How Trump Can Ease U.S.-China Tensions: Honor Their Shared History

Liberator bomber with P-40 fighter planes at a U.S. base in China, 1943. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

The people of China have not forgotten the heroic deeds of the Flying Tigers.

There have been countless remembrances for the centenary of World War I. Even I am guilty of piling on to that fashionable theme, perhaps even more than once. And that massive conflict did not even directly touch China. The same could not be said of the even larger conflagration of World War II, which ravaged China completely. Indeed, the bloodletting in China began several years prior to the war in Europe, with Japan’s invasion assuming a massive and devastating scale in the dark year of 1937.

Into that cauldron journeyed the intrepid Claire Lee Chennault, a dashing Army Air Force pilot who retired in frustration as his service failed to embrace his innovative tactics with “pursuit planes” or fighters. To be sure, there will be plenty of discussion about fateful 1937 this year—count on it. Indeed, the world should spend more time reflecting on one of the war’s most barbaric atrocities, namely the Nanjing Massacre, which occurred in December 1937. That is when the Imperial Japanese Army slaughtered perhaps three hundred thousand innocent Chinese in a hapless attempt to brutalize the Chinese people and compel them to surrender. Debates will rage through this fall about apologies and failed apologies, as they should. But let us, as Americans, take pride in our own heroes from that dark time in China. The American Volunteer Group, organized and led by Chennault and later known as the “Flying Tigers” [飞虎队], stood in the breach at the most perilous moment, not unlike the Greeks during the Battle of Thermopylae. What ultimately is the legacy of this dazzling American gallantry and sacrifice in China for contemporary U.S. foreign policy and defense policy?

It is noteworthy that these heroes are fervently revered in today’s China, despite the growing geopolitical and ideological chill in relations between Washington, DC and Beijing. On Chinese news channel 13, the military-oriented news program Military Intelligence [军情] aired two thirty-minute segments about the Flying Tigers in February 2017. Hardly light-hearted treatments, the segments showcased lengthy interviews with several surviving pilots and featured computer simulations from dozens of aerial engagements. China’s passion for the Flying Tigers runs deep these days. It is quite common to see stories about the Flying Tigers or graphics illustrating their exploits in the Chinese aviation magazine Aerospace Knowledge [航空知识]. For example, one recent article relayed the story of American volunteer pilot Robert Short, who was killed in combat while flying for the Chinese Air Force, several years before the Flying Tigers’ first official combat mission on December 20, 1941.

The essence of the spirit of the Flying Tigers was their staggering success in the face of enormous odds. During that first engagement, just about a week after Pearl Harbor, the Flying Tigers took nine out of ten Japanese bombers on a raid in China’s southern Yunnan Province. Employing the somewhat obsolete P-40 Tomahawk, Chennault forbade his pilots to go head-to-head in dogfights with the much more maneuverable Japanese Zeros, which could turn and climb much faster than the Tomahawk. Instead, he innovated special hit-and-run tactics that proved devastating. For example, out of the 166 Japanese planes dispatched to strike Rangoon on February 25, 1942, twenty-four went down in flames. An even larger force of two hundred bombers was dispatched the following day and eighteen Japanese aircraft were lost to the brazen American flyers. Adding yet more glory to the Flying Tigers was their rugged approach and disdain for military discipline and formality. In order to keep the rickety planes flying, crews were forced to scavenge parts from crashes in nearby jungles and rice paddies.

Of course, the Flying Tigers were hardly the only U.S. combat unit to achieve such stunning feats in World War II. But their well-justified fame derives from timing. This was truly America’s darkest hour during World War II, as the Japanese Navy rampaged through the Pacific and conquered one American bastion after another. No wonder President Franklin Roosevelt said in April 1942 that “the outstanding gallantry and conspicuous daring that the American Volunteer Group combined with their unbelievable efficiency is a source of tremendous pride throughout the whole of America.”