Meet 104-year-old Chen Ping Ching, the last living member of WWII’s legendary ‘Flying Tigers’ squadron

On Aug. 15, Japan entered the 76th year since its defeat in World War II.

Addressing a crowd of less than 200 people — the smallest audience since the annual commemoration began in 1963 — Emperor Naruhito, for the third consecutive year, expressed “deep remorse” over the country’s wartime past.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who made his first appearance at the event, promised that Japan will never wage war again.

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While such statements may be comforting to hear, no Japanese leader has ever officially apologized for the war crimes the country committed.

Japan’s atrocities were largely felt in Asia, which Imperial leaders attempted to unite under the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (GEACPS). The concept aimed to unite all Asian countries and free them from Western rule.

Such an ideal came at the cost of millions of innocent lives. While the concept initially appealed to many for its pan-Asian agenda, its implementation ended up being a brutal and deadly assertion of Japan’s superiority over the rest of its neighbors.

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Of the countries Japan had sought to rule over, China suffered the most casualties.

In the eight years that Imperial Japan pursued the Republic of China (ROC) — beginning from the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 to Japan’s surrender in 1945 — up to 20 million Chinese people died, while a whopping 100 million more became refugees.

Defending a nation with half a billion people was far from an easy task. Countless more would have suffered and perished if it weren’t for a brave group of fighters who had to sacrifice their own lives.

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Enter the Flying Tigers, a group of American and Chinese pilots who swore to defend the ROC from Imperial Japan.

Chen Ping Ching (front row, middle), a member of the Flying Tigers, graduates from the Maritime School of Navigation in Fujian, China, on May 11, 1935. Image via Chen Ping Ching for NextShark.

Officially known as the First American Volunteer Group (AVG), the Flying Tigers consisted of pilots from the U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC), Navy (USN) and Marine Corps (USMC). They were recruited before the Pearl Harbor attack under President Franklin Roosevelt and commanded by Claire Lee Chennault.

They were also members of the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF), now unofficially known as the Taiwanese Air Force.

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The Flying Tigers consisted of three fighter squadrons, each of which had about 30 aircraft to deploy. They first arrived in China in April 1941 and engaged in their first combat on Dec. 20, 1941, 12 days after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

The group has a significant role in history, having achieved notable victories during the lowest points of the war for the U.S. and the Allied Forces. This kept alive the hope that Japan would eventually be defeated. Records show that they managed to destroy 296 enemy aircraft while losing only 14 pilots.

Chen prepares to fly plane no. 13 for an airstrike in July 1943. Taking the pilot’s photo before a mission is customary since it might be his last picture. Image via Chen Ping Ching for NextShark.

Among these brave heroes is Chen Ping Ching, who turned 104 this year. NextShark had the honor and privilege to talk with Chen and his family.

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Chen, who goes by the nickname Jim, is the last living member of the Flying Tigers. His entry into the war began in 1941, when he was sent to the Arizona Air Force Base for training. The following year, he graduated and was transferred to Florida to receive combat training as part of the U.S. Air Force 58th Combat Brigade.

Chen (middle row, third from left) is seen in a group photo while training in Lukefield, Ariz. Image via Chen Ping Ching for NextShark.

Prior to entering the war, Chen flew different aircraft — including P39 and P66 — and even led a naval ship to India. He was eventually incorporated into the 14th Air Force and 23rd Group.

After flying a P40 fighter plane, his aircraft number 13 from the 75th squadron was officially incorporated into the Flying Tigers.

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Chen joins the advanced aviation class in Lukefield in 1942. The two cadets from the right were both killed in a plane crash later. Image via Chen Ping Ching for NextShark.

Chen fought countless battles in the western Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Guangzhou in 1943. In one of them, he was the only soldier left alive.

“I will never forget that one devastating battle that took place on Friday the 13th, when all my teammates were killed, leaving me as the sole survivor,” Chen recalled.

Chen stands next to Colonel Guss of the 25th Squadron, 14th Air Force. A P40 warhawk fighter plane is seen in the background. Image via Chen Ping Ching for NextShark.

That fateful day occurred in October 1943, according to Chen’s family. Chen and his team’s mission was to bomb Haiphong Harbor, North Vietnam’s only major port. This would stem the transport of Japanese war supplies into China.

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Targets included the harbor itself, as well as any other enemy vessel. The whole squadron was to escort a fleet of B-24 bombers. Jim flew a P40.

An Asia-Pacific meeting of 10 nations’ air force top brass. Left to right: Chen, Philippine Air Force Commander Benito Ekuen and ROC Air Force Commander SM Wang (Tiger Wang). Image via Chen Ping Ching for NextShark.

A battle broke out when Japanese Zero fighters appeared in the sky to shoot the bombers.

Chen was able to shoot down an enemy plane, but he was hit from behind by another. A bullet pierced his windshield, hit the cockpit and ricocheted, burying itself in Chen’s right shoulder.

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A banquet in Manila in 1956 hosted by the Thai Air force. Chen is seen on the far right. In the middle is a U.S. general. Image via Chen Ping Ching for NextShark.

Chen managed to eject from his plane and launch a parachute. He landed in the virgin forest between China and Vietnam. This began his week-long ordeal of jungle survival.

Chen sustained a wound that caused immense blood loss. He ate the chocolate in his survival kit, but the revolver inside was lost.

Meeting of Air Forces from 10 nations of the Far East in Manila Hotel on May 6, 1956. From right to left: U.S. Gen. Kuler, Tiger Wang (ROC), Philippine Gen. Pelagio Cruz and Chen. Image via Chen Ping Ching for NextShark.

As he wandered in the forest, Chen came face to face with a native man. Both sides were astonished to see each other. Nonetheless, the man understood that Chen needed help. He provided him food and shelter.

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Unfortunately, Jim was eventually taken to a French patrol, his family said, which then delivered him to the Japanese. He was imprisoned until the Allied victory in 1945.

Tour of the Filipino 4th Air Force reserve in Laur, Nueva Ecija with military exercise in June 1957. The red arrow points to Brig. Gen. Tirso Fajardo. Chen sits on the far right marked with a red circle. Image via Chen Ping Ching for NextShark.

Chen is “eternally grateful” to the U.S. for helping China resist Japanese aggression. The war hero said being a member of the Flying Tigers has been his life’s great honor.

“When Japanese invaders came to threaten my homeland, the U.S. government provided free training and funding for me to become a combat pilot to better serve my country. This opportunity changed my life forever,” Chen said.

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In July, he sent a letter to President Joe Biden expressing his wish to have his contributions remembered. He believes his days are “numbered.”

“I am reaching out to you in hopes that you can recognize and acknowledge my achievements as a Flying Tiger, and that all Flying Tigers in China and the United States in World War II have sacrificed their lives for democracy, freedom and justice.”

Chen attends an event of the Taiwanese Air Force commemorating the Flying Tigers in 2015. He is accompanied by two Air Force colonels. Image via Chen Ping Ching for NextShark.

Chen said all his remaining photos, documents, medals and other relics have been donated to the Kunming Flying Tigers Museum in China.

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His dying wish is simple: be remembered as a Flying Tiger.

“I hope that another hundred years from now, my will is to be buried in the Taiwan Air Force Martyrs Cemetery, where I will still be wearing our proud Flying Tiger uniform.

“One day, I hope that I will be in heaven, where I can be reunited with my old commander and former comrades-in-arms. And I sincerely hope that God will continue to bless both the good people of the United States and China so we can continue joining hands to build a peaceful and better world.”

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All Images via Chen Ping Ching for NextShark

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