Back from the Hump: Arlington burial brings closure for five families

by S.H. Kelly Pentagram staff writer, January 1998

PFC Bartholomew R. Giacalone

Captain Fulton P. Lanier

AR United States Army
DATE OF BIRTH: 02/25/1914
DATE OF DEATH: 01/23/1944

Corporal Joseph Petrella

First Lieutenant Frank M. Ramos

The pilot easing the C-87 cargo plane off the runway in Kunming, China, January 31, 1944, had already expressed reservations about the trip they made “over the Hump” between Kunming and Jorhat, India.

Billy Lanier said his cousin, Army Air Force 1st Lt. Fulton Lanier, had written in his letters home that they were flying “unarmed, overloaded, old aircraft that they were lucky to get off the ground.”

On this day they managed to get the plane — a cargo version of the B-24 Liberator bomber — off the ground after delivering cargo to Kunming, but that was the last anyone would see of the plane or crew for almost 50 years.

Comingled remains of Lanier, co-pilot 2nd Lt. Frank M. Ramos, crew-chief Pfc. Eugene E. Beebe, radio-operator Cpl. Joseph Petrella and assistant radio-operator Pfc. Bartholomew Giacalone were finally laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery Jan. 23, 1998, in a single grave.

Three families had separate funerals for distinguishable remains of their recovered relatives, according to Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Jones of the Mortuary Affairs office at Personnel Command. Ramos’ funeral was held the day before at Arlington National Cemetery. Giacalone had a Dec. 20 funeral in Woodbridge, N.J., and Petrella’s was Jan. 10 in Marmora, N.J. Lanier’s relatives chose not to have a separate burial, Jones said, and there were insufficient remains of Beebe for a separate burial.

The supply mission of which the C-87 was a part was critical to the Nationalist Chinese defense against Japan. The Japanese Navy controlled the Asian coastal waters, and the Japanese army had overrun Burma, severing all land routes between China and India.

Since the volunteer pilots of the Flying Tigers (American Volunteer Group) started supporting Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Army in 1941 with ground support and intercepting Japanese bombers, most of the supplies — weapons, spare parts, food, ammunition, fuel — had to be flown in over the Himalayas, the “Hump,” whose peaks tower to nearly 30,000 feet.

On the day of the fateful flight, it was overcast at 30,000 feet, with icing conditions over 10,000 feet. Airplanes needed to fly around 18,000 to 22,000 feet to clear the mountains, amateur historian and CBI veteran Joseph Shupe said. “A thousand lives were lost,” Shupe said. “There was a trail of aluminum wreckage all the way from Assam to Kunming.”

Despite the dangers, Lanier enjoyed what he was doing. He was an experienced pilot, a flight instructor in Texas, and had “a passion for flying,” his cousin said.

Thumbing through one of his cousin’s browned, dog-eared flight logs, Lanier said they reflect some 980 hours of flight time. “About 180 of it was over the Hump.”

Ramos’ former wife, Doris, said that he, too, loved flying. She explained that he was mobilized with his National Guard unit in 1942, and she was married to the Texan in December.

He was sent overseas to Jorhat, India, in May of the following year, and the 19-year-old wife gave birth to their son, Michael, Jan. 7, 1944 — days before her husband’s plane came up missing. After remarriage, she said, she told Michael about his father, but Michael said much of it he didn’t comprehend as a child.

His mother said that as he grew up, he didn’t ask much about his birth father out of deference to his “second father,” whose name — Stepanovich — he bears. They agreed that his second father, who died in 1983, “really raised both of us.”

She said Michael’s second father “would be as happy and excited as we are” that the remains were found.

Three of Joseph Petrella’s four brothers — Eugene, Carl and James — were among the family members who attended last week’s ceremonies. They told of a “happy-go-lucky” office worker who was drafted into the Army at 21 years old after working in a Civilian Conservation Corps office.

Eugene and James are also World War II veterans who served in the European theater. Younger-brother Carl was still in school, and a fourth brother served in the Pacific.

James told of fighting his way from North Africa, to Sicily, to Italy — then being shipped to England to prepare for the Normandy Invasion.

“We were preparing for Normandy (June 6, 1944) when we found out our brother was missing,” James said. He and Eugene explained that they got to spend some time together in England and read in an issue of their hometown newspaper that their brother’s plane had disappeared. It was about five months after the plane crashed.

According to records, there was no search conducted for the missing plane. Planes of the Indo-China Wing of the Air Transport Command were often lost in the treacherous flight “over the Hump” — many on take-offs or landings. When planes crashed in the mountains and — as in this case — there was no radio notification of location, a search was not in the cards.

The plane, Number 41-23862, had crashed into a glacier in Lhasa, Tibet, and was subsequently engulfed by the ice. In 1946, the five persons manifested on the flight were listed as “presumed dead, bodies not recovered.”

Forty-nine years and 11 months later, the glacier melted and shifted enough to expose the twisted metal of the aircraft. A search team from Hawaii hiked four days to reach the wreckage and found the first three sets of remains. The other two came with another glacial shift.

Ramos’ son, who had been notified previously that wrecks discovered in the region might have been his dad’s plane, said he was skeptical when notified of this find. With official notification, he said, he and his mother were overjoyed. “It never really ends,” she added.

Beebe’s sister, Donna Beebe Plont, said, “Our father believed for years that someday he would just walk out of the jungle.” She said that with the burials came some closure.

Billy Lanier said, “It [burial at Arlington National Cemetery] is a most-wonderful honor for a hero — and they are heroes. The Army did allow us something to bury.”

Giacalone was from Woodbridge, N.J. Among those attending the service were his sister, Gertrude Costello, and Dr. and Mrs. Tom Troyano.

Beebe was from Minnesota. His former wife, Johanne J. Platzer, and niece, Cynthia Read, were among relatives attending the services.

Lanier was from North Carolina. His family group included five cousins, Steve, David,, Bobby, Billy and Andrew Lanier, Ginny Powers and Nancy Player.

Petrella was from Belleplain, N.J. His brothers were accompanied at the ceremonies by a host of relatives.

In all, 600 airplanes went down during the years the airlift operated around the clock, the men and machines working under long hours and arduous conditions, Shupe said. But the airmen got through some 650,000 tons of supplies to forces that kept some 2 million Japanese troops occupied on the mainland of China, enemy that would otherwise have been available to defend in the Pacific

March 31, 2002
Colonel finds WWII airman who disappeared into thin air

 U.S. Army Col. William Jordan hiked across the rugged Himalayas, braving flooded rivers, rocky avalanches and treacherous terrain to recover a few bone fragments belonging to a Cape May County airman whose plane crashed during World War II.

The celebrated military creed “Leave no one behind” was more than a proud phrase to Jordan. It was his personal responsibility for 10 years at the Army’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. He was in charge of dozens of missions around the globe to recover the remains of soldiers killed in war.

Jordan’s team brought home the remains of Belleplain native Joseph Petrella,  one of five airmen whose cargo plane crashed in the Himalaya Mountains during  World War II.

Jordan’s efforts helped answer many questions about the fate of Petrella, an  affable 23-year-old radio operator from Dennis Township who used to write long letters addressed to “My Darling Betty.”

Pettrella and his crewmates finally were laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia in 1998, more than 50 years after his mother got the Western Union telegram saying he was missing in flight.

Younger brother Carl Petrella said he always will be thankful for Jordan’s efforts.  “You better believe it,” he said. “The whole thing is incredible. Sure, I’m grateful.”

In March, Petrella thanked the colonel in person. Jordan came to Cape May County to conduct research for a book he is writing about his work at the laboratory. The extraordinary mission to the Himalayas figures prominently in  the story.

 While Jordan’s recovery team has traveled to Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and North Korea, the 1994 mission was one of the most grueling.

 “We normally work in remote places,” he said. “But this was particularly dangerous in the fact that we had very little Medevac capabilities if anyone had an injury.”

The team flew into Beijing, China. From there they drove through Lhasa to Yigon at the foot of the Himalayas: altitude 16,000 feet.

There they hired 20 porters and loaded horses and other pack animals with supplies. The Sherpa who found the downed plane while hunting for blue sheep agreed to lead them to the crash site.

(Sherpas are a Tibetan people living on the high southern slopes of the Himalayas in eastern Nepal who provide support for foreign trekkers and mountain climbers.)

The expedition members split into three parties and took different routes to the downed plane to increase their chances of reaching it.

The six-day hike was arduous. Jordan’s team had to cross icy and swollen rivers and look out for the frequent avalanches and rock slides that make footing treacherous.

During the entire two-week journey, they saw just one other human being, a shepherd.

A platoon of Chinese soldiers accompanied them. Jordan was experienced in dealing with foreign governments. He headed the Prisoner of War task force under former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney during the Gulf War.

His work at the laboratory usually took him to Vietnam War-era battlefields. Only rarely did he find himself researching 50-year-old flight manifests from planes lost in World War II. He had inspected a downed B-17 crew in Brazil and  a crash in Norway.

“Finding World War II crashes were more happenstance,” Jordan said.

So it was with Petrella’s C-87.

Petrella and four other men took off from China to India on Jan 31, 1944. They  were making a cargo run over the Himalayan Mountains, which pilots called the Hump.

But they never would arrive at their destination. The military presumed their plane had crashed but never knew for sure until Jordan reached a rocky,  treeless valley and saw the debris.

 “This was a very unusual crash,” he said.

The plane’s pieces probably were probably buried by tons of snow and ice. Only recently did the glacier surrender them to the elements, he said.

The team found part of a wing and one of the engines – and bones.

 “I thought, ‘It could have been me,'” Jordan said. “The circumstances of their loss were totally unknown. They took off and were never heard from again.”

 Jordan photographed and mapped the site. Then he collected whatever artifacts he could: tatters of uniform, scraps of paper and the human remains that would be used for DNA sampling.

Before he left, Jordan, a pilot himself, said he tried to imagine what it was like aboard the cargo plane that night.

The crew was caught in a winter storm with 100-mph winds and low visibility. There was no navigator aboard and the plane wound up 300 miles off course.

“You don’t have any reference to the ground. There isn’t much you can do,” he said.

The plane probably iced up, making it nearly impossible to control, he said.

 “It struck me that these were some brave guys who didn’t have much flying time,” he said. “But they did it without complaint, even enthusiastically.”

The recovery team hiked back out without incident. The laboratory in Hawaii used the remains to positively identify all five crewmen, including Petrella. They were interred in the same silver casket at Arlington.

Jordan, now retired and living in Arlington, Virginia, said his work gives families a final, if bitter, chapter to their loved ones’ lives.

 “It brings closure to people,” Jordan said. “The unknown and uncertainty of someone being lost – that’s a terrible thing.”



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