In China today there are a number of memorials and monuments dedicated to the fliers of World War II who kept the Japanese from domination of the skies over China. The most recent, and most memorable is the new memorial in Pianma, Yunnan Province, which features a completely rebuilt C-53 recovered from a crash on the nearby mountain.
The plane was CNAC # 53 piloted by James Fox, co-pilot L. Thom and radioman K. Wong, all apparently killed in the March 13, 1943 crash. The crash site was seen shortly after the aircraft went down, and a search party in 1944 almost reached the site, but were forced back by illness. Fletcher Hanks’ book The Saga of CNAC # 53 tells of his, and others, heroic efforts to recover the remains of the crew. The museum also has a few items recovered from the C-53 and of Jim Fox’s personal items. It also features materials of the A.V.G., Flying Tigers, and the museum focuses on the important part U.S. volunteers played to keep China in the war. The museum is reasonably new, opening in 2006 It is a very impressive building and gardens located very close to the crash scene. The C-53 was painfully restored with virtually all the completed aircraft reconstruction done with original parts carefully brought down the mountain. Fletcher Hanks, who spearheaded rescue efforts in the war years and made subsequent efforts to reach the plane, did get to see the museum before his death in 2008.
James R. Fox Jr. was from Dalhart, Texas and joined CNAC in 1942 and was twenty-four years old when he was killed. In 2002 a bust of Fox was given by the Chinese to the U.S. and placed in the Texas A & M George H. W. Bush Presidential Library. Inscribed beneath the bust is the following message:
“Resting here is an American pilot, who dedicated his Life helping China win the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression. The Chinese people will forever remember his Name, James R. Fox, Jr.” It was signed by Jiang Zemin, October 2002.
The history of the Flying Tigers and the World War II in Yunnan
The history of the Flying Tigers and the World War II in Yunnan begins with the Japanese invasion of China in July 1937. Japan’s attempt to seize northeast China had provoked a drawn out war that the Japanese were unprepared to fight. Japan’s advance up the Yangtze River valley in 1937-1938 halted short of the then Chinese capital Chongqing. The British and French in Indo-China sent supplies along the railway from Hanoi to Kunming and then on to Chongqing. In 1940, however, France surrendered to Germany, Japan’s ally, and the new French government in Vichy was forced to transfer effective control of Indo-China to Japan. This cut the last route into China from western aid. The British and Americans immediately began the construction of a new land route into China by building a road from the railhead in Lashio, Burma to Kunming. This road, known as the Burma Road, was built by hand and took 10 months to complete. The Chinese government asked the United States in October 1940 to provide them with 500 planes and pilots, as well as provide loans to cover operating costs.
The United States, unable and unwilling to fill such a large order, eventually agreed to send 100 P-40 fighter planes originally scheduled to be sent to Britain, as well as allow the Chinese to recruit a volunteer force of 100 pilots from the U.S. air force. These pilots would be known as the American Volunteer Group (AVG) and would be led personally by Claire Lee Chennault, a former Army Air Corps pilot. The would be mercenaries in the service of the Chinese Air Force (CAF) and would be paid $750 a month in addition to a bonus of $500 for every Japanese aircraft shot down. They began arriving in Rangoon, Burma for training in November 1941.
On December 7, 1941, Japan declared war on and attacked the possessions of the United States, Great Britain, and the Netherlands. China now had a host of allies in their war against Japan, but at first the war went against the new alliance. The Japanese overran most of the western territory in China by the end of December. They also destroyed most of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor, as well as destroying most of the Allies Asiatic fleets. As 1942 dawned, the Japanese had invaded the Philippines and Malaysia and were advancing steadily. The kingdom of Siam (Thailand) joined the Japanese and this seriously threatened the allied position in Burma. The Japanese invaded Burma on January 15, 1942 and the AVG were forced into action early in order to defend Rangoon. Although unsuccessful in holding Rangoon, the city fell on March 7, they fought well and established a legendary reputation that did a lot to boost sagging American morale. It was at this time that they acquired their nickname: Flying Tigers. On April 29, Lashio fell, cutting the last land supply route into China. On May 8, the Japanese 29th Infantry Division crossed into Yunnan via the Burma Road.
With the Burma Road cut off, the Allies had to create another way of supplying China to keep them in the war. The solution was to fly supplies from allied airfields in Assam, India to airfields in China. Because of the danger of Japanese fighter interception, the flights had to be flown in a large semicircle to north over the Himalayas. These flights came to be known as the Hump flights. Planning for both the Hump flights and another massive project, the construction of a new road from Ledo, India through north Burma into Yunnan, began in January 1942. The air route was 550 miles from Assam to Kunming and was flown at altitudes reaching 17,000-20,000 feet. This was extremely dangerous for un-pressurized aircrafts. New airfields were constructed allover southwest China to serve the Hump flights.
On July 4, 1942, the Flying Tigers of the AVG were reincorporated into the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF). They were renamed the China Air Task Force (CATF), a component of the 10th Air Force, and were commanded by newly promoted Brigadier General Chennault. On March 11, 1943, further reorganization placed all American air units in Yunnan under the command of Major General Chennault’s 14th Air Forth. This would include all fighter, bomber and transport units.