Sixty-five years ago, a group of young Americans boarded a Dutch packet and crossed the Pacific at the invitation of Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Their passports identified them simply as teachers or farmers. If asked at the time, "Why in God's name are you going to the Orient amid World War II?" they probably would have responded, "For sightseeing, of course."
But these were no tourists. They were members of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) -- better known as the "Flying Tigers" -- a top-secret fighter unit that picked dogfights with Japanese planes in the skies over China and Southeast Asia in 1941 and 1942.
"The experts said the AVG wouldn't last three weeks against the Japanese, as its Air Force enjoyed numerical superiority in the Pacific theater," said Jon Pensyl, 81, a former AVG member. "Well, we smashed the Japanese Air Force over China for over seven months, keeping their bombers away from strategic points in that country."
Pensyl, Director of the 5th Fighter Group Association -- a club comprised of former AVG pilots and ground crew -- was back in the Pacific theater yesterday, along with his comrades in arms, to attend a ceremony at the Hualien Air Force Base honoring General Claire Chennault, the founder of the AVG.
Chennault's group was a force to be reckoned with, achieving a kill ratio of 15:1 -- or 15 Japanese aircraft shot down for every one Flying Tiger P-40 fighter plane -- in the skies over what was then Burma. Nowadays, Chennault and his Flying Tigers are a potent symbol of the friendship between the US and Taiwan.
FRIEND OF `FREE CHINA'
Once a captain in the US Army Air Corps, Chennault left his post in 1937, traveling to China at the behest of the Chinese Nationalist Army (KMT) to help overhaul the Chinese Air Force. Two years later, "the Japanese began to break the back of the Chinese resistance by sustained bombing of every major population center in Free China," the Flying Tigers' official Web site states.
In the face of that withering Japanese bombing campaign, Chennault scrambled to lobby Washington to give him planes and pilots, which he finally received in the summer of 1941. The US fighter contingent was officially a part of the Chinese Air Force, but was commanded by Chennault. He trained the pilots in Rangoon, eventually moving the unit to China, where it fought pitched battles against Japanese fighters and bombers.
That the US contributed scores of talented men and first-class planes to the Republic of China's (ROC) Air Force reveals as much about its trust of, and friendship with, Taiwan as its determination to defeat Japan in World War II.
It was that American spirit of friendship and sacrifice that led Major General Mike Tien (
"We were recently awarded a grant worth US$100,000 to renovate an already existing museum [on the base], and I wished to recreate it as a memorial to General Chennault," Tien said.
On July 19, with the approval of the Taipei City Government, a bronze bust of Chennault was relocated from a Taipei park to the 401st TCW Museum, which was officially opened to the public yesterday amid much fanfare.
"General Chennault's statue is home now," Tien announced, misty-eyed, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the museum. "[The 401st TCW] will take care of him now."