Missing Flying Tiger headed home at last
By Steve Huffman
Eloise Kennedy Mahn never met her great-uncle, but still felt a sense of relief upon hearing that his remains had been identified.
"Now, we can finally put closure to the whole thing," Mahn said.
Her great-uncle was 2nd Lt. Robert Hoyle Upchurch, a member of the legendary Flying Tigers, a group of American pilots who fought the Japanese along the China/Burma border during World War II.
Upchurch's plane disappeared during the latter stages of the war and for more than 60 years, the fate of the 21-year-old pilot remained a mystery.
Initially, he was listed as missing in action. A year or two after the war, Upchurch was declared dead.
That's the way the situation remained until last May when Upchurch's remains were discovered on a secluded mountain in rural China.
"My grandmother used to talk of him," Mahn said. "She never got over the fact that he was missing."
Mahn's grandmother, Stella Bell Upchurch Kennedy, and Robert Upchurch were brother and sister. There were 11 children in their family, all now deceased.
But Mahn, a resident of Salisbury, said her family is a close-knit one, with plenty of aunts, uncles and cousins all relieved that their long-lost loved one is finally heading home.
Upchurch's story is an interesting one.
His plane, a P-40 fighter painted with the snarling teeth of a tiger, crashed in bad weather on Oct. 6, 1944. It was Upchurch's first mission with the 74th Fighter Squadron, the Flying Tigers.
The villagers in Guidong in southeast China admired the 74th Squadron and a large group of them hiked to the crash site on a nearby mountain.
They wrapped Upchurch's body in a red cloth and buried him under a mound on the side of a hill they considered sacred. According to reports, villagers prayed over the grave, drank rice wine and wrapped the cross in a paper wreath.
In the decades since, the villagers have looked after the grave. One of those villagers, identified as Mr. Huang, was only a child at the time of the crash and has taken a particular interest in maintaining the burial site.
Last May, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command finally solved the mystery of the plane's pilot.
The command's laboratory in Hawaii is the only facility of its type in the world. It is the largest forensic anthropology lab in operation anywhere.
There, a staff of more than 30 civilian forensic anthropologists and three military dentists examine fragmentary human remains in an ongoing mission to return the bodies of the missing to their families.
Their motto is, "Until they are home."
A team from the command dug up Upchurch's remains and identified the former pilot through DNA samples. Upchurch was raised in High Falls, a small community between Asheboro and Carthage.
The remains are being returned to North Carolina on Tuesday. On Saturday, family members will gather at the cemetery at High Falls Methodist Church where a headstone has long paid tribute to Upchurch.
Next week, the monument's "MIA" designation will be reworked to read, "Home at last."
Mahn and her husband, Henry, as well as her mother, Louise Musselman, will travel to Greensboro on Friday to meet with other family members. The next day, a hearse bearing Upchurch's remains will receive a military escort on the drive to High Falls.
A service will be held at the cemetery there and will include a flyover by members of the modern-day Flying Tigers. Afterwards, members of Upchurch's family will tour Pope Air Force Base at nearby Fort Bragg.
"We're going to have a family reunion," Eloise Mahn said.
She's 48 and was born long after her great-uncle died. But Mahn said that from everything she's been told, Upchurch would have wanted his family to have a grand time as they remembered him.
"For them to have been such a large family, they were very close," Mahn said of Upchurch and his siblings. "His name always got brought up whenever they were together."
Musselman never met Upchurch, either, marrying into the family after the Second World War.
But she said that from everything she was told, family members for the longest time expected to look up one day and see Upchurch stepping through the door.
"They thought he'd been captured," Musselman said. "Because he was missing in action, they kept thinking he'd come home."
And, at long last, he has.