An American and Chinese Hero

Readability

An American and Chinese Hero

Claire Chen­nault, some­one whom few peo­ple in the United States know but should, may be the most beloved Amer­i­can in China.

Dur­ing World War II, Chen­nault headed a secret oper­a­tion in Kun­ming called the First Amer­i­can Vol­un­teer Group, bet­ter known as the Fly­ing Tigers.

By Decem­ber 1941, Kun­ming, a vital cap­i­tal of a south­west China province that bor­ders what is now Myan­mar, Laos, and Viet­nam, had suf­fered attacks by Japan­ese bombers for almost three years. The pun­ish­ing raids were part of an assault on China that the Roo­sevelt admin­is­tra­tion inter­preted as a threat to Amer­i­can inter­ests in the region.

The pres­i­dent, bound by the 1939 Neu­tral­ity Act, responded with a covert oper­a­tion. Months before the Japan­ese attack on Pearl Har­bor pulled the United States into war, a group of almost 100 pilots recruited from the U.S. Army Air Corps, Navy, and Marines resigned from their ser­vices and vol­un­teered to defend China against Japan.

Chen­nault, a retired U.S. Army Air Corps pilot who had become an adviser to the Chi­nese air force, dis­patched two squadrons to Kun­ming, which became the group’s per­ma­nent base. When the Amer­i­can Vol­un­teer Group landed, the city was still smol­der­ing. Japan­ese bombers had hit Kun­ming that morn­ing, and about 400 Chi­nese had been killed.

For the next seven months, the Fly­ing Tigers destroyed almost 300 Japan­ese attack­ing air­planes in what was con­sid­ered a mir­a­cle in China and still remem­bered today.

Time hailed the Amer­i­can pilots as “Fly­ing Tigers.” The nick­name stemmed from the fly­ing tiger emblem that Walt Dis­ney Stu­dios had cre­ated for the vol­un­teer air­men two months ear­lier, and it is how they have been known ever since.

In his mem­oir Way of a Fighter, Chen­nault wrote: “Japan­ese air­men never again tried to bomb Kun­ming while the AVG defended it. For many months after­wards, they sniffed about the edges of the warn­ing net, but never ven­tured near Kunming.”

Dur­ing a recent trip to the city, my friend Jay and I jour­neyed to the Fly­ing Tigers Museum, which took a taxi ride, a bus ride, and an adven­ture with a gypsy cab.

There we met the cura­tor of the museum, a 70-​something woman, Mrs. Jungbo, who expressed her grat­i­tude to us as Amer­i­cans for what Chen­nault and his air­men accom­plished so many years ago.

She opened the doors of the var­i­ous rooms that housed his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments and pho­tographs. She insisted that we take two books about the air group and wouldn’t take a contribution.

Then she escorted us back to our hotel, which was more than an hour away and paid the gypsy taxi for the trip.

All of this because she and her fam­ily remem­bered the heroic deeds of Amer­i­cans so long ago.

At a time when many coun­tries don’t recall how much the United States did for them, it was a good feel­ing to know that some peo­ple in Kun­ming still remember.

Claire Chennault, someone whom few people in the United States know but should,  may be the most beloved American in China.

During World War II, Chennault headed a secret operation in Kunming called the First American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers.

By December 1941, Kunming, a vital capital of a southwest China province that borders what is now Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, had suffered attacks by Japanese bombers for almost three years. The punishing raids were part of an assault on China that the Roosevelt administration interpreted as a threat to American interests in the region.

The president, bound by the 1939 Neutrality Act, responded with a covert operation. Months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor pulled the United States into war, a group of almost 100 pilots recruited from the U.S. Army Air Corps, Navy, and Marines resigned from their services and volunteered to defend China against Japan.

Chennault, a retired U.S. Army Air Corps pilot who had become an adviser to the Chinese air force, dispatched two squadrons to Kunming, which became the group’s permanent base. When the American Volunteer Group landed, the city was still smoldering. Japanese bombers had hit Kunming that morning, and about 400 Chinese had been killed.

For the next seven months, the Flying Tigers destroyed almost 300 Japanese attacking airplanes in what was considered a miracle in China and still remembered today.

Time hailed the American pilots as “Flying Tigers.” The nickname stemmed from the flying tiger emblem that Walt Disney Studios had created for the volunteer airmen two months earlier, and it is how they have been known ever since.

In his memoir Way of a Fighter, Chennault wrote: “Japanese airmen never again tried to bomb Kunming while the AVG defended it. For many months afterwards, they sniffed about the edges of the warning net, but never ventured near Kunming.”

During a recent trip to the city, my friend Jay and I journeyed to the Flying Tigers Museum, which took a taxi ride, a bus ride, and an adventure with a gypsy cab.

There we met the curator of the museum, a 70-something woman, Mrs. Jungbo, who expressed her gratitude to us as Americans for what Chennault and his airmen accomplished so many years ago.

She opened the doors of the various rooms that housed historical documents and photographs. She insisted that we take two books about the air group and wouldn’t take a contribution.

Then she escorted us back to our hotel, which was more than an hour away and paid the gypsy taxi for the trip.

All of this because she and her family remembered the heroic deeds of Americans so long ago.

At a time when many countries don’t recall how much the United States did for them, it was a good feeling to know that some people in Kunming still remember.