When World War II broke out, Kendall County men and women enlisted and were drafted to fight in faraway places. An unfortunate number of them never returned to their families when the war ended.
In my hometown of Oswego, the bodies of three servicemen who were killed in action were never recovered. All served in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Frank Clauser was a flight engineer-gunner on a B-26 bomber shot down over the Mediterranean on Aug. 22, 1943, Paul Ellsworth Zwoyer was the co-pilot of a B-29 bomber shot down over Tokyo on April 15, 1945, and Donald Johnson was the crew chief aboard a C-87 cargo plane that crashed while flying “over the hump” from China to India in August 1943.
The military knew what happened to Zwoyer and Clauser, because missing aircraft reports existed for both. But Donald Johnson’s C-87 took off from Yangkai, China, for a routine flight back to Jorhat, India, and disappeared. For the next 65 years no one knew what happened to the aircraft or its crew.
Donald Johnson was born in 1923. During his boyhood he lived with his grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. John VanAult, in Oswego, where he attended Oswego schools before moving to Aurora, where he finished his junior year of high school.
A lanky 6 feet tall and weighing 142 pounds, Johnson enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps on Sept. 2, 1941, in Chicago, just three months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, forcing the United States to enter World War II. He listed himself as single, without any dependents.
After the war began, Johnson was assigned as a crew chief aboard a C-87 Consolidated Liberator Express, a transport modification of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber in the 77th Transport Squadron, 22nd Transportation Group.
The 22nd Transportation Group was tasked to fly cargo “over the hump” across the Himalaya Mountains from western India to eastern China in support of Chinese forces fighting Japanese invaders.
While the U.S. knew what needed to be done, the tools to do it simply didn’t exist in the early years of the war, and so modifications and stopgaps had to temporarily suffice until the nation’s industry could be ramped up to supply the weapons, ships and aircraft the military needed.
The C-87 was one of these stopgaps, an ill-fated aircraft designed to be produced quickly to allow the U.S. Army Air Forces to fly cargo at high altitudes. On the bomber assembly lines, C-87s were created by modifying the standard B-24 by eliminating the bomber’s defensive machine gun armament, replacing the nose bombardier/gunner position with a large hinged nose door, adding a cargo door to the side, and reinforcing the floor to handle up to 12,000 lbs. of cargo. The resulting changes in the aircraft’s balance made it difficult to fly. Other problems included a clumsy flight control layout, frequent engine problems, hydraulic leaks, and frequent electrical power losses in the cockpit during takeoffs and landings. In fact, the C-87 was withdrawn from service as soon as sufficient C-54 and C-46 transport aircraft were available.
But in the meantime, the C-87 had to carry loads across the towering spine of the Himalayas into China. Then the usually empty aircraft flew back to India for a new load. On Aug. 9, 1943, Johnson’s C-87 was reported missing on a flight returning west to Jorhat, India. Efforts to determine what had happened to the aircraft were unsuccessful. The mountainous landscape over which the planes flew was virtually impossible to search, and there was, after all, a war on.
On Aug. 25, 1943, the Kendall County Record reported that Johnson was missing: “Pfc. Donald J. Johnson, an Air Corps mechanic, is reported missing in action while on a flight from India to China [sic]. Donald is an Oswego boy, having been brought up by his grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. John VanAult, and attending the Oswego school and East Aurora high school.”
Although the official announcement sent to the Record got the direction of flight wrong, that Johnson and his comrades in the C-87 crew were missing was a fact. As of December 1943, official military records reported no trace had been found of the plane or its crew, including its pilot, Capt. Tom Perry, co-pilot, 1st Lt. John T. Tennison, navigator, 2nd Lt. John W. Funk, radio operator, Staff Sgt. Alvin J. Lenox, and Johnson, the plane’s crew chief. After the war, and as a service member declared missing in action, his name was inscribed on the “Tablets of the Missing” at the Manila American Cemetery, Manila, Philippines.
For the next 65 years, the aircraft’s fate remained a mystery. But then Clayton Kuhles, who has made it his mission to try to track down what happened to aircraft that disappeared during World War II, discovered the site where Johnson’s plane crashed. While researching other crashes, he came across rumors of a large plane that crashed in 1943 near Donli, Arunachal Pradesh, India. Kuhles interviewed a number of local residents before finding an elderly man who not only recalled the crash, but who visited the site about five days after the plane went down. The man described the site to Kuhles, and added that he had buried the bodies of the crewmen he’d found at the site. After a four-day hike up into the forested mountains southeast of Donli, Kuhles found the crash site on Oct. 3, 2009, at an altitude of 8,000 feet. The identity of the aircraft was confirmed by serial numbers on aircraft parts scattered across the side of the mountain.
This week, the Little White School Museum in Oswego is honoring those who served their country in the nation’s wars, from the Civil War through the modern wars of the 20th century. The photos of hundreds of men and women who have served, along with military memorabilia and dozens of uniforms, will be on exhibit from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. until Sunday, Nov. 12. Admission’s free. Stop in to help commemorate the service of Donald Johnson, Paul Zwoyer, Frank Clauser, and so many more.
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