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Body of World War II pilot to return to Kansas

Phil Anderson and Steve Fry, Topeka Capital-Journal, May 30, 2017

TOPEKA - 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 in 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. Until 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.

Armstrong, a Kansan, was the subject of a dogged 13-year search by the two nieces, who [in June] will attend graveside services for their uncle in a Hutchinson cemetery.

Lynn Evans [At left: Lynn Evans holds the portrait of her uncle, John Dean Armstrong, killed in a training accident in Burma, September 1941. For 13 years, she and a cousin scoured the internet, enlisted searchers in Burma and Hawaii, and battled the military bureaucracy to identify Armstrong's remains and bring him home. -- DF]

Armstrong, the fighter pilot

He resigned from the U.S. Navy on June 27, 1941, and in effect became an officer in the Chinese air force.... 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.... 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.

The search starts

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....The nieces are Lynn Evans, 68, of Round Rock, Texas, and Karen Beauprie, 67, of Key West, Fla....

"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....

"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...."

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 [Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, now replaced by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency] 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 an MIA.

The [Agency] agreed but told them that 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 [Gideon Lundholm] 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.

"There was nothing left," Evans said.... "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.... 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 than a glimmer of hope'

More hope came after the cousins received an email from Ken Tilley, a historian at 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," Evans 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....

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. [I omit the details. --DF] 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."

[Also see Three Come Home and The Graves of St. Luke's on this website -- DF]

Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! — Daniel Ford

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Posted June 2017. Story © 2017 by the Topeka Capital-Journal; websites © 1997-2017 Daniel Ford; all rights reserved.