[Photo story] An air force pilot and his journey from Hunan to Taiwan

Photo collector Zou Dehuai shares some images from an album that previously belonged to air force pilot Liu Guoxiang, who joined the services during the war against Japan. Little is known about his work as a pilot, but he has no doubt led an interesting life, studying at a Hui Muslim middle school in Hunan, training in Chengdu and US Arizona, and withdrawing to Taiwan with the military and his family in 1949.
Liu Guoxiang was an air force pilot who joined the services during the war against Japan.
Liu Guoxiang was an air force pilot who joined the services during the war against Japan.

(All photos courtesy of Zou Dehuai.)

Collector and researcher Yu Yue recently gave me a photo album. Based on a name card and various details in the photos, we deduced that it was owned by air force pilot Liu Guoxiang of the 30th Squadron, 20th Wing.

The album contains nearly 200 old photos, most of which were taken in Taiwan. Over 80 photos taken during the Republic of China era have survived, covering Liu’s high school days, admission to the air force, training in the US, and service in Shanghai. Several wedding photos and family portraits are also inside. The album is indeed valuable, offering much clear information about the subject.

A Hui Muslim air force hero

With the assistance of Yu, we learned that Liu Guoxiang hailed from Shaoyang, Hunan province. He attended Xiejin Middle School (偕进中学) before joining the air force. He was an activist, a student council member and a sports enthusiast in school. In June 1942, he won many banners and medals at the 4th Shaoyang Youth Games. 

Liu (back row, third from left) was a sports enthusiast at Xiejin Middle School and won many awards.

Research showed that Xiejin Middle School was established in 1932 on the foundations of Xiejin Elementary School with funding from renowned educator Ma Linyi. It was the only Hui Muslim middle school in Hunan at the time which was generally only attended by Hui Muslim students. In other words, Liu was a Hui Muslim air force hero!

Around 1942, Liu graduated from Xiejin Middle School and applied to join the Air Force. The album contains only a few photos of Liu during his training in China — some photos were probably removed by others who came across the album.

At the bottom of a page, a note reads: “Joined the Air Force — Chengdu, Sichuan.” The location indicates that Liu had entered the Air Force Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) School in Chengdu, rather than the Air Force Academy. Photos of the Air Force NCO School are extremely rare; unfortunately, only half of the photos are left on the page. One of them has “Arizona” written at the bottom, indicating that it was taken during Liu’s training in the US.

This photo was taken in US Arizona during Liu's training days.
Photos of Liu during training. Date and location not stated. 

Established in 1938, the Air Force NCO School conducted a seven-semester programme held over four years, but it had a high dropout rate. Liu was physically fit and technically capable, and was among those who made it through.

While the school’s graduates held NCO ranks in the air force, they were qualified pilots who were tested on the battlefield during the war against Japan, and were strong complements to the Air Force Academy.

According to the academy’s records, the training duration and standards at the Air Force NCO School were comparable to those at the Air Force Academy, and all the graduates were of high calibre. In fact, after the school was closed, all its students were promoted to officers and their qualifications were aligned with that of the academy.

Milestones in life

Given the dearth of information I had on the Air Force NCO School, I could not immediately determine which batch Liu belonged to. After searching on Google, I found valuable information on the Facebook page of Taiwanese air force historian Liu Yongshang.

In thanking Liu Guoxiang’s grandson, the historian noted Liu’s Air Force Academy class: the 22nd special class! This was the 6th batch of the Air Force NCO School; they enlisted in 1942 and were sent to the US for training, which matched the photos in the album and corroborated my previous inferences.

This card shows that Liu was assigned to the 20th Wing.

By the time Liu returned to China after his studies in the US, China had won the war against Japan. Around March 1946, the Air Force NCOs returned to their base in Jianqiao, Hangzhou, and a graduation ceremony was held for the 22nd special class. The card above shows that Liu was assigned to the 20th Wing.

Following the war against Japan, the nature of operations had changed, and so, air force designations were adjusted. I am somewhat fuzzy about these changes and could not find any records about this wing in the Chronicle of the National Revolutionary Army (《国民革命军沿革实录》).

A photo of an airbase, likely the Air Force Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) School in Chengdu.
Liu beside an aircraft. Date and location not stated.

Clues suggest that the original designation of the wing was probably the Air Transport Wing stationed in Shanghai. Liu’s work as a transport pilot went unnoticed, making it difficult to find more information and almost impossible to write any stories about him.

The album also shows two milestones for Liu following his return to China. In 1947, he returned to Shaoyang and visited his mentor Liu Qixian and former classmates; and in December 1948, he married his wife in Shanghai. The wedding photo of the handsome couple appears as the first photo in the album.

In 1947, Liu (in uniform) returned to Shaoyang and visited his mentor Liu Qixian (second from right) and former classmates.
Liu's wedding photo, 1948.
Liu with his wife and child, 1940s. 

Their relationship may have started in Chengdu, as the album also contains photos of Mrs Liu studying in Chengdu. Based on the caption written on the photo, she was probably “Chengdu kindergarten teacher” Yu Baiyu (余柏玉), from Sichuan Provincial Normal School for Kindergarten Teachers, Chengdu (四川省立成都幼稚师范学校).

Liu, accompanied by his wife, withdrew to Taiwan with the military. According to the annals of renowned early childhood educator Zhang Xuemen, in the 1960s, Zhang invited Yu Baiyu to discuss the curriculum for early childhood education, showing that Yu made significant contributions in her field.

Growing circles and accomplishments

Of course, not everyone has the good fortune of a reunion. Chen Lijia (陈历佳), also an air force pilot and Liu’s good friend, was stuck in Beiping (now Beijing) and did not make it to Taiwan. Chen may have family members in China, so I am sharing his old photos here as well in case his family members should come across them.

chen lijia
Chen Lijia was also an air force pilot who did not make it to Taiwan.

After arriving in Taiwan, Liu and his wife had several children; Mrs Liu looked even more charming in the later photos as the family grew. The last group photo was probably taken when Liu was in his thirties, about the same age as I am now, and holding the rank of lieutenant colonel of the air force. The three rows of service medals on his chest showed that he was awarded the Order of Loyalty and Diligence, Medal of Rising Roc, Medal of Flying Dragon, Medal of Flying Tiger, Medal of Winged Leopard, and First Class Medal of Awe-inspiring, among others.

I was deeply touched by the final photo of the album — a family portrait of Liu Guoxiang, his wife and their three children, with a note written by Liu:

Spring slumber knows no dawn,
Everywhere, birds are heard.
The young ones have grown up,
The grown ups have grown old.


These heartfelt words were strangely moving, and my eyes welled up as I looked back on the travails of history.

The first two lines of writing are taken from the poem Spring Morning (春晓) by Meng Haoran, while the next two lines were presumably created by Liu.

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