Three Flying Tigers war pilots identified after 75 years—one from Morgan County
The remains of three fighter pilots – one from Berkeley Springs — who died in 1941 while training as members of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) Flying Tigers in Toungoo, Burma were identified in January and will be coming home after 75 years.
The identities of Peter W. Atkinson of Berkeley Springs and Martinsburg; John D. Armstrong of Hutchinson, Kan. and Maax C. Hammer, Jr. of Cairo, Ill. were confirmed by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), said Tripp Alyn, who chairs the AVG Flying Tigers Association Historical & Museums Committee.
Alyn is the cousin of Maax Hammer.
Ty Mullis, Atkinson’s nephew in Winchester, Va., said Atkinson was born in a tiny village outside of Berkeley Springs called Buzzards Hollow and lived there until he joined the Army Air Corp. He said the family owned Meadow Farm Canning Plant, a tomato cannery, in Berkeley Springs in the 1930s.
Mullis said Atkinson went by “Bill” never Peter.
He said Atkinson’s mother bought property on Warm Springs Avenue in Martinsburg in 1941 after his death. That became the family’s home.
Mullis’ mother, Mary Margaret, is the youngest sibling and she told Ty stories about Atkinson and kept his memory alive.
Carole Clark Mitchell of Hancock, Md. said she knew of her missing cousin through stories about Atkinson, but “thought he was gone for good.”
She said families who have missing or unidentified service members to never give up hope.
Joined the Flying Tigers before WW II
The men were part of a group of American pilots who joined the American Volunteer Group (AVG) of the Chinese Air Force in mid- 1941 to fight against the Japanese invasion of China. They were known later as the Flying Tigers, Alyn said.
The volunteers were discharged from the armed services so the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Co. (CAMCO), which was commandeered by retired U.S. Army Air Corps General Claire L. Chennault, could employ them.
According to historical accounts, since the U.S. was not at war and the “Special Air Unit” could not be overtly organized, President Franklin Roosevelt approved the request from China for American combat aircraft and pilots for this clandestine operation.
The U.S. declared war on Japan after the December 7, 1941 attack at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, but these men died before that attack.
Armstrong was killed in an aerial collision while engaged in a dogfight training exercise on September 8, 1941, Alyn said.
Hammer died on September 22, 1941 when his P-40 aircraft entered an inverted spin and crashed in the jungle about eight miles from the airfield.
And Atkinson was flight testing a P-40B in a highspeed dive on October 25, 1941 and crashed over the airfield in full view of his squadron.
Atkinson’s best friend, David Harris, told Chennault he did not want to fly any more after that. He said Harris named his son Peter Atkinson Harris to keep Atkinson’s name alive, Alyn said.
All three were buried in the Airmen’s Cemetery of St. Luke’s Anglican Church in Toungoo, Burma, which is now known as Myanmar.
ID’s lost in moves
In 1947 a U.S. Army Graves Registration Service team (AGRS) disinterred these graves (plus another that has not yet been identified) and transported all four of them to India. In 1948, the graves were disinterred again and interred in 1949 in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (the Punchbowl) in Honolulu, Hawaii, and were marked “unknown,” Alyn said.
He said the records and headstones at the Toungoo cemetery were destroyed by the Japanese during the war, which is why the identities were unknown, but the graves themselves were untouched.
Patrick Moore, Atkinson’s nephew, lives in Hawaii close to the Punchbowl. He said Kenneth Tilley worked for the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC/DPAA) and began working on cases of missing AVG pilots in 2013. He said Tilley came across some files of unknowns buried in the Punchbowl, known as “Xfiles.”
The files noted the four unknowns were identified as “AVG 1,2,3,4” recovered from Toungoo, Alyn said.
Moore said the cemetery’s caretaker notified the American authorities of their location, and he learned in April 2014 that the missing pilots’ remains had been interred in Hawaii.
Moore said when he found out that one of the unknown remains in Hawaii might be Atkinson, he said he called Mullis and Aunt Mary and told them “we think there is a strong possibility that it could be Uncle Bill.” And then in January, it was confirmed.
The remains of the one not identified will stay in the grave “as the injuries were not consistent with an air crash and the likelihood of a positive ID were much less than for the other three,” Alyn said.
Services are planned
Moore and his wife, Siri will escort Atkinson’s casket from Honolulu to Martinsburg, Mullis said.
He said Atkinson’s remains are to be interred at a service on April 8 at the Rosedale Cemetery outside Martinsburg.
A request has been made and expected to be approved that the 23rd Fighter Group, a U.S. Air Force unit from Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, will do a flyover at noon to honor Atkinson, Moore said.
Alyn said the fighter group took over the duties of the three AVG Flying Tigers squadrons and carry the same “shark mouth” insignia that was displayed on the Flying Tigers airplanes, he said.
The final resting place
“I never expected his remains would be found,” Moore said. “I’m happy for Aunt Mary that she knows her brother’s remains have been found and are coming home,” he said.
“I’m excited,” Mullis said. “It’s a monumental thing for a family to bring a loved one home who’s been missing for 75 years.”
“I know he died a hero,” Mullis said.
Mitchell said “it has taken us 75 years, and we will be forever grateful to all who worked so hard to bring our cousin home.”
A service for Hammer is being planned for his remains to be interred in Carbondale, Ill., Alyn said, and Armstrong will be interred in Hutchinson, Kans.