It’s a mark of our club’s diversity that at least a few members were alive when the Flying Tigers served first notice from the United States to Imperial Japan that freedom claws back.
Most club members were not yet born as the Second World War swept up Asia, and a small band of volunteer aviators from America helped the Chinese air force slow the advance of Japanese invaders while the free world organized.
But more than a few members, including this week’s correspondent, are old enough to remember building plastic model aircraft of the single-engine, P-40 fighter aircraft that the legendary volunteer force utilized with such elan. Distinctive painted shark faces snarled from the noses of each fighter aircraft.
History came back to life at Monday lunch as Billy McDonald recalled the valor and exploits of the Flying Tigers. McDonald, author of a book that chronicles his late father’s key role as a Flying Tiger organizer and aviator, told Rotarians that tigers played a crucial role in supporting China and keeping Japanese military resources tied down.
“It was a very nice contribution he made to the war,” McDonald said of his heroic father Bill with understatement as he recollected his later father’s longtime friendship and working partnership with the legendary Claire Lee Chennault. Chennault organized and led the Flying Tigers. Chenault once wrote a newspaper op-ed praising the elder McDonald’s skill and bravery and worked closely with McDonald’s father to build the group.
Technically and legally, the aviators were the 1st American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force in 1941 and 1942. Pilots recruited under presidential authority to be commanded by Chennault came from the United States Army Air Corps, Navy and Marine Corps. They trained in Burma.
McDonald spent much of the presentation describing his father’s early years working with Chenault in aviation, initially in aerial acrobatics. McDonald said that he found his father’s papers, some 30,000 documents brought back from China, badly deteriorated from moisture decades later. The papers included many letters describing the aviation squad’s exploits. He put it into book form with the help of editor Barbara Evenson. The book, “The Shadow Tiger,” is on sale here on Amazon.com.
McDonald described how he Flying Tigers demonstrated needed tactical victories against the advancing Japanese invaders when news from Asia was discouraging. Reports of their daring are credited with building national morale during the lowest period of the war for both the U.S. and Allied forces. The Tigers instilled hope. In addition to combat value, they added value in the PR wars.
The Flying Tigers were in action in Asia just days after the attack at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and continued the fight into 1942 before being replaced by the U.S. Air Force under the command of General Chennault.
McDonald shared the good recent news that both the book and his heroic father’s paper’s have been requested for posterity by the Smithsonian Institution. He said the Chinese ambassador to Washington created the flying unit’s memorable name.
The club thanks McDonald for recalling the bravery of young American aviators including his father who hit back hard and served first notice to the Axis power in Asia that the fight for freedom would ultimately be joined by the U.S. with ferocious will and fortitude.
Submitted by Mark Lazenby
Editor’s note: Mr. McDonald was introduced by Brady Surles and Scott Long, a member of the Zhuzhou City Committee of Sister Cities of Durham and pictured on the right above with Mark Goodwillie, Co-Chair of the Zhuzhou City Committee on the left flanking Billy McDonald and is wife Nancy McDonald. Here is Brady’s explanation of the connection:
This may sound complicated , but the Flying Tigers story is what started the process of Durham people becoming interested in having a Sister City in China, so I will have to give you some details about the background.
Durham established a Sister City partnership with Zhuzhou City, Hunan Province, China in 2012. This came about because several people in Durham and the Triangle had ties with the history of the American flyers called the Flying Tigers, including making a documentary film in partnership with a Chinese film company.
This connection started with a NC Senator from Moore County who initiated the reciprocal visits in 2006 between Hunan Province and NC to better understand how the Chinese had built ties with Americans , based on their maintaining the burial site of an American Flying Tiger pilot from Moore County who was shot down in Hunan Province.
The Durham film makers visited Hunan Province for their research for their film, in cooperation with the Carolina China Council which is based at NC St University. This included the Flying Tigers Museum which is in Hunan Province.
This also led them to get to know some Chinese Americans who were from Hunan Province who were interested in having Durham become a Sister City with a city in Hunan Province.
The Carolina China Council assisted us in finding a city in Hunan province which was interested in being a Sister City.
That partnership with Zhuzhou has now included two school visits from China to work with four different schools in Durham, students and teachers from the School for Creative Studies visiting Zhuzhou, and plans for additional school exchanges.