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WWII pilot’s service ‘a homecoming’ for him and his family

Service members, family members and other guests pay their respects Saturday while taps is played during the Hutchinson funeral of Lt. John Dean Armstrong, a member of the Flying Tigers, who was killed in a training accident in Burma in World War II. (June 17, 2017)
Service members, family members and other guests pay their respects Saturday while taps is played during the Hutchinson funeral of Lt. John Dean Armstrong, a member of the Flying Tigers, who was killed in a training accident in Burma in World War II. (June 17, 2017) U.S. Air Force

Lt. John Dean Armstrong finally made it home to Hutchinson on Saturday, more than 75 years after he was the first Flying Tiger to be killed in World War II.

Armstrong was laid to rest in Fairlawn Cemetery, where his parents are buried, with more than 80 of his relatives on hand.

The service included a flyover by four planes from the 23rd Fighter Group, the descendants of the Flying Tigers, the American Volunteer Group that flew P-40 fighters for the Chinese in their battle against Japan in the early years of the war.

The fighters on Saturday flew in the “missing man” formation, with one of the four planes peeling away in tribute to the pilot who was killed in Burma, now Myanmar.

“On the route to the cemetery, people came out of their houses and put their hand over their hearts as we went by,” said Lynn Evans, one of Armstrong’s nieces. “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. We’re home. This is Kansas.’ ”

Evans and Karen Beauprie had hunted for their uncle’s remains for 12 years, driven by their grandmother’s grief and the hole in her heart that never healed.

“I always felt a sadness” in her grandmother, Beauprie said. “People didn’t talk about him” after he was killed in a training mission in Burma on Sept. 8, 1941.

Armstrong’s remains, which had been moved three times since his death, were finally located in Hawaii and officially identified early this year.

Evans and Beauprie both have sons, “and I thought, ‘What if my son Kevin never came home?’ ” Beauprie asked.

“That was our chief motivation, was to pull this hole together” for their grandmother “and bring him home,” she said.

After the service at the cemetery, the dozens of relatives who came to Kansas from all over the country were taken by bus to McConnell Air Force Base to visit with the fighter pilots who participated in the flyover.

The lead pilot, Capt. Chris Shelly, grew up in Wichita and graduated from Wichita State University.

“This is one of the highlights of my Air Force career so far,” Shelly said. “This is awesome.”

The fighter pilots wore throwback flight suits, like the ones Armstrong wore, and sported the original shoulder patches of the Flying Tigers, which they then gave to Armstrong’s relatives.

His family was allowed on the flight line at McConnell, where they were shown the A-10s used in the flyover. The fighter pilots came to Kansas from their home at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia.

The reception was filled with laughter and smiles, stories and wide eyes, as reflected in 7-year-old Seth James of Benbrook, Texas, who was bouncing around between planes and pilots and asking question after question.

“This is cool,” he said as he took shelter from a relentless sun under the shade of a fighter jet’s wing.

That’s just the mood Evans and Beauprie wanted. They used to joke that when their uncle was finally buried back in Kansas, they’d be the only two people at the gravesite.

But the journey brought together relatives who had never met before.

“It’s a homecoming,” Evans said. “It’s a celebration. That’s why all these people are here. We’re thrilled.”

Stan Finger: 316-268-6437, @StanFinger

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