In 1941, the fourth year of the Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, as China's forces laid plans to move from a defensive to a counteroffensive footing, more than 200 young American men arrived in Kunming City, Yunnan Province, a strategically important city in the southwest region of the country. Their passports displayed various civilian identities, such as musician, student, banker and farmer. They were actually the flyers of the American Volunteer Group. Joining with Chinese citizens and soldiers, the young American pilots and their distinctively-marked aircraft would help push back the Japanese invaders. And they would become known as the Flying Tigers.
In July 1937, American Claire Lee Chennault, a former Army Air Corps instructor and retired captain, was invited to China to inspect the Chinese air force. Soon after he arrived in the country, with the outbreak of Marco Polo Bridge Incident, the Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression was fully engaged. Upon the advice of Soong Meiling, Chiang Kai-shek's wife, Chennault set up a flying school on the outskirts of Kunming and began to train Chinese personnel according to American standards of aviation.
In 1941, with the approval of President Roosevelt, Chennault recruited American pilots and technicians under the name of a private institution. With civilian identities, those recruits would voluntarily participate in the defense of China. These brave adventurers became the first group of elite pilots to serve in what would become known as the Flying Tigers Squadron.
Claire Lee Chennault, an American general Forever a part of China
A native of Texas born on September 6, 1893, Claire Lee Chennault founded his flying school in July of 1937. Soon after, the Japanese invaded and China was at war. Chennault organized the American Volunteer Group in Kunming and he and his people actively assisted Chinese air force personnel in combating the Japanese. After the war in the Pacific was engaged, with the battle in China now strategically important, the United States officially accelerated its support of the Chinese resistance. In July 1942, remaining under the command of now Brigadier General Chennault, the American Volunteer Group was tasked to its role in what was officially designated as the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater of Operations. In March 1943, the group was enlarged into the US Army's 14th Air Force and Chennault was promoted to major general.
From the American Volunteer Group, to the 23rd Fighter Group and to the US Army's 14th Air Force, from retired captain to major general, Chennault grew an emotional attachment to China. After the war Chennault at one time planned to build a home in Kunming and remain in China.
After eight years, however, and before final victory, in July 1945, Chennault left the country. Thousands of Chinese filled the streets to see him off. The immense crowd at first blocked Chennault's car, then pushed it forward, as if carrying a sedan chair. It would be several hours before Chennault arrived at the central square. On the receiving stand was the dramatic toothy emblem of the Flying Tigers and a rainbow built of flowers and pine branches. The throng lined up, pushing forward to shake hands with Chennault. Seeing the huge and grateful crowd, he was moved to tears. A Chinese service person who for many years performed ground support for the Flying Tigers recounted: "Not since Marco Polo has there been a foreigner like Chennault, so much loved and respected by the Chinese people."
On July 27, 1958, Chennault passed away in the United States. His American wife of Chinese origin, Anna Chan Chennault, remains in good health.
The Flying Tigers are born.
In December of 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and accelerated their occupation of Southeast Asia. Their plan was to attack Yunnan Province from a southwest direction, enter Sichuan Province and fully occupy China. Consequently, in the China-Burma-India Theater, Kunming was of paramount strategic importance. On December 20, 1941, 12 days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 10 Japanese bombers attacked Kunming and the American Volunteer Group scrambled for their planes. Chennault recalled that at the time he thought: "My god, the day has finally arrived."
A signal flare shot off across the sky signaling the approaching enemy bombers, an air raid alarm sounded and 16 P-40 fighter planes took to the sky. In a fierce air battle nine Japanese bombers were shot down and the P-40s returned to base without loss. The squadron gained fame for the Kunming victory, but its original name, the American Volunteer Group, was not well known to the Chinese public. The squadron's logo, however, the fierce jaws of a shark, was very well known. The residents of Kunming described the flyers as "flying tigers," and thus the "Flying Tigers Squadron" was born.
The Hump Route
From March 1942, when Rangoon (now Yangon), Burma (now Myanmar), fell into enemy hands, to 1945, before the opening of the Stilwell Road, China's accesses to the outside world was virtually severed. Securing the transportation of supplies and ammunition to strategic zones became vital to the war effort. On October 8, 1942, Chennault proposed to his US commanders that the "Hump Route" be opened. The air route from Kunming to India via Myanmar was so named due to the wild and massive mountains that from the air appeared like humps. Mountains with unknown elevations, unpredictable thunderstorms and the haunt of Japanese attack planes all contributed to the danger of air transport over the area.
Chennault used Wujiaba Airport as his command post for the first trial flight over the Hump Route. Under his command, a C-46 transport plane flew over treacherous snow-covered mountains to land finally in India. Chennault again attempted to open up a direct route to India from Yunnan Province via the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. This would require flying through thin air over 4,500-5,000-meter-high mountains, enduring often foul weather and strong ultraviolet rays.
Colonel Fox, a top-rated American test pilot and explorer of air routes around the globe, was called to China to seek out this new route. But this mission was to be his last. One hour after taking off, in bad weather Fox's C-46 collided with a mountain peak and he was killed in the line of duty.
But the fight went on. With the joint effort of China and the US, and numerous test flights, the C-46s were eventually improved and the Hump Route gradually became safe. In three years, 736,374 tons of supplies were transported over the Hump Route to China.
The war turns
During the battle for Changde, with the support of US air operations, the Chinese Army held its ground for three months. Later the Japanese troops occupied Changde City. Finally, backed up by a fierce air-attack, the Chinese Army counterattacked and the Japanese fled, only five days after their occupation. Before the battle was over, the invaders incurred approximately 15,000 casualties, many killed by air attack.
In the latter phase of the war, the 14th Air Force took the upper hand in their area of operations. On January 17, 1945, 16 P-51 mustangs executed an attack against the Japanese air base in Shanghai. In total surprise, with Japanese mechanics at work on the planes, formations of fighters in hangars and artillery positions unmanned, the US flyers smashed 70 Japanese planes. And three Japanese bombers in route from Taiwan, unable to land, were destroyed.
The combined military operations of China and the US led to victories on the mainland and in Southeast Asia. The Chinese army gradually gained military superiority and began a sustained counteroffensive. American B-29 long-range heavy bombers began operations out of China's rear areas, carrying the battle to Japan with strategic strikes. The combined operations ultimately led to a Sino-American victory in the war against fascist forces.
By the end of WWII, the 14th Air Force had shot down 2,600 Japanese planes, sunk or inflicted heavy losses on merchant ships with a total weight of 2.23 million tons, sunk or rendered useless 44 warships and 13,000 inland water vessels, and killed 66,700 Japanese aggressors. Approximately 500 Flying Tigers aircraft were lost in the effort.
A bond in life-and-death
Upon the founding of the American Volunteer Group, the Chinese people, especially the ethnic groups of Yunnan Province, moved to provide support. At that time, although Yunnan residents suffered from logistical poverty, they spared no effort in meeting the food demands of the Flying Tigers and all other allied forces. The daily purchase and supply of food in Kunming approximated 40 head of cattle, 60 pigs, two tons of lard, 1,000 chickens, 60,000 eggs, 150 bags of flour, 1,500 kilograms of sugar, 4,000 kilograms of vegetables, 2,000 kilograms of fruit, 10 tons of charcoal, 150 kilograms of salt, 10 tons of coal, 2,500 kilograms of alkali and 70 boxes of soap. And the citizens of Yunnan Province spared no labor in serving as the wartime hosts of their allies, dispatching more than 1 million workers to build, reconstruct and extend airbases in strategically varied locations. The people's objective was to free the Flying Tigers of logistical worries so the pilots and their support personnel could take the fight to the enemy.
The Eighth Route Army and the New Fourth Army led by the Communist Party of China (CPC) rescued a number of downed Flying Tigers pilots. In Hengshan Mountain region, Shanxi Province, when three American planes were forced to land, all pilots were rescued by the Eighth Route Army. When the Pinghan Railway in Hebei Province was under air attack, pilots of two downed American P-51 were rescued by local CPC cadres. And in central Hubei Province, American pilots were saved by the Honghu Lake Detachment of the New Fourth Army.
Sixty years have passed since the victory over Japanese aggression. However, many in Yunnan Province and other parts of China still become emotional when speaking of the Flying Tigers. And many can still offer vivid personal recollections of the pilots' selfless heroism. Still today, the Chinese people continue to think of The Flying Tigers as a vital part of their War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.
Flying Tigers pilots stand before their fighter planes.
The Flying Tigers Squadron received strong support from the Chinese people. This photo was taken by Flying Tigers pilots while they visited with Yunnan residents in the 1940s.
June 25, 2004: Flying Tigers pilots Hoffman (right) and Stale, stand before their P-40 in the US Air Force's National Museum, Dayton, Ohio. On the same day, an exhibition entitled the Memory of History jointly held by the Information Office of the Chinese State Council and the US Air Force's National Museum concluded at the Air Force's museum. Zhao Peng
"It is my long-cherished dream to visit the country for which my father fought." On October 17, 2002, Rosemary Chennault, daughter of General Chennault, arrived in China.