Sahuarita resident Gail Baumgartner recently returned from China where locals and government officials honored her while she shared memories of her late father, Staff Sgt. Joseph Cooper, who was a chief mechanic and flight engineer serving in China during World War II.

Baumgartner and her husband, Bill Brown, spent three weeks in China touring multiple cities and towns where her father had served and where there are now museums and monuments to the unit which helped keep the country from falling to the Japanese invasion. Baumgartner was invited to China by Hong Lei, counsel general of China to Chicago, who met Baumgartner before she moved to Sahuarita last year.

The trip to China was a first for Baumgartner who wanted to see the country her father fought to help keep safe and which he had always looked back on fondly while serving as a Flying Tiger. 

"I wanted to be there," Baumgartner said. "I wanted to be there, I wanted to follow in his footsteps as much as I could. The feeling of that was overwhelming."

While in the country Baumgartner found that people would rush up to her and and thank her in honor of her father who served along side Chinese crews who were fighting off a Japanese invasion. They invited her to events to speak and share her father's story about his time in the U.S. Army Air Corps during the war.

Flying Tigers

The Flying Tigers originally began in 1941, only three months before Pearl Harbor was attacked, and were known as the American Volunteer Group. The volunteers were recruited by a retired Army captain named Claire Chennault and authorized through a secret order President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed.

Recruited from the Navy, Army and Marines, the volunteers were paid far more than normal wages uniformed pilots made and were more akin to mercenaries with $600 per month wages and a $500 bonuses for each Japanese plane they destroyed. There were 300 recruits which made up the AVG—100 pilots and 200 support personnel.

Flying 100 Curtiss P-40 fighters, with the distinctive shark-teeth nose art, the AVG were tasked with fighting the Japanese in Myanmar and China. The success rate of the group eventually earned the AVG the name Flying Tigers, or Fei Hu as they are known in China.

In July 1942, with the U.S. now fully involved in the war, the Flying Tigers were officially disbanded and absorbed back into the Army's China Air Task Force with Chennault in command and promoted to brigadier general. March 10, 1943, the China Air Task Force was disbanded and the 14th Air Force was established by a special order from Roosevelt. And with each change the name "Flying Tiger" followed.

In addition to combat operations the Flying Tigers were also instrumental in keeping China supplied during the war with Japanese control of ports and transportation routes resulting in the country being nearly cut off from the rest of the allies. Bringing in supplies by flying over "the Hump" as the route over the Himalayas was known. By the end of the war the Flying Tigers of the 14th Air Force had a 7.7 combat loss ratio of Japanese planes to every American plane lost. The 14th is also credited with destroying 1.1 million tons of Japanese shipping 2,315 airplanes.

Staff Sgt. Cooper  

In an audio recording he made before his death in 2006, Cooper recounted his journey from 1941 to 1945.

Cooper joined the Army two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor and found himself reporting to an induction center less than a week later. Cooper spent the next two years training in the U.S. to be an airplane mechanic and in late 1943 found himself being shipped out into the Pacific without knowing his final destination. It wasn't until December 1943 when his transport ship pulled into Bombay, India that he learned he was going to China.

Working with a mix of American and Chinese crews, Cooper, who didn't speak any Chinese, said hand signals worked well enough to communicate. The Chinese crews would salvage parts and make repairs from downed P-40s and the Americans would reassemble working planes which would go back into the sky and continue the fight.

While Cooper was not a pilot it didn't mean he wasn't out of harm's way. One night while manning a machine gun Cooper noticed a light coming right at his position when he saw what he first thought was a star.

"Then I noticed the star was moving in our direction," Cooper said. "Then I heard the unmistakable sound of airplane engines, the sound came from two engines that were not synchronized on a (Japanese) bomber."

The star Cooper saw was a light coming out of the open bomb bay doors. Someone had goofed and turned on a light while the plane was making its run, Cooper said.

"I took what I thought was careful aim with the twin .50 caliber machine guns having never operated them before," Cooper said. "I could see the tracer bullets, but the light from the flash of the guns blocked out the light of the plane. I just kept my finger on the trigger and moved the gun in the direction the plane was flying hoping he would fly into the path of the bullets."

The plane did not come down despite Cooper and the others firing at it. Cooper never knew if they had hit the plane for sure or not. He did recall hearing a bomber had later crashed that night, but never found out if the report was true or not, he said. 

Many of the sacrifices made by Cooper and the Americans who fought the Japanese in China are still remembered by the Chinese to this day.

Baumgartner's visit

Being able to visit China and see many of the same sights her father saw so many years before was an eye-opening event for Baumgartner. 

"It's something that you could say was a secret dream of mine," Baumgartner said. "I always hoped I could get there and follow in his footsteps. I never thought it would be possible, but it was beyond amazing."

It wasn't just seeing the same places her father was at, but also the gratitude of the people and how much Flying Tiger history they still remembered and the way they honored those, both the Chinese and Americans, who served. Baumgartner said she would like to see more people in the U.S. learn the history of the Flying Tigers as well. 

"We never learned about them in school," Baumgartner said. "We heard about people in Normandy, we heard about Iwo Jima, we've heard about all these, (but) never heard about them. Never learned anything about them. What I learned was from my dad."

Baumgartner remembers her father was often busy working when she was growing up and as a result she didn't know him that well at first. Baumgartners mother died when she was a senior in college who she was closer to and knew better growing up.

"I graduated a semester later and it was just dad and I," Baumgartner said. "Our relationship, besides being father and daughter, we really developed a friendship which was really cool."

It was at this time that Baumgartner really got to learn about his time as a Flying Tiger. Although she remembers her father as a gentle and quite man, Baumgartner said Cooper was always proud of his time in the Army and with the Flying Tigers. Wherever Cooper went he always had his blue Flying Tigers hat or a matching blue coat with the units decoration and name on the back.

Even back home in Chicago Baumgartner could recall Chinese people who were visiting the city recognizing his hat and coming up and thanking him. It was something which still amazed her as she toured different cities in China and found people would come and pay their respect for her father's service.

While being able to meet the people and share her father's stories was special to Baumgartner, it couldn't compare to finally having a chance to see what he once saw. After being taken up a mountain to a hostel on a cliff overlooking where a base Cooper was once located at had been, Baumgartner thought the scene looked vaguely familiar.

"I thought I remembered this looked like the same place my dad had taken a picture," Baumgartner said. "I took a picture and I got home and compared the two. And sure enough it's exactly where he was standing when he took his picture. That's an emotion that there's just no words. I was right there.

Jorge Encinas | 520-547-9732

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