World War II pilot to be buried in Kansas next month
May. 29, 2017
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Lt. John Dean Armstrong, a dashing pilot in the elite Flying Tigers fighter group in World War II, will come home to Kansas in June the year he would have turned 100.
Armstrong, the U.S. Navy pilot turned Chinese air force flight instructor, flew the sleek P-40 Curtiss Warhawk fighter packing six machine guns and bearing the eye-catching nose art of snarling shark's teeth.
But just months before America entered World War II, Armstrong was killed in a training accident while flying a P-40 in the Burma skies, and he was buried in an Anglican church cemetery in southeast Asia.
The war ended in 1945, and to shield the feelings of his parents, the surviving relatives didn't talk about Armstrong, his parents' only son. Relatives of Armstrong's generation died over time, decades passed, and his whereabouts faded away.
Two nieces of Armstrong picked up the search more than a decade ago and tracked down their uncle across thousands of miles, several cemeteries and scores of leads, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported (http://bit.ly/2s7ekKc ).
Armstrong, a Kansan, was the subject of a dogged 13-year search by the two nieces, who on June 16 will attend graveside services for their uncle in a Hutchinson cemetery.
Armstrong, a 1938 graduate of Kansas State University, then called Kansas State College, enlisted in the U.S. Navy on Oct. 31, 1938, and became a pilot.
He became a Navy cadet aviator in 1939 and was stationed at Norfolk, Va., on the carrier U.S.S. Ranger until June 1941.
While in the Navy, Armstrong was assigned to the Fairfax air field in Kansas City, Kan., for a month and a number of other locations, The Hutchinson News story about his death said.
He resigned from the U.S. Navy on June 27, 1941, and in effect became an officer in the Chinese air force, according to "Their Record," a Veterans of Foreign Wars booklet published in 1947. But he kept his status with the U.S. Naval Reserve.
Armstrong was recruited along with 17 other Navy pilots to fly P-40 fighters for the Chinese air force.
Armstrong joined the American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers, and was a civilian instructor to train Chinese pilots for that country's army, according to "Their Record."
In 1937, retired U.S. Army Air Corps Capt. Claire Chennault had been recruited by Nationalist China leader Chiang Kai-shek to lead that country's struggling air force.
In early 1941, Chennault lobbied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to aid the Nationalist Chinese. Roosevelt signed a secret executive order allowing the recruiting of American military flyers and ground crewmen for the AVG, aviation historian Ronald V. Regan wrote. The order included 100 P-40 fighters.
In seven months starting Dec. 18, 1941, the Flying Tigers shot down 296 Japanese planes and 300 probables while the AVG lost 69 P-40s and 25 pilots, Regan wrote. The Flying Tigers later evolved into the 23rd Fighter Group, and Chennault was promoted to brigadier general commanding the group.
The Flying Tigers were easily one of the most well-known American fighter groups in World War II. Chennault, AVG commander, encouraged rugged and risky training for the pilots, including aggressive mock dogfighting.
In a training exercise on Sept. 8, 1941, in Burma, Armstrong, who had more than 1,000 hours of flying, and pilot Gil Bright were dogfighting, approaching each other head-on when Bright rolled to the right and expected Armstrong to do the same, causing them to pass belly to belly.
Armstrong's P-40 didn't roll, and the two planes collided, killing Armstrong. Bright survived, parachuting from his crippled fighter. The accident occurred near Toungoo, Burma, now known as Myanmar.
Armstrong's remains were preserved in a formalin and sealed in a metal container, which was placed in a teak wood casket, then buried, according to a Department of Defense document.
Armstrong was buried in St. Luke's Anglican Church Cemetery in the Toungoo region, according to the Reno County Genealogical Society. He was the first of 325 Reno County men to die in the war, "Their Record" said.
He was killed nearly three months before the United States entered World War II, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Armstrong's remains would be twice more buried, the third time in Hawaii.
Thirteen years ago, a couple of Armstrong's nieces — who were born seven and eight years after his death — began a mission to get his remains back home to Hutchinson.
Through countless hours of detective work and persistence, along with DNA testing, the women attained their goal. Earlier this year, Armstrong's remains were positively identified in Hawaii.
The casket containing the remains was dug up and in April was draped in an American flag before being placed in the back of a military truck to be shipped back to the United States.
The nieces are Lynn Evans, 68, of Round Rock, Texas, and Karen Beauprie, 67, of Key West, Fla.
The cousins worked via phone, email and in person over the years and were determined not to stop until their uncle made it back to Hutchinson.
Each asked the other about their uncle, where he was buried and why he was never recovered.
"Each of us thought the other (side of the) family had all the answers, but we discovered none of us knew anything and there was no one left of that generation to ask," Evans said. "It became a journey that lasted 13 years. My cousin refers to it as a quest.
"Both of us are mothers of sons and the realization that our grandmother lost her oldest child, her only son, at the age of 24 was quite profound for us both. Therefore, we began looking for answers."
In 1995, during the 50-year anniversary of the end of World War II, Evans saw a news story about the Flying Tigers who posthumously were awarded Distinguished Flying Cross medals.
"There was a table full of unclaimed medals," she said. "I assumed my cousin's family had the medal (for Armstrong) since their mother, Dean's sister, Ruth Stahl, was still living. This was not the case as I learned in 2005 after a visit with my cousin."
During that family gathering, Evans and Beauprie looked at family photos and talked about their missing uncle. Evans said she shared an email with Beauprie she received from author Daniel Ford, who wrote several books about the Flying Tigers, about Armstrong. The two cousins resolved they would find his grave and repatriate his remains.
"The most any of us knew was that he was the first Flying Tiger killed," Evans said. "We knew our grandfather made a world trip and tried to locate his grave in Burma but was not successful." Unknown to his family, Armstrong's grave had been disinterred by then, and his remains had been moved to India.
During Armstrong family get-togethers, little was said about Dean Armstrong, Evans said, likely to protect his mother, Margaret Armstrong, from reliving the pain of losing her son. Evans believes her grandmother never recovered from the loss of her only son.
"No one talked about it, no one expressed grief or sadness, they just moved on," Evans said.
Known by his middle name of Dean, Armstrong possessed the looks of a Hollywood movie star as he became a young man.
The cousins wondered what would have become of his body after 75 years, especially being buried in the jungle.
Through Ford's book "The Flying Tigers" and a published account of Olga Greenlaw's personal diary, "The Lady and the Tigers," the cousins ascertained the care that was taken to preserve his body and to bury him in a lined casket. That suggested every intention was made to repatriate him at a later date.
"We both had read recent accounts of remains of soldiers being found 60-plus years after the war," Evans said. "Why not for our uncle? This gave us hope — if we could locate his body, he could be identified."
The cousins read the accident account by Bright and saw two black-and-white photographs of his plane crash, and they knew Armstrong's body was badly mangled, but enough remained to preserve.
"As it turns out," she said, "those descriptors and photographs were instrumental in our deductions later as to which one of the three 'X files' was our uncle."
The cousins contacted authors and research organizations or agencies that might have information.
"I posted an inquiry on a forum called Anglicans Online," Evans said, "hoping someone could tell me how to get church cemetery records from a British colony — Burma."
Through that contact, she found a Canadian graduate student, who provided information vital to tracking down Armstrong's remains.
Next they received declassified documents from a Naval historian that were instrumental in their search. One was a 1948 documented account of their uncle's status to be repatriated.
Then, the cousins convinced the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Command (DPAA) to accept the case and enlisted their help in locating and identifying Armstrong.
The cousins contended Armstrong died a civilian but was posthumously reinstated in the Naval reserves and therefore, he was a Navy officer who did not have a military funeral and was MIA.
The DPAA agreed but told them because of political circumstances in Myanmar, it couldn't send searchers since no diplomatic relations with the U.S. existed.
"It would be incumbent on us to find his grave," Evans said. "Then they might be able to disinter."
They enlisted the help of a Canadian graduate student living in Thailand, who was a history teacher and volunteer, to trek into Burma to look for St. Luke's Anglican cemetery, Evans said.
"I have photos he sent us .. swamp, dump, slum — no graveyard that was accessible and (it was) too dangerous a region to stay longer," Evans said.
She said they also received help from a Swiss-Burmese citizen who went to the Toungoo region to try to locate the graves.
"There was nothing left," Evans said.
Not to be deterred, Evans said she and Beauprie kept up their campaign by writing letters, emails and making phone calls.
They tried to find someone who would fund an excursion into the region to locate the graves and attempted to get their search story published in the hopes someone would give them a clue as to where the original graves were.
"We never ever entertained the notion he was moved except that we had heard the ruling military junta had destroyed many cemeteries," she said. "We just didn't know but kept pushing."
The final "puzzle piece" was receiving the X files from a DPAA civilian World War II researcher and historian. That was "the beginning of the end of our search," Evans said.
Through their research, the cousins determined Armstrong's original burial site in 1941 was in the British cantonment area of St. Luke's Anglican Church Cemetery in Toungoo, Burma. From that point, no one in the family knew the body had been moved until information from the X files and final report from DPAA.
According to a DPAA report on Armstrong, the difficulty in identifying Armstrong and two other flyers occurred because the Japanese had destroyed cemetery headstones and records. But the graves weren't disturbed, the DPAA report said.
In December 1947, Armstrong's remains were disinterred from the church cemetery by the American Graves Registration Unit from the church cemetery and declared unidentifiable.
The remains were sent to Barrackpore, India, another British cantonment area and temporarily interred. There his remains, along with the other two pilots and an unknown individual, were forensically examined and all information detailed. Each were given an X file number — 633, 634, 635, 636.
In 1949, Armstrong's remains eventually were moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, in an unsuccessful attempt to identify them, then re-interred in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Honolulu. He was buried as an unknown along with the other two pilots and the unknown remains. Each of the four unknown graves was linked with the respective forensic exam and report from India.
"We always had hope we would find him," Evans said. "However, the first glimmer for us would have been when (DPAA) accepted our case and we submitted DNA."
More hope came after the cousins received an email from Ken Tilley, a historian in Hickam, Hawaii.
In April 2014, Tilley contacted the cousins to say he was searching for family members who could help him determine whether unknown remains buried at the cemetery of the Pacific were those of Armstrong.
After Tilley contacted the cousins, "we had more than a glimmer of hope," Evans said "We had someone who could move mountains for us in the search and he was not deterred in his mission.
"Following all the news reports from the newly organized DPAA in locating and identifying the remains from the U.S.S. Oklahoma, we knew it was only a matter of time," she said. The Oklahoma was a battleship sunk in the Pearl Harbor attack.
In February 2015, the cousins made a compelling request to disinter Armstrong's suspected remains by reviewing his Navy medical records, using all accounts of his accident, photographs of the accident, the conditions under which his body must have been retrieved and the condition of his plane.
"We made some educated guesses on what the condition of his body would be after such an accident and compared with the details regarding the preservation of his body prior to burial in 1941, the 1947 forensic diagrams and explanations," Evans said.
"We suggested our uncle was X file 633. Disinterment took place April 2016 and a positive ID was made January 2017. We were correct. John Armstrong was X file 633 buried as an unknown in Section O Grave 473," in Honolulu, Evans said.
Evans said she and her cousin each received a phone call from the Navy with the formal news.
"The feeling was indescribable for both of us," she said. "All we ever wanted was to find him for our grandmother and bring him home to Kansas. Both of us cried upon receiving the news."
Looking back, Evans said, the cousins were successful because they were committed to the process of finding their uncle, learning from mistakes they made along the way and never giving up when they ran into a dead end.
"Both of us did research and came up with some novel ideas," Evans said. "I was the person who generally wrote the detailed inquiries, letters and emails, and my cousin was more inclined to phone whoever was in our crosshairs at the moment — 'Well, I will just pick up the phone and call them,' she would announce.
"We were a good team, never disagreed, and always kept each other enthused. We truly never considered giving up."
Armstrong's remains will be flown by commercial airline from Honolulu to Wichita before the burial in Hutchinson.
"We do not know the exact date of his arrival but we hope to have family there to meet the plane and witness what is called a dignified transfer," Evans said.
Armstrong's remains will be taken to Elliott Mortuary in Hutchinson, where a visitation will take place from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, June 16. The family will receive members of the community who would like to attend.
All eight nieces and nephews and many of their family members are coming. Evans said it will be the first time all of the grandchildren of Guy and Margaret Armstrong — Dean Armstrong's parents — will have been together.
A private family and friends graveside service will take place on Saturday, June 17. There will be full Navy honors and an Air Force missing man formation flyover is scheduled.
Evans said she and her cousin decided when they began planning for his return that they would do what their grandparents would have done in 1941.
To that end, a minister from the Methodist church they all attended will conduct a brief graveside service. He will carry the grandfather's 1934 Bible and the grandmother's necklace that was fashioned from a Navy pendant for her by her son.
"We both feel grateful, relieved, satisfied and somewhat vindicated," Evans said. "Mostly, we are glad his remains will be in Kansas with his family and no longer missing."
Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, http://www.cjonline.com