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Jack Newkirk: The View from the Ground

By Jack Eisner

Flying Tiger Ace "Scarsdale" Jack Newkirk was killed in a crash near Lamphun city, Thailand on March 24, 1942. The location of the crash site was lost in recent times. This author, joined by Hak Hakanson, successfully rediscovered it in 2009. In that effort, we reviewed pilot records and interviewed local residents present at the time of the crash. The former proved to be very general while the latter, in contrast, proved very detailed and provided most of the useful information, with some new details. The result, with locations in GPS format, is presented below:

The wreckage on display Local officials and Thai soldiers gathered Newkirk's remains and buried him at the edge of the crash site (gravesite: N18ř34.691' E99ř01.191'). The gravesite is today located below the road, and across from the Mueang Lamphun District Office (the blue roofs in the photo). The scattered pieces of the plane were transported to the Lamphun police station, just outside the old city's north gate. The police station is in the same location today. Here Ms. Silai Gongnyuen, 80 years old in 2009, points to the gravesite on the far side of the rice field.

The story

On the morning of March 24, 1942, four planes of Newkirk’s 2nd Squadron were heading north towards Chiang Mai, following the main rail line in search of military targets to strafe.  At Lamphun, 26 kilometers south of Chiang Mai, Newkirk spotted the Ban Tha Lo railroad bridge (N 18° 35.120' E 99° 01.300') that crosses the Mae Kuang River about 1.4 kilometers northeast of Lamphun, and opened fire. The bridge’s anti-aircraft battery returned fire.

Newkirk turned west, then south, circling the old city, and lined up with a north-south road that passes along the west side of Wat Phra Yuen (a temple) on its way to the railroad bridge.  Seeing what his fellow pilots all identified as one or two military vehicles, Newkirk dove. In fact, the vehicles were two oxcarts, loaded with rice, passing over a wooden bridge (N18° 34.488' E99° 01.088') near the temple’s southwest corner.

Newkirk’s P-40 did not pull out of its dive.  The plane first hit a tong gwow (flame tree) just to the east of the road embankment. The tree tore off a wing which landed about 215 m north, in the gully just beyond the north side of an east-west bridge (N18° 34.593' E99° 01.142') leading to the rear of the temple.

The temple The west gate of Wat Phra Yuen (Temple of the Standing Buddha). The photo shows the temple's mondop, resembling a stepped temple in late Burmese Pagan style, housing four standing Buddhas, each facing one of the four directions. This mondop is a 1901-1907 construction, built over one erected in 1370 by King Ku Na, on a site that already had an 8.5 meter standing Buddha dating from the 12th century. Wat Phra Yuen, originally a forest monastery, is located one kilometer outside the ancient walled city of Lamphun's east gate.

The rest of the plane hit the ground at approximately N18°34.757' E99°01.247, about 350 m north of the east-west bridge. While Newkirk's parachute was found in the tree, his body parts were scattered, indicating that he had ridden the plane into the ground.

Local officials and Thai soldiers gathered Newkirk’s remains and buried him at the edge of the crash site (gravesite: N18°34.691' E99°01.191'). The scattered pieces of the plane were and transported to the Lamphun police station (N18°34.992' E99°00.525') just outside the old city’s north gate.  The wreckage was later transported to Chiang Mai.

After the war, Newkirk's body was removed by a joint Thai-American military team and reburied in the Scarsdale, NY churchyard of St. James the Less (Episcopal) on May 11, 1949.

Memorial marker
Detail of the AVG Memorial at the Chiang Mai Foreign Cemetery. The cenotaph was dedicated November 11, 2003. Four of the then-surviving AVG pilots came from the U.S. for the ceremony. They included Major General Charles Bond (USAF retired), one of pilots on the Chiang Mai raid. Also present were Dick Rossi, Bob Layher, and Peter Wright.

Photo-map of the crash site

Sources

Mrs. Silai Gongnyuen, 80-years-old, is a villager who, although not having seen the event of the crash, provided details of the wreckage and grave as she saw them over the course of the following days and weeks.  She still lives only about 400 m southeast of the crash site.

Mr. Suwit Junyiem, 84-years-old, a retired provincial civil servant, lived about 300 m west of the crash site on March 1942.  He witnessed Newkirk attacking the railroad bridge, the crash, the oxcarts on the bridge just after they had been attacked, and the burial.  Mr. Suwit was also a speaker at the 1994 gravesite ceremony attended by AVG veterans including Chiang Mai raiders Ed Rector, Charlie Bond and Robert Keeton.  He still lives in the same village.

Phra Muangin Siwitchai, 74 years-old, was been a monk in a village a few km to the southwest of the crash site.  On March 24, 1942 he was a boy, living with his family, in the same village.

Major Veerachad Palee, Tango Squadron Wing 41 Museum, Chiang Mai kindly provided photos and a video of the November 8, 1994 AVG visit to the Newkirk grave site.

Group Captain Sakpinit Promthep, Royal Thai Air Force, was most helpful in providing historical data.  He worked with JPAC in locating and recovering the remains of American MIA pilots and their aircraft.

Col. Surat Lertlum, PhD, of Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, and project head of the GeoSpatial Digital Archive, kindly provided RAF aerial reconnaissance photographs of Lamphun, taken in March 1944. The photographs were from the (SOAS-Univ. of London) Williams-Hunt Collection, GeoSpatial Digital Archive.

Sources of coordinates were a Garmin GPS-12 and Google Earth. GPS accuracy (averaged) was 8 m. GPS and Google Earth agreed within that accuracy.

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