Commemorating the Flying Tigers

4 SEPTEMBER 2023 | Chris Nash

This year is the 80th celebration of the Flying Tigers. A major ceremony has just been held in California involving surviving members of the legendary squad of airman. Strictly speaking this a celebration of China-American friendship, but a few British aviators were involved and anyway it’s an amazing but much forgotten story from World War 2.

We have to go back to 1941 and 1942. The imperialist Japanese armies had overrun much of south-east Asia and were fighting against heroic Chinese resistance to take control of China and her resources. This was about the time Joseph Needham came to China to offer help from the British government. The situation was desperate. The Chinese were fighting like tigers in Yunnan province and areas of South-west China. The Japanese launched attacks from the south hoping to drive through and join up a northern and southern army. If China had fallen the Japanese would have been able to deploy her vast resources for their armies.

This is where the Flying Tigers came in. It was vital that Japan did not take control of the skies over south-west China. It was vital that supplies could be kept flowing in to Lee the Chinese armies fighting. A retired American army captain called Claire L Chennault recruited mainly American volunteer pilots to carry out these two missions. To add to the problems, the Flying Tigers were not given top of the range aircraft by the American government, but older models that lacked the most advanced technology. However these courageous pilots more than made up for these disadvantages with their sheer determination. They managed to shoot down many more Japanese planes than they themselves lost. They kept the airways safe so that military and medical supplies could be flown into China. Importantly they pinned down Japanese air forces in south-west China so that they could not be deployed elsewhere to push for a total Japanese victory. And above all else Chinese resistance survived and Chinese forces, particularly those led by Mao Zedong, began to liberate areas of China from Japanese control.

The sacrifice and dedication of the Flying Tigers has never been forgotten in China. The granddaughter of Chennault who founded the Flying Tigers said Chennault’s dream was that the squadron ‘would always be remembered on both sides of the Pacific as the symbol of two great peoples working towards a common goal in peace and war”. Long Fenggao, a villager from Yangtang helped to save the life of a US pilot shot down by the Japanese. He later said, ‘ All my family died in the Japanese bombings. I’m honoured that I helped to save that injured American pilot even though I never knew his name. I regard their families as my family.’

Despite everything that tries to divide us, the example of the Flying Tigers reminds us that the bonds of common humanity are stronger. On this 80th commemoration of their incredible achievements. SACU joins its voice to those around the world calling for understanding instead of division and asking us to truly honour the memory of the Flying Tigers by working towards lasting peace and co-operation.