Veterans Day in the United States is a federal holiday set aside to honor all Americans, living and dead, who have served in the nation's armed forces. VOA's Andrew Baroch has the story of one group of veteran aviators still hailed as heroes in China nearly 70 years after their daring exploits as The Flying Tigers.
"The Flying Tigers," American ace pilots who flew missions over China before World War Two, were given their nickname by the Chinese people. Dick Rossi, 92, remembers the Chinese frequent displays of gratitude, "especially the little boys and girls who would come out bringing oranges, and oranges were pretty rare in China, and bringing flowers. It's hard to describe how grateful they seemed to be."
"The Flying Tigers" were officially known as the First American Volunteer Group, or AVG, a total of 350 American aviators and ground crewmen authorized in the late 1930's by President Franklin Roosevelt to take on a secret military mission, fighting Japanese occupation forces in China.
In 1937, Japanese forces were completing an especially brutal occupation of eastern China. That December, the Japanese went on a murderous rampage of the capital city, Nanking, killing as many as 300,000 men, women, and children in what came to be known as the Rape of Nanking.
Chinese armed forces were no match for the Japanese war machine, but an American military advisor would help turn the tide: retired Army Air Corps Capt. Claire Chennault, who was serving as an adviser to the Chinese military. Historians says he was probably the leading western expert on the Japanese air forces and naval air forces.
Jeff Greene, the executive director of the Sino-American Aviation Heritage Foundation, and an author and producer of several documentary films about "The Flying Tigers," says that top officials in the administration of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt heard about Chennault's lone efforts to help the Chinese, contacted him, and on orders from Roosevelt, summoned Chennault back to the United States and gave him command of about 100 top U.S. combat pilots and 250 ground crewmen volunteers, chosen from different branches of the U.S. armed forces. They trained in Burma and slipped into China by 1941, posing as artists and missionaries.
Greene says Chennault trained the American pilots in air combat with one of the best warplanes of the day, the Curtiss P-40. One hundred of the planes, painted with their signature shark-face insignia, were shipped into China through Burma. Greene says they were "probably the best weapon for the job, …heavily armed, much more so than the Japanese planes. Unlike the P-40, Japanese fighter planes didn't have armor or self-sealing gasoline tanks. So basically, if you put a bullet hole in them, they were in trouble."
Claire Chennault's American Volunteer Group put a lot of bullet holes in Japanese fighter planes.
The Flying Tigers shot down nearly 300 Japanese planes during seven months of aerial combat in 1941, losing only about 70 U.S. fighter planes, thanks to Chennault's superb training. But equally important to the campaign, says historian Jeff Greene, were the legions of Chinese civilians, who reported sightings of Japanese warplanes to Chennault's headquarters by phone and ham radio.
"The Chinese would report the speed, position, and altitude into an integrated notification center," Greene says. "So Chennault would be able to get his pilots up. It was very rare that the Japanese were able to sneak up on the AVG. It was called the 'spider web' alert system. If you looked at his chain of radios and telephones on a map, it looked like a spider web. Basically, it allowed him to get his forces into a position of advantage, knowing the Japanese would be there in five minutes."
In July 1942, with the U.S. at full-scale war with Japan in the air and at sea, Chennault's AVG group was disbanded, its mission taken over by the Army's 23rd Fighter Group; many of the Flying Tigers rejoined different branches of the armed services. The 23rd Fighter Group was itself later absorbed into a branch of the U.S. Air Force, with Chennault as the commander.
One member of the new team, Donald Lopez, now the deputy director of the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., says the group inherited the original Flying Tigers' spirit. Lopez says he felt "invincible….I never thought I could get hurt. And most of the people in the team felt like that."
It was that kind of fearlessness that earned the American pilots the Chinese nickname "fei hu dui," literally "the tiger that flies." In Chinese mythology, Greene says, the tiger is seen as immortal.
Today, there are only 20 of the original AVG men left, four of them, Flying Tiger pilots. Historian Jeff Greene says he's sure their story will live on in China. "I've produced a number of documentaries for Chinese television on the Flying Tigers. Anywhere I see young kids, I ask them, 'Do you know?' Every time, the child gives me a small, thumbs-up salute. They know. Chinese parents and grandparents thought it was important enough that their children know about the men who came to help.
"These 100 pilots have been placed into the social and cultural anthropology forever," Greene says.
And on this American holiday honoring military veterans, "The Flying Tigers" still hold a special place in history, and the hearts of their countrymen.