China Trip to Forge an Important Bond
The dramatic story of a long-lost fighter pilot from Moore County, Chinese villagers who found, buried and honored the body of a stranger, and his eventual return to his High Falls home forged a tie.
That is how Lian Xie views it. He is executive director of the North Carolina China Center and a professor at N.C. State whose field is atmospheric science. He spoke recently to a gathering of state and county leaders who are preparing a friendship delegation that will visit China in April.
They are going to honor 2nd Lt. Robert Upchurch of High Falls and to dedicate a monument to him.
The trip is turning into a state visit of some significance and will include many state and local leaders as well as representatives of the Upchurch Family. State Sen. Harris Blake of Pinehurst will lead the delegation, which is to depart for China April 2.
Xie plans to fly there a week ahead to make arrangements. A group of "Early Birds" -- including Sandhills Community College President John Dempsey and Ray Ogden of Moore County Partners in Progress -- will leave March 31. The whole delegation will assemble April 4 in Changsha, capital of Hunan Province, then travel by land to Guidong.
The dedication of the Upchurch memorial in Guidong is set for April 5. At that time, sister relationship signing ceremonies are also to take place. Moore County Schools has asked Blake to represent them to connect schools here with sister-schools in China.
It is a story that began in cloudy skies over war-torn China when Upchurch, a P-40 Warhawk pilot with the Flying Tigers, vanished into fog-shrouded mountains on Oct. 6, 1944. Others returning from the same mission turned back and tried a different route. Later, Chinese officials reported a plane crashed and burned, but that identification of plane and pilot was impossible.
Villagers from Guidong County, however, had retrieved the remains. They buried the pilot in traditional fashion, wrapping him in red cloth and setting off firecrackers. They did not know the name of the man they buried, but they never forgot him.
Every year, volunteers cleaned and decorated the grave of a man only known as "American Pilot."
Back home in Moore County, the Upchurch family were remembering him, too -- though they did not know what had happened to him until DNA matches showed Robert Hoyle Upchurch was the pilot who lay buried on a hill in Guidong. Last summer, his remains were brought home and reburied in the family plot at High Falls Methodist Church.
At the graveside below, a representative from the Foreign Affairs Office of the Hunan Provincial Government told of the long years when local students and citizens had laid wreaths and flowers at the tomb of an unknown pilot.
"Over the past 60 years, the people of Guidong County have quietly watched and tended the grave of Lieutenant Upchurch," said Haung Renzhun, describing Upchurch as "a hero commanding their highest respect and a symbol in their mind for everlasting pursuit of peace."
He read a letter proposing a sister-county relationship between Moore and Guidong, and a sister-state relationship between Hunan and North Carolina. An invitation was extended for this year's April visit.
Flying Tiger pilots fought along China's border with Burma, protecting Chinese. That war became known as "the Burma Front" -- a long struggle with supplies and fuel having to be flown "over the hump" after Japan closed the Burma Road, the only land route up into China from Burma and India.
Gen. Lee Chennault of Flying Tigers and his pilots were based in a headquarters at Zhijiang, in Hunan. Allied Forces built their second largest airport in the Far East there. It served as a base for the Flying Tigers. It was at Zhijiang that a representative of Japan handed in the surrender letter, which led to the end of the war. In 2003, China opened a museum in Zhijiang to commemorate the Flying Tigers. More than 20,000 people from China, the United States and other countries attended its opening ceremonies.
The Flying Tigers are now based at Pope Air Force Base. There is a natural bond, says Xie, between Hunan -- the historic home of the Flying Tigers -- and North Carolina, their present home.
China, Xie said, will never forget the Flying Tigers.
"For 62 years, people in Hunan Province expressed their appreciation to and friendship with the people in North Carolina," Xie said. "Sixty-two years later, the people in North Carolina want to express their gratitude to the people in Hunan Province for taking care of one of their best sons.
"This mutual friendship originates from hearts of the people in both Hunan and North Carolina. The main purpose of the visit is to build on this long-lasting friendship and continue the spirit of cooperation between Hunan and North Carolina and create a win-win for both. We believe this is the best way to remember the sacrifice of Hoyle Upchurch and the Hunan people who took care of Hoyle for over 60 years."
Moore County and Guidong County in China can do business with each other, Xie said. North Carolina and Hunan Province can do business as well, since Hunan was the home of the Flying Tigers then, and North Carolina is home to them today.
"The North Carolina-Hunan Friendship Delegation is composed of the relatives of Hoyle Upchurch, elected officials, economic developers and business leaders, as well as representatives of the North Carolina China Center," Xie says. "It is the most comprehensive friendship and business delegation from North Carolina to visit Hunan."
John Chappell can be reached at 783-5841 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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