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Flying Tigers Park in Guilin: a Symbol of China-US Friendship

Fighter planes roared overhead, weaving and diving in a deadly dance, filling the evening sky with the staccato cough of machine-gun fire. It was 1944, and the Japanese air force all but ruled the skies over battle-scarred China.

Long Fenggao was 9 years old the day he watched the warplanes clash over Yangtang, near the southern city of Guilin. He had lost his mother to a Japanese germ bomb four years earlier, and he would soon be orphaned when another raid would kill his father.

But on that day, his salvation came in the form of a squadron of outgunned Curtiss P-40 Warhawks, their noses painted to resemble gaping shark jaws.

The Flying Tigers, originally the 1st American Volunteer Group, entered the war in early 1941 and, for a time, were the only thing that stood between the Japanese and total aerial supremacy over China.

In the skies over Yangtang, Long said he saw a sliver of hope. And hours later, when villagers found an injured American pilot in a rice field, he repaid that hope in spades, traveling with a group through the night to return the airman safely to an Allied base. Long guided the way through the darkness with an oil lamp.

“All my family died in the Japanese bombings,” said the 81-year-old. “The Flying Tigers helped me to take revenge. I regard their families as my family. I’m honored to have helped save that injured U.S. pilot, even though I never knew his name.”

The Flying Tigers, led by retired U.S. Army Air Corps officer Claire Lee Chennault, was set up in Burma (now Myanmar) with 100 outdated Warhawks and 99 American pilots and ground crew who had all resigned commissions in the military. The squadron later flew from three purpose-built airstrips in Guilin.

Using Chennault’s unorthodox tactics, which involved attacking in pairs and making diving passes at the enemy, the squadron destroyed almost 300 Japanese aircraft, losing only 12 of their own.

Although technically a mercenary outfit, historians believe the U.S. government unofficially sanctioned the Flying Tigers before war was declared on Japan in December 1941.

On July 4, 1942, the squadron was disbanded and replaced by the 23rd Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces, later absorbed into the 14th Air Force, under the command of the reinstated Lieutenant General Chennault.

According to historian Ge Shuya, by 1941, China’s fledgling air force had been all but destroyed. The Flying Tigers, which later expanded to a force of about 3,000 planes, helped turn the tide. “For (one period of) 199 days, Japan’s 2,452 aircraft bombed one city (Kunming in Yunnan province) 465 times,” he said. “The arrival of the Flying Tigers changed the situation.”

The American airmen went on to destroy more than 2,500 enemy aircraft, sink or cripple 45 naval ships and 2.23 million metric tons worth of enemy merchant vessels, and kill more than 66,700 enemy troops.

Flying Tigers veteran David Hayward, 93, said it could not have been done without the assistance of the Chinese. The retiree, who lives in Los Angeles, flew 53 combat missions in a B-25 bomber between 1943 and 1944.

“The first three months, 12 of our squadron of 16 airplanes were lost,” he said. “They were lost either by Japanese attacks, or anti-aircraft fire from the ground, or simply crashing into a mountain. I had a lot of close calls.”

The help from Chinese allies was vital, he said. “We had something called the Chinese net, an early warning system, maintained by the Chinese. They would warn us when enemy airplanes were approaching, so we could put our planes in the air.

“Some of the crews were able to bail out or make crash landings (after they were shot down), and we had several cases in our squadron where men had to bail out of their airplane and were helped back to friendly lines by the Chinese. It was very reassuring.”

Today, on the site of Yangtang airport, which was built in 1942 for Allied air missions, stands a 42-acre heritage park honoring the squadron. Funded by the Flying Tigers Historical Organization (FTHO), a nonprofit group based in California, the area comprises a museum, a cave command post on a nearby mountain, a barracks, hangars and landing strips.

Local villagers, governments and the FTHO have donated hundreds of relics to the museum, while a C-40 transport plane, the dominant model used by the U.S. Air Force in the Pacific theater, is expected to go on permanent display soon.

“The park is an important beginning to educate people and their children about the history of a time when two peoples fought together for a common goal, and about the heroes,” said Maj Gen James Whitehead, chairman of the FTHO. “Recalling the history of when the people of China and the U.S. fought evil side by side is of great importance.”

Among the dignitaries at the opening ceremony for the park on March 28 was Vice Premier Liu Yandong, who during a diplomatic exchange in 2011 presented Hillary Clinton, then the U.S. secretary of state, with a photograph of Liu’s father, Liu Ruilong, with a Flying Tigers pilot he had helped save.

As a young man fighting against the Japanese, Liu’s father joined in a mission to rescue five American flyboys after their plane was shot down. Several soldiers died in the operation.

Upon receiving the gift, Clinton, now a 2016 presidential hopeful, reportedly said she would hang the picture on the wall of her office as a reminder of the historical ties that bind the U.S. and China.

Nell Calloway, Chennault’s granddaughter and director of the Chennault Aviation and Military Museum in Louisiana, recently launched an exhibition on the extraordinary achievements of the Flying Tigers commander.

Quoting her grandfather’s memoir, she said it had been his dream that the squadron would “always be remembered on both sides of the Pacific as the symbol of two great peoples working toward a common goal in war and peace.”

She said greater knowledge about the wartime U.S.-China alliance could help lead to lasting peace and friendship.

Hayward, the Flying Tigers veteran, agreed and added: “We continually asked ourselves when we were over there, ‘Are we really doing any good for anybody?’ I’m really pleased we were able to do something useful to help people. I certainly advocate lasting peace between our countries.”