Carthage, China Ceremonies to Honor Local Flying Tiger
April ceremonies on opposite sides of the world will honor a Moore County pilot shot down in World War II.
Second Lt. Robert Hoyle Upchurch, from High Falls, fought against the Japanese in the skies over China. His P-40 was last seen in cloud-shrouded mountains over Hunan Province, and Upchurch remained missing in action, presumed dead.
In China’s Guidong County, the body of an unidentifiable Flying Tiger pilot was 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 that unknown pilot as Upchurch, and his remains now rest in the family plot at High Falls United Methodist Church. In 2007, members of his family and other North Carolinians flew to Guidong with state Sen. Harris Blake to dedicate a memorial park on Santai Mountain, the site of his China grave for so many decades.
April 5 is “tomb sweeping” day in China. As usual there will be a ceremony honoring Upchurch that day in Guidong.
On Saturday, April 7, a high level delegation from China will arrive in Carthage for another ceremony. They are coming to dedicate Flying Tiger memorial here that also honors Upchurch.
It will join a monument to James Rogers McConnell — a founding member of the Lafayette Escadrille — beside the runway at Gilliam-McConnell Airfield.
Last week, Blake and Roland Gilliam met at Gilliam’s field to review the site and plan the event. Blake said 10 delegates from Hunan Province — North Carolina’s sister state — will include representatives from the city and town of Guidong, Moore’s sister county in China. He and other prominent state and local leaders will welcome them to these ceremonies.
A large concrete pad is already in place and waiting for the arrival of a near full-scale replica of the P-40 fighter plane pilots like Upchurch flew over China. Airfield builder and owner Gilliam says visitors will 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.
While the P-40 replica will be a centerpiece of the memorial, it is not an actual flying aircraft. Very few real P-40s remain in airworthy condition. It was built from junk parts by Zeb Harrington.
“This is only a mockup, but a very good one,” Gilliam says. “It is ever so slightly smaller than the original, but you can’t see a difference. Zeb built it in his backyard out of junk parts. That’s why he named it ‘the Junkyard Dog.’ There is no engine in it, but you can’t tell that from the outside.”
Gilliam will bring the plane to Carthage sometime in the next three weeks. He will also position two granite monumental stones — one for Upchurch and one that will bear a plaque sent by China that will be unveiled during the ceremony.
They will stand adjacent to the stone monument already at the airfield bearing one France sent to Carthage in 1917 in McConnell’s honor. Someday, Gilliam plans to open an air museum on the other side of the field.
“For all practical purposes, the P-40 will face the runway,” he said. “When we get it out here, we may want — instead of facing it straight out — to tilt it a little bit. I didn’t put the tie-downs in yet. I will drill the tie-downs.”
Tablets, mounted on posts, will tell the story of the Flying Tigers and the air war over China. They will tell of the 63 years people in Guidong honored the young hero they knew only as “American Pilot.”
“There will be one that pertains to the airplane and Zeb Harrington,” Gilliam said. “The granite monuments will have tapered fronts. One will have Hoyle’s picture on it, and the other the plaque sent by China.”
Surveying the location, Blake and Gilliam walked about the concrete pad considering the best places to set the granite pillars. Once those stone monuments arrive — with the Junkyard Dog P-40 in place – they will decide their final setting.
Ties between Hunan and this state have grown since the Flying Tiger of Guidong was identified as Upchurch.
Since then, Moore and Guidong signed sister county agreements, and both Pinehurst and Robbins (the closest municipality to High Falls) now have sister cities in China. North Carolina is a sister state to Hunan Province. The Flying Tiger Chinese Restaurant in Carthage honors both that famous corps and others who helped distant peoples fight invading oppressors.
A new Chinatown center opened last month in the Raleigh-Durham airport area. An N.C. State professor from Hunan – Dr. Lian Xie – teamed with Blake to organize the Carolina China Council and further business ties and relationships. Xie will accompany the Chinese delegates to the dedication.
This week a camera crew from North Carolina is in Guidong shooting footage of a re-enactment of the 2007 Upchurch mountainside memorial’s dedication ceremonies for a documentary on Upchurch. They will be in Carthage on April 7 as well.
Contact John Chappell at email@example.com.
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