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 Combat Unit. Upchurch was a member of the famed 74th Fighter Squadron –"The Flying Tigers."

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.

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,” a small town in North Carolina in Moore County. Following 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. 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 4 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 on Aprill 6, 2006.

LT. Robert Hoyle Upchurch was buried in High Falls, 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."

A Memorial Site in his honor can be seen at the Air Museum at Gilliam-McConnell Airfield in Carthage, NC.

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Chinese Memorial                                       Air Museum Memorial



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