Kunming Flying Tigers Museum
In 1941, the 1st American Volunteer Group, better known by their nickname the ‘Flying Tigers’, began military action against the Japanese in the skies above China and Burma. Although supported by the US Government, the group was technically a mercenary ensemble and was sent to China, some historian’s claim, before the US had officially declared war on Japan. Led by retired US Army Air Corps Officer Claire Lee Chennault, the Flying Tigers originally consisted of 100 rather basic Tomahawk fighter planes, each packaged and sent to Burma from a factory in the US. After being reconstructed and tested at the training base in Toungoo, each plane was painted with what was to become the group’s insignia – a shark’s head with bared teeth.
Supporting the Chinese military, whose airforce had been almost entirely decimated by the Japanese, the Flying Tigers achieved a number of important tactical victories throughout 1941 and 1942. One such victory included the discontinuation of Japanese bombing over Kunming, a city integral to the defence of Burma Road. In 1942 the American Volunteer Group was disbanded and replaced by the US Army’s 23rd Fighter Group. The name the Flying Tigers was maintained along with the group’s shark head logo. According to some sources the Flying Tigers destroyed 2,600 Japanese planes (300 alone in the first year), 44 warships and killed almost 67,000 Japanese soldiers throughout their four year campaign (1941-1945).
To recognise the role the Flying Tigers played in protecting the local Chinese population during World War II, a small museum was planned to open in a house owned by the Kunming Museum. However, the house was deemed unsafe to display a collection and instead in 2012, a wing of the Kunming Museum was converted into the a Flying Tigers Museum.
Initially, the museum only had a small collection of artifacts and photos representing the American troops who had made up the original Flying Tigers. Concerned that they would have nothing to display, the museum contacted the widow of Claire Lee Chenault, Chen Xiangmei. In response, Chen and another private collector provided the museum with a collection of over 2,000 items and photos for a much more comprehensive exhibition.
The Flying Tigers Museum allows visitors to learn about the history of the original American Volunteer Group, their leader Clarie Lee Chennault, the planes they flew and the battles they fought. Various photos along with a full-size Tomahawk fighter plane, documentation, newspaper clippings, personal letters and memorabilia, provides the viewer with a more detailed retelling of an aspect of World War II that hasn’t always received a lot of attention. The final section of the museum displays a short black and white documentary about the involvement of the local Chinese men and women who assisted the Flying Tigers whilst they fought the Japanese. With the history of the Flying Tigers gaining momentum among historians, further exhibitions and memorials are planned for the future.