In December of 2012 the Danish Royal Family and a handful of Danish citizens launched a search for a relative of a sailor who disappeared more than 60 years ago during World War II. The sailor was a U.S. Marine from Texas who had been stationed in the Philippines and was lost during a rescue mission in the South China Sea in 1943.
The story of Lt. John F. Kennedy who went missing in action while in the South Pacific during WWII was featured in the bestselling book “The Lost Battalion” by Richard Winters. The book details the mission of Kennedy’s battalion, the 45th Infantry, which was assigned the task of recovering the remains of soldiers who had been wounded or killed in an attempt to censor the details of the mission.
Jimmie Doolittle was a U.S. Army Air Force veteran who served in World War II. In 1942, four years after the U.S. entered the war, he volunteered to lead a squadron of U.S. Army Air Corps pilots on a secret mission. Doolittle piloted the lead plane on the mission, which was codenamed “Circus”. The mission was to lure out and destroy a large Japanese fleet, code-named “Miyo”.
The remains of a transport pilot and his fellow crew members have still to be recovered nearly 80 years after their C-47 crashed into a mountain in China.
Jimmie Browne was my cousin, my next-door neighbor, my role model, and my hero. He was charming, attractive, and intelligent, and he gave delight to our families. His passion was flying—anything, anywhere—and he seemed to be quite skilled at it. All of that came to an end when Jim and a crew of three in a Douglas C-47 slammed the green slopes of a mountain called Cang Shan at 13,200 feet in Dali, China, on November 17, 1942, at the age of 21.
Jim was almost adopted by loving parents at birth and was a happy youngster in suburban Winnetka, Illinois, but he was curious, restless, and prone to testing his older but patient parents’ limitations. They decided Jim should attend a military school, and he enrolled in Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, Ga., where he was a typical student except for his interest in aviation. He knew he had found his calling when he was first introduced to flying. Jim had already acquired his private pilot and multiengine licenses by the time he graduated.
It was 1940, and the world was exploding, and he felt compelled to help. Jim attempted to enlist in the United States Army Air Corps after graduating from Riverside, but the program needed at least two years of college. He then told his parents that he wanted to join the British Air Transport Auxiliary in England, where he would ferry planes to various British locations. “I want to go, but I don’t want to kill anyone!” he informed his aunt. Jim set out on his voyage with his mother’s emotional permission, first to Canada, then to England. Except for four-engine bombers, he flew Spitfires, Hurricanes, Blenheim bombers, trainers, and amphibians.
After ten months, he returned to Winnetka and quickly obtained another flying job with Pan American Airways, ferrying US planes to Africa. However, the Air Corps terminated the Pan-Africa contract in order to set up its own system before he could start with Pan Am. Pan Am, on the other hand, held 45 percent of China National Aviation Corporation at the time. CNAC was a Chinese airline that had a contract with the Air Corps to fly supplies across the Himalayan “Hump” route from India to China, and it needed pilots. In September 1942, Jim accompanied five other newly enlisted pilots on a mission to Asia.
Early in October, the six arrived at Dinjan, India, and were quickly assigned to their flying duties. Unfortunately, three of the six would die in the war. In late 1941, CNAC was the first to fly the dreaded Hump over the gorgeous but hazardous Himalayan mountains, identifying paths that the reluctant US Army Air Forces could accept. The AAF had initially deemed the routes too dangerous, and it wasn’t until President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the US to join the CNAC flights from India into China that it began to increase its supply effort.
On the rugged slopes of China’s Cang Shan mountain, Jimmie Browne’s C-47 crashed. (Photo credit: Robert L. Willett)
Jim became part of a tiny group of fliers who fought to get their overcrowded, worn-out transports over the mountains in order to keep China fighting Japan. Before reaching the Himalayas, the route began in the flatlands of Assam, India, and traversed three important rivers: the Yangtze, Salween, and Mekong. The weather was ridiculous: 100 mph winds at altitude, with updrafts and downdrafts that could render the lumbering C-47s uncontrollable at any time. Ground communication was limited, radios were crude, and bailing out into the jungle or mountain tops was not an appealing alternative. The pilots, on the other hand, were aware of the dangers and recognized the necessity of their daily missions.
On October 7, 1942, Jim began flying the route. Harriet and Herbert Spencer Browne, who were living a good life in their beautiful house in Winnetka, received the telegram that crushed their hearts forty-eight days later, on November 17.
Jim’s C-47, CNAC no. 60, was overdue in Dinjan and feared missing, according to Pan Am vice president Harold Bixby. The U.S. State Department verified his death seven months later, on June 16, 1943, and the Browne home plunged into a fog of mourning.
There were no search and rescue units to look for downed pilots back then. Airmen from the CNAC and the AAF were instructed to search for wreckage as they flew their routes, but snow and high winds quickly obscured any lost planes. Jim’s C-47 joined the long list of planes and people lost on the merciless Hump route, a list that would sadly grow to unfathomable proportions in the months ahead. As the logistics war in Asia was just getting started, CNAC no. 60 was essentially the first of those crews to be lost.
Fast forward to 1991, when I decided to devote my efforts to learning more about Jim’s disappearance. I was on a mission to discover what had happened to him. I quickly discovered that the search would be made even more harder because Jim was a civilian working for a Chinese airline, but the CNAC pilots were granted veteran status by the US government in 1992. The sole information concerning his fateful flight was that CNAC no. 60 had departed Kunming after delivering a cargo of supplies from its home station in Dinjan and was scheduled to return to Dinjan. Nothing happened after that.
Little information could be found in various repositories, and it wasn’t until I came across the website cnac.org that I began to learn more about the airline. Tom Moore, the webmaster, had spent years digging up information on CNAC personnel. Even yet, little was known about Jim’s brief stint there.
During their 2011 journey to find Browne’s crash site, members of the MIA Recoveries search group, including Clayton Kuhles (left), camp out on Cang Shan. (Photo credit: Robert L. Willett)
Then, at the 2003 CNAC Association reunion in San Francisco, I met Clayton Kuhles of MIA Recoveries, Inc., and we started doing some in-depth study into air activity in the flight path area. Kuhles had contacts in the area and asked them if they remembered anything about the incident in late 1942. We began to receive glimmers of information and felt like we were making progress.
Finally, in 2010, my wife Donna and I organized a vacation to China’s Yunnan Province, which included several of the CNAC-related Chinese sites. We experienced a tremendous breakthrough on the trip. We discovered that Liu Xiaotong, a young Chinese novelist, had published a book about the Hump flights. Of course, it was in Chinese, but there were two names on one page in English: James S. Browne and John J. Dean. CNAC no. 60 had Dean as the pilot and Jim as the copilot. The last two radio messages of Jim’s final trip were included in the book, which was incredible. The crew reported that they were approaching the mountains in the first communication, along with details regarding their location. The weather had closed in, the winds were terrible, and they were dumping the cargo, according to the second call.
Kuhles discovered a report from a World War II pilot who had spotted a crash site on the Cang Shan mountain in the same vicinity early in the war when we returned home. That was enough to persuade us to dispatch an MIA Recoveries mission to investigate the situation. Kuhles took his expedition up the rugged slopes of Cang Shan’s Malong Peak in September 2011 after pinpointing the aircraft’s likely location. He discovered the debris after three laborious ascents and identified the Douglas Aircraft build number, 4681. CNAC no. 60 had been discovered against all odds, but there was no sign of the crew.
The Douglas Aircraft build number 4681 was used to identify Browne’s C-47 wreckage. (Photo credit: Robert L. Willett)
While we believed the US government was devoted to returning MIAs home from all wars, we discovered that just a few agencies, groups, or people were. We contacted veterans organizations and lawmakers, who produced letters competently but otherwise made little attempt to assist. We received some brief media attention, tried crowdfunding with limited success, and even approached several celebrities in vain. Despite the Chinese Embassy’s support in Washington, we received no assistance.
We had hoped that the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC, then the government agency in charge of MIAs) would launch an investigation into the crew’s fate. After all, we’d done our homework, identified the plane wreckage, and reported it to JPAC without the assistance of our government. They did not, however, appear to be interested in planning a trip to the location to recover any remains.
All attempts to reach the wreckage looked to be blocked by the Chinese. First, they claimed that local officials opposed, despite the fact that on a 2015 trip, I met with local authorities who were kind and friendly to me and my son Tom. Then they claimed that they didn’t have enough manpower to conduct a search because of the large-scale commemoration of WWII’s end. Finally, they decided it was too risky. We offered to have the search done by Americans so that no Chinese would be endangered, but they declined.
While this was frustrating, I had hoped that the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (which took over JPAC’s duty in 2015) would be able to refute these justifications, but it was clear from virtual transcripts of one meeting with the Chinese that DPAA was not pushing. “Not sure when we will be able to travel to or meet with Chinese,” a DPAA official recently informed me. As you may have heard on the news, things are tense in that country.”
After failing to obtain assistance in inspecting the accident site for crew remains, I shifted my attention to other ways to honor Jim’s sacrifice. I applied for an Air Medal and a Distinguished Flying Cross, but my congressional representatives insisted on an eyewitness to the event. “He just doesn’t qualify,” I was told when I applied for a gravestone at Arlington. Jim was a civilian at the time of his death, but after the war, the government granted Pan Am pilots who served in combat regions veteran status and referred to them as “active duty designees.” “I mourn the unfortunate circumstances surrounding your cousin’s death,” Karen Durham-Aguilera, executive director of Arlington National Cemetery, spoke with compassion but firmness. Current burial regulation, however, bans active duty designees from being buried in the ground and hence from being eligible for a government memorial marker.”
Finally, our family purchased a stone to be placed in Memorial Park Cemetery in Skokie, Illinois, among his parents. It’s Jim’s lone memorial in the United States.
Browne is commemorated with a bust at Chengdu’s Square of Chivalrous Friends. (Photo credit: Robert L. Willett)
Surprisingly, the Chinese remember and commemorate the CNAC pilots and crewmen who risked and offered their life for the country. A bust of Jim was recently unveiled in the Jianchuan Museum near Chengdu’s Square of Chivalrous Friends of China, with his joyful visage looking out at Lt. Gen. Claire Chennault and other heroes of the fight with Japan. In addition, he is listed twice on Nanjing’s outstanding Monument to Aviation Martyrs in the War Against Japanese Aggression, and he has been added to a CNAC monument in Beijing’s National Aviation Museum’s list of those lost. As a result, China remembers Jim and pays him respect.
Despite MIA flags, MIA days, MIA testimonies, and the phrase “You Are Not Forgotten” in the United States, Jim and the remaining 83,000 MIAs from all conflicts are all but forgotten by the nation they served. With these MIAs still missing, the government agency in charge of their recovery and identification, the Defense Personnel Accounting Agency (DPAA), lists only 200 MIAs per year on average over the last three years, many of whom were sailors from the USS Oklahoma killed during the Pearl Harbor attack. Lack of finance, lack of will, lack of effectiveness, and, in our case, excessive bureaucracy appear to have stymied efforts to collect MIA remains in remote locations.
We may not be able to return them to their homes, but we can still share their tales.
Robert L. Willett, a retired banker and WWII and Korean War veteran, writes from Rockledge, Fla. An Airline at War: Pan Am’s China National Aviation Corporation and Its Men and The Hunt for Jimmie Brown: An MIA Pilot in World War II China are two of his books that are highly recommended.
This article was first published in the July 2023 issue of Aviation History. Make sure you don’t miss an issue by subscribing today!
In April of 2012, the Australian and United States governments launched an independent search for the Battle of the River Plate’s missing crew. The effort is estimated to cost US$5.8 million. The search has been an extended effort, however, as a number of shipping records were lost. On November 14, 2013, the ship’s log was thrown overboard and the search was called off.. Read more about pow/mia database and let us know what you think.
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