Editor’s note: Edward Woo, one of George Woo’s children, spoke on behalf of his father for this exclusive interview with NextShark.
On the Fourth of July in 1942 — nearly seven months after Imperial Japan shocked Pearl Harbor — the first American Volunteer Group (AVG) of the Republic of China Air Force, otherwise known as the Flying Tigers, disbanded.
The war, however, was far from over. The AVG’s mission to defend China against Japanese aggression lived on when a number of its surviving members joined the 23rd Fighter Group, which was eventually absorbed into the U.S. 14th Air Force.
“My most unforgettable experience was my harrowing escape from capture after my plane was shot down by the Japanese,” George Woo, or Ng Kok Yee (伍國瑜) in Cantonese, tells NextShark.
Woo, who turns 99 in December, was a B-25 bomber navigator in the Chinese American Composite Wing (CACW) of the 14th Air Force. He currently lives at a nursing home in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Contrary to the original Flying Tigers — who were all American volunteers commanded by Claire Lee Chennault — the CACW consisted of personnel from both the U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF) and the Chinese (ROC) Air Force. The organization’s units were thus jointly commanded by American and Chinese officers, and its aircraft was manned by American and Chinese pilots and crew members.
The 14th Air Force, still under Chennault’s command, was formed in March 1943. The CACW was activated in October of the same year and was deactivated in September 1945.
The CACW was composed of one bomber group (the 1st Bombardment) and two fighter groups (the 3rd Fighter and the 5th Fighter). Woo, who served from March 1943 until the end of the war in 1944, was part of the 4th Squadron of the 1st Bombardment group.
Born in China on Dec. 2, 1923, Woo joined the Chinese Air Force at the age of 20 while studying in the city of Kunming. However, he initially had no plans of doing so.
“I was a student and never intended to be a soldier,” Woo tells NextShark. “I joined the Chinese Air Force in March 1943 to help to fight against the Japanese invaders.”
Woo began his flight training at the Jun Shi Fei Xing Xue Xiao (Military Flight School) in Tong Liang, Sichuan province. However, his studies were cut short when his unit was reassigned to join the CACW after its formation.
On Dec. 31, 1943, Woo and 40 of his classmates were flown to the Pakistani city of Karachi — then part of India — and received flight training at the Malir air base for B-25 medium bombers with American forces. He completed his training in July 1944.
Woo said he had not heard of the Flying Tigers at the time. However, he knew of U.S. efforts to assist China in its fight against Japan, which first erupted in 1937.
“In 1943, the Chinese (ROC) government initiated a recruitment campaign for young men to join the Air Force. I felt it was my duty to serve my country,” Woo recalls.
As a young patriot, Woo managed to escape the clutches of death twice. His first brush occurred in July 1945 while returning from a bombing mission in the area of Hengshan in southern China. The compass of his plane malfunctioned, resulting in the loss of navigational guidance. And, to make matters worse, the plane also ran out of fuel.
Fortunately, his crew members were able to parachute to the nearby city of Yuanling. They landed in friendly areas and were able to return to their base without any further incidents.
Woo came close to death again the following month. This time, the close call involved a harrowing encounter with the enemy.
Japan was already losing in China at the time. Woo’s unit was ordered to attack retreating enemy ships, but the latter managed to return fire and damage a wing of his aircraft. The fire eventually spread, leaving everyone in the aircraft with no choice but to parachute out.
While in the air, Woo saw Japanese soldiers and their dogs running toward them. He managed to land on a spot that bought him enough time to hide under some tall weeds near a river.
But the horror was just beginning. He heard voices of Japanese soldiers out for blood, so he stayed awake among the weeds throughout the night.
Woo found relief the next day after the enemy disappeared and a farmer came by. He approached the latter cautiously and was brought to a village chief who offered him food, shelter and clothing.
Soon enough, Woo was taken by the village chief’s trusted aides to partisans in the area, who then led him back to their base in Sichuan. On Aug. 15, 1945, he heard the announcement of Japan’s surrender while returning to the base.
The 14th Air Force adopted the nickname Flying Tigers, and Woo recalls his time as one of the group’s members with both pride and fondness.
“I had a memorable experience serving in the Flying Tigers and would not change a thing. But one regret I do have was I wish the CACW was not disbanded so quickly and that I had maintained contacts with my war comrades in the unit,” he tells NextShark.
“Unfortunately, after WWII ended, China was embroiled in a civil war. The many friends I served with all went different ways, some went to Taiwan and we lost contact.”
Woo immigrated to the U.S. with his family in 1964. He was married to the late Woo Gui Fang, and their love bore six children, 14 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
“As time passes, memories of past events also fade. There are now just a few surviving veterans of the World War II generation,” Woo’s son, Edward, tells NextShark. “They are not superheroes, but ordinary young men like my father who responded to the call of a nation for her defense.
“The depth of sacrifice and personal risks they had endured are the backstories of World War II, and it is important that we not let their stories be forgotten,” he adds.
Edward recalls visiting his father with his sister Margaret nearly two years ago and playing a song that encouraged patriotism during the war.
“My dad will soon be 99 years old. His memories have faded and he could hardly hear, so conversations are at the bare minimum,” Edward says. “In September 2020, my sister Margaret and I did our weekly visit with Dad at the nursing home. We played for him the song ‘On the Pine Flower River’ (‘松花江上’) through an iPad.”
“Although Dad could hardly hear, he read the lyrics on the screen, recognized the song right away and immediately sang along,” Edward says. “Tears were flowing from my Dad’s eyes. He said it was the popular patriotic song that he sang when he enlisted. He then raised the iPad tablet and kissed it.
“It was a very moving moment for me and my sister. I for the first time can really feel the passion of the youth at the time in responding to the call for the defense of the homeland.”
Mai Lombardi, meanwhile, shares how she learns more about her grandfather’s story.
“My family has heard his stories and seen the pictures countless times. He has always been proud of his service and his sacrifices, but I didn’t truly realize the significance until I saw similar war photos at the Stilwell Museum in Chongqing,” Mai tells NextShark. “I showed my Chinese friends, who had never met my gung gung, how his Air Force photos were similar. Upon seeing his photos, they asked me to thank him for his service as a ‘Flying Tiger.’
“Since then, I have often told people of his time in World War II and have started to read more about the CACW and the Flying Tigers to connect and understand his history even more. He has lived almost a century now, and I hope his stories and the history of his service continue to be recognized and remembered.”
Featured Image via Woo Family for NextShark