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P-40 mockups in China

Ghostly relics in Yunnan Province

Bob Bergin is in China again, and he keeps finding traces of the American Volunteer Group in the most amazing places. He explains of the photo above:

"It's an old movie set, on a high pasture about 150 kilometers east of Kunming. A remote area, hidden among Yunnan's hills and deep valleys. I was there in the latter part of February. As we drove toward the place I couldn't help thinking about Bob Layher - and the others in Boyington's flight - as they waited for their engines to quit and looked down and wondered where the hell they were going to put their airplanes. [Bob refers to the ill-fated escort mission in which Boyington got lost and he and his mates had to belly in.] The valleys here are small, most have a rice paddy, but Layher wouldn't have gotten more than a single bounce off a berm - and then gone into the next hill that was starting on its way up.

"[There's] a guard tower and a fence, which you come on suddenly as you crest a rise - and then beyond, see the airfield and the line of four P-40s. It's eerie - like stepping into a photo of one of the AVG's forward airstrips in 1942. Some years ago I wrote a novel, When Tigers Fly, about a modern-day Chinese warlord who counterfeits original AVG P-40s for collectors and called his factory airstrip in Yunnan, Flying Tiger Land. I thought I had arrived there."

Iconic C-47 fuselage number I was puzzled by a P-40 with this fuselage number. Bob explains: "I sometimes get the impression that the C-47 has almost talismanic significance in China. It's the archetypal airplane. You see its silhouette everywhere. I think if you say airplane, or WWII - at least in Yunnan - most Chinese will see the image of a C-47. Well, maybe not the younger ones."

"Actually, It's two movie sets. The field, the line of P-40s and the wrecked P-40 are AVG. Adjoining it are some buildings that might have been AVG once, but now include a paratroopers club. Next to that is a C-47 fuselage and jump tower. Signs on the buildings indicate that this film site was a KMT paratrooper training base. The era is hard to say, but probably post-WWII, pre-liberation [1945-1949].

"The whole film set seems to be old enough that one remember the names of the films made there. Despite all the AVG conversations I've engaged in, in Kunming, I had never heard of this place before. Probably because of its remote location. There are people who visit there, but you have to want to go.

"The P-40s seem well-built for this kind of duty, rough-looking up close, and weathered, but seem to be all metal. The markings can be a bit strange. Step back and squint and they look pretty real. Including the P-40 wreck."

Thanks, Bob! I wish I had seen it in 1986, but probably it wasn't there. That was before the Chinese government evidently made the decision to fold the American Volunteer Group and the "Flying Tigers" mystique into its celebration of the war again Japan.

Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941-1942
Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers - "The exciting story of this legendary fighting force that wore American uniforms but Chinese insignia" (WWII magazine) Paperback or Kindle edition.

Remains: a story of the Flying Tigers
Remains: a story of the Flying Tigers - "A cracking good yarn" (Air&Space magazine) Paperback or Kindle edition.

Lady & the Tigers
The Lady and the Tigers: Olga Greenlaw's 1942 account of her year with the Flying Tigers in Burma and China. Paperback or Kindle edition.

100 Hawks for China - the story of the shark-nosed P-40 that made the Flying Tigers famous. An e-book for the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook.

Taildragger Tales: My late-blooming romance with a Piper Cub and her younger sisters. An ebook for the Amazon Kindle.