Memorial Eyed for Upchurch
The recent dedication of the relocated James Rogers McConnell monument at a Carthage airport gave state Sen. Harris Blake an idea.
He suggested expanding the airfield's homage to include another heroic fighter pilot from Moore County.
Gilliam-McConnell Airfield bears not only the name of its owner and builder Roland Gilliam, but also that of McConnell, a pioneer fighter pilot who lost his life in World War I, the last American pilot shot down before the United States entered that conflict.
"Why not, some day, add a memorial to Robert Hoyle Upchurch?" Blake asked.
Upchurch, from High Falls, fought against the Japanese in the skies over China during World War II. His P-40 was last seen in cloud-shrouded mountains over Hunan Province, and Upchurch remained missing in action, presumed dead, for more than 60 years.
In China's Guidong County, however, the body of an unidentifiable Flying Tiger pilot had been recovered from the wreckage of his bullet-riddled plane and buried with high honors. For 63 years, people from Guidong brought flowers to his grave.
DNA tests finally identified the Flying Tiger of Guidong as Upchurch, and his remains now rest in the family plot at High Falls United Methodist Church.
Gilliam is moving toward the creation of a museum at the field, and has found a near-perfect replica of the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk that could be part of that project.
"Sen. Harris Blake proposed a monument of this sort during his speech at the McConnell dedication," Gilliam said. "I, for one, am in favor of this and sent a letter to Sen. Blake to this effect."
If that does come to pass, visitors would be able to see just what kind of fighter plane the famed Flying Tigers used in the early days of the war to great success.
Guidong has a mountainside monument to Upchurch, and the Flying Tiger Chinese Restaurant in Carthage also honors both that famous corps and others who helped distant peoples fight invading oppressors.
Moore and Guidong signed sister county agreements, and both Pinehurst and Robbins (the closest municipality to High Falls) have sister cities in China. North Carolina is a sister state to Hunan Province.
Gilliam hopes this replica will be the centerpiece of a memorial to Upchurch.
"Of course, this is only a mockup, but a very good one. It is ever so slightly smaller than the original, but who knows the difference?" Gilliam said. "I hope this materializes, as I think it would enhance the plans for the Air Museum at Gilliam McConnell Airfield."
He said he was stunned by the quality of this nearly full scale model plane, built not from a kit, but - literally - out of junked parts by an amateur who gave himself the nickname "Junkyard Dog." He is real name is Zeb Harrington.
"This guy is amazing," Gilliam said. "He built this in his backyard out of the junkyard, hence 'Junkyard Dog' - and he has tentatively agreed to let me bring it to the airfield if the plans materialize to put a memorial to Lt. Hoyle Upchurch near the McConnell monument."
He has high praise for the patriotism exemplified by this work, an entirely voluntary effort in honor of those long ago pilots.
"The man is to be commended for building this, just because he wanted to," Gilliam said. "He is not a pilot. I am honored that he has tentatively agreed to loan this to the airfield as long as we take care of it."
Contact John Chappell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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