Flying Tigers: Connecting past and present

Descendants of legendary pilots and Chinese civilians tell stories of courage, sacrifice and friendship

By MINGMEI LI in Dayton, Ohio | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-04-22 09:22
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A visitor at the photo exhibition honoring the Flying Tigers at the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, on Friday. MINGMEI LI / CHINA DAILY

Genuine willingness

"It was a complicated time, a different time than now because China was being invaded by Japan, and people in the United States were upset about that, but they didn't know exactly what to do about it short of declaring war on Japan,"Molesworth said. "But a certain number of pilots were willing to leave the American armed forces and go to China to fly in defense of China."

He told of young men who went to China to support the Chinese against Japanese aggression.

"Bill Reed, for example, joined the original Flying Tigers and even rejoined the US Army Air Force and came back to China again. Unfortunately, he was killed In December 1944."

Reed was a fighter pilot with nine confirmed aerial shootdowns, but died in defense of both countries he loved, Molesworth said, and during that time so many young men like Reed went to China, and returned to China to fight with Chinese soldiers and never made it back.

More than 2,000 Flying Tigers' airmen devoted their lives to the war. Thousands of stories of the Flying Tigers are waiting to be told, and people today are exploring their history, turning a name into a vivid story and retelling that Chinese and US pilots were working together, working across the Burma Road or hanging out in villages in Yunnan province, Molesworth said.

"It wasn't just the Doolittle Raiders, because all of the American pilots who were in China were subject to getting brought down behind enemy lines, and many of them were helped back to safety by Chinese civilians in the villages where they came down.

"The spirit of the Flying Tigers can help the two countries become closer, and we are at a beginning stage right now.

"The more of that the better the two countries are connected and know about each other and the better that has to be for everyone."

Chinese civilians provided US pilots with assistance at all costs, as more than 200 pilots of the Flying Tigers in distress were rescued by Chinese people.

Zhu Hongyou, director of Beijing New Fourth Army Research, said his father was one of the Chinese who helped US pilots.

In 1944, after carrying out the bombing of Hachiman iron and steel plant in Japan, a B-29 heavy bomber of the US 20th Air Force crashed into a lake in northern Jiangsu province, and the pilots, including Lieutenant Colonel Savoy, parachuted. The crash was on the edge of his father's base, and to rescue those pilots took a direct fight between the third division of the army and the Japanese army.

Hiding the pilots under raincoats and covering their faces with makeup, Chinese civilians and the army managed to get the pilots to safety.

"We all know they were here to help and we must treat them as guests," Zhu said. "That was a valuable friendship during wartime that people should never forget."

Jeffery Greene, chairman of the Sino-American Aviation Heritage Foundation, said: "Chinese people and American people fought, flew together, supporting each other and dying for each other. Americans and Chinese are indeed good friends."

Younger generations

Greene and his foundation have worked for 30 years to explore the stories of the Flying Tigers and have established the Flying Tigers Friendship School Program to promote communication between younger generations.

"American people don't know much about that history. Chinese people do not know the entire story either. But we intend to co-unite the Flying Tigers' legacy."

The Flying Tigers Friendship School Program allows US teenagers to travel to China for two weeks, exploring the country, especially airfields at which their ancestors had fought, and also the Flying Tigers Museum in China. Chinese students travel to the US to see NASA in Florida and NBA games, he said.

The program has more than 20 schools in China and the US, he said. Recently two schools in Yunnan province joined the program and will connect with schools in Texas.

Two students of a middle school in Zhijiang Dong autonomous county, Huaihua city, Hunan province, traveled to Dayton to take part in the exhibition and conference.

"We had learned a lot from General Chennault and his Flying Tigers,"Shu Zihan, 15, said. "Fighting bravely and uniting in friendship is the spirit of the Flying Tigers, and we hope the spirit and such friendship can endure."

Zhang Zhixiang, also 15, said, "They contributed a lot in the victory of the Chinese people's War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression."

Zhang said he is excited to explore the US. Learning the history of the Flying Tigers at his school was inspiring, and seeing all the pictures of the US was touching, he said.

School officials and delegations from many provinces are in talks with principals of Flying Tigers Friendship Schools in California, Iowa, Texas and other states to explore the opportunity to sign a memorandum of cooperation and launch the second round of pairing of a school program.

Both China and the US are working to promote people-to-people communication, especially after the presidents of the two countries reached the San Francisco Vision in November.

"It is a great opportunity for kids from both countries to learn about the history and culture," Erik Lutz, mayor of Pico Rivera in Los Angeles County, said. He is exploring pairing with a sister school program in his city to promote communication between young people, he said.

Now it is important for future generations to appreciate each other, so the countries can then learn to collaborate on future projects, he said.

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