DPAA identifies remains of Second World War Flying Tiger Pilot

curtiss p-40c
curtiss p-40c

The remains of a U.S. civilian, Peter W. Atkinson, are being returned to his family for burial in Martinsburg, West Virginia, following identification by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA.)

Atkinson, age 25, of Berkley Springs, West Virginia, was a former member of the U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve.  In mid-1941, he was recruited to be among a small group of American pilots to fight Japanese armed forces attacking China. He was working for the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO), which was officially termed the ‘American Volunteer Group,’ (AVG) fondly known as the ‘Flying Tigers.’

The AVG composed three fighter squadrons, each with about 30 Curtiss P-40 single-seat aircraft. In September 1941, Atkinson was practicing with other AVG pilots located at Kyedaw Airfield, a British Royal Air Force airfield situated outside of Toungoo, Burma.

Though many of the recruits were accomplished pilots, none had experienced combat. To prepare them, the AVG started an intensive training program, encouraging their pilots to compete in simulated battles.

Atkinson died during a training flight on Oct. 25, 1941, when his plane was reported to have broken apart while executing a dive.  He was allegedly interred in the Airmen’s Cemetery at St. Luke’s Anglican Church in Toungoo.

In the latter part December 1947, an American Graves Registration Service team found the remains of three AVG members. The remains were not able to be identified and were provisionally interred in January, 1948 at the U.S. Military Cemetery at Barrackpore, India. The remains were designated as X-633, X-634 and X-635 and were eventually transferred to Hawaii in an attempt to identify them, but that effort was not successful.

They were reinterred in the Honolulu-based National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, as World War II Unknowns. Due to progress in forensic techniques, on April 11, 2016, X-635 was exhumed and forwarded to the DPAA laboratory for analysis.

To positively identify Atkinson’s remains, scientists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System and DPAA employed a method called mitochondrial (mtDNA) DNA analysis, which matched four nephews and a sister, in addition to anthropological and dental analysis, which aligned with his records, and circumstantial evidence, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency reported.

Sixteen million Americans served in World War II.  Over 400,000 died during the war. Presently there are 72, 072 service members still not accounted for from the Second World War.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE