Captain, U.S. Army Air Force
Service # 0-793471
India-China Wing, Air Transport Command
Entered the Service from: New Jersey
Died: 27 March 1944
Missing in Action or Buried at Sea
Tablets of the Missing at Manila American
Awards: Air Medal
Family and nation can finally
give pilot a farewell salute
Friday, May 5, 2006
BY RUDY LARINI
Courtesy of the Newark, New Jersey, Star-Ledger
It was 1935. She was two years behind him at
Westfield High School -- she a sophomore, he a senior -- and she barely
"I just sort of remember passing him in the
halls," she said. "The yearbook said something about him being very quiet
and he should find some quiet girl."
Decades later, long after his disappearance,
she would marry his brother. And now Lois Wight will be traveling with
other relatives to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia to bury his
First Lieutenant Douglas R. Wight was flying
a C-46 transport on a supply mission during World War II when it crashed
over a treacherous stretch of the Himalayas, known as "the hump," in Tibet.
It wasn't until six years ago that the wreckage
was found by herdsmen and reported to the Chinese government. It then took
two years to plan and carry out the rugged 16,000-foot climb into the Hima
layan wilderness, where a joint U.S.-Chinese expedition recovered the remains
and personal belong ings of the four-man crew. The plane was identified
through tail markings, but it took several more years to identify the remains
of Wight, co-pilot Herbert Evans, crew chief John Hanlon and radio operator
The families of all four have been invited
to a service at Arlington National Cemetery Tuesday to honor the lost airmen
and to inter their remains and the be longings recovered with them.
"I have no idea what's going to be buried.
I heard there were belt buckles found," said Lois Wight, who still lives
Burying heroes long after their deaths is nothing
unusual at Arlington. Since the 1970s, the Pentagon has made a focused
effort to account for those missing in military conflicts.
Rarely a month goes by without a funeral for
a casualty from Wight's era, said Larry Greer, spokesman for the Pentagon's
POW/MIA Office, and Army scientists recently identified the re mains of
a World War I soldier discovered in Europe, he said.
The rites are highly ceremo nial and emotional
but rarely melancholy, Greer observed.
"It's a time where a family can finally close
a chapter," he said.
The military's focus on retrieving the bodies
of missing soldiers is a relatively new development, according to historians.
It was only after the Battle of Gettys burg during the Civil War that the
government made a concerted effort to bury soldiers in individual graves,
each marked by a headstone, said Angus Gillespie of Rutgers University,
a professor of American studies.
"The war had become unpopular, and they had
put in a draft. The government felt, if it was going to ask people to volunteer,
they had to recognize the sacrifice," he said.
Holding a funeral 60 or more years after a
death still makes sense, Gillespie said.
"There are so many out there somewhere, it's
kind of nice when we find one," he said. "It doesn't matter that members
of their immediate family may be dead. That's not the point. The point
is, we are sending a message to the active-duty soldier: You will not be
Lois Wight never encountered Douglas Wight
again after he graduated from high school. He attended Rutgers University
and earned a bachelor's degree from Columbia in 1939 before serving with
the Army Air Corps.
She married his older brother, Thomas Herbert
Wight, in 1982, after the death of her first husband.
Thomas Wight died four years ago, knowing his
brother's aircraft had been discovered.
"He was very pleased that they at least found
the wreck age," she said. "It was a puzzle not knowing what was going on.
They (her in-laws) wondered if he ever would be found, and he was -- after
all those years of almost giving up on it."
Another brother of the lost pilot is 83 and
living in Bemus Point in upstate New York. Philip Wight was a 21-year-old
radioman/gunner on a B-17 based in Eugland when his brother was reported
missing March 27, 1944. Douglas Wight, 27, and his crew had flown from
a base in northeastern India and were en route to Kunming, China, to supply
Chinese troops fighting for the Allies.
What we heard was there was no evidence as
to where he went down and very little information about how it happened.
A lot of rumors, but nothing concrete," Philip Wight said.
The aircraft was one of more than 500 the U.S.
military lost flying the Himalayan route, which became known as "The Alumi
num Trail" for the wreckage left behind.
Philip Wight described flying "the hump" as
"horrible -- not only mountainous, but poor visibility, fog, ice, everything.
It's the worst flying conditions in the world." The last radio transmis
sion from his brother's aircraft was a request for directional bearings.
Philip Wight said he has mixed emotions as
the ceremony at Arlington closes this chapter in family history. It's a
combination of "relief, to know what he really went through and what happened,"
and "sadness -- he died a young man in the service of his country."
But the family is long past the loss, he said,
and looking forward to the ceremony.
"I know it's not going to be a sad time," Philip
Wight said. "Most of the grieving has been done 62 years ago. I think most
people feel as I do, that we've finally put this to rest.
"We in the family are honored that we had such
a brave brother. He gave his life for his country."