Body of WWII pilot returns home after 76 years
By KATHY HANKS | The Hutchinson News, Kan. | Published: June 16, 2017
HUTCHINSON, Kan. (Tribune News Service) — During the summer of 1941, U.S. Navy pilot John Dean Armstrong spent two days in Hutchinson then headed off for an adventure in southeast Asia.
Now, 76 years later, he is finally home.
Known by friends and family as Dean, he was only 24 at the time. Had he lived, he would have turned 100 in August.
However, he was killed before autumn of 1941 in a mid-air collision over Burma while training with the American Volunteer Group, a precursor to the Flying Tigers. Dean had been recruited to train Chinese pilots.
Thanks to the persistence of two nieces born after his death, Dean's remains arrived Thursday at Wichita's Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport aboard a Delta flight from Honolulu.
As the flag-draped casket was removed from the aircraft, Navy personnel carried it to the funeral coach.
For Lynn Evans, of Round Rock, Texas, and Karen Beauprie, of Key West, Florida, it's the culmination of a 12-year pursuit to find their uncle, identify his remains and have him returned home.
On Saturday, Dean will be buried with full military honors at Fairlawn Burial Park not far from the graves of his parents, Guy and Margaret, and his paternal grandparents, John Allen and Lillian Detter Armstrong.
A soldier's beginning
The telegram announcing Dean's death arrived at his childhood home at 715 E. Ave. B on Sept. 10, 1941.
Guy and Margaret Armstrong knew their son had sailed to Burma aboard a Dutch vessel from San Francisco on July 10, 1941.
Though they didn't know it at the time, their brief visit earlier in the summer was their final goodbye to their son as he passed through Hutchinson from Norfolk, Virginia, to California.
Dean graduated from Kansas State University in 1938. Right out of college, he enlisted in the Navy. Because he was not quite 21, Lynn Evans said her grandfather, Guy Armstrong, had to sign for Dean to join the Army Reserve. He served as a naval aviator on the USS Ranger out of Norfolk.
Though he was young, the Armstrong's oldest child had become an experienced pilot. He volunteered to resign from the Navy, which he did on June 27, 1941, to serve as civilian instructor working for Central Aircraft Co., training Chinese pilots for battle against the Japanese.
"Advancing rapidly in a flying career, he went to Burma, presumably with a sanction of the U.S. authorities, to teach Chinese pilots to fly American planes," The Hutchinson News reported at that time.
According to documents provided by Evans, there was a memo showing Dean's starting salary while working with American Volunteer Group was $600 a month. Volunteers were also promised their ranking back after they had completed the year contract.
"It was a sweet deal," said Evans.
Dean arrived at Kyedaw, the British Royal Air Force airfield outside Toungoo, Burma, on Aug. 23.
Though he was an experienced pilot, he had not seen combat, so to prepare for battle against Japanese aviators, retired U.S. Army Air Corps Capt. Claire Chennault, who was the head of the Flying Tigers, had developed rigorous training.
Armstrong, a slight man, at 5 feet, 8 inches and 147 pounds, was training in a P-40 fighter aircraft and was encouraged to carry out aggressive mock air battles, according to historian Daniel Ford, author of "Flying Tigers."
Chennault believed it was better to lose a few pilots than teach the pilots to be timid, Ford wrote.
Armstrong was practicing dog fighting on Sept. 8 against pilot Gil Bright. He approached Bright head-on, forcing him to nose dive, and Armstrong did the same thing.
He was so close, Bright recalled in an Atlantic Monthly article a year later, that it appeared the propeller seemed about to slice through the canopy. Bright made a quarter roll to their right, expecting Armstrong to roll in the opposite direction, so they would pass belly to belly. But that didn't happen. Instead each plane lost a wing and began to spin. Bright was able to eject from his plane.
The crash party found Armstrong still strapped to his seat. According to Evans, the nose of the plane was 10 feet in the jungle mud. His remains were described as mangled.
He was the first Flying Tiger to be killed. According to documents, the remains were prepared by the flight surgeon and fixed in 10 percent formalin, wrapped in a formalin-saturated sheet and placed in a hermetically sealed metal container, which was placed in a teak wood casket.
The funeral was held in the pilots' mess hall, and then Armstrong was buried in the rain at St. Luke's graveyard.
According to Bright, a Burma Frontier Guard played "Last Post."
Two days after Armstrong's death, the headline in The Hutchinson News on Sept. 10, 1941, was "Plane crash in India is fatal to a local boy."
Searching for their uncle
Growing up, Evans and Beauprie knew their mothers had a brother who had died. Evans recalls a picture their grandmother kept of their uncle in his Navy uniform.
"He was gone before we were born," Evans said.
As kids, it wasn't something they thought of asking about. Plus, it wasn't something that was touted as an accomplishment.
It was Evans' father who told her about her uncle being a member of the Flying Tigers and killed in an airplane crash.
"As a kid it wasn't that meaningful," she said.
As adults, both women berated themselves for not asking more questions.
Evans thought about her uncle when watching a newscast about veterans receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism or extraordinary achievement in aerial flights. There was a table of unclaimed medals, which made her wonder if anyone in their family had received one on behalf of Dean Armstrong.
She let it go at the time, assuming her cousin's family had.
In 2002, she communicated with Ford, the author of "Flying Tigers," asking if he had any information on her uncle.
"He answered the next day and told me about him being buried in the St. Luke Cemetery in Toungoo, Burma," Evans said. At the time, she did a little research. But it wasn't until 2005 that she and Beauprie became determined to find their uncle and bring his remains home to Hutchinson.
However, Evans and Beauprie learned that their uncle's remains were no longer in Burma, now known as Myanmar.
Long road home
In 1948, The Hutchinson News ran an article stating that under a provision of the Legislature the Armstrongs could have had their son's body returned following the war. But they chose not to have his grave moved.
"It would tear us apart all over again," Guy Armstrong said in the article.
According to a report provided by the Department of POW/MIA Accounting Agency, following the war, the American Graves Registration Service, U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps was the organization charged with recovery and identification of all fallen U.S. service personnel in the Pacific Theater.
In 1948, AGRS requested the disposition of the remains of Armstrong, Maax Hammer and Peter W. Atkinson. All three had been killed while working for AVG in Burma and were eligible for repatriation.
However, in 1949, the case was closed for insufficient evidence to establish identification.
Because of this, the AGRS wrote, "No further action would be taken in the case of John D. Armstrong."
After discovering this information, the cousins persisted, through such hurdles as having to prove survivorship. After more than a decade of searching, gathering information and letter writing, they eventually were led to information that their uncle and the remains of three others were moved from Burma to India and then to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawaii.
With no forensic training, they became like detectives examining the X-files of the pilots' remains to positively identify their uncle.
Now the caskets of the three have been identified. The remains of Hammer and Atkinson were returned to their homes. Saturday will be Dean Armstrong's service and the fourth time his remains will be interred.
"We are calling it a homecoming," Evans said.
It will also be a reunion with about 80 members of the extended Armstrong family present.
Slater will carry a 1934 family Bible with the 715 E. B Ave. address included in it. He will also carry a Navy pendant fashioned from a pearl drop that had been a gift to Margaret from her son.
Though she never spoke of her son to her grandchildren, after Margaret's death in 1986, in her possessions, the family found letters from RAF and Navy wives sending condolences to the Armstrong family. One woman wrote that Dean "had come downstairs for breakfast that morning with the biggest smile on his face."
Now that his casket is back in Hutchinson, Evans feels relief and satisfaction and a sense of vindication.
"We are so pleased his remains are back in Kansas with his parents and grandparents, " Evans said.