The 167th Airlift Wing hosted four U.S. Air Force A-10C aircraft and crew members who came to honor to the late Peter Atkinson, a Martinsburg, W.Va. native and pilot for the famed American Volunteer Group, also known as the Flying Tigers, April 5-10.
The A-10’s, assigned to the 23d Fighter Group, flew a missing man formation over Rosedale Cemetery in Martinsburg at noon April 8 during Atkinson’s re-interment ceremony.
Atkinson, the oldest of seven children, died Oct. 25, 1941 while flight testing a Curtiss P-40 aircraft for the AVG. He was 25 years old.
The 23d FG, based at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, is charged with carrying on the Flying Tigers heritage.
Maj. Lindsay Fletcher, 167th Airlift Wing Executive Staff Officer, coordinated with the 23d FG and the Atkinson family for several weeks leading up to the ceremony. She organized a tour for Atkinson’s relatives to view the A-10’s and meet the crew members the day before the interment.
“We had about 35 family members come out to the base on Friday. They were very excited and loved the A-10s,” said Fletcher.
The family felt a special connection to the 23d FG according to Fletcher. Peter Atkinson’s younger brother, Edward, was also a pilot for the Flying Tigers. He, too, lost his life during WWII.
Peter Atkinson enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1939. In 1941 he signed up to work for the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation, a private military contractor in China. He and the group of airmen he worked with became known as the AVG’s and later as the Flying Tigers.
They were tasked with defending China from the Japanese and were credited for keeping the port of Rangoon, Burma and the Burma Road open during a critical time before the war.
Their P-40’s (P for pursuit) were painted with a shark face on the front of the fuslage and a winged tiger on the side, which led to the group’s nickname, the Flying Tigers.
The AVG’s aircraft were shipped in crates on freightliners to Burma. The aircraft were assembled and test flown at Rangoon and then sent to the AVG’s training unit at Toungoo.
The aircraft Atkinson was testing when he died came apart in flight, just prior to reaching the airfield.
Atkinson was buried at the Airmen’s Cemetery at St. Luke’s Anglican Church at Toungoo.
The cemetery headstones were destroyed by the Japanese during WWII. Atkinson and the bodies of two other AVG pilots were moved to a cemetery in India following the war. When that cemetery closed the remains were moved to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as Punchbowl Cemetery, in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Atkinson’s and the other pilot’s identities had been lost through the movement. His plot at Punchbowl was marked “unknown.”
In 2013, an employee at Punchbowl Cemetery, began the arduous task of identifying missing AVG pilots. After significant research and DNA analysis, Atkinson’s remains were identified and plans were made to bring him back to Martinsburg to be re-interred.
Atkinson’s body was flown from Hawaii to Dulles International Airport, April 3. A police escort was provided from the airport to Martinsburg.
“Capt Atkinson wasn’t married and didn’t have any children, but his legacy has been carried down from generation to generation,” said Fletcher, who attended the plane-side transfer at the airport and the re-interment ceremony. “Watching all the family members from little kids to his adult nieces and nephews come together to celebrate his return home was a bittersweet moment.”
She said it was truly an honor and a pleasure to welcome Capt. Atkinson home and to watch him finally be laid to rest with his family after 76 years.