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Scarsdale Jack Newkirk’s crash at Lamphun

By Bob Bergin

[A technical glitch removed the original version of this post from the website, and is replaced with this revised version, which responds to comments made over the years since it was first posted. — Bob Bergin]

After reading Jack Newkirk: The View from the Ground and the comments included with Photo-map of the crash site, I felt compelled to add my input. I was in Lamphun with the AVG members when the Flying Tiger Association visited there in November 1994. I had organized that visit and was also involved with the search for Thai witnesses to the Newkirk crash.

Mr. Eisner’s account seems based largely on interviews with three Thai witnesses to Newkirk’s crash, although only one appears to have actually witnessed the event. Mr. Eisner tells us that “in contrast” to pilot records - “which proved to be very general” - the Thai witnesses “proved very detailed and provided most of the useful information, with some new details.” Based on this information apparently, Mr. Eisner concludes that Newkirk attacked an anti-aircraft position and then circled and was lining up to attack it a second time when he spotted a target of opportunity – two oxcarts – which Newkirk “presumably felt … were legitimate military targets,” and attacked them - and inadvertently flew into a tree.

I am a Thai language speaker and participated in the interviews of the five Thai witnesses during the AVG visit at the Newkirk crash site in 1994 – more than ten years before Mr. Eisner’s interviews. There was nothing the Thai witnesses said then – and there is nothing in the pilot combat reports written right after the raid – to indicate that Newkirk or any of the other three pilots in his flight had fired on the antiaircraft guns by the bridge – or were even aware that the guns were there. What the Thai witnesses on the ground said in 1994 was that the antiaircraft guns opened fire on Newkirk’s aircraft when it came into the area. No one said Newkirk fired back. It is also worth noting that as most AVG pilot losses were caused by ground fire, it was not the practice of AVG pilots to duel with antiaircraft positions.

By the Thai witness accounts, Newkirk’s aircraft was already flying low when it first came into sight, well before it reached the railroad bridge. When the aircraft was fired on by the antiaircraft guns at the bridge, it started a turn that took it across the town and then back across the river again. It was there that the aircraft fired its guns and struck an oxcart.

In 1994, in the presence of the AVG members, one of the Thai witnesses asked why the aircraft had fired on the ox cart. AVG pilot Robert Keeton, who had been part of Newkirk’s flight, tried to explain: From the air and moving at high speed, it was sometimes difficult to identify what one saw. Newkirk probably did not know that it was an oxcart he had fired on.

The other three pilots in Newkirk’s flight believed they had seen armored vehicles. Keeton identified what he saw as a weapon’s carrier. Frank Lawlor thought it was an armored car. Henry M. Gesselbracht, Newkirk’s wingman, wrote in his combat report: “The two vehicles we fired at, I believe, were armored cars. They were camouflage brown and squarish in appearance. I believe at least one was destroyed.” That was probably what Newkirk thought he saw. He would have no reason to fire on an oxcart.

Re Mr. Eisner’s comment that “in later accounts they [the oxcarts] were magnified into Japanese armored cars, one of which supposedly shot him [Newkirk] down:” As noted above, in the combat reports the pilots wrote immediately after the raid, they called the vehicles they saw “armored cars,” which is what they believed they were.

According to the Thai witnesses interviewed in 1994, at the point Newkirk fired on the oxcart, his aircraft was heading toward a field in front of a small temple. The sense one had from the 1994 witness accounts was that Newkirk was heading for a place where he could set his airplane down.

In discussions afterwards, AVG pilots at the event – including Keeton, Ed Rector and Charlie Bond, who had all been on the Chiang Mai raid – thought it most likely that Newkirk’s aircraft had been hit by ground fire at the bridge, and that he was attempting to crash land his damaged aircraft in the field when his wing hit the tree.

Some background: The 1994 AVG visit to North Thailand was primarily to see the wreckage of “Black Mac” McGarry’s P-40 that had been hit by ground fire during the AVG raid on Chiang Mai airbase on 24 March 1942. Six AVG P-40s hit Chiang Mai that day, while a flight of four, led by Jack Newkirk, flew south to look for Japanese aircraft at Lampang. The town of Lamphun, where Newkirk crashed, is south of Chiang Mai on the way to Lampang. McGarry’s P-40 was pulled from the Thai jungle in 1991. When its discovery was publicized, an unsigned note left with the gate guard at the Chiang Mai airbase indicated that there was at least one witness to the Newkirk crash still alive. A search for the witnesses was started.

Tales of the Flying Tigers

The following paragraphs - which pick up in November 1994, when the AVG Flying Tiger Association members visit Lamphun - are from my article on Jack Newkirk, “Flying Tiger, Burning Bright,” as it appeared in the July 2008 issue of “Aviation History.” Earlier accounts of the 1994 AVG Flying Tiger Association visit to Thailand appeared in the June 1995 “Air Classics,” and a Thai Language version later the same year in “Tango” magazine published in Bangkok. Thailand’s Foundation for the Preservation and Development of Thai aircraft (also known as “Tango Squadron”) maintains a photo and video archive of the event.

By 1994, when the former AVG pilots visited, five Thai witnesses to the Newkirk crash had been found and interviewed. Two had been students at the Buddhist temple that stood at the site of the crash, and the other three were the children of local farmers. All told a similar story. They saw the aircraft as it approached and crashed. No one recalled seeing more than one plane, nor did they see any armored vehicles on the road that morning, although they said there could have been.

The plane they saw came from the southeast, and seemed to be following the railroad tracks from Lampang. The Kuang River flows along Lamphun’s eastern edge, between the tracks and the town. The railroad stays on the far side of the river until it reaches the northern end of Lamphun, where it crosses a bridge and turns north toward Chiang Mai. In early 1942, anti-aircraft guns were positioned on a riverbank at the crossing. Those guns were manned on March 24, and it seems likely the gun crew had been alerted that enemy aircraft were nearby.

As the aircraft approached Lamphun from the southeast, it stayed east of the railroad and the river, flying low. When it reached the railroad bridge, the anti-aircraft guns opened fire, and the plane started a wide turn that took it first to the west, then back to the south. It was still turning when it reached the southern edge of the town, headed east and recrossed the Kuang River. At that point, the aircraft fired its guns and struck a man in an oxcart, killing both driver and ox.

The plane headed toward a field just east of the river, where in 1942 a Buddhist temple stood. The aircraft was very low as it approached from the south, and one of its wings struck a large tree growing near the temple, sending the plane crashing into the field. Torn from the fuselage by the impact, the engine was hurled almost up to the railroad embankment, far beyond where the rest of the aircraft came to rest.

Locals found the pilot’s body near the plane, wearing a partially opened parachute. He had been thrown from the cockpit and appeared to have been killed instantly. Some witnesses thought he might have been trying to bail out, but others believed the chute had likely been torn from its pack when the aircraft struck the tree.

* * *

So what did happen to Jack Newkirk, could he inadvertently have hit a tree while flying too low? At this point who can say, and I don’t think it is fair - to the cause of accurate history - to make that judgment now, not when it is based largely on distant memories of witnesses on the ground while discounting the pilot combat reports.

The 1994 witness accounts did not conflict with what the pilots in Newkirk’s flight believed they saw, but added a new dimension. The pilots with Newkirk on that day in 1942 believed that he had been struck by ground fire, causing his crash. The witnesses on the ground – all children then – described the crash as they saw it, and brought in the oxcart element. Their testimony confirmed what is evident from reading the pilot combat reports - that Newkirk was fired on by anti-aircraft guns at the bridge, but did not fire back – and the presence of the oxcart – previously unknown – helped explain the rest: All three surviving pilots believed the fire came from one or two armored vehicles, a logical assumption as they did not know there were antiaircraft guns at the railroad bridge and they did not recognize the vehicles they saw as oxcarts. It thus appears most likely that it was ground fire that caused Newkirk’s crash.

Frank Lawlor, who led the second of the two elements in Newkirk’s flight, wrote in his combat report: “Immediately after leaving the area of the barracks [at one of three Lamphun-area airports which the Tigers strafed] Squadron Leader Newkirk headed back up the road to Chiang Mai. He went into a dive to strafe what appeared to be an armored car and I saw his plane crash and burn. Since by this time visibility had improved considerably and there appeared to be no unusual circumstances, it was evident that Newkirk had been hit by enemy fire, possibly from the armored car.”

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