Back in 1941, an American pilot hailing from the Eastern Panhandle was training for the chance to fight the Japanese in the skies, as World War II raged on.
Peter Atkinson never got that chance. He was killed after crashing on a training run in Burma, and after all this time, his body was never positively identified – until now.
Thanks to advancements in forensic capabilities and DNA testing, Atkinson’s body was identified last year, and has been returned to his family for burial this weekend.
“Some people have said, ‘oh, I’m so sorry about the loss of your cousin,’” said Dennis DuPuis, a first cousin, once removed of Atkinson. “Actually, I feel more joyful than I do…[have] a sense of loss.”
In the middle of 1941, Atkinson left the military while the U.S. was still neutral, in order to fight with the 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG) against the Japanese invasion of China. The AVG became popularly known as the “Flying Tigers,” an iconic group who fought the Japanese after Pearl Harbor until 1942.
“These were the guys John Wayne pretended to be,” DuPuis added, referencing a black-and-white film that Wayne starred in during the war.
Atkinson never saw combat, however. On October 25 of 1941, his plane was reported to have disintegrated in a dive during a training flight in Burma. The AVG had instituted an aggressive training program, encouraging their pilots to carry out mock battles.
He was reportedly buried in the Airmen’s Cemetery at St. Luke’s Anglican Church in Taungoo.
After the war, an American Graves Registration Service team recovered the remains of three AVG members in December of 1947. They were declared unidentifiable, and were temporarily buried in the U.S. Military Cemetery at Barrackpore, India, in January of 1948.
The remains were eventually moved to Hawaii in an attempt to identify them, designated as X-633, X-634 and X-635, but identification was unsuccessful. They were re-buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, commonly known as the “Punchbowl,” as World War II Unknowns.
But in April of last year, X-635 was sent to the laboratory of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) for analysis. Experts identified it as Atkinson, because of matching DNA with his sister and four nephews, dental and anthropological analysis and circumstantial evidence.
More than 75 years after his death, family members say they finally have a sense of closure.
“I didn’t realize how emotional it was going to be for me,” said Carole Mitchell, also a first cousin, once removed of Atkinson, who was there on Monday when his body was flown in to the area. “We were down in Martinsburg when they got back, and I got very teary-eyed.”
Two other Flying Tiger pilots, Maax Hammer and John Armstrong, have also been identified after DNA testing – but there are still many left out there. Currently, more than 72,000 service members are still unaccounted for from World War II.
“There are still 12 Flying Tigers that are missing,” DuPuis said. “There are 12 more families that haven’t had the closure that we’ll have this weekend.”
Atkinson will be laid to rest next to his brothers who also fought in World War II, Robert and Alphonsus, at Rosedale Cemetery in Martinsburg on Saturday. Planes painted with the Flying Tigers colors will perform a flyover, in honor of his life.
His last remaining sibling, Mary Margaret Hughes of Winchester, was six years old when he died. She is now 81, and all of the family is hoping she will be there.