Browne was a pilot for China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC), an airline jointly owned by the Republic of China and Pan American World Airways and flown under contract with the U.S. Army Air Corps. CNAC’s mission was to pioneer and fly the dangerous Hump routes over the Himalayas to deliver gasoline, weapons, ammunition, and war goods. These supplies were desperately needed to keep China in the war, for if China left the war, more than one million Japanese troops would be free to control the Pacific.
Browne and his crew were killed in a plane crash while en route to Dinjan Airfield in India for supplies. Rescue missions following their disappearance were unsuccessful. Nearly forty years later, Robert L. Willett picks up where the search left off, hoping to find Browne, his missing cousin. After gathering crash-site information on a trip to China, Willett sends a search team on three ascents up Cang Shan Mountain near Dali, China, and finally strikes metal—the scattered wreckage of Browne’s C-47.
From the very beginning of the discovery eight years ago, Willett’s efforts to excavate the site and bring Jimmie Browne home have encountered bureaucratic roadblocks with U.S. government agencies and the Chinese government. His search-and-recover mission continues even today.
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About the Author
Robert L. Willett is an international bank consultant and former president of banks in Michigan and Florida. He is also a military historian and the author of One Day of the Civil War: America in Conflict, April 10, 1863; Russian Sideshow: America’s Undeclared War, 1918–1920; and An Airline at War: The Story of China National Aviation Corporation and Its Men.
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James Sallee "Jimmie" Browne
We lost Jimmie on November 17, 1942, although we had no news of that fact for probably a week. The war was almost a year old at the time, but it was before the casualty lists began to appear in the Chicago Tribune and other news sources, so his death was singularly difficult for us to accept.
Jim was twenty-one, two months short of his twenty-second birthday, and I, Jim's cousin, had just turned sixteen. I remember little about that time except the monumental sadness at the news. At first it was not sadness that he was dead but that he was "missing" on a flight from Kunming, China, to Dinjan, India. That meant there was hope, but that hope lasted only until June 16, 1943, when the U.S. State Department changed his classification to "presumed dead." That was a double whammy for his mom and dad, now without any hope.
The Brownes were a reasonably typical family, with a few exceptions. Jim was an only child, born on January 27, 1921, in Hinsdale, Illinois. He was adopted by the Brownes; his mother gave him up when he was just six months old. However, there was some uncertainty about the year of his birth. His 1940 Riverside Military Academy yearbook, the Bayonet, showed his birth date as January 27, 1922, and years later a ship's manifest from the Leticia, which brought Jim home from England on April 8, 1942, also showed the year 1922; however, most of his work records listed the year as 1921.
Trying to get birth information from official records was unsuccessful. Going through the Midwest Adoption Service in Chicago and even trying the adoption court in Cook County proved fruitless as adoption records are sealed and can be reopened only by petition of relatives closer than any that survive. Fortunately the Cook County Court did consent to give me a copy of the adoption approval; it blanked out Jim's name and other particulars but gave us the dates that were important.
Sadly, Harriet Browne, Jim's adopted mother, before her death had destroyed everything about Jimmie — photos, letters, memorabilia, and keepsakes — so little remains of his world. Whatever prompted her to erase her only child is a real mystery. However, all his work records with the British Overseas Airways Corporation, Air Transport Auxiliary, and China National Aviation Corporation show him to be born in 1921, a date that Jim may have supplied to bolster his credentials. When I received the Consent to Adoption, the matter was settled, the birth date confirmed as 1921.
The family thought that Jim was adopted at birth by his new parents, Harriet Sallee Browne, forty-one at the time, and Herbert Spencer Browne, forty-three. Christened James Sallee Browne, Jim was their first, and would be their only, child. However, the adoption paper indicated that Jim was actually born in Hinsdale, Illinois, a western Chicago suburb, and adoption was not finalized until June 8, 1921. The mother's name was blanked out on the Hinsdale form, but the form stated clearly that she relinquished any "claim of any character that [she] may have in the said child and consent to the adoption of said child by Herbert S. Browne and Harriet S. Browne." Jim never got a birth certificate until January 1942, when he registered for the draft. His formal adoption papers did not quote a birth date, so his parents petitioned the court to establish January 27, 1921, as his date of birth, saying he needed the official date so he could get his birth certificate for "military purposes." That was even though he had been in England for seven months flying with the Royal Air Force Ferry Command.
The Brownes, being older than most new parents, over the years had problems coping with a son who was curious, adventuresome, and very active. There was plenty of affection, but as Jim grew, he tested the parental controls often. Even so, life was good for the Brownes at 653 Hill Road in affluent Winnetka, Illinois, as Jim began his schooling.
Harriet, always called "Hadda," was a wonderful person with a game leg that caused her to use a cane in her rather awkward walking. She was a serious lady, very much at home with household duties but uneasy in her social life on the few occasions when she ventured from the house. She doted on Jim, and he was very fond of her, but he rebelled often, especially when he wanted something that was not forthcoming. In later years he had everything he could have wanted: a new 1939 Buick convertible sedan, a motorcycle, and all the flying hours he could fit in. I think it was easier to give in to Jim than to fight him. But he remained a likeable, personable boy and young man, even though he was spoiled. He treated his parents with affection and respect, and family members who remember him said that he was really a joy to have around.
Mothers during World War II had a particularly difficult time as they prepared to send their children off to unknown dangers and the lure of battle. The magic date was a young man's eighteenth birthday, when he was required to register for the draft. After that, events moved swiftly toward induction, primarily into one of the three services: army, navy, or marines. While girls did not have to register for the draft, they too felt a pull toward war work, including the military, though combat was not a real possibility.
Herbert Browne was never called anything but Brownie. Tall, slim, with a love of his pipe, he was quiet and comfortable in any group. He loved working, and in the shed in the back of the house he spent hours building and repairing all sorts of things out of wood. A visit to his shop was a treat, getting to smell the woods and leather. He and Jim were close and spent the early years on many outings with nearby family members. Movies of the two of them show Jim looking out from a swing, leaning on his dad's leg and seeming very content. Brownie was also a man of words. He worked at Rand McNally Company as a proofreader for textbooks and other publications. Cousin Helen Cole wrote that Rand McNally held him in such high regard that on his death, they paid his full commission on a contract that had never been signed. A very quiet man, he was puzzled at the energy and the adventuresome activities of his young son, but his love overcame the uneasy relationship. Brownie died in February 1952; Hadda lasted five more years and died in 1957.
Young men could enlist before their eighteenth birthday and so select their branch of service, and I remember that Dad and I had a real challenge trying to convince Mom to sign the necessary papers to enlist shortly after I turned seventeen. Hadda, being so close to Jimmie, must have had a really difficult time when he made his move to get in the war.
Even after going overseas, many a young man fabricated his whereabouts to keep the family from concern about his safety. When I was recalled to the Korean War in 1950, my mother was still recovering from a severe stroke, so I sent all my letters with a Japanese return address. I landed in Korea in January 1951, but it wasn't until May 7 that Mom learned the truth. It was not a particularly difficult dodge, and by May life on the Korean peninsula was far less exciting than it had been in the first quarter of the year.
When Jim went to Canada and then on to England, Hadda had no such protection from her knowledge of his dangerous work. Not only was he flying new and powerful aircraft in wartime conditions, but the presence of German planes on the scene made his job even riskier. There was no hiding that fact from Hadda, and it took its toll.
I know Brownie did his best to console Hadda, but there was only so much he could do to keep her from dwelling on her only son's dangerous life. Much is made about the wartime contributions of people such as Rosie the Riveter and those who manned the nation's defenses and its production, but the agonies suffered by helpless mothers as they watched their precious sons march into the cauldrons of war is certainly worthy of praise and respect. Hadda paid an awful price for Jim's enthusiastic participation in the war.
Jimmie had other family in Winnetka. Hadda's niece Josephine (Dodie) lived in nearby Glencoe with her husband, Tom, and daughters, Sallee and Susan, and their older brother, Harry. Tom was Thomas Pope Mehlhop, my mother's brother and a World War I vet who served with the fledgling U.S. Army Air Service, flying their vintage aircraft. Tom was to report to a frontline squadron the day the armistice was signed in November 1918.
Hadda and Dodie were close to the same age, making Jim Dodie's first cousin, although they were some thirty years apart. There was some mixing with the two families, but Tom and Dodie were gregarious and outgoing, while Hadda and Brownie were more reclusive by nature. Still, there was a loving relationship with the noisier Mehlhop family that kept them in close touch.
My family mixed frequently with Tom and Dodie but not so much with Hadda and Brownie. My dad, Robert Willett, my mom, Katherine, my sister, Louise (Wease), and I lived not far from Jim, but as we were growing up he was only a blip on our horizon. The five years that separated us in age was a great hurdle in the teen years. But I heard about his exploits, and as he grew older, taller, and better looking, I began to long for his qualities, mixed in with some envy.
Occasionally Tom and Dodie would host both families during a holiday season, and my memories of Jim from those times are the most vivid. It seemed to me that he grew more than a foot each time we met, but it is recorded that he topped out at six foot one, a giant next to my max of five six.
We all attended New Trier Township High School in Winnetka. Jim was the first to start. The Brownes lived close to the school, so initially he rode his bike, but soon he had a motorcycle, to the admiration of all. How he persuaded Hadda to let him get such a machine is a wonder, particularly since he was not much of a student.
I never heard details of his antics, but when Jim was completing his freshman year at New Trier High School, the Brownes thought he needed a heavier hand and enrolled him at Howe Military Academy in Howe, Indiana. I remember him coming home in his Howe uniform, probably in 1938, showing off to his old friends and to a few of us who were neighbors. The uniform always seemed to look just right on him and exaggerate his good looks. But even Howe was not able to bring out his best as a student, so next he was sent to Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, Georgia. There he found his calling in aviation.
Hadda and Brownie watched his high school progress with great concern, hoping his Cs and Ds would turn to As and Bs. Aviation was his only passion, and it showed in his last year at Riverside. When he was home for short vacations, Hadda and Brownie gloried in his popularity with the Winnetka young ones, particularly the girls, and were deeply saddened at every departure.
Riverside Military Academy has been educating young boys since 1907 and has a great reputation. Boys in grades seven to twelve are housed in the sprawling 206-acre campus dominated by the school's fortress-like buildings. Today Riverside has an enrollment of 530 boys who are housed in spartan rooms but enjoy all the benefits of a first-class preparatory school. The rolling hills of Gainesville give a dramatic setting for the school, and this is where Jim fell in love with flying. Even in those days Riverside had an aviation course which included private pilot preparation and, according to Jim's Riverside transcript, a multiengine rating. Besides his fascination with flying, little else seemed to interest him in the academic world. His grades were average or a little lower.
At Riverside, although aviation was available it was not a real part of the curriculum, being treated more or less like an elective, and it did substitute for some athletics. The program began when the school originated a ground school for those interested in moving on to the Army Air Corps. Gradually flight lessons were added and cadets could earn their private pilot's license as well as getting additional hours in bigger models than the trainers. A Miami Herald article dated March 3, 1940, gave considerable information about the program. Led by Capt. George L. Rutherford, the program enrolled thirty-five students. The Academy was founded in Georgia and established a seasonal campus in Hollywood, Florida, in the early 1930s; flight training was done mostly at Miami's Municipal Airport. Since its beginning there had been no accidents, a great record. The Herald article published photos of cadets and instructors at radio sets, tackling engines, and student James Hand just completing his first solo flight. Best of all is a fairly large photo of fifteen of the cadets, with Jimmie grim-faced and erect. It is one of the few photos of him that has survived. The reporter noted that the aviation class in 1937 actually built an airplane on the campus, so the program that Jim found in 1939–40 was well established.
To balance things, a naval preparatory class was taught by Lt. M. F. Eddy, a navy pilot, although the subject appeared to be related more to naval seamanship than aviation.
Both at school and at home, Jim made friends easily. One of his Riverside classmates was Franklin Johnson from Wilmette. Frank too was interested in flying, but he was not in the aviation course at Riverside. Yet, because they came from the same neighborhood, they became friends both at school and at home. Frank remembers Jim well; they double-dated on occasion in Chicago, and he recalled Jim's new 1939 Buick convertible sedan that they used on at least one date. "Jim was always looking for excitement and frequently pushed the envelope too far and had to be reined in."
With a bit of a wild streak Jim did not always conform to his parents' expectations. They lavished toys and later cars and motorcycles on him to try to keep him on course, but he found others of his age and hung out with them. His academic work was never what could be called exceptional, except in aviation.
That seemed to be the case for some other North Shore friends as well; Bob Ross and Andy Price often joined Jim in pranks. One episode that Frank remembered was when Jim, Bob, and Andy took Jim's new car and drove it onto the fairway of a local golf course, spinning wheelies to leave as their calling cards. Frank doesn't remember the end of that story, but I think it was one of Jim's more serious run-ins with the local officials. Frank never mentioned it, but I think he might have been part of that escapade as well.
Jim settled into his one year at Gainesville in the fall of 1939, and as evidenced by his transcript, he still had some discipline problems. A cryptic notation on his transcript reported that he had been Absent Without Leave on November 3, 1939. Further, the transcript stated he had been given a Military Efficiency Medal, also in November, but that medal was revoked in April 1940 and a promotion to corporal in October 1939 was reversed in April, when he was reduced to private.
On the good side was the fact that he had earned his private pilot's license as well as his multi-engine rating. So when he graduated from Riverside on June 3, 1940, he was ready for a flying job; college had hardly been discussed. In the 1940 Bayonet yearbook Jim's future was to include Harvard, but I think that might have been inserted with tongue in cheek.
After graduation the Brownes were happy to have him home but saw little of him as he gained more flying time and stirred up the neighborhood with his motorcycle and his beautiful new Buick convertible. He also apparently became serious about a local girl named Joan and spent much of his time with her.
His flying was done primarily at Sky Harbor Airport in Northport, just west of Winnetka, and his goal was to accumulate hours so his aviation credentials would be impressive. Sky Harbor was a natural choice, as it was close to home and recently refurbished after a decline caused by the Great Depression that still lingered. When it was first built in 1929 the airport was considered a trend-setter, with an arched hangar for its service area and a deluxe terminal with a restaurant that was considered gourmet. Its public areas were luxurious and catered to the affluent flying public that was part of the well-to-do North Shore of Chicago. Frank worked on getting his private license at the same time. He remembered watching the 1933 air races from a nearby building, not having enough cash to get in the gate.
The Depression had not been kind to Sky Harbor; for several years it was virtually dormant, but as war loomed and the military took over part of its pilot training there, it sparkled once again and regained its position. It was at Sky Harbor that I took my first flight with the father of a Skokie School friend.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Hunt for Jimmie Browne"
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Table of Contents
Preface Acknowledgments Part 1. Jim and China 1. James Sallee “Jimmie” Browne 2. Air Transport Auxiliary 3. China in the Past 4. The Long Road to China 5. China National Aviation Corporation Part 2. The Fatal Flight 6. The Flight 7. The Hump 8. The Crew 9. The American Volunteer Group 10. The Plane Part 3. The Search 11. The Search Takes Shape 12. China National Aviation Corporation Association 13. MIA Recoveries, Inc. 14. China Beckons 15. Planning Begins 16. The Frustration of Fund-raising 17. The Ascent 18. Enter JPAC Part 4. The Plot Thickens 19. DPAA, PLA, and Me 20. Beijing 21. The Next Step 22. Disappointment 23. Square of the Chivalrous Friends of China Conclusion Epilogue Notes Bibliography Index