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She opened the doors of the various rooms that housed historical documents and photographs.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.