Pilot's Burial Resolves Two Mysteries
It’s not every
day that delegates from China attend a lieutenant’s funeral
in North Carolina, or that four A-10 Thunderbolt IIs fly overhead
in a missing-man formation, or 300 people show up without having
ever met the Air Force pilot. Even a congressman made an
But 2nd Lt. Robert Upchurch wasn’t just any pilot.
Although his death remained a mystery for 61 years, his memory
stayed alive -- in two countries -- that entire time.
Lieutenant Upchurch was a P-40 Warhawk pilot with the Flying
Tigers. They protected the Chinese by fighting along its Burma
border during World War II.
On Oct. 6, 1944, the lieutenant took off from Kanchow, China, on
his first mission with the Flying Tigers. After completing the
strafing mission, they started home. They flew into bad weather en
First Lt. Robert Gibeault, a fellow pilot, said in an official
report that he had last seen Lieutenant Upchurch climbing through
overcast skies dangerously close to some mountains.
The rest of the flight turned back and tried a different route
than the one attempted by Lieutenant Gibeault and Lieutenant
Upchurch. Later, Chinese officials reported a plane had crashed and
burned at Shang Pau Has, and that pilot and plane identification
Since there was no means of identification, the Army Air Force
wasn’t certain it was Lieutenant Upchurch and listed him as
missing in action.
In 1945, eight months after the fatal crash, Flying Tigers
Chaplain Albert Buckley wrote a disheartening letter to the
“I believe it is only right to tell you that the outlook
is not at all favorable or encouraging, particularly in view of the
fact that your son has been missing since last October,” the
“It has been our experience that when a pilot lands safely
in free China, even though he might be injured, we receive
notification from the Chinese in a comparatively short time. Such a
report has never been received on your loving son.”
In October 1945, the Army Air Force presumed Lieutenant Upchurch
The Chinese Side Of The Story
Meanwhile, in Guidong County of the Hunan Province in China,
villagers buried the pilot in Chinese tradition, wrapping him in a
red cloth and setting off firecrackers, according to a Chinese
Although the villagers never knew the identity of the pilot they
buried, they never forgot him.
“Over the past 60 years, the people of Guidong County,
have quietly watched and tended the grave of Lieutenant Upchurch,
who has been a hero commanding their highest respect and a symbol
in their mind for everlasting pursuit of peace,” said Haung
Renzhun, a representative from the Foreign Affairs Office of the
Hunan Provincial Government.
Mr. Renzhun said that every year during “Tomb-Sweeping
Day,” local students and citizens voluntarily came to pay
their respects and lay wreaths and flowers at the tomb of the
unknown pilot. The grave was well-maintained until May 2005, the
date they discovered his identity.
Pilot’s Identity Revealed
In May 2005, a task force from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting
Command in Hawaii conducted investigation operations in three
Chinese provinces for about 30 days.
World War II left more than 78,000 MIAs, many of those in the
Pacific, and the team was investigating four of them.
At what is now Santi Park in Guidong County, team members
recovered possible human remains, personal effects and life support
equipment. The monument there simply read “American
Later that year, the task force identified his remains by
comparing them to DNA samples collected from the Upchurch family
that remained, which were mostly second-generation nephews and
After 61 years, the Upchurch family finally learned of the
whereabouts of their uncle, and the people of Hunan Province
discovered the name of their hero.
“Moore County of North Carolina was where this great
fighter grew up, and my hometown, Guidong County of Hunan Province,
was where he rested in peace for decades,” Mr. Renzhun said
during Lieutenant Upchurch’s funeral on April 8 in High
“Lieutenant Upchurch is one of the bravest American pilots
and a hero in the worldwide war against fascism,” Mr. Renzhun
said. “He assisted the Chinese people in the fight against
the Japanese and sacrificed his young and precious life. On behalf
of the 67 million people of Hunan Province … our government
wishes to take this opportunity to pay high tribute to Lieutenant
North Carolina Governor Michael Easley wrote in a letter to the
family: “Lieutenant Upchurch gave his life for his country
and is a true hero. Without hesitation, he fought to preserve and
defend the ideals for which this great nation stands.”
In the end, the Chinese lost a hero, while High Falls buried
one. [ANN Salutes Master Sgt. Orville F. Desjarlais Jr., AFPN]
ANN Note: One of the true hallmarks of a great
society is that they never forget their heroes... and Lt.
Upchurch's sacrifice is one that should always be remembered.
Godspeed, Lieutenant.--Jim Campbell, ANN E-I-C.