by Peter Mertz
DENVER, the United States, July 23 (Xinhua) -- John Yee is considered the last living member of the legendary U.S. Flying Tigers. When he was 19, Yee was almost blown to bits by a bomb dropped from a Japanese fighter plane, but he survived.
Today, the 94-year-old veteran talked to Xinhua in an exclusive interview, telling his extraordinary tale as an eyewitness to a terrible time in world history.
Before the Pearl Harbor incident during World War II, Yee had been serving in the famous Flying Tigers, a group of American mercenary pilots sent to fight the Japanese troops in South China.
As a key translator for the Tigers led by General Claire Chennault, Yee acts today as a living reminder of a foundation of trust formed between the United States and China about 65 years ago.
Yee held a light-hearted conversation with Xinhua in the cozy living room of his home east of Denver in Aurora, Colorado. The walls were covered with various awards for his service in the war.
The war veteran, who was born in China in 1921 and moved to America in 1944, has a unique perspective on the fates of both China and America.
Today, Yee's life story has become a remarkable window into historic, explosive times for the two great nations.
Yee remembered his narrow escape from death with remarkable clarity and considered himself lucky to be alive.
"It was a sunny, warm, spring day in Kunming (the capital of China's southwestern province Yunnan)," Yee said. "Japanese bombers appeared out of nowhere. I ran fast... machine gun bullets ripped across the yard and almost hit me," he said, his voice cracking with an urgency to retell the tense moment.
"Suddenly, the ground shook with a deafening explosion and I was thrown on my face. I rose through a cloud of dust to find the bloody corpses of two young women and a little girl, lying in my yard."
They were blown through the air by a tremendous blast that left a crater where his neighbor's house once stood. All six family members were killed, Yee recalled.
"That day Japanese bombs dropped on Kunming from one end of the city to the other. When night fell, the entire city was dark without lights. All one could hear was the sound of wailing throughout the city. It was a city of death and destruction," Yee said.
Over the four preceding months, the Japanese had dropped thousands of bombs on the defenseless Kunming populace, massacring thousands of innocents including old people, women and children.
Yee remembers the haunting sounds of "screaming, wailing and crying" after a bombing, the city rendered powerless, the darkness hiding terrified, terrorized civilians who had survived.
In the same month, April 1941, then U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order, and enlisted resigned military genius Chennault to slow the Japanese juggernaut. In November 1941, 100 experienced American military pilots selected by Chennault and 100 P-40 fighter planes were sent secretly to Burma.
Two weeks after Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Chennault's 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG) arrived in Kunming. Yee clearly remembers the first U.S. counterattack on Dec. 20 like it was yesterday. It was a great moment and a very powerful way for China and America to bond, he said with a smile.
"It was a warm December day, and the skies were clear. The third (air raid warning) alarm had been blasting for several minutes. People were yelling and running for cover... From high above, we saw a P-40 diving straight down out of the clear, blue sky. Its guns were blazing. Suddenly a Japanese bomber started smoking, and spiraled downward. Everything happened so quickly," Yee said.
The remaining Japanese planes turned tail and sped back toward Vietnam. But the P-40s became pursuers and eliminated them all, except for one that managed to fly back to Hanoi, Yee said.
"The Kunming Daily News reported we shot down a total of nine bombers and lost only one," he said. "The reporter described the P-40s 'like tigers flying through the sky.'" Chennault liked the nickname, and the "Flying Tigers" were born. Soon the American pilots were painting the noses of their P-40s with red mouths and menacing, white fangs.
The 1942 movie "Flying Tigers" starring John Wayne immortalized the group, especially the aces, pilots like "Tex" Hill and James Howard, both of whom Yee knew very well.
"Chennault was recognized for striking the first blow against Japanese military forces after the Pearl Harbor devastation, and is statistically the most successful military air commander in world history," Yee said.
"We all jumped with joy when we read the news in the Kunming Daily News... We knew we now had a very powerful ally to fight Japan," Yee recalled.
Yee's personal life was also legendary. He was born in 1921 and adopted by English Methodist missionaries Alfred Evans and Bessie Bull when he was three in Zhaotong, a small city north of Kunming, and raised in a highly-educated British family.
When the arrival of Chennault and the need for interpreters was announced in the summer of 1941, Yee's foster father got him an introduction letter and told him to work for the Americans to help the Chinese.
For months, Yee worked in the control room as a top interpreter, watching Chennault engineer and execute a nearly flawless operation that destroyed 300 Japanese aircraft with only 14 pilots lost in combat.
Chennault, who helped Yee gain U.S citizenship after the war, was called "Old Leather Face" by his fellows. He married a Chinese woman after the war, and is still considered one of the most intriguing, brilliant military minds in U.S. history.
Yee earned a degree in history from the University of Denver in 1955 and started teaching high school history the next year.
As one of the first high school teachers in America to teach Chinese history to American teenagers, he taught thousands of students over his career, and in 2011 the National Association of Asian American Professionals in Colorado honored him with a lifetime achievement award.
In 1980, Yee was engaged in getting Kunming named Denver's eighth sister city, and the Denver-Kunming Sister City Committee is still very active today.