The Missing Airmen

Daniel Jackson, author of Famine, Sword, and Fire: The Liberation of Southwest China in World War II, recently visited China in search of the remains of US air crews missing in action since World War Two. This is his account:

Kun Shi, the Confucius Institute director at the University of South Florida, and I embarked on a three-week trip, meeting with Chinese researchers and World War II survivors to investigate the fate of America’s missing airmen in China. The American Volunteer Group, China Air Task Force, 14th Army Air Force, (all known informally as the “Flying Tigers”), and 20th Army Air Force reported over 600 aircraft and 1,700 airmen missing on combat missions in the China Theater. Our investigation focused on the overwhelming number of Americans rescued by Chinese soldiers and civilians – often at great peril to the rescuers – and those roughly four hundred airmen still listed as missing in action. We arrived in Shanghai on August 3 and departed the next day on a 2,066-kilometer journey via high-speed rail through Changsha and Zhijiang to Kunming. From Kunming, we set out on a 2,100-kilometer road trip through western Yunnan, stopping at Nujiang, Pianma, Tengchong, Ruili, Songshan, and Shidian. The trip gave us the opportunity to meet and consult with Dr. Guo Hui, professor and chair of the history department at Hunan Normal University, Mr. Tian Junquan, director of the Zhijiang Institute for the Study of Peace Culture, and Mr. Fu Shimin, director of the Western Yunnan Anti-Japanese War Historical Association. All proved to be enthusiastic partners in our research.

The study of World War II is on the rise in China. During our trip, we visited museums or monuments in Zhijiang, Kunming, Pianma, Tengchong, and Songshan specifically dedicated to the war – many either new or recently expanded. Part of the reason so many hundreds of airmen remain missing in action is because the difficult relationship between the United States and China during the Cold War and the taboo nature of the topic (due to its association with the Nationalist government) prevented research and recovery inside China. Now, the interest is there, the ability to research is there, and organizations already exist with which to build relationships for that purpose. The other obstacle – the incredibly challenging terrain – certainly still exists and will take careful planning and expert local help to surmount.

Daniel Jackson speaking at conference in Kunming, August 15, 2017

Daniel Jackson speaking at conference in Kunming, August 15, 2017

On August 15, the 72nd anniversary of the Japanese capitulation during World War II, the Western Yunnan Anti-Japanese War Historical Association hosted a conference emphasizing international cooperation during the war. There, I spoke in front of a group of more than 300 researchers, students, government officials, and other interested parties about Chinese-American cooperation during the war and the incredible story of downed airmen rescued from behind enemy lines. Six other speakers also presented on related topics, highlighting the U.S.-China partnership.


The Zhijiang Institute for the Study of Peace Culture and the Western Yunnan Anti- Japanese War Historical Association arranged for Kun and I to interview several veterans and survivors of World War II. These included Gong Kaibing, a War Area Service Corps clerk at hostel 4 at the airfield in Zhijiang (see photo on top); Hu Yaji, a Lisu, the son of a man who rescued Captain Jesse Carney, 76th Fighter Squadron, when his P-40 went down west of Nujiang; Pei Haiqing, who witnessed 2nd Lieutenant Francis Forbes, 25th Fighter Squadron, crash into the raging torrent of the Salween River and fished him out; Mai Hen E, who as a young woman, worked at the American Volunteer Group airfield at Leiyun (Loiwing), carrying water to the hostels; Zhao Yuzhen, who did laundry for Major Bruce Holloway when he crash-landed near her home in Shidian; and Wu Eyang, whose brother was a mechanic for the AVG and who, as an 11-year-old boy, witnessed Japanese warplanes attack Leiyun and Baoshan.

All of these interviews provided fascinating personal insight into the Chinese perspective of the war. Significantly, I was able to use the database I built from my archival research to tie every story of rescue or recovery to a specific American airman. Learning the name of the man they or their family helped proved very emotional. It seemed to bring a measure of closure as well. For myself, Kun, and the Chinese researchers accompanying us, it demonstrated the power of bringing together researchers from our two countries to uncover the full story.


Kun Shi and I will form a non-profit organization in the United States which will endeavor to do the following:

1. Promote the conduct and sharing of research in both the United States and China, emphasizing the cooperation between the two countries during World War II and the rescue and recovery of downed airmen.

2. Promote and facilitate academic exchanges between students and researchers in the United States and China to further this study.

3. Advocate for a memorial in the United States dedicated to the Chinese soldiers and civilians who rescued American airmen. Literally hundreds of thousands died -men, women, and children – in retaliation for helping men they hardly knew.

4. Use the results of joint research to investigate the location of those airmen still missing in China. Once we have determined the exact location of a crash, we will provide that information to U.S. and Chinese authorities to exhume the dead and hopefully, after 75 years, return them to their families and homeland. We plan to begin investigating promising sites between the winter and rainy season in March or April of 2018.

Categories: Aftermath, War, Witnesses

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