Treacherous trek takes toll

Exhausted to the point of collapse and plagued by leeches, Gary Zaetz crawled on all fours along a rocky trail in one of the least-known corners of the Himalayas.

The computer expert usually deals with nothing more dangerous than digital glitches and eyestrain. But Zaetz, 54, could scarcely have been farther from his desk at IBM or his home in Cary.

He traveled to India this month in a quest to bring home the remains of his uncle, 1st Lt. Irwin Zaetz. The flier and seven other crew members died in 1944 when their World War II bomber crashed in this remote region.

Clayton Kuhles, an Arizona adventurer who hunts down wrecks on foot in the Himalayas, found the remains of the plane in 2006. Six months later, Zaetz read about it on Kuhles' Web site.

Zaetz started a campaign that pushed the U.S. government to negotiate with the Indian government this year. The resulting agreement allows U.S. teams to seek his uncle's plane and perhaps hundreds more that crashed along the notorious supply route through the Indian Himalayas known as The Hump.

This month, Zaetz set out on a dangerous six-day trek to try to find the mountainside site, two miles up, where his uncle's bomber crashed Jan. 25, 1944, on a supply mission. Its crew had dubbed it “Hot as Hell.”

He had wanted to see the site for himself, and for the families of the other crew members, before a U.S. military team could start a recovery dig, perhaps in 2009.

On Zaetz's fourth day in India, he and his guide and porters reached Damrah, the village closest to the crash site, where about 300 residents live in thatched-roof huts.

The next morning, the group of about eight started the hike to the wreckage, 10 miles away and a mile higher.

Almost immediately, the trek turned more vertical than Zaetz had expected, with a lot of climbing and negotiating narrow ledges. His feet quickly blistered, and the leeches began their assault. They infested the vegetation along the trail and attached almost immediately upon finding skin.

On the third day, he was still so tired that often all he could think about as they climbed was his next breath, or when he could again stop for rest without embarrassing himself.

As they walked through the jungle, one of the porters said simply, “Hot as Hell,” and Zaetz looked around, quickly spotting shredded pieces of aluminum. One had numbers and letters on it: B-24J. The model of bomber his uncle had been flying.

Farther along, a whole engine rested on its side, in pretty good condition considering it had sat in the jungle more than 60 years.

“It was just an awesome feeling, being there after all that, and also emotionally,” Zaetz said.

Zaetz said he would continue pressing the government to recover the Hot as Hell crew as soon as possible. He's also planning to hunt for the families of the other aircraft that Kuhles has found.