In this undated photo, US Flying Tigers members are seen in front of fighter planes in China during the World War II. (PHOTO / XINHUA)
Adorned in their different uniforms, some leaning slightly, others standing with the help of their walkers and sticks, all eight veterans aged between their mid-80s and late-90s, stood with pride and solemnity as the national anthems of the United States and China rang out.
Saluting the national flags of both countries, they did so with the same vigor and enthusiasm as they once did more than 70 years ago when they soldiered together in China as members of the Flying Tigers, a volunteer military group commanded by General Claire Lee Chennault.
The veterans had gathered to take part in a two-day event sharing in the history of the Flying Tigers at the fourth Sino-American Second World War Friendship and Flying Tigers History Conference held in May in Las Vegas, Nevada.
I believe this conference will be a very good source of inspiration to us, guide us to a better US-China relationship and move forward the friendship of our two peoples and the international community
Wesley Fronk, Who used to serve as a combat cargo command crewman in the Flying Tigers
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Themed as "honoring our father's flags", organizers invited eight World War II Flying Tigers veterans, their family members and representatives from the local Chinese community and from China－to commemorate a dark chapter of war-shattered history in the 1940s, and celebrate the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the US.
More importantly, attendees through discussions reached a consensus. They emphasized the importance of cooperation between China and the US, which has enabled the two nations to overcome differences and disagreements during wartime, and enabled them to achieve victory.
Attendees to the conference also included Chinese Consul-General in San Francisco Wang Donghua, representatives from the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, and members of the local Chinese-American community.
Wang, in his keynote speech at the opening ceremony, extended his "utmost respect and heartfelt gratitude" to the Flying Tigers, calling their stories a reflection of a "profound friendship forged between the two peoples by fighting shoulder to shoulder against a common enemy", and noted that "cooperation is in the best interests of our two countries."
"The friendship going through thick and thin has far-reaching significance," said Wesley Fronk, who used to serve as a combat cargo command crewman in the Flying Tigers. The 97-year-old, wearing his World War II veterans' hat and a badge with the national flags of the US and China, drove from his Las Vegas residence to reunite with his comrades.
"I believe this conference will be a very good source of inspiration to us, guide us to a better US-China relationship and move forward the friendship of our two peoples and the international community," Fronk said.
Entering the war
The Flying Tigers veterans are the living witnesses of China's tenaciously-fought, 14-year War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, and have played a crucial role in history.
In the 1930s, Japan's militarist fascists rose to power, culminating in serial skirmishes and attacks against China. On Sept 18, 1931, Japanese troops blew up a section of railway in Shenyang, Northeast China, marking the start of Japan's invasion of the country. On July 7, 1937, Japan orchestrated the Lugou Bridge Incident, or the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, as an excuse to launch its full-scale invasion, a prelude to World War II in the Asia-Pacific region.
China's combat against the Japanese army in four years remained at a stalemate. The Chinese government had sought several times for humanitarian assistance from the US. On the aviation front, commander of the US 14th Air Fleet General Claire Lee Chennault came to China in 1937, first as a military aviation adviser, then as director of a Chinese Air Force flight school headquartered in Kunming, Yunnan province.
As the Japanese troops scored major victories in China, on April 15, 1941, under the provisions of an executive order signed by President Roosevelt, Chennault started recruiting for China the American Volunteer Group, which was later known as the Flying Tigers.
Over the winter of 1940-41, Chennault negotiated China's purchase of 100 US Curtiss P-40 Warhawks, a single-engined, single-seat, all-metal fighter and ground-attack aircraft that first flew in 1938, for his team. He then ordered the painting of the distinctive "shark's mouth" on the nose of the fighters, thus creating one of the most recognizable images of World War II.
Chennault then handpicked 100 American pilots, who had all resigned their military commissions from the US Army, Air force, Navy or Marine Corps in order to serve in China. Together with 200 US ground troops, the pilots were trained and deployed majorly in Kunming, Yunnan province.
Divided into three fighter squadrons, namely "Adam and Eves", "Panda Bears" and "Hell's Angels", the Flying Tigers pilots were required by Chennault to quickly overcome language and cultural barriers, adapt to the environment and get ready for their upcoming missions and challenges.
Embarking on an adventure of a lifetime, these young soldiers had to tackle challenges on a daily basis. In autumn of 1941, these soldiers were sent to Toungoo, Burma to receive training on how to fly the P-40 fighters. According to archives, letters and diaries that were recently revealed to the public, the troops sorely missed their home comforts.
Their daily routine consisted of waking at 5:30 am, showering in makeshift showers made of bamboo, carefully shaking out their boots for scorpions or snakes, followed by the daily rush to the dining halls to compete for their rations among throngs of swarming insects.
Despite all of these inconveniences, the Flying Tigers concentrated their efforts to solve the bigger challenge, learning how to fly a P-40 fighter.
One small operating mistake could result in a fatal crash, so Chennault had to race against time to teach the pilots everything they should know before sending them up into the skies.
He was stern and rigorous, as some noted in their dairies. "He wanted these men to know the enemy aircraft like the backs of their hands." Chennault would circle key areas on Japanese planes and tell his pilots where they should target in a real battle: the oil coolers, oxygen storage, gas tanks, bomb bays. He then would erase the circles, randomly call upon a student pilot and ask him to draw the circles back and recite each part in front of the entire class.
The Flying Tigers would not have known that they were to become the first group of Americans involved in World War II, fighting against the Japanese side by side with their Chinese counterparts.
On Dec 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, prompting the US to declare war on Japan. Meanwhile, the US government increased its aid to China by airlifting much-needed war materials over the Himalayas, as well as strengthening airstrikes against Japanese troops.
"I listened to the radio and heard the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor," recalled Mel McMullen, 93, a former B-24 bomber flight engineer and aerial gunner. "I decided without any hesitation to join General Chennault in China."
Joining the Flying Tigers in 1944, the San Bernardino, California resident believed what he did then was "the right thing to do" although the war "was devastating." With his team, McMullen needed to make low-level raids on bridges, railroad lines, and sea sweeps to destroy Japanese supply lines in eastern China.
On some of his assignments, McMullen could make out the gestures of human targets on the ground, or clearly see the facial expressions of Japanese pilots in the fight. "It was a life-and-death battle," he said.
McMullen accomplished his mission and left China in November, 1945. The days he spent in China have transformed him in some ways－the first thing McMullen did after returning home was to marry Jennifer, a military base nurse, and start a family. And the marriage, after 74 years, is "as steadfast as day one," he said.
On May 11, McMullen received a certificate of special US congressional recognition to acknowledge his contributions to China. In response, he hoped that "we remember the times that we were very close friends and helping each other. Let the friendship stay."
Cynthia Chennault, daughter of General Chennault and an emeritus professor at the University of Florida, told the audience at the Las Vegas conference the history of the Flying Tigers, describing it as "a great success story of mutual friendship, respect and collaboration".
Although she was only eight when her father died in 1958, Cynthia remembered how kind and indulgent General Chennault was. She believed the experience "completely changed his life. He had never been to China before, and within a very short few months, he developed profound respect for Chinese people, and their bravery and perseverance in such difficult circumstances."
Meanwhile, she said serving in China also brought General Chennault "an opportunity for him to prove his aviation theory and his fighter pilot theory. So it's a dream come true for him too."
A scholar specializing in cultural and people-to-people exchanges, Cynthia through many of her frequent travels to China has explored, and kept exploring the significant role the Flying Tigers have played in cementing China-US friendship.
The 69-year-old conducts her research around Chinese poetry, society and history between the fourth through to the seventh century, and encourages her students to engage in grassroots exchanges.
However, Chinese and US soldiers did not always see eye-to-eye at all times. Actually, they had different opinions on many topics and varied in thoughts and approaches, said Margarate Mills-Kincannon, daughter of the B-25 aerial gunner James Mills, a Flying Tigers veteran who died in 2016.
An Arkansas native, Mills was shocked to learn of the Pearl Harbor attack as an 18-year-old high school graduate. He joined the US Air Force because "he didn't want to fight on the ground and carry a gun," Margarate recalled.
In 1943, Mills left his family and daughter, who was only three weeks old at the time, for China and joined the Chinese-American Composite Wing, an operational unit initially formed in 1943 and were jointly commanded by both American and Chinese air force officers as part of the Flying Tigers.
As a rule, aircraft of the CACW needed to be jointly manned by pilots and crewmen from both countries. "Although we disagreed on many things, we know the most important was to aim at our common goal," said David Hayward, a former 14th Air Force B-25 Bomber pilot who completed more than 50 combat missions between 1943 and 1944.
In 16 months, the China-US team had destroyed 190 Japanese aircraft in air-to-air combat, and another 301 on the ground. Fighters and bombers of the CACW had destroyed over 1,500 Japanese vehicles, facilities, railroads and bridges, sunk tons of Japanese ships and killed many Japanese ground troops.
"Without cooperation and quality collaboration between Chinese and American crews, we simply could not reach these goals," Hayward said.
Echoing Hayward, 95-year-old Jay Vinyard said it's "to the credit of Chinese people that they made a warning system and it was very effective, and they kept a close watch out to help any American pilot that was shot down."
In early 1944, Vinyard was assigned to fly "the Hump", a dangerous airlift route over the Himalayas through which the Allied pilots flew transport aircraft from India to China to resupply China between 1942 and 1945.
"China and the United States, we have the capability of having world peace if we can just work together and agree on what should be done and never fight each other," Vinyard said. "History shows that if two peoples are willing to work together, they can accomplish great things."
Hayward agreed. "The Americans and the Chinese represent the two most significant nations of the world, and it is up to us to be friends continuously and to do all we can to make civilization a success on the earth," he added.
Participants attend the opening ceremony of the fourth Sino-American Second World War Friendship and Flying Tigers History Conference in Las Vegas, the United States, on May 10, 2019. (HANG FANG / XINHUA)
Upholding mutual benefit
Chinese people never forgot the contributions and sacrifices of the Flying Tigers. In the early 1990s, US World War II veterans started receiving invitations from various organizations in China including from the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries.
Xie Yuan, vice-president of the association who led a delegation to attend the event, listened to some of the tear-jerking accounts of the eight Flying Tigers. He said the conference was held at a critical moment for both peoples to review the history, remember the friendship and pass it on, and create a shared future for both countries.
Hayward appreciated the kindness and wholehearted affection the Chinese people have demonstrated from over 70 years ago and today. "I visited our old air field at Yangkai, and saw the old runway we used for taking off and landing," he said, referring to one of his early return trips to China.
He insisted that China's sacrifice and contribution during World War II has been downplayed, as compared to the other allies in Europe and the Pacific. According to China's State Council Information Office, in the 14 years of the Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, more than 35 million Chinese civilians and soldiers were killed, accounting for one third of the total casualties worldwide during World War II. Moreover, China suffered a combined economic loss of around US$500 billion measured by the exchange rate in 1937.
Without China being the major battlefield to trap and combat the Japanese, the US would have taken many more years to defeat Japan, Hayward said. "As an American ally, China helped us tremendously to resist the Japanese so we could maintain our army occupation in China," said Hayward. "We could fly from the marine base in the Southwest Pacific; also China opened their great hot spots for our flights."
It's true. The wartime alliance between China and the US proved mutually beneficial. China's lasting war of resistance won valuable time for other anti-fascist countries to prepare, including the Soviet Union, the US and Britain, said Wang Jianliang, a Chinese scholar at the Institute of Modern History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "Because of China's war efforts, Japan was unable to dispatch more troops to the Pacific, which was a significant support to the Allied forces," he added.
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The alliance finally enabled China to defeat Japan. On Aug 15, 1945, Japan declared its unconditional surrender.
When China marked the 70th anniversary of the victory in the Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the end of World War II on Sept 3, 2015, President Xi Jinping said in his opening speech, "Seventy years ago today, the Chinese people, having fought tenaciously for 14 years, won the great victory of their War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, marking the full victory of the World Anti-Fascist War."
Among the international audience stood Jay Vinyard, applauding. On behalf of the Flying Tigers, he received a medal from the Chinese government to acknowledge his service in China. "It's the most memorable moment of my life," he said.
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