1944 MIA 23rd FG airman found

Discussion in 'Aviation' started by syscom3, Apr 8, 2006.

  1. syscom3

    syscom3 Pacific Historian

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    http://www.ocregister.com/ocregister/news/local/article_1093592.php

    A family at rest
    After 60 years of painful wondering, relatives can hold a funeral for their World War II hero.

    By TOM BERG
    THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

    2nd Lt. Robert Hoyle Upchurch was listed as missing in action and presumed dead for nearly six decades.

    HUNTINGTON BEACH – It's been one of those weeks for retiree Barbara Rowland, 67, what with a trip back East, a funeral to attend and a host of relatives to meet for the first time.

    She keeps misplacing paperwork, forgetting what she was about to say, and apologizing over and over - though there is no need. You'd be confused too if the person you were burying died 61 years ago. And for all those years, you had no idea what happened to him.

    "Shock," she said Wednesday, describing the moment she heard the news about Uncle Hoyle. "It took a while to actually comprehend it. It was just, 'OK, tell me something else,' because everyone had come to terms with it and moved on with our lives, then out of left field comes this shocking news."

    The news? Uncle Hoyle's remains were found. In a remote region of China. And flown home in an urn this week to the small mill town of High Falls, N.C.

    Though questions remain about his death - and discovery - the small-town boy who died at 21 will be given a hero's burial today.

    He'll be lauded by a governor, a member of Congress and Chinese dignitaries; given a military flyover and a 21-gun salute, and he will unite some 40 long-lost relatives who have never before gathered in one place.

    All this for a man who once wrote home that should he die, "It won't be bad because no one is depending on me. I will be just a thing of the past in a year or so if I am bumped off."

    Little did he know. How could he?

    THE SCHOOLBOY

    This much is known about the death of 2nd Lt. Robert Hoyle Upchurch: His P-40N Warhawk crashed into the side of mountain in China, probably on June 6, 1944.

    It was his first mission flying with the 23rd Fighter Group, more famously known as the Flying Tigers, whose mission was to protect China from Japanese air attacks during World War II.

    It's unclear whether Upchurch got into a dogfight or simply got disoriented in bad weather.

    The rest of the 74th fighter squadron turned back. The last time Upchurch was seen alive, he was climbing through clouds close to a mountain 90 miles west of his base in Kanchow.

    He was listed as missing in action and presumed dead for nearly six decades. His parents died without knowing. His 10 brothers and sisters died without knowing. And presumably his nephews, nieces and their children would've died, too, without knowing the outcome of Upchurch's crash if it wasn't for a 10-year-old Chinese schoolboy who grew up remembering something about the summer of 1944. If it wasn't for Huang.

    LAST IN LINE

    The old snapshot is ripped and taped now. There's a big sky, a white fence and a goldilocked little girl who looks antsy beside her uncle, who stares at the camera with a look both cocky and casual. The stare of a fighter pilot.

    The little girl is Barbara Rowland, one of two surviving relatives of Hoyle Upchurch's who met him. She was 4 in the photo and just 6 when Uncle Hoyle's plane crashed. But she vividly recalls the day her mother - Hoyle's sister, Marie - got the news.

    "There was a knock on the door," Rowland said. "I remember her opening the door and receiving the telegram, and then she just starting bawling hysterically."

    The rest of her life, Marie Rowland would cry every time she heard Bing Crosby sing "I'll Be Home for Christmas."

    "I don't think my mother was ever the same after that," Rowland said.

    For years, family members were left to wonder: Could he have somehow survived? Might he still be alive? Somehow? Somewhere?

    "You assume he's dead, but there's that little, tiny thing telling you, 'Well, maybe there a small possibility that he did have amnesia or he did get taken somewhere,'" Rowland said. "You just really don't want to believe he's dead."

    After a while, however, what you want most is to know the truth. And that's what Rowland got last June when Aunt Irene Upchurch called saying the Army had found something.

    They'd found what they thought were the remains of Uncle Hoyle.

    COLD CASE RESOLVED

    There are 88,000 cold cases on file in the Pearl Harbor office where analyst Aaron Lehl works - all veterans missing in action, from German farm fields, Vietnamese rice paddies, the remotest regions of Papua, New Guinea. Lehl works on as many as 100 cases at a time for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.

    In late 2003, he received an e-mail from an American serviceman who'd returned to China and learned of a Flying Tiger pilot possibly buried in Hunan province. Lehl also received a Beijing Today newspaper article describing the same thing with a photograph of what looked like a few nuts and bolts. Lehl scanned a photo and sent it to the curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.

    The curator replied: One of those pieces of wreckage was an elevator trim wheel from a P-40.

    "We're looking at a P-40 pilot," Lehl said.

    He built a spreadsheet of more than 80 possible pilots, took out a map of China, and started reading military reports until one matched. His top candidate? A young pilot by the name of Robert Upchurch.

    BUTTONS AND BONES

    Yunjun Huang has lived for 79 years in the Bamian Mountain region of Guidong County in the Hunan Province.

    When members of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command arrived in May 2005, Huang told them about the summer of 1944. Men from his village had carried a young pilot down from the mountains, wrapped him in red cloth and buried him beside the Wenfeng Pagoda - an ancient, 115-foot umbrella-shaped tower from the Ming Dynasty. The funeral, which included prayers and rice wine, stuck with Huang over the years, as he would occasionally visit the site.

    He led investigators to the grave, where they unearthed a casket bearing several bone fragments, buttons, coins and other small parachute pieces.

    Lehl could now close one of 88,000 cold cases on the command's list. If he could find the family.

    HOME AT LAST

    An e-mail arrived at High Falls United Methodist Church in High Falls, N.C., last year, asking the new pastor if he knew the family of Robert Hoyle Upchurch. The pastor didn't - until an elderly parishioner walked him down to the fellowship hall and directed his gaze.

    "There was my uncle's picture hanging on the wall," said Dale Upchurch, 48, of Jacksonville, Fla., whose father was a brother to Uncle Hoyle.

    In a small town, news travels fast. Nieces called other nieces who called cousins who called brothers and wives until all 12 nephews and nieces of Uncle Hoyle were beside themselves.

    "He grew to be this mythical hero in our family," said Dale Upchurch. "He was talked about at every gathering."

    He wishes that even one of Uncle Hoyle's siblings or parents could've heard this news. "They all passed away without ever having known anything."

    Today's funeral, however, won't be so much a goodbye as a homecoming, Rowland said before flying east from Orange County. Uncle Hoyle's gravestone at the old family plot already has been re-engraved, from "Missing in Action" to "Home at Last."

    "A friend said, 'It's so sad,'" Rowland said. "I said, no it was sad when he was reported missing in action, and nobody knew what happened to him. I feel this is almost a celebration because he's finally home."
     
  2. lesofprimus

    lesofprimus Active Member

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