China Fetes American Veterans of World War II Known as ‘Flying Tigers’ in a Bid to Improve Ties

November 1, 2023
US World War II veterans Harry Moyer, right, gestures next to his compatriot Mel McMullen

BEIJING — China on Monday feted two American veterans of World War II as Washington and Beijing look to past collaboration for inspiration on improving today’s strained ties.

Mel McMullen, who is in his late 90s, and Harry Moyer, who turned 103 on Monday, are among the few surviving members of a U.S. Army Air Force command that helped China battle Japan and became popularly known as the Flying Tigers.

Their visit is the latest in a small but expanding series of exchanges ahead of a possible meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping next month, as the United States and China try to repair a relationship that has deteriorated sharply over differences on trade, technology, security and human rights.

McMullen recounted how Chinese farmers saved the lives of downed American pilots, hiding them by day and moving them from village to village by night, despite the risk of severe punishment by the Japanese.

“I think that’s something we should all understand,” he said at a ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

“People are the same. Their governments may be different, but the people actually always have one desire, and that is to live and to raise their families in peace, and in the customs of their predecessors. And I needed to say that and I’m sorry I took so much time,” he said to loud applause.

The U.S. and China have been restoring contacts that were broken off over the past four years, both by the coronavirus pandemic that restricted travel and the growing animosity between the world’s two largest economies.

Six U.S. senators visited earlier this month, the first congressional delegation to China since 2019, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s visit last week was the first by a state leader.

In a revival of cultural exchange, the American Ballet Theatre is performing in Shanghai this week, followed by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra who will begin a tour next week, marking the 50th anniversary of the orchestra’s historic visit to China in 1973.

Both countries want more people-to-people exchange, said U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns, who hosted the Flying Tigers ceremony in a small embassy gymnasium with a basketball hoop.

“We’re at a difficult moment in the U.S.-China relationship,” Burns said. “We are in many ways rivals, strategically. … But the two peoples of the countries have always been together.”

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, after a visit to Washington last week, warned that the path to a Biden-Xi meeting would not be “smooth sailing,” even after a U.S. official said the two sides had agreed to hold one during next month’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco.

The visiting Flying Tigers delegation also included the children and grandchildren of members of the group and elected officials from California, where Moyer and McMullen are from.

The two veterans were joined on stage by Nell Calloway, the granddaughter of their former commander, Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault.

Chennault founded the Flying Tigers as a group of American pilots flying for China’s air force. They were later absorbed by the U.S. military when it expanded its operations in China and put Chennault in command.

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