The Only War We've Got

Those Chinese Tigers

Sgt Pak On LeeFans of the Flying Tigers have long been mystified by those Chinese names on the AVG roster, most often with the label "engineering helper." (In my roster, I call them what they actually were: mechanic.) This is their story, as told in an interesting self-published book by the son of Pak On Lee, one of those men who served their adopted country in China. (At left: Sergeant Lee, U.S. Army, in 1945)

In the spring of 1941, the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company was gearing up to support the American Volunteer Group in Asia. One hundred P-40s were on their way to Rangoon, scouts were beginning to recruit U.S. military pilots and support personnel, and a handful of American technicians had been dispatched to Burma to supervise the assembly of the aircraft, which would be done by Chinese and Indian laborers at Mingaladon Airport outside Rangoon.

Unskilled laborers ("coolies," as the Americans called them) could attach wings to airframes and do other muscle jobs, but CAMCO also needed a cadre of mechanics to service the 12-cylinder, liquid-cooled Allison engines that would power the P-40s. It hit upon an ingenious solution: it would hire ethnic Chinese young men already in the United States, train them, and send them to Burma along with the American personnel.

In April 1941, CAMCO advertised in San Francisco's Gom Sahn See Bow (China Times), which circulated locally and in Chinatowns across the United States. (Pak On Lee saw the ad in Portland, Oregon.) About 20 immigrant or US-born Chinese young men applied for the training program. Thirteen were selected and sent in May to Indianpolis, Indiana, to train on the 50 Allison engines that China Defense Supplies had purchased as spares for the P-40s on their way to China.. The Allison company had built the facility to service race cars at what later became the Indianapolis Motor Speedway track. Here too it had developed the marine engine that in time evolved into the Allison V-1710 that powered the Curtiss P-40, Bell B-39, Lockheed P-38, and early models of the North American P-51, making up the vast majority of US Army fighter planes of the Second World War.

Nine men successfuly completed the seven-week course and were issued American passports. (It may be that the four not hired for the AVG had some irregularity with their immigration or naturalization status and were denied passports by the formidable Ruth Shipley at the State Department. Mrs. Shipley was the dragon who denied a travel document to the 100th Flying Tiger pilot, Ajax Baumler.) Typical of the whimisical professions attributed to Claire Chennault's mercenaries, Pak On Lee's passport identified him as a student.

They sailed for Rangoon as first-class passengers on the Java-Pacific liner Boschfontein as part of the last contingent of AVG pilots. I've read all the available journals of the 26 American pilots on the long voyage, and there's not a single mention of the Chinese mechanics on the long voyage to Burma.

Boschfontein anchored at Rangoon on November 12, 1941, less than four weeks before the Japanese breakout of December 7/8. I'd always assumed that they were put to work at the CAMCO assembly point at Mingaladon Airport and moved up to Loiwing toward the end of December, but apparently they were part of an AVG convoy that left Toungoo on November 21 and reached Kunming on December 8, the first day of the Pacific War as it was reckoned in Asia. Their status was formalized on January 21, when they signed the standard contract with CAMCO. Their salary was $150 a month--generous by 1941 standards, though paltry compared to what the white Americans were being paid (typically $250 for a mechanic, $600 and up for a pilot).

Three of the Chinese mechanics quit the AVG before it was disbanded on July 4, 1942, and so are not listed on the "offical" roster of veterans. (Either they joined the Chinese army or they joined their families elsewhere in China.) Another mechanic, Francis Yee, was hired locally to work on the group's trucks. So it happened that seven Chinese mechanics enlisted in the U.S. Army: Chun Yuen Gee, Pak on Lee, George Lum (aka Lum Sun Git), Kee Jeung Pon (aka Philip Pon), George Wing Shee (aka George Leo Wingshee), Lem Wu, and Francis Yee. The three dropouts were Fred Wong, Benny Fong, and Lawrence Chow.

An eighth ethnic Chinese served with the American Volunteer Group. He had also been recruited in China: Dr. Joseph Lee, who worked alongside the American doctors, nurses, and a dentist whom CAMCO had recruited in the United States.

(A tip of the virtual hat to Keith Lee, whose self-published book, A Chinese in the A.V.G., provided much of the information for this page.)

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