Of the myriad tales of hardship and bravery which emerged in the wake of World War II, the story of the Sino-American alliance remains relatively obscured from the public imagination.
The battlefield sacrifices of the American Volunteer Group — known as the Flying Tigers — and their Chinese counterparts in the China-India-Burma Theater are highlighted in “The Memory of History,” an exhibition on view through Saturday in the Russell Senate Office Building Rotunda.
Co-sponsored by Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), as well as by the Chinese Embassy, the 14-panel, pictorial display seeks to honor the men and women who served in WWII’s “forgotten war,” as Stevens dubbed it.
Under the command of Claire Lee Chennault — an American pilot who had moved to China to fight with the Chinese nationalists — the Flying Tigers would undertake numerous missions in support of the Chinese effort against the Japanese from 1941 onward.
“This exhibition is very good to show the history of the Americans and Chinese working together during the second World War … that’s a history many young people are unaware of,” asserted Chennault’s widow, Anna, who now chairs the Council for International Cooperation.
By far, the Flying Tigers’ most ambitious endeavor was the opening of the Hump route — a supply line stretching over the Himalaya Mountains — after the Japanese had successfully cut off land transport by 1942.
One of the longest airlifts in the history of warfare, the Hump Flight Mission would go on for more than three years. All in all, China and the United States would lose 609 planes and 1,500 pilots.
“I don’t know anyone who didn’t honor Claire Chennault as a pilot,” asserted Stevens, who, as a member of the 14th Air Force Transport Section, supported the Flying Tigers with cargo planes during several of their missions.
“We supported all Chinese during the war … we had a common enemy then,” Stevens said.
Just as U.S. forces aided the Chinese defense against Japanese incursions, Chinese personnel were vital to buffeting the American effort.
As retired Air Force Maj. Gen. John Alison, a former Flying Tiger, remembered of one engagement, “We were in a big fight … the tail of my [P-40] plane was hit and I was helpless. The Japanese right behind me kept hitting me … he shot out my tires.”
He added: “But then the Chinese came up behind me and took [him] down and it gave me an opportunity to escape and get across the lines and crash.”
In April 1942, after leading a bombing mission into Japan, Lt. Col. James Doolittle lost contact with the Zhejiang airfield. Fifteen of his 16 B-25B bombers (known as Doolittle’s Raiders) crashed in the Zhejiang and Anhui provinces. However, despite tremendous personal threat, local Chinese villagers eventually succeeded in rescuing 62 of 75 crew members.
Chennault later recounted that “all the villagers who had contact with the American planes, no matter how old or young, were killed by the Japanese, and [their] … houses were burned down.”
Such Chinese goodwill toward American forces was de rigueur throughout the duration of their time in the Middle Kingdom, according to Alison.
“I never carried a gun, I didn’t have to. The Chinese people just took care of us,” he said.
Recently, both Stevens and Inouye returned to Kunming, China, climbing 78 steps to pay homage at a memorial to those who had participated in the Hump flights. And, this past October, a bust of fallen Flying Tiger James R. Fox was unveiled at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas.
“It is well that Americans are reminded every so often that there was a time when young men and women stood up in harm’s way because they believed in our government and Constitution,” said Inouye, who lost his right arm fighting for the United States in the European Theater.
“These people, they are real heroes, and we should never forget what they did for our two countries,” added Chinese Ambassador Yang Jiechi.
The exhibit — which previously was featured at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center — will be on view in Room 2255 of the Rayburn House Office Building from Feb. 24 to 28, said Sun Weide of the Chinese Embassy.