Travel has a way of connecting the dots. A few years ago John and I were in St. Charles, Louisiana where we visited the Imperial Calcasieu Museum. While browsing the displays I overheard someone say, “Claire Chennault! He is known by every school child in China.” It caught my attention. Claire Chennault, the commander of the Flying Tigers, a group of volunteer military men who trained in Burma, now called Myanmar, lived in St. Charles. The Flying Tigers helped defend the Chinese against the Japanese before the U.S. entered the war.
When we were in Chongqing, China we stayed at the lovely InterContinental Hotel. Sharon, one of the most spot-on general managers we have ever run across, made a point to give personal attention to every guest. When she found out we were Americans she said, “You have to go to the Flying Tigers and the General Stilwell museums. I will have someone take you.” Chongqing, formerly Chungking, was China’s provisional capital during WW II and dubbed the “Foggy City.” The cover of fog protected the planes on the ground from the Japanese air force. Without her help we would have missed these two great museums.
The Flying Tiger Museum is dedicated to the memory of the
American pilots, also known as the 1st American Volunteer Group, who fought with Chinese pilots against Japanese invading troops during the Second World War. In early 1942 the Flying Tigers were the only Americans fighting the Axis powers – basically Germany, Italy and Japan. The Flying Tigers, under the command of Chennault, consisted of three fighter squadrons with about 20 aircraft. Their planes, mainly Curtiss P-40 Warhawks, were easy to recognize with their grinning shark mouth design and their exploits were widely publicized. Chennault instituted the “dive-and-zoom” technique which was counter to what the pilots had been taught. He said, "Always get above the enemy and try to hit him on the first pass. After that keep going." They are officially credited with destroying 299 Japanese planes.
Across the road is the museum that honors General Joseph W. Stilwell who was the Chief of Staff in the China Theater of Operation and Commander-in-Chief of the American Army in the China-Burma-India Theater. Stilwell and Chennault were often at loggerheads about what direction to take in the war effort. Chennault had the ear of Chiang Kai-Shek, the head of the Chinese government at that
time, and was vilified by Stilwell. Regardless both aided significantly in helping the Chinese during WW II. We were surprised to learn that Stilwell helped to train the Chinese army and he was instrumental in the construction of the Burma Road whereby supplies were able to reach China to aid in their fight with the Japanese. In 1991 the museum opened in the house Stilwell occupied for several years with rooms restored to their wartime likeness and displays dealing with the war.
Sometimes we get so caught up in our own stories or the ‘big’ story that we forget the impact of some of the lesser known heroes and the death of others. During World War II the Chinese lost between10 and 20 million people - civilian and military - about two to four percent of their prewar population. There are many stories of bravery and sacrifice during WW II but the Flying Tigers and General Stilwell will long be remembered in China.