Recent finds related to Flying Tigers air unit uncovers history of Sino-US cooperation

By Xu Ming and Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/30 19:03:39

Once-forgotten heroes regain appreciation as govt changes view on history

A recent discovery in Yunnan Province revealed relics related to the Flying Tigers, the US volunteer air squadron

While they helped China defend itself against Japanese invaders, many veterans faced persecution after the war ended

Their reputation has been restored in recent years, due to the efforts from both the society and government

A retired American Flying Tiger touches a photo about his fellow volunteers in an exhibition dedicated to the airmen in Kunming, Southwest China's Yunnan Province. Photo: CFP

Furnaces, remnants of a command buildings and a troop encampment. History was uncovered when the largest cluster of relic sites found so far related to the Flying Tigers, the US volunteer air squadron which helped China fight off Japan in the 1940s, was rediscovered earlier this month on the outskirts of Kunming, Southwest China's Yunnan Province.

These finds, unearthed in Wulongpu village, are a reminder of a part of history that's not often mentioned in China or the US as the relationship between Beijing and Washington has changed over time. But many Yunnan locals and history lovers are still thankful to the US volunteer team who protected their homes over half a century ago.

One of them is Sun Guansheng, director of the Yunnan Flying Tigers Research Institute who led the team behind the discovery. As one of the few experts in China today who's engaged in researching this chapter of history, he is calling for more protection for the sites and recognition of these airmen's impact.

"Funding and policy support are urgently needed. It's a pressing task to protect these historical buildings and the Flying Tiger culture, which originated here," Sun, also the founder of the Yunnan Flying Tigers museum, said.

Uniforms of Flying Tigers Photo: CFP

 Glorious past

It was 1941, and the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1931-45) entered its fourth and maybe most difficult year in China. According to statistics from the Yunnan Flying Tigers Research Institute, from September 1938 to December 1941, Japanese planes struck Kunming, a city of strategic importance in Southwest China, 51 times, and numerous people were killed and injured.

China's ill-trained and poorly-equipped air force wasn't able to repel Japan's aerial assault. In 1940, Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek sent Claire Lee Chennault, a former US Army Air Corps officer who had come to train Chinese pilots, to Washington to lay the groundwork for a US-led air unit with the approval of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In 1941, over 200 young Americans recruited by Chennault arrived in Kunming, joining the American Volunteer Group. In the beginning, the group consisted of around 100 aircraft and around 200 pilots, mostly from the US Army Air corps. They became the first group of elite US pilots to participate in the frontline defense of China.

Chennault used Wujiaba Airport as his command post. The sudden appearance of defending aircraft caught the Japanese off guard. During the battle for Changde, the Chinese army counterattacked only five days after the area was occupied and killed 15,000 of the invaders. The Flying Tigers also carried attacks against the Japanese airbase in Shanghai. The cooperation between China and the US led to victories in China and Southeast Asia.

In March 1943, the Flying Tigers became the US Army's 14th Air Force, with Chennault appointed its major general. By the end of World War II, the 14th Air Force had shot down 2,600 Japanese planes, sunk or rendered useless 44 warships and 13,000 inland water vessels, and killed 66,700 Japanese troops, according to the memoirs of Chennault. In the meantime, over 500 Flying Tigers aircraft were lost, and over 2,000 members died.

The Flying Tigers were not only Americans, but also Chinese translators, ground staff and later pilots, which Chennault trained in a flying school on the outskirts of Kunming. The 14th Air Force, for example, had over 20 Chinese pilots, many of which later flew "the Hump," an iconic air supply route to send desperately needed men and materiel into southwestern China.


Forgotten heroes

Compared to the glorious achievements of the Flying Tigers in the war, their fate after death has been somewhat ignominious.

The heroes used to be properly respected. As revealed by the Yunnan Flying Tigers Research Institute, after 1943 a cemetery for Flying Tigers was established in Xiaomaju village in Kunming. The deceased were honored with quality coffins and tombstones, and a memorial hall with carved stone tablets was established. The hall was filled with the scent of burning incense year-round because locals wanted to memorialize the fallen heroes.

But this grandeur was temporary. After the Communist Party of China defeated the nationalist Kuomintang party in 1949, the topic of the Flying Tigers became sensitive as it risked giving credit to the achievements made by the Kuomintang in resisting the Japanese invasion.

The cemetery was moved to a remote mountainous site in the 1950s. The old hall became a warehouse and the memorial tablets became children's playthings.

Several years later, the tombstones were used as the foundation of a local reservoir.

In late 1980s, the nameless coffins were opened by grave robbers and the heroes' bones were exposed to the elements.

Sun shared with the Global Times that he cried when he saw the bones of the Flying Tigers scattered amid grass and rubbish in 2007.

The Chinese veterans experienced difficulties in post-war China. As Li Shangjin, the son of Flying Tigers translator Li Tong revealed to Guangzhou Daily that his father worked as an English teacher after the war. However he was driven out of the school due to his work with the US military and had to become a manual laborer to support his family.

In 1960s, Li Tong was placed under investigation again and was sent to a labor camp for nine years. Li Shangjin was affected too. Due to his father's identity, he could not join the army or be hired by State-owned firms and had to work in small factories.  

Lin Shaoming, another Flying Tigers team member, was sent to a labor camp too, for more than 20 years. Zheng Songsheng, also a team member, first worked in a brick factory after the war was over. Later, after his experience in Flying Tigers was revealed, he was demoted to a frontline worker and eventually had his right leg amputated after being injured at work.

Late justice

Luckily, these once-forgotten heroes have been appreciated once again in recent years, due to the efforts from both society and the government.

While it was a 2005 speech by then Chinese President Hu Jintao in which he paid tribute to the airmen's spirit of Sino-American cooperation that brought widespread attention to them, Sun had been working to restore their reputation for years already by that point.

After years of research, Sun established the Yunnan Flying Tigers Research Institute in 2007, and started more investigations into the surviving traces of the team in Kunming. In 2011 he opened the first museum about them in his own house.

"We should remember the Sino-US friendship at that time. We should be grateful for their assistance," said Sun. "Conflicts are inevitable in the Sino-US relationship, but the friendship between the two countries never changes."

Since seeing the miserable condition of the tombs in 2007, Sun has been working hard to push the relevant departments to restore them.

"Since then, after our appeals, every year around Qingming Festival (a day on which Chinese people celebrate their ancestors), there were calls for the cemetery to be repaired from the media and society," Sun said.

However it took until 2013 for the cemetery to be restored.

In 2016, an official Kunming Flying Tigers Museum was opened thanks to the over 2,000 donations made by the descendants of the team members, to allow more people to learn about the history and achievements of the Flying Tigers.

Zhao Shengrong, adopted daughter of Flying Tiger Zheng Songsheng, was for a long time unwilling to tell others that her father was a member of the team. Now she realizes the heroes should not be forgotten and hopes to tell his father's stories to more people.

In 2009, Li Shangjin started to learn about the history of the Flying Tigers after seeing media reports about them. He started to feel proud of his father instead of complaining. "At that time, they were chosen by history," said Li.

In 1979, his father Li Tong managed to become a teacher again. As Li Shangjin recollected, even in the worst times of his father's life, he still believed that respect would come sooner or later.

In 2009, the tombs of Li Tong, Zheng Songsheng and several other soldiers' were moved to Jinling Cemetery in Kunming. Every Qingming Festival, citizens come to remember what they did for China.
Newspaper headline: Rediscovering friendship

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