Soong Mei-ling and the flying tigers: When China and the US fought shoulder to shoulder

No one would deny that the US and China are not the best of friends at the moment. But there was a time ⁠— and not so long ago at that ⁠— when these two countries came together in goodwill and support. Historical photo collector Hsu Chung-mao brings us back to the WWII period, when this seemingly improbable state of affairs was a reality.
Chinese and American air force pilots talk, after a mission against the Japanese, March 1943. Both sides forged a deep friendship from fighting against the Japanese.
Chinese and American air force pilots talk, after a mission against the Japanese, March 1943. Both sides forged a deep friendship from fighting against the Japanese.

(All photos courtesy of Hsu Chung-mao.)

19th-century China was a victim of imperialism and colonialism, and the US as a rising Western power was in fundamental conflict with China. But during World War II, China and the US fought shoulder to shoulder against the invasion and expansion of the Fascist Axis powers — that is, Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Both governments were close, and interaction between both peoples reached a new high. Americans had a good impression of China and its people, not only because they had to work closely against a common enemy, but also because their society and culture were compatible in some ways.

In the larger context, China was a disadvantaged victim of the world powers, and civil church groups in the West, including the media, were mostly sympathetic towards the Chinese.

In 1900, China was in the midst of the Boxer Rebellion. The Western powers and Japan formed the Eight-Nation Alliance and seized Beijing, after which they signed the Boxer Protocol with China, where China had to pay large reparations and allow the powers to station troops in Beijing. China faced major humiliation as it lost its sovereignty. But while the US was one of the world powers in the Alliance, the Chinese people had quite a good impression of it because it did not show ambitions of taking over China’s land. It also acceded to the Chinese government’s request to return the reparations it received and even used part of it towards education in China, including sponsoring Chinese students to study in the US.

US churches established schools throughout China. Their charitable work in helping the poor gained the goodwill of the Chinese people. In the larger context, China was a disadvantaged victim of the world powers, and civil church groups in the West, including the media, were mostly sympathetic towards the Chinese.

In 1937, Japan invaded China, resulting in many casualties and homeless among the Chinese. Japanese troops entered major Chinese cities, leading to a clash with China-based Western authorities, resulting in greater Western sympathy and support for China. Among them, the US, which was the most influential in the West Pacific, was the first to extend a helping hand to China. 

A welcome ally

In 1937, before China was dragged into all-out war, Japan’s momentum of invasion was growing, but in view of diplomatic ties with Japan, the world powers dared not help China directly. Ironically, one country that did work with China and help it build a new army was the similarly isolated Nazi Germany. But given the constantly changing world situation, after the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out, Germany developed friendly relations with Japan and distanced itself from China. 

The only country that clearly supported China was the Soviet Union, which was in geopolitical conflict with Japan in Northeast Asia. They sent the Soviet Volunteer Group from the Soviet Air Forces to fight the Japanese planes, and played an important role in the first year of China’s war efforts.

Subsequently, it was the US that took over from the Soviet Union in helping China with its war efforts. Initially, it was a semi-secret, and the one who made it happen was Soong Mei-ling, the wife of Chiang Kai-shek, the first President of the Republic of China.

Madame Chiang, as she was popularly known, was born in Wenchang, Hainan, in 1897, but grew up in the US. In 1908, Mei-ling and her older sister Ching-ling went to the US to study. Mei-ling entered Wellesley College in 1913, graduating four years later. She spoke and wrote English fluently, and was a devout Christian. Given her background, she was naturally close to US society, and was easily accepted by Americans as part of the larger family of immigrants to the US.

chiangs chennault
Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang speaking to Lt. Gen. Claire L. Chennault on their visit to Kunming in 1942. American writer Roby Eunson said this of Madame Chiang: “[She] used to learn only music, literature, and social virtues, started to spend a lot of time on aviation theory, aircraft design, and professional publications on aircraft components and quality standards. She led negotiations with foreign businessmen and procured products and components worth $20 million. She changed hat from a purchaser to the commander-in-chief of the Chinese Air Force overnight. No other woman did it before.” Madame Chiang is also known as the “mother of the Chinese air force”.

Madame Chiang invited American military aviator Claire Lee Chennault to help develop China’s air power. Chennault went all over the US spreading the word about China’s war efforts, and with the help of Chinese and American stakeholders, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt approved a secret agreement between China and the US to provide China with the latest P-40 bombers, and allowed US troops to go to China and fight the Japanese as retired or reserve troops.

China and the US came together to form the Chinese-American Composite Wing (Provisional). With a combined strength that was greater than Japan’s forces, they managed to turn the tide of the war.

On 1 August 1941, the 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG) was established in Kunming, and won its first battle in December that year. As shark heads were painted on the planes, and they looked like tigers from a distance, people called them “Flying Tigers”. The insignia was designed by Roy Williams and Henry Porter of Walt Disney Studios, making it a little legend in China-US cooperation during the war.

After the war in the Pacific broke out in December 1941 during World War II, the AVG was reorganised several times and became the 14th Air Force. China’s air force sent pilots to India and the US for training and these US-trained pilots became the backbone of the Chinese air force. Subsequently, under Chennault’s suggestion, China and the US came together to form the Chinese-American Composite Wing (Provisional). With a combined strength that was greater than Japan’s forces, they managed to turn the tide of the war.

The cooperation between the Chinese and US air forces was a glorious chapter in WWII, with many great tales to be told, such as how the AVG came to China and how the Chinese and US air forces fought shoulder to shoulder, how the people in southwest China rallied together and built the airport, enduring tough days with the US air force. These are all stories of the times that are worth remembering.

Each of her (Soong Mei-ling's) passionate speeches was an important communique documenting the global war against fascism, while her charm was hard to match.

Then there was Madame Chiang’s visit to the US on 11 November 1943 as a representative of Chiang Kai-shek, which was also an important part of WWII history. Besides meeting US President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife and speaking in Congress, Madame Chiang also visited the Chinese living there and called on them to support China in its war against Japan. She also spoke at several public venues, recounting to the American public about China’s plight and Japan’s ambitions.

Madame Chiang did not mince her words about the painful price of war among Chinese troops and civilians, and the need to support China. Each of her passionate speeches was an important communique documenting the global war against fascism, while her charm was hard to match.

There is also the story of Henry Robinson Luce, who was born in Shandong in 1898 and grew up to be the founder of Time, Fortune, and Life magazines in the US. These publications became models for magazine reporting in the US, and Luce was described by Winston Churchill as one of America’s most influential people.

These posters shaped Americans’ image of Chinese, and it was during this time that the Chinese Exclusion Act was removed after over 50 years.

Luce’s parents had gone to China as missionaries and were closely associated with the place. Henry Luce spent his youth in China, and naturally felt deeply for it. When the war broke out, Life magazine followed war events closely and did in-depth reports about the hardships faced by the ordinary Chinese, and was the first Western media to expose the Nanjing Massacre. The media he founded strongly advocated that the US should support the Chinese government against the Japanese. Those reports had a deep influence on public opinion in the US, and quickened US assistance to China.

In February 1941, Henry Luce established the United China Relief and invited well-known artists to draw posters calling on Americans to support China. These posters shaped Americans’ image of Chinese, and it was during this time that the Chinese Exclusion Act was removed after over 50 years.

The posters by the United China Relief emphasised the fact that China was the first to fight. Many soldiers were sacrificed when the US joined the war against the Japanese following Pearl Harbour, so they had a taste of China’s initial hardship of war. "China First to Fight" reminded Americans that the Chinese were also fighting for the US, and were the first allies to sacrifice and contribute on the front line.

In short, the WWII period marked the era, beyond any point in the 50 years before and after, that China-US relations were at their closest. When China and the US were faced with a strong opponent, they could embrace each other and work closely to their greatest benefit. This was not just a strategic agreement, but there was also a natural integration of cultural and social values.

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The Flying Tigers

A banner showing the insignia of the US Air Force in China, 30 March 1943. From right: Lt. Gen. Claire L. Chennault, Col. Henry Strickland (later the commander of the third squadron of the Chinese-American Composite Wing), Lt. Col. Bruce Holloway, Maj. Albert Baumler, and Col. Clinton D. Vincent. The insignia of a flying tiger was designed by the Walt Disney Studios.
Kunming Airport, 1942. On hearing the alarm signalling an attack by Japanese planes, US pilots of the American Volunteer Group run towards their own planes. The Flying Tigers used Curtiss H81-A2 Tomahawk fighters, with the “clear skies” logo (based on the Republic of China flag) of the China air force spray-painted on the wings, and no logos associated with the US military. It was only after 1943 that the planes used by the US in assisting China were painted with the logos of the US Air Force and the US Army Aviation Branch.
Lt. Gen. Claire L. Chennault in shorts and cap, playing baseball with the 14th Air Force, 29 June 1943. Chennault was born in 1893 in Commerce, Texas, making him 50 years old at the time this photograph was taken. However, he was still strong enough to play all nine innings, winning the admiration of his opponents and the reporters on scene.
An airport in China, 15 September 1944. A B-29 bomber takes off after repairs, having lost two engines and one of its landing gear, as well as taking many hits to its ammunition hold. It was these American technicians who performed the repairs. From left: Sgt. Francis L. Daly, Sgt. Franklin W. Brian, twins Sgt. Lawrence C. Warne and Leonard J. Warne, Sgt. George P. Klein, and Sgt. Eugene W. Fiely. The US not only assisted with planes, but also brought many ground crew and technicians to China.
little joe
Everyone loved the cute and mischievous Little Tiger Joe, an orphan taken in by the 14th Air Force in Kunming. In this photo, he wears a little Flying Tigers uniform and hat, complete with a tie and dungarees, as well as a toy gun at his waist, imitating the pose of 1st Sgt. Robert Duerson beside him.
women soldiers
Three Chinese boys give the thumbs up to two members of the Women's Army Corps who have just arrived in China, 20 November 1944. One of the women courteously returns the gesture. The Women’s Army Corps was formed in 1942, mainly for administrative, communications, and secretarial work, with about 150,000 American women serving in it during World War II. The first women to arrive in China in 1944 served in Chongqing headquarters, with over 280 female soldiers serving in the China-Burma-India Theatre in January 1945.
Eight soldiers fire their guns in salute at the funeral of fallen 14th Air Force pilots, including a Jew, with local residents participating, 1944. The graves were designed to be easy to access, so that the remains could be sent back after the war.
A B-25 bomber of the 345th Bombardment Group, Fifth Air Force, bombs a Japanese corvette in the sea off Xiamen, 6 June 1945. The 345th served in the South Pacific during World War II, and was involved in the battle of Guadalcanal. After its base was shifted to the Philippines in November 1944, it was mainly responsible for attacking Japanese air bases and communications facilities in Luzon and Taiwan. It was based in Ieshima from July 1945, and moved back to the US in December that year. It was inactivated in 1959.
A Japanese corvette explodes after being hit by a B-25 bomber of the 345th Bombardment Group, Fifth Air Force, about 30 miles south of Xiamen, 6 April 1945. The explosive ripples in the water indicates the intensity of the bombing.

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 Soong Mei-ling in the US

chiang eleanor
Madame Chiang and US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt being interviewed by journalists in the chilly spring air on the South Lawn of the White House, February 1943. Both first ladies gave a common message to the American media. Incidentally, Madame Chiang had just undergone two months of medical treatment in America.
school mott street NY
Madame Chiang visiting a Chinese school in Mott Street, New York, March 1943. The school was in the heart of Chinatown, the earliest Chinese area. Police escort Madame Chiang and her group from the car to the school, surrounded by journalists taking photos. The school has prepared welcome banners as well as the Republic of China flag.
roosevelt address
US President Franklin Roosevelt speaks to the nation commemorating the 210th birth anniversary of the first president of the US, George Washington, 22 February 1943. From left: Mara di Zoppola (a relative of President Roosevelt), Harry Hopkins (Roosevelt’s close friend and confidante, who arranged for Madame Chiang’s visit to the US), and Madame Chiang.
Madame Chiang making a moving speech at a joint session of the US Congress, 18 February 1943, the first Chinese person and the second woman to do so. She emphasised the hardship and exemplary behaviour, blood and sacrifice of the Chinese military and civilians in the war against the Japanese. Her speech was interrupted several times by applause, and she was given a standing ovation at the end.
Madame Chiang’s stay at the White House as a personal guest of the Roosevelts coincided with the 210th birth anniversary of the first US President George Washington. The photo shows Madame Chiang and the Roosevelts visiting Washington’s grave, 22 February 1943. From left: David Kung Ling-kan (Madame Chiang’s nephew), US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Madame Chiang, President Franklin Roosevelt, and Admiral Nelson Brown.
In March 1943, after 26 years, Madame Chiang returned to her alma mater Wellesley College, where she received a warm welcome. The photo shows her with students in front of a chapel in the college. Front row, from left: Wellesley College Government president Sarah Moore, Madame Chiang, Wellesley College president (and US Navy captain) Mildred McAfee, and Helen Webster, president of Tau Zeta Epsilon (TZE), Wellesley College’s Art and Music Society. Madame Chiang was a TZE member as a student.
On New Year’s Day 1945, through NBC, Madame Chiang spoke to the people of America from her lodgings in Riverdale, New York: “I wish to thank you on behalf of myself and the Chinese people. It was your generosity that has helped in large measure to make our relief work possible, so that thousands upon thousands of war orphans, refugees and displaced persons were given aid and comfort in their dire straits.” Riverdale was a villa owned by Madame Chiang’s brother-in-law, the tycoon H.H. Kung. Madame Chiang, her brother T.V. Soong (Soong Tse-ven) and other family members had all previously stayed there.
penn station
Madame Chiang and her entourage passing by Chinatown en route from Pennsylvania Station to City Hall, 1 March 1943. They were warmly welcomed by Chinese waving US and Republic of China flags; some Chinese restaurants and shops even decorated their windows. The New York police gave tight security to Madame Chiang, with two officers holding on to the rear of the car. Madame Chiang’s nephew David Kung Ling-kan is seen in a rear passenger seat.
school SF
Teachers and students at a school in San Francisco, along with many Chinese people, lining the street and waving the US and Republic of China flags to welcome Madame Chiang, 25 March 1943. The Chinese community throughout the US donated generously to China’s war efforts.
carnegie hall
Chinese along the road wave their hats in greeting, heedless of the snow and cold, as Madame Chiang exits Carnegie Hall in New York, after a meeting with a Chinese charity association, March 1943.
woman salute
Amid the crowd, a woman in military uniform and white gloves salutes Madame Chiang’s entourage, 1943.
Four children in the welcome party for Madame Chiang in San Francisco take centre stage amid the crowd, April 1943. Two of the children are wearing traditional Chinese clothes and hats, while one is proudly dressed as Uncle Sam. This mix of Chinese and American culture is also a slice of life in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
The Chinese in San Francisco arranged a float parade to welcome Madame Chiang, April 1943. Uncle Sam holds planes, tanks, and ships, reaching across the globe to give them to China, as represented by a Chinese figure, backed by valiant Chinese soldiers. Madame Chiang stayed in San Francisco for five days.
Pilots Dong Shiliang and Ma Yu, in the US for training, get an autograph from movie star Greer Garson — on the back of a photo of Madame Chiang on her US visit, 1944. The two young pilots had only been in the US for a few weeks, and their training base was near Hollywood. Dong Shiliang was the son of Dong Xianguang (Hollington Tong), the Deputy Minister of Propaganda, who was part of Madame Chiang's entourage on one of her previous US visits. Garson won a Best Actress Oscar in 1942, for her role as a strong British wife and mother in the middle of World War II in the movie Mrs Miniver.
Women in the Chinese community in San Francisco wearing traditional qipao and waving the US and Republic of China flags to welcome Madame Chiang to City Hall, 25 March 1943.
Thousands of Americans, including many overseas Chinese, welcome Madame Chiang to Los Angeles, April 1943. Madame Chiang is heading to City Hall for a welcome event for her. Unlike in New York and San Francisco, Madame Chiang is in a convertible, to facilitate interaction with the crowds.

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Publicity posters on China’s war efforts 

A publicity poster on China’s war efforts by the United China Relief, with the theme China Carries On. The right side of the poster says “Fight the war, build the country” in Chinese, and a heroic-looking Chinese soldier in the foreground, with a child looking straight ahead in the bottom left. Through these influential posters, media mogul Henry Luce touched the hearts of countless Americans and accelerated the US government’s support of China’s war efforts.
A poster by the United China Relief showing a lone orphan waiting for help amid the war, with the slogan “China… Looks To Us!” as a reminder to America that the people who were suffering from the war, including homeless women and children, were in need of help from Americans.
A poster by United China Relief with the slogan "China Shall Have Our Help". The poster shows a Chinese family taking refuge from the invading Japanese, being forced to leave their homes far behind. Having lost everything, they need help from their American allies; the poster includes information on donations.
This poster by the United China Relief shows Uncle Sam beckoning the audience to follow suitin helping the Chinese people to fight to protect their home. The slogan “Help China! China Is Helping Us” stresses that Americans have to help China quickly, because China is helping the US. This exemplifies the spirit of both countries fighting side by side.

Source: The US National Archives and Records Administration

Coloured by: Xu Danhan

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