai.

Foreign Devil ‘Heroes’

chicom_w_pic.gif (17605 bytes)A Chinese driver and a guide/interpreter accompanied us, as did officials from the Guangxi province foreign affairs office. On site were members of the U.S. military recovery team, on their third trip to the mountain in three years to sift the earth for more remains. On site as well were Chinese press. It was interesting, later—as a foreign devil in the land of 1.3 billion people—to see oneself on Chinese TV. People on the streets of Guilin treated us like heroes. We lived a luxurious two weeks in China—knowing, however, that our pleasures were all based on the blood and fear of 10 boys a half-century ago.

The forest canopy of the crash site area is stunningly beautiful, though there is still an air threat from Japan. It comes not from strafing Zeroes, but from the mosquito-borne Japanese encephalitis that thrives in the rural humidity. The U.S. team included a civilian forensic anthropologist as well as military linguists, munitions, medical and mountaineering experts. The Americans wear civilian clothes as Beijing isn’t keen on having Yankees in uniform seen scurrying about the mountains—especially after NATO bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. We were fortunate the bombing didn’t shut down the whole recovery operation.

We didn’t encounter the dreaded Five Step Snake that day—though a small Asian-American sergeant maintained a sweat over the creatures, much to the amusement of the presiding major.

At the monument we took the advice of our Chinese guide, “Frank,” who said we should leave a Chinese-style offering to the dead—beer, food, money, etc. I assumed the local Tsing-tao beer would be appropriate, but my Chinese spiritual adviser seemed horrified at that idea: “You crazy? Your uncle’s been drinking Chinese beer for 50 years. He wants some Budweiser!”

Up the road from the monument, at the very peak of the mountain, is an appallingly ugly series of DMV-style cement buildings. Built by the communist authorities for vacationing local officials, the buildings house sensitive telecommunications equipment as well. The U.S. team stayed there also, though only allowed in one building (a team member told me they’d probably be shot if they wandered into the other buildings). Surrounded by such natural splendor, the shabby concrete mess should be blown up and replaced by a Four Seasons hotel—but whoever said Marxists have a good eye for entrepreneurial opportunity?

If I return in 10 years—to prove to my kids that there is a stone memorial with their family name on it in an obscure mountain jungle in China—I bet the place will be different. We were the first organized civilian tour ever to make it to the site, but have been told a British tourist, out of curiosity, recently made it up there. Perhaps he’s the start of a flood to this pristine preserve. Perhaps a few years from now the innocent and kindly local farmers will have ditched their rice fields to hawk B-24 postcards, Flying Tiger key-chains and warm Cokes to the tourist buses flashing by.

The Museum

About four hour’s drive down and out of the mountains is the town of Xing’an where the provincial government has devoted an entire museum floor to this B-24. Scattered across the exhibit are the twisted metal wings and oxygen tanks and rusty machine guns and .45s found on the mountain. Maps of the bomber’s run and pictures of the crew and recovery team and politicians involved surround the walls. The only surviving picture of the 10-man crew was taken in front of a borrowed plane emblazoned the “Tough Titti.” Due to a highly secret new radar system, the crew’s own bomber never had a visible name or number. (In December 1996, when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran the B-24 discovery story, nervous editors wouldn’t run the photo showing the “Tough Titti” nickname. Apparently while thou may give thy life for thy country, thou shalt never offend the gods of 1990s political correctness.)

So that’s how it was that the Demings of Reno and Seattle became pawns in Sino-American relations. Last spring, a femur bone of Uncle Bob was found and rushed to the U.S. Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. Then it was sent for identification to an X-file-ish lab in Rockville, Maryland, where a blood sample of my deceased grandfather has been kept for DNA matching. The Pentagon, mulling over the idea of putting a national military cemetery on the West Coast, has asked if Robert Deming could be its first resident. Drager is lobbying for the crew to get belated Purple Hearts. Meanwhile, amidst the digging and sifting at the site, Beijing and Washington try to avoid war over Taiwan, Kosovo, nuclear espionage and MSG.

The trip was really for my late grandfather, Poppa Joe, who had told us the stories of the war. It was fitting that at age 85 he would learn that his long-lost brother had finally been found on a lonely mountain in China. In the WWII Chinese theater another 100 American military aircraft remain unaccounted for—not to mention those planes still missing from later wars in Korea and Vietnam.

Why did Fate select the Deming plane, a half-century after its crash, to be accidentally discovered by lost Chinese mushroom hunters just months before my old sea-salt grandfather would die?

The answer to that remains hidden in the mists surrounding Mao’er Shan.  NJ

J. D. Deming, a third-generation Nevadan, wrote “Nevada’s Seat in the House of Lords” in April’s Nevada Journal.


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