Two years before the start of World War II in Europe, and more than four years before the United States enter the Second World War, the Empire of Japan invaded China. In July 1937, the Second Sino-Japanese War began. Over the course of the next eight brutal years, it’s estimated that tens of millions of Chinese perished.
By 1941, Japan controlled a substantial portion of eastern China, including Beijing (known then as Peking) and Shanghai. That same year, a small cadre of American volunteer pilots arrived in China to help fight the Japanese – the Flying Tigers.
“A group of us Americans went to China 80 years ago to help fight the war against the Japanese,” said Harry Moyer, a 101-year-old former Flying Tigers’ fighter pilot.
Eight decades later, a moving photo exhibition celebrating and commemorating this famous and highly decorated unit was displayed on the USS Midway Museum’s hangar deck.
The original Flying Tigers were comprised of three fighter squadrons of American military pilots known as the First American Volunteer Group (AVG). These pilots were recruited and trained to defend the Republic of China against Japan prior to the United States entering World War II.
“The Chinese impression of the first fighter pilots that were there knocking down the Japanese bombers was that of a tiger,” said Harry. “We became known at the Fei Hu or Flying Tigers. That designation, given to the American flyers by Chinese people, continues to be held in high esteem through these many, many years.”
Flying the Curtis P-40 Warhawk aircraft, marked in Chinese colors, these pilots flew bombing and fighter missions against the Japanese military. Although the group flew under American control, the squadrons were officially part of the Republic of China Air Force. The Flying Tigers flew their first combat missions in December 1941.
The pilots quickly became known for their innovative tactical victories. While the AVG was officially disbanded in July 1942 and replaced by the 23rd Fighter Group, the squadrons’ pilots were officially credited with 297 enemy aircraft destroyed while only suffering 14 losses in the initial six months of combat action.
“The Flying Tigers fought fearlessly in fierce air battles and achieved brilliant combat results,” said Zhang Ping, the consul general of the People Republic of China in Los Angeles. “They stuck heavy blows against the Japanese aggressors.”
The photo exhibition consisted of 36, 8-foot-high panels containing hundreds photos and extraordinary stories of the courage displayed by the American pilots.
“We are deeply touch by the Flying Tigers’ bravery,” said Zhang. “The Chinese people have high regard for their noble spirit and we’ll always cherish and remember their sacrifice and contribution.”
“It was an honor for me to be a member of the Flying Tigers and today speak for all those who have gone before,” said Harry, who also holds the world record for the oldest person to make a solo flight at the age of 100. “I’m thankful we’re being recognized for all that we did for an honorable and hard-fought cause. Through our joint efforts, we finally prevailed.”