DNA Identifies Flier's Body in China: Hero Returning - Finally
BY JOHN CHAPPELL: Staff Writer
Hoyle Upchurch is coming home. It took a long time.
Upchurch was lost in World War II when his P-40 crashed in China. A monument stands beside the United Methodist Church in High Falls, where he grew up.
It bears his name, but he is not buried there.
His remains, now identified through DNA tests, long lay buried under a simple cross in the mountains of China. His family back here, like many such families, was officially notified that Lt. Robert Hoyle Upchurch had been reported Missing in Action near Kanchow Airbase, on Oct. 6, 1944.
Charles and Bessie Upchurch mourned without ever being able to bury their lost son. Their family mourned with them.
“We grew up witnessing firsthand the anguish, pain, and loss our parents endured from 1944 until their deaths for their brother and hero,” wrote Dale Upchurch, one of a dozen nieces and nephews, in a letter to state Sen. Harris Blake of Pinehurst. “We sincerely appreciate all your efforts to recognize Uncle Hoyle as a native Tar Heel who paid the ultimate price for our freedom …”
An empty place waited in the family plot.
Half a world away, a boy in China grew to manhood, and then to old age, visiting and tending the grave of an unknown American pilot.
Then, 60 years later, a second message came to High Falls, this time from Hawaii.
“My name is Robert Maves, and I am a Senior Analyst at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting command at Hickam Air Force Base,” it said. “Recently one of our teams recovered remains in China possibly associated with Robert H. Upchurch.”
The letter brought hope and tears to the family of a young man who’d fallen in love with airplanes and gone off to war, joining the famed Flying Tigers, never to return. He had last been seen climbing through cloudy skies dangerously close to mountains 90 miles west of Kanchow.
“Chinese say the pilot burned and plane totally destroyed with no identification possible,” said the official report.
Long ago the Army closed the file, marked Upchurch as dead. A 1947 investigating team visited one crash site, but decided it had been a Japanese plane. Villagers in the area they visited said they knew of no American war dead in the vicinity.
Case closed — until last summer.
In late May, a search and recovery team excavated a burial site on a mountaintop in China.
They found it under a cross in a park near an ancient Ming Dynasty Tower. In 1944, the people of Guidong traveled a long distance to bring back the body of a pilot from the “Flying Tigers” that crashed near Ch’en Hsien.
“They brought the body back to Santi Mountain — a sacred place — and conducted a burial there with a large funeral service,” says the team report. “Local people visited and continued to visit the site. In the early 1990s, the area was made into a park.”
The team found a burial mound with wooden cross and funerary wreath. It had been carefully tended for 60 years.
They spoke with a local man, a Mr. Huang. Then a schoolboy, now 79 years old, Huang described the day he saw Upchurch laid to rest.
Adults from Guidong had gone to get the body of the pilot. It was a long way, but they’d gone because they knew he was from the locally based “Flying Tigers” Huang told the search and recovery team in May.
He had seen Upchurch’s body, badly damaged, reverently wrapped in a red cloth and placed in a grave. The grave was then filled with rocks and soil. There was a funeral ceremony. Prayers were offered, and rice wine drunk.
Huang said he had come regularly to the grave to remember this young pilot who’d given his life helping to free China from the Japanese invasion.
Off to War, Fly
Upchurch left his home on the Deep River to go to work in a bomber plant in California. Planes were magic to him. As soon as he turned 18, he joined the Army Air Corps.
“I came into the army, and found just how much I loved my people,” he wrote home. “It’s funny how a guy thinks of things like that, but a guy thinks of everything in the Army.”
Training at Eagle Pass, Texas, made him a pilot.
“I have got about four and a half more weeks here,” he wrote from Texas during flight training, then, later, from Florida: “I left Eagle Pass March 24 and was sent to Barksdale Field, La., to fly B-26s — but the third day we were there the orders were changed and we were sent down here. … please don’t say anything to Mom, but it won’t be very long before I will be overseas.
“They are getting us straight on everything here. Then, we will ship out to a group, and we will get 60 hours of flying time in the ship we will fly overseas, which will take a month or two months. Remember, don’t tell Mom anything about it. … I will write Mom after I get across.”
Upchurch was well aware of the chances he was taking, and said he was glad he was not married.
“It won’t be bad for me, because there is no one depending on me,” he wrote. “It will be just a thing of the past in a year or so if I am bumped off. I think Mom believed me when I wrote and said I might get married. Tell her not to get too scared, because my job is big enough now, flying a hot pursuit ship. The Major told us yesterday that we were God-chosen boys …”
By September, overseas was just where he was. Upchurch had gone first to India, then, on The Burma Front, over the hump to southwestern China.
“I fooled you again,” Upchurch wrote. “I’ll bet you thought I was still in India. Nope. I am in China. Things were getting too hot up here, so they sent me up. They knew I could handle it.”
Fabled Flying Tigers
By then, Upchurch was piloting one of the fabled P-40s built for Gen. Claire Chenault and his American Volunteer Group, the “Flying Tigers” who fought as Chinese army until July 4, 1942, when they were decommissioned and accepted Army Air Corps comparable ranks, remaining in China.
The P-40 was a plane small enough to fly in and out quickly, agile enough to go up against the deadly Japanese Zeros.
Walt Disney, a pilot himself, loved that aircraft. He created a design to be painted on the nose of the plane: huge teeth. Disney said that toothy smile was sexy, made women swoon, and men would sign up so women would swoon for them, according to a story attributed to Mary Lee Blue, whose uncle lived in Carthage.
In the spring of 1944, the Japanese Ichigo campaign severed China, and the 74th was directed to move and “commence operations behind enemy lines” from Kanchow. Upchurch earned his flying officer’s license and was sent first to India, then on to Kunming Air Base deep in southwest China, 175 miles north of French Indochina (Vietnam) and 200 miles northeast of Burma.
Kunming was the largest airfield there. Pilots loved its 6,000-foot runway. So did the Japanese, for they bombed it often.
“I don’t know who is getting the most hell kicked out of them, us or the Japs,” Upchurch wrote that September. “I guarantee you those bastards aren’t living a life of Riley. If we had Patton and his army over here … we could run every damn Jap out of China in nine months or a year.”
It was a rough war, but Upchurch was very happy to be part of a noble group of fighters: the 23rd Fighter Group commanded by former AVG officer Col. Tex Hill.
“It is the best outfit over here,” Upchurch wrote. “It was the one I was hoping for all the time and was lucky enough to get in. I was never happier in all my life. Letters from home, and shooting Japs by hundreds. Goodnight, all. Hoyle.”
Ten days later, on Oct. 6, 1944, Upchurch took off for what Tiger pilots called “hunt and be hunted.” His flying group split, with the right wing peeling off in that direction and the left wing opposite with four left in the middle for protection in case of a fight.
He did not return.
A diary kept by Capt. Charlie Cook noted his loss.
“Upchurch, a new pilot, killed on first mission,” Cook recorded the following day. “Got in some bad weather with Gib (Lt. Robert Gibeault) and he crashed into a mountain.”
It Was a Match
Last summer, the news from Hawaii spread from family to family. Faxes flew to Hawaii. The military came to find female relatives, take samples so mitochondrial DNA could be compared with that of the pilot who’d lain buried with honor so far away for so long.
Waiting was awful. Tension was high.
Then came the news: it was a match. The unknown Flying Tiger was Hoyle Upchurch.
Work began on paperwork and procedures necessary to bring him back, back to High Falls, back to the church where his picture hangs, back to the little hillside graveyard by the riverside where his monument waits.
Blake called sheriffs in counties between Moore County and Greensboro Triad Airport to arrange an escort for the family. A service is planned for early April.
“Family will go to Greensboro the night before and stay at a hotel near the airport,” Blake said. “The next morning, when his body arrives, they will bring him home. They will have deputies escorting them all the way, changing as they cross county lines.”
Upchurch will be buried once more, this time with full military honors, a salute, a flag furled and folded.
Representatives of the Chinese government may be in attendance. U.S. Military officers of high rank may be there. There will be high officials of state, county and nation.
But there will also be men and women of a family that has waited year in and year out for word of one loved and lost.
Upchurch was not just a thing of the past, forgotten after a year or so. He was wrong about that.
John Chappell can be reached at 783-5841 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Curiously, we're burying a Korean War KIA tomorrow. Just got found.
Cool. You know the Chinese are strange bunch, they teach the kids in school about the great Flying Tigers in their history classes.
As well they should....the AVG made a huge impact in China....and did so with a tiny force and outdated planes.
Glad to see this pilot is coming home.
Out of curiosity, how is a DNA test performed on someone that died that long ago? Do they compare DNA from the body with that of the next of kin and say it is a close enough match?
Mitochondrial DNA from bone fragments can be traced to the Mother's family.