It’s been a long, lonely journey home for an American hero killed in Southeast Asia during World War II.
But 75 years later the missing World War II pilot’s remains are back in West Virginia, and have been buried alongside other family members.
Lt. William “Bill” Atkinson joined the American Volunteer Group pilots called the “Flying Tigers” when he left Martinsburg in 1941 for training near Toungoo, Burma. He was 25 years old when he died there on Oct. 25 due to mechanical failure of the plane he was piloting on a test flight.
He was originally buried in the Airmen’s Cemetery at St. Luke’s Anglican Church, but it wasn’t his final resting spot.
Saturday’s interment service at the Rosedale Cemetery near Martinsburg marks the end of this difficult period for loved ones who never stopped looking and hoping to find where he’d been moved.
Family members lived in limbo for decades until his remains were located and positively identified, said Dennis DuPuis, a Vietnam War helicopter pilot who felt a special connection to the cousin who died eight years before he was born.
Bringing him home was also important to DuPuis’ late father, a World War II veteran who also served in the South Pacific. “Dad was very proud of his first cousins, the three Atkinson boys, Peter, Robert and Al, who flew airplanes during the war. And he talked about them a lot while I was growing up in the 1950s,” he said.
“I could see it in his eyes how proud he was, and that was a lot of my inspiration to become a helicopter pilot.”
His father would be happy today.
“Peter died so long ago that I didn’t even know him. But this means so much to us all that it’s really like a family homecoming,” he said.
It was a long time coming, even though family members did what they could.
They learned his body had been transferred from its original grave to Barrackpore, India, where an autopsy was performed. And that his remains were eventually sent to Hawaii’s Punchbowl Cemetery.
“All of the headstones in the St. Luke’s cemetery had been destroyed by the Japanese invasion and occupation. So in 1947, after Japan’s defeat, the process of identifying all of the airmen in the cemetery began,” he said.
This original work culminated decades later when DNA analysis confirmed that the remains in Hawaii were Atkinson, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. His family members got the good news in January. Two others who died in flight training accidents at the same time and location in Burma were also positively identified.
DuPuis said Atkinson had been in the Army Air Corp and received his pilot training in Texas prior to joining the Flying Tigers.
“There he had been assigned to the 8th Pursuit Group which in today’s terms would be a fighter group. He was definitely a pilot who wanted to be flying.”
And that makes his death a little easier to accept, DuPuis said.
Family member traveled from across the country, including Hawaii, Alaska and Washington State, to attend the service which again united the three brothers.
DuPuis, who lives in North Augusta, South Carolina, made the trip by motorcycle earlier this week when he met the plane carrying Atkinson’s remains at the Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport.
A member of the South Carolina Patriot Guard Riders, DuPuis joined West Virginia members to help give Atkinson a proper military sendoff by providing a flag line.