The World War II “Flying Tigers”, or Fei Hu in Mandarin Chinese, was a highly respected group of American pilots, the American Volunteer Group (AVG), that was recruited by the Chinese Nationalist government to fight the Japanese in the early years of the war. In the summer of 1941, about 260 AVG members (including 110 pilots and 99 P-40 fighters) reached southwest China under the command of Claire Chennault, as part of the Chinese Air Force. The P-40 fighters of the AVG were originally painted with the design of a shark’s mouth. To the Chinese in southwest mountainous region, that image of “flying tigers” was the ultimate power and ideal symbol to fight the enemy. Thus was born the nickname and the legacy of Flying Tigers, including the Disney designed insignia.
Flying Tigers Over China
On December 20, 1941, the Flying Tigers fought its first air battle with the Japanese over Kunming in southwest China, downing nine enemy bombers. After that, the war game began to change over China’s air space. Within the first seven months, the Flying Tigers destroyed 296 enemy aircraft, while losing only 14 pilots in combat.
In July 1942, AVG was disbanded and absorbed into the U.S. 14th Air Force under General Chennault. For the next three years, with support from the Chinese, the much larger American air power destroyed thousands of Japanese aircraft as well as more enemy land and naval forces. Although the AVG existed for only seven months, all American airmen throughout the war are usually regarded as Flying Tigers.
In Memory of the Flying Tigers
Events were organized last December both in China and the U.S. to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Flying Tigers. The OLLI USF China SIG was proud to host one such virtual event with two distinguished speakers: General Arthur Clark (who served in China in 1944-45) and Major Daniel Jackson (a military historian). The entire event is viewable at https://vimeo.com/655104663.
Included here are two illustrated excerpts from Major Jackson’s presentation which cover the historical background leading to the involvement of the Flying Tigers during Japan’s invasion of China, and offer personal details about a number of significant fighters and the commander, General Chennault.
The December celebration was extraordinarily fortunate to welcome General Arthur Clark as guest contributor. Over the last few years, I met with General Clark three times at his home in Chapel Hill NC, and learned about his stories from Kunming and other parts of China. (Many are in his 2015 book, Eyes of the Tiger: China 1944-1945.) I am impressed by his friendship to the Chinese people and love for peace. He will be 100 years old this November, and I sincerely wish him the best of health. We have been given access to a recent video of General Clark, where he describes his background, his war service as an aerial intelligence officer and the source material he used in his recent book. The three edited excerpts included in this article create a fascinating portrait of his experiences in China near the end of WWII.
Two Special Heroes
As a Chinese American, I am grateful to the Flying Tigers for saving countless Chinese lives. There are many amazing stories about them, and I am particularly touched by the following two accounts that highlight the mutual support and respect between the Americans and Chinese during the war.
Lt. Robert Mooney – A True Hero
Robert Mooney was born on June 16, 1920 in Kansas City of Missouri. He lived a short life, but an honorable one, with his final day saving many lives in a small town of Xiangyun in southwest China.
On December 26, 1942, when Mooney destroyed a Japanese fighter Oscar, his P-40 was severely damaged and was falling towards Xiangyun. As he tried to maneuver his P-40 away from the populated area, it was too late for him to bail out safely. He was fatally injured and died the same day.
The Chinese who witnessed his courageous act built a monument to him known as the Robert Mooney Memorial. He is remembered not just by the people of Xiangyun but all over China as a great Flying Tiger hero.
There is little written about Robert Mooney except for the heroic story above and that he is buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. But one may learn more about him in Lexington, Missouri where Mooney’s father organized to build a replica of the “Mooney Memorial” like the one in Xiangyun.
Lt. Glen Beneda – A Forever Bond with the Chinese
Glen Beneda was born on January 6, 1924 in McCook, Nebraska. Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he dropped out of college and joined the Army Air Corps in March 1942. After flight training, he was sent to China in May 1943 as a pilot of the 23rd Fighter Group of the 14th Air Force. He fought bravely for his country in China, and downed several enemy aircraft.
On May 6, 1944, during a large operation to destroy the Japanese base in Hankou, Beneda was attacked by the Japanese Zero fighters from behind. Before his P-51 fighter crashed into a lake, Beneda bailed out and was saved by local peasants. They carried the injured Beneda through the Japanese occupied area to the base of the Communist New Fourth Army (NFA). There, Beneda and other rescued American airmen met the NFA commander Li Xiannian (who became China’s president from 1983 to 1988). Beneda stayed with the NFA for more than a month before he was escorted out of the Japanese occupied areas and returned to Kunming, headquarters of the Flying Tigers. By then, everyone thought he had been killed, and he was even awarded the Medal for Meritorious Achievement in Flight! His safe return was a great relief to his family in the U.S. and to his commander General Chennault.
For Beneda and many other American airmen who were rescued, they were grateful to the Chinese who did so at the risk of their own lives. Records show that hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians were killed by the Japanese soldiers in retaliation for saving Americans – the most notable example being the efforts to rescue the Doolittle Mission survivors as they crash landed in China in April 1942.
Beneda passed away on October 23, 2010, four days after returning from his final China trip. In May 2011, Beneda’s wife (Elinor) and her two sons returned to China to complete his wish of interring a portion of his ashes at a memorial dedicated to Beneda on the grounds of Li Xiannian’s Presidential Library in Hubei province.
Honoring and Recovering Fallen Flying Tigers
Records show that more than 300 American airmen are listed as missing in action during WWII in the China Theater. Major Jackson is an active US Air Force officer and WWII historian who has done extensive research on this issue. He has provided comprehensive accounts of the Flying Tigers in his recent book, Fallen Tigers: The Fate of America’s Missing Airmen in China during World War II (2021). His video about the missing Flying Tigers is viewable at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IjWeMUn_6Uk.
Mr. Jackson and other interested parties support working with organizations in China in search of the missing Flying Tigers. Such joint efforts will not only bring comfort to the families of the missing Flying Tigers, but mutual understanding of the two peoples as well. I sincerely hope this day will come soon.
Kun Shi holds a Masters Degree in cultural anthropology from The Ohio State University. He worked as a program evaluator for an Ohio state agency between 1999 and 2005, and was program director at the OSU K-12 Chinese Flagship Program from 2006-2010 and for USF World from 2010-2019. He has taught OLLI classes since 2011 and was awarded the Faculty Roll of Honor in 2016. He is a co-coordinator of the OLLI-USF China SIG.