Written by By Brandt Ranjitsingh, CNN
July 20 marked the 80th anniversary of the formation of the Flying Tigers during World War II, a daring team of allied pilots sent to China to protect the country from Japanese aggression.
In 1934 the Chinese communists had seized control of Burma, the country’s former colony. Soon the leaders were declaring martial law, enforcing the rule of the Communist Party and focusing their efforts on neighboring China. The government was giving much of its attention toward fighting with India and Thailand.
While China faced an intensifying Japanese military campaign, an international effort to create a defense force involving Burma, Japan, China, the US and Russia was launched in May 1936.
“It was called the Asia Pacific Air Club,” says Stanley Carroll, a Flying Tigers veteran who is an honorary member of the club.
“They wanted something to add to what was being done to fight the Japanese.”
China and the Flying Tigers
A graduate of West Point, Carroll — who is 93 — joined the US Army Air Corps in 1941. Within months he was airborne and made his way to Ballygawley in Northern Ireland, flying missions over Europe.
In May 1937, the Flying Tigers were sent to China, along with troops from the US Eighth Army. The squadron was renamed the Flying Tigers after the Chinese radio station that they found they could listen to all day, every day.
In some areas, the fighters brought supplies and other supplies, which the Chinese government distributed on a daily basis. The planes landed at airstrips in Yunnan, Jiangxi and Guangxi provinces.
On Aug. 4, 1937, the Flying Tigers dropped their leaflets as they returned to the south, warning Japanese forces against the villagers whom they’d been interviewing to receive the supplies.
The leaflets were blown up by the Japanese, the fighters were chased out of their “holding positions” by retreating Japanese troops, and returned home.
The remainder of the squadron — which numbered fewer than 20 planes — returned to the U.S. in June 1939, according to the club’s website.
Some of the local Chinese interviewed for the mission were eager to share their experiences with the squad. In one instance, a Chinese villager murdered by the Japanese, according to the club’s website.
Although the American forces scored some victories in the air, reports of atrocities committed by Japanese forces during the campaign — primarily the sex slavery of women from China — played a part in the decision to end the fight and leave the country.
The Flying Tigers contributed to the defeat of the Japanese by launching incendiary attacks on Japanese military forces that brought them to the brink of defeat.
Reconciling the military and diplomatic efforts of the program with veterans’ memories of the sacrifices they made in the country will be central to celebrations of the club’s centenary on September 2, 2019.