NELL Calloway, granddaughter of late US General Claire Lee Chennault, remembers her grandfather as a gentle, ordinary man with a beautiful garden and a love for storytelling.
Calloway was eight years old when Chennault passed away. It was only later when she saw a photo of Chennault in military uniform that she began to understand that her ordinary grandfather had lived an extraordinary life.
Calloway is now director of the Chennault Aviation and Military Museum located in Monroe, in the US state of Louisiana. The museum is the only one in the United States dedicated to Chennault’s heroic deeds and the history of the American Volunteer Group (AVG), the air corps that fought alongside the Chinese while fighting Japan during WWII.
“Many Americans seem to have forgotten that China and the United States were close friends in the fight against Japan,” she said. “I hope my work helps remind others of this important relationship.”
China was the first nation to fight fascist Japanese forces. The struggle started on September 18, 1931, when Japanese troops began their invasion of northeast China. On July 7, 1937, Japanese troops attacked Marco Polo Bridge on the southwest outskirts of Beijing, mounting a full-scale invasion.
Throughout WWII, China was a major battlefield in the fight against the Japanese fascist invasion and the major Asian battlefield in the war against fascists worldwide. China fought, shoulder to shoulder, with other members of the allies against fascism.
In 1941, close to 300 young Americans registered to join the AVG and departed for Asia. Organized and commanded by Chennault, the AVG was a volunteer band of pilots and ground staff whose sole purpose was to help China fight invading Japanese troops before the United States officially entered WWII. They came to be known as the “Flying Tigers.”
Friends in life and death
While visiting his son in Los Angeles in 2000, Zhou Bing, a retired official of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, saw an old friend on television. Staring back at him from the television set was Dick Rossi, Zhou’s copilot during WWII. The two men had not seen each other for over half a century.
Rossi, from California, was enrolled in the electrical engineering program at UC Berkeley at the outbreak of WWII. In his memoir he wrote that though he saw the flight-training notices plastered all across campus, “I never really dreamed I would be able to make it.”
Rossi signed up for the AVG in 1941 and arrived in China as a pilot. On December 20, the AVG had its first air battle in China, shooting down nine Japanese bombers that attacked Kunming in southwest China. In just seven months, the AVG shot down 299 planes in over 50 battles against the Japanese, forcefully defending critical air space on China’s rear front.
Rossi achieved ace pilot status with 6.25 confirmed victories during his service with the AVG. After the AVG was disbanded in early July 1942, Rossi continued to defend China as a pilot with the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC). That was where he met Zhou.
In 1944, after graduating from National Southwestern Associated University, Zhou entered CNAC. Zhou was tasked with transporting supplies between India and China on a dangerous but vital airlift route over the Himalayas. The Himalayan route was the primary means for allies delivering supplies to China after Burma fell to the Japanese. The Burma Road, which connected Lashio in northern Burma to Kunming in southwest China, was cut off in 1942 due to the invasion.
The legendary air route was opened through joint endeavors by Chinese and American pilots. Due to the extreme altitudes, unforgiving topography and bad weather, Zhou’s route over the Himalayas was a perilous one. Hundreds of planes crashed along the route: over 1,500 Chinese and American pilots died or went missing attempting to bridge the gap between the allies and the Chinese.
Rossi successfully flew 735 trips over what was known as the Hump between 1942 and 1945 — an unparalleled record for Hump missions.
After Zhou saw Rossi on television, Zhou’s son promptly reached out to the Rossi family. They were amazed to learn that Rossi and his family still lived in Southern California. The two long-lost friends quickly arranged a meeting.
Zhou Bing’s son, Zhou Jisong, was delighted to have an opportunity to learn more about his father’s past. “My father always kept a low profile about his WWII service,” he said. “I never heard much about it. Not until that meeting.”
In 2005, Rossi was invited to Beijing to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII. He was seated at the head table with the then Chinese President Hu Jintao. Hu shook Rossi’s hand and in an emotional tribute to the Americans’ selfless aid during WWII said that he hoped the friendship between peoples of China and the United States would last forever.
“The Chinese leaders came around to toast him,” said Lydia Rossi, Rossi’s wife and executive secretary of the Flying Tigers Association. “The Chinese people have never forgotten us. We were incredibly touched by their gratitude every time we visited China.”
Zhou Bing and Dick Rossi passed away in 2007 and 2008 respectively, but their stories endure as reminders of the close historical partnership between China and the United States.
More than seven decades have passed since almost 300 Flying Tigers arrived in China and wrote a legendary chapter of China-US friendship. There are only two survivors today — squadron crew chief Frank Losonsky and the last surviving Flying Tiger pilot, Carl Brown.
Losonsky was both a pilot and mechanic specialist when he came to Asia in 1941 at the age of 21. He worked as the youngest crew chief with the Flying Tigers, responsible for maintaining the shark-mouthed P-40 fighters. “I love Chinese people. They have a clear heart,” Losonsky told Xinhua. “It was dangerous in China, but I was happy to be there.”
Losonsky, after returning to the United States, served at General Motors and later operated three restaurants and a catering service. He also worked with his son Terry to publish his wartime diary.
Since the end of WWII, Losonsky never managed to climb back into a P-40, but his wish was finally fulfilled last year. During the Flying Tigers reunion in Atlanta in 2016, Losonsky was offered a ride inside a P-40, which made two barrel rolls in the sky. “I felt OK. No problem at all,” Losonsky said.
Another wish he had was to step back on Chinese soil again. In 2015, he was invited to visit China for the V-Day parade in Beijing. In Kunming, he was named as an honorary citizen.
Brown studied at Michigan State University until 1939 when he suspended his studies to join the US Navy. During his training in Florida, Brown became one of only a few pilots who could land the planes on aircraft carrier at night.
In 1941, through introduction of his friend Tex Hill, who would become one of the major AVG ace pilots, Brown signed up for the AVG and was honorably discharged from the Navy.
During a mission in May 1942, one of his fellow pilot’s plane exploded just nearby his wing, said Brown. “I was thankful to have gotten back after that tragic encounter.” After the AVG disbanded, Brown spent three months training Chinese pilots before becoming a pilot for CNAC. In total, Brown clocked in excess of 1,000 hours over the Hump. He also flew airships from New Jersey across the Atlantic to West Africa and then to India at least three times.
In 1945 he returned to the United States, resumed his undergraduate studies and graduated in 1946. He went on to receive his MD and JD degrees respectively in the 1950s and 1980s. For Brown, the horrors of WWII illustrate how desperately the world needs non-violent solutions to interpersonal conflicts, and according to him, it is in this spirit of peaceful resolution that he pursued his degrees.
Brown will celebrate his centennial birthday in December this year.
“Memories of WWII have faded,” said Rana Mitter, professor of history and director of the China Center at the University of Oxford. “But let’s not forget that China held off Japanese forces. If China had surrendered, WWII would have ended differently.”