Vice-Premier Liu Yandong meets Flying Tigers pilots and their families in Washington on June 25.[Photo/Xinhua]
Fighter planes roared above Yangtang village, weaving and diving in a deadly dance, filling the evening sky with the staccato cough of machine-gun fire.
It was 1944, and the air force of the Imperial Japanese Army all but ruled the skies over battle-scarred China.
Long Fenggao was 9 years old the day warplanes clashed over his village, near Guilin in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. He had already lost his mother to a Japanese germ bomb four years earlier, and he would soon be orphaned when another raid would kill his father.
Long Fenggao (right), who helped save a pilot when he was 9, chats with a fellow guest at a Flying Tigers memorial event in Guilin in March.[Photo by Huo Yan/China Daily]
But on that day, his salvation came in the form of a squadron of outgunned Curtiss P-40 Warhawks, their noses painted to resemble gaping shark jaws.
They were the only thing standing between the Japanese and total aerial supremacy over China, a ragtag group of pilots called the American Volunteer Group when they entered the war in 1941. Their friends and enemies knew them by their nickname, the Flying Tigers.
As they took on the Japanese war machine in the skies of Yangtang, Long suddenly saw a sliver of hope. Hours later, when villagers found an injured US pilot in a rice field, he would repay that hope in spades.
This year, as the United States commemorates the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, China is preparing to mark the conclusion of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-45).
A bloody chapter in the global conflict, Western and Chinese historians have only recently begun to shine a light on how China’s resistance against Imperial Japan played a crucial role in the greater Allied victory, and how support from the US－including vital supplies flown in over the Himalayas by the brave American “hump” pilots－enabled China to stay in the fight.
Many of China’s stories of camaraderie and shared sacrifice with the US have long been overlooked. Seven decades on, however, there are those who still remember.
For Vice-Premier Liu Yandong, who is in Washington for the seventh US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, her connection to the US-China wartime collaboration is deeply personal. During a diplomatic exchange in 2011, she presented Hillary Clinton, then the US secretary of state, with a photograph of her father, Liu Ruilong, with a Flying Tiger pilot that he helped save.
As a young man fighting against the Japanese, Liu’s father joined in a mission to rescue five US flyboys after their plane was shot down. Several soldiers died in the operation. “I still keep an old photo telling the story of my father, an anti-Japanese military leader, risking his life to rescue American pilots and sacrificing three of his own soldiers,” Liu was quoted as saying.
During a diplomatic exchange in 2011, Liu Yandong presented Hillary Clinton, then the US secretary of state, with a photograph of her father, Liu Ruilong, with a Flying Tiger pilot that he helped save.[China Daily]
Clinton, now a presidential hopeful, reportedly said she would hang the picture on the wall of her office as a reminder of the historical ties that bind the US and China.
Those ties began in earnest in early 1941, when retired US army air corps officer Claire Lee Chennault brought 100 outdated Warhawks to China, along with 99 US pilots and ground crew who had all resigned commissions in the US military to join the fight.
Technically a mercenary outfit, but widely believed to be unofficially sanctioned by the US government before war was declared on Japan in December 1941, in the early days the American Volunteer Group presented China’s only real air resistance to the Imperial Japan Army.
Using Chennault’s unorthodox tactics, which involved attacking in pairs and making diving passes at the enemy, the squadron destroyed almost 300 Japanese aircraft, losing only 12 of their own. The Flying Tigers, as they came to be known, were formally absorbed into the US military in 1942 as the 14th Air Force under the command of Chennault.
According to Chinese historian Ge Shuya, by 1941, China’s fledgling air force had been decimated. The Tigers, which expanded to a force of about 3,000 planes, helped turn the tide.
“For (one period of) 199 days, Japan’s 2,452 aircraft bombed one city (Kunming, Yunan province) 465 times,” Ge said, “It is the arrival of the Flying Tigers that turned the situation around.
They went on to destroy more than 2,500 enemy aircraft, sink or cripple 45 naval ships and 2.23 million metric tons worth of enemy merchant vessels, and kill more than 66,700 enemy troops.
Flying Tiger veteran David Hayward, 93, said it could not have been done without the assistance of the Chinese. The Los Angeles-based retiree, who flew 53 combat missions in a B-25 bomber between 1943 and 1944, said the skies above wartime China were a dangerous place.
“The first three months we operated in China, 12 of our squadron of 16 airplanes were lost,” he said. “They were lost either by Japanese attacks, or anti-aircraft fire from the ground, or simply crashing into a mountain. I had a lot of close calls.”
The help from Chinese allies was vital, he said. “We had something called the Chinese net, an early warning system, maintained by the Chinese. They would warn us when enemy airplanes were approaching, so we could put our planes in the air.
“Some of the crews were able to bail out or make crash landings (after they were shot down). We had several cases in our squadron where men had to bail out of their airplane and were helped back to friendly lines by the Chinese. It was very reassuring.”
In Yangtang in 1944, villages carried the downed US airman, who had wounds to his legs, using a wooden board, traveling through the night until they reached a US air base near Guilin in the early hours. Long said he guided the way through the darkness with an oil lamp.
Despite the divides in culture and language, Long, now 81 and a retired police officer, has no doubt he helped save a friend and ally that night.
“All my family died in the Japanese bombings,” he said. “The Flying Tigers helped me to take revenge. I regard their families as my family. I’m honored to have helped save that injured US pilot, even though I never knew his name.”
Rana Mitter, director of the University of Oxford’s China Centre and author of Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-45, is among the historians working to broaden the historical narrative.
During the Cold War, Western nations and China all forgot the significance of their wartime alliance against Japan, he said. “Various things China did changed the path of the war. Most noticeably, the decision to continue resistance after (Japan invaded in) 1937, when they could well have surrendered. Over the course of the war, at their height, (China) were holding down (about) 500,000 Japanese on the Chinese mainland.”
Those Japanese troops could not be deployed in Southeast Asia or the Pacific theater, a handicap that may have changed the outcome of key battles and saved the lives of many US servicemen. Mitter said Japan planned to conquer China in three months, yet almost five years after its initial invasion, when Pearl Harbor was bombed and China formally became one of the Allies, Japan was still “stuck in the Chinese quagmire”.
China paid a heavy price for its refusal to surrender. By the time the guns fell silent in 1945, an estimated 35 million Chinese soldiers and civilians had been killed or wounded.
“Without the Chinese contribution, it’s much harder to see an Allied victory in Asia during the war,” Mitter said. “But without the British and Americans, it’s also much harder to see a Chinese victory.”
Nell Calloway, director of the Chennault Aviation and Military Museum in Louisiana, has just launched an exhibition on the extraordinary achievements of the Flying Tigers commander. Similar to Vice-Premier Liu, a woman she has met with several times, Calloway has a personal connection with the Flying Tigers: She is Chennault’s granddaughter. The 65-year-old said her grandfather’s dream was that the squadron would “always be remembered on both sides of the Pacific as the symbol of two great peoples working toward a common goal in war and peace”.
She said greater knowledge about the wartime US-China alliance could help lead to lasting peace and friendship in the future.
It’s a message close to Long’s heart. When he speaks about the Flying Tigers, there is still something in his voice of that boy who looked up and saw salvation. And in Hayward, there is still a glimmer of that young bomber pilot looking back down.
“We continually asked ourselves when we were over there, ‘Are we really doing any good for anybody?’ I’m really pleased we were able to do something useful to help people like that young boy,” Hayward said. “I certainly advocate lasting peace between our countries.”