The South is proud to have produced many American Heroes. One such Southern Hero is 2nd LT Robert Hoyle Upchurch. Learning Upchurch’s story comes with a fascinating history of a very unique fighter squadron. He was a member of the famed 74th Fighter Squadron – The Flying Tigers.
Before the United States officially entered World War II, many Americans were involved in the war already. Some Americans volunteered and joined Allied Forces, enlisting in British or French military units. Then there was the American Volunteer Group (AVG) whose members were serving to protect China from the brutal Japanese attacks going on there, and that’s where The Flying Tigers began.
While the 74th was still within the AVG, they had an unprecedented 8:1 kill ratio, but once the US entered the war in 1941, the AVG was disbanded. The 23rd Fighter Group was formed, and it contained three squadrons – one of which was the 74th Fighter Squadron. It should also be noted that technically, at this time the 23rd (and thus the 74th) belonged to the Army – the Army Air Force. (The Air Force as we know it today was officially made an individual branch of the US Military in 1947. The current 74th Fighter Squadron is now part of the US Air Force.)
The 74th Fighter Squadron was originally designated as a Pursuit Squadron but was redesignated to a Fighter Squadron (and then specifically a Single Engine Fighter Squadron) in 1942 and was sent to Asia along with the rest of the 23rd Fighter Group. The Squadron flew P-40 Warhawks/Tomahawks and P-51 Mustangs – all with the signature shark teeth painted on the nose, conveniently right where a 50 Caliber machine gun peeks out. Over the years both planes had a variety of weapon configurations but usually had wing mount machine guns – sometimes two per side, sometimes three per side, and eventually, they became the first squadron ever to test and use the air-to-ground missile in combat. Unfortunately, the missiles were clunky and largely inaccurate at that time. As for personnel, the 74th Fighter Squadron had two Majors, eighteen Lieutenants, one Master Sergeants, two Tech Sergeants, seven Buck Sergeants, and thirty-five Corporals and Privates.
The 23rd Fighter Group had an Area of Operation that included China, Burma, Indochina (Vietnam), Formosa (Taiwan) and Thailand. The 74th Fighter Squadron valiantly fought off the Japanese and during their service in air combat destroyed 124 Japanese aircraft. They destroyed 143 Japanese aircraft on the ground, sunk 43,000 tons of shipping, and killed over 7000 Japanese military. They were decorated with the Distinguished Unit Citation and earned 4 Campaign Streamers in World War II. Of course, there were casualties. The 74th Fighter Squadron lost 40 men: 7 ground crew and 33 pilots. Four pilots were shot down in air combat; 23 were shot down by ground fire; and 5 crashed due to weather condition.
This brings us to 2nd LT Upchurch who was assigned to the 74th Fighter Squadron. The entire unit was referred to as “The Flying Tigers”, and Upchurch was known as “The Flying Tiger from High Falls.” He was from a small town in Moore County, North Carolina. During a successful combat mission near the mountains of Hunan while flying a P-40 Fighter plane, he encountered difficult weather conditions and crashed into the side of a mountain. We now know 2nd LT Robert Hoyle Upchurch died on October 6, 1944, but back then he was Missing in Action.
Unbeknownst to his squadron, the Chinese locals in the Guidong County saw the crash and hiked four days to get up the mountain and try to rescue Upchurch. The Chinese were very fond of all of the squadrons in the 23rd Fighter Group. Without them, they would have faced decimation and destruction. Once the Guidong residents reached the crash site, they found both the plane and the pilot in ruins. Nonetheless, they recovered what they could, carefully cleaned him, wrapped him in red silk and, as is only reserved for heroes, buried him in a 7-inch thick coffin. The funeral service was for that of a Hero – with prayers, fireworks and rice wine. His grave was in a sacred place on Santai Mountain and was marked with a large wooden cross with Chinese writing loosely translated as “American Pilot of The Flying Tigers.” The locals had no way of identifying him other than as a part of the American military who were trying to save China and defeat Japan. For over 60 years, the Guidong County people cared for his grave, and each year on “Tomb-Sweeping Day” they would lay flowers on his grave and pay their respects.
World War II had an estimated 78,000 MIAs. The case for missing 2nd LT Upchurch broke in 2005 with the help of Guidong residents and the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. The Chinese still wanted to find out who the honored pilot was. Researchers carefully uncovered the remains, and a local resident named Mr. Huang was called to identify them. Mr. Huang was 15 when the crash occurred, and he recognized the pilot’s harness among other things. The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command tested the remains, confirmed via DNA that it was Upchurch and returned the remains to his family in North Carolina. That was April 6, 2006.
2nd LT Robert Hoyle Upchurch was buried in Carthage, NC with full military honors. His remaining family members were present – in addition to both US and Chinese dignitaries. Airmen from the current 74th Fighter Squadron flew four A-10 Thunderbolt II planes in “the missing man formation” over the funeral. Additionally, the Guidong County people erected a large monument on the spot of Upchurch’s former grave in China so they could continue to honor the American Hero. Dirt from both burial sites were placed in a covered jar and given to the Carthage Historical Museum.
No longer Missing in Action, just as his tombstone reads: the American Hero, the Southern Hero, 2nd LT Robert Hoyle Upchurch is now Home at Last.
Those who have long enjoyed such privileges as we enjoy forget in time that men have died to win them. — Franklin D. Roosevelt
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