Tales of the Flying Tigers

Yunnanyi street
The street that was Yunnanyi, much as the Flying Tigers would have seen it in 1942. China's explosive growth is suggested by the taller buildings in the distance and by the new building towering over the street--a Motel 6, perhaps? (Photo by Bob Bergin)

Protecting the Tiger Heritage


by Bob Bergin

A museum is planned for the site of Kunming's famous Wujiaba airport - one of the world's busiest airports during World War II - home of the AVG Flying Tigers, headquarters of the Fourteenth Air Force and terminus of the "Hump" flights from India that kept China in the war.

Wujiaba was formally closed in June 2012 and replaced by Changshui International, the city's new airport north of Kunming. The new museum is to display Wujiaba's rich history as both a commercial and military airfield since 1923.

The airport site is a choice piece of real estate on the southeast edge of Kunming that fronts on Lake Dianchi. It will be developed for both residential and commercial purposes, with parks and possibly a sports stadium. Plans are to name the main 13 kilometer-long road that will run through the developed site "Flying Tiger Avenue."

In Kunming city itself, the planned Flying Tigers Museum is on hold until completion of ongoing construction in the area of the historic building that is to house the collection of Flying Tiger artifacts. Among the donors to the collection is Anna Chennault. Pedro Chan of Los Angeles donated over 2,000 artifacts and photos.

Kunming city is currently undergoing an immense construction project of six separate subway lines, several of which apparently converge in the area of the museum. The museum building - once used as a residence by Chennault - was damaged by the construction work and will need repairs before the collection can be moved in.


Meanwhile, the ancient town of Yunnanyi, on the Burma road and adjacent to the former AVG and 14th Air Force base, is undergoing extensive renovations that will make it a tourist site. The former airfield in western Yunnan, about 300 kilometers west of Kunming, was one of the closest to the Japanese-occupied areas of Burma and China. It was also used for fighter escorts for the Hump transports that flew the southern Himalayan route and could be reached by Japanese fighters.

Yunnanyi became the main American base in western Yunnan, but near the end of the war, air operations were shifted to a nearby airfield that had been prepared for the B-29s that were intended to bomb Japan. After the war the original airfield was abandoned and has largely returned to rice fields. The only sign of its WWII role are aircraft revetments on which eucalyptus trees grow. The second airfield became a base for the Peoples' Liberation Army Air Force.

The old village of Yunnanyi, a single long street paved with stone is the oldest settlement in Yunnan. It dates back to about 100 BC and was an important stop-over on the Silk Road and other ancient trade routes. The name Yunnanyi means Yunan post-house for the caravanserai sited there. The village was so important that its name became the name of the entire of province of Yunnan.

A number of buildings in the village were used by the 14th Air Force during World War II, and most seem still to exist. The caravanserai was used as a hospital for American personnel; today it is a museum devoted to the old horse caravans. Some of the residences with their impressive gates housed American pilots during the war, and today are used again as residences. When the renovation of the village is complete, some of the buildings will be used to house AVG and 14th Air Force artifacts related to the airfield. Among them, one of the bigger buildings housed the base operations center when the 14th Air Force occupied the airfield.

Just across the old Burma Road, which runs right past the village, is a small stone maker, and nearby a large collection of the old stone rollers that were used to build the runways and presumably local sections of the Burma Road. The marker commemorates the Burma Road and the 60th anniversary of the War's end in August 2005. Together with the stone rollers this is the area's Burma Road memorial.

This old village is so authentically "Old China" that it is frequently used as a movie location. In fact a film about the Peoples' Liberation Army was being made as we visited, and many AVG and 14th Air Force artifacts were in storage, replaced by movie props.

[Bob Bergin, who provided the above, visited Kunming for the 20 February opening of the exhibit titled, "Barney Rosset: `Publisher-hero' as Combat Photographer in China," which he organized with the Kunming City Museum. Kunming's Flying Tiger Museum is part of the Kunming City Museum.]

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