Tales of the Flying Tigers

Looking for the graves of St. Luke's

Update: In 2014, evidence surfaced that the three AVG fatalities from Toungoo had been on American soil almost since the end of the war. They'd been exhumed in 1945 and reburied in a war cemetery in India, then repatriated to the "Punchbowl" national cemetery near Honolulu, Hawaii. Mysteriously, there were four sets of remains, each supposedly identified as AVG, though who the fourth individual might have been, no seemed to know.

But apparently someone did know, because when the relatives finally persuaded the military to exhume the remains for DNA testing, only three caskets were dug up. That was in the summer of 2016. Finally, in January 2017, they were positively identified as the remains of John Armstrong, Maax Hammer, and Pete Atkinson. All three have now been brought home, and finally I can thank the photographers, Gideon Lundholm and Khiang Tun, who had to fly under the radar when they took these pictures. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

St Luke's headstonesThree AVG pilots were killed in flying accidents while the Tigers trained at Toungoo: John Armstrong on September 8, Maax Hammer on September 22, and Peter Atkinston on October 25, 1941. All three were buried at St. Luke's Church of England graveyard on the southeast side of Toungoo, between the river and the moat that enclosed the native town. I searched for the graves when I visited Toungoo in December 1986, without success. (I was similarly unsuccessfuly in locating the graves near Mingaladon airport outside Rangoon, because the Japanese had leveled the churchyard while expanding their facilities during the war; and again at Wujiaba airport near Kunming, where the Chinese authorities wouldn't let me search around what was regarded as a military base.)

More recently, the family of John Armstrong mounted a more serious search to find and repatriate his remains. Through the kindness of people inside Burma, still ruled by a military junta, they learned that the authorities had made their quest infinitely more difficult: St. Luke's no longer existed, perhaps because it was destroyed during the war, and the graveyard had been turned into a housing development in the Southeast Asian fashion. In the process, the headstones were simply bulldozed to one side, as shown above. The remains evidently were moved to an entirely different site, "in a swamp and behind a dump,"as Atkinson's niece explained in an email at the time. Here's how the St. Luke's graveyard looked then:

from graveyard to housing

RAF shield

The photographer's name couldn't be mentioned while the junta still ruled the country, and I no longer have access to the email that accompanied these photos. Interestingly, the photographer reported that there was still an Anglican church in Toungoo, built since the war, called St. John's. Inside the church there's a wonderful and evocative set of British military shields, probably dating back to the second Burma campaign. They included this Royal Air Force shield (left), with the RAF motto Per ardua ad astra ("Through adversity to the stars"). They appear to be wood, painted by hand. One wonders if some of them were once housed at the old St. Luke's church.

Matt Poole, whom I met long ago when he was trying to retrace the fate of a USAAF pilot lost over Burma, put his redoubtable talents to work, hoping to pinpoint the exact location of St. Luke's. Here's his guess, to the southeast of what in 1941 was the native village (bounded by a moat). You can situate this screenshot on today's Toungoo by loading up Google Earth and "flying" to 18 55 53 N, 96 26 49 E

looking for St Luke's, Toungoo

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

Flying Tigers
3rd edition 2016

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