Houston & Peach

Relatives share true-life Flying Tigers tales

True-life Flying Tigers tales turned into books, shared through patches on bomber jackets

Flying Tigers reunion group participants share stories about their family members.
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Flying Tigers reunion group participants share stories about their family members.

Each member of a reunion group visiting the Museum of Aviation on Thursday probably had a Flying Tigers story.

The Flying Tigers is the nickname for the American Volunteer Group, a group of American fighter pilots who flew for China in World War II.

Susan Jimison said her cousin John Donovan was the only Flying Tiger to be killed in Hanoi when it was still French Indochina in 1942.

Donovan, who was her father’s first cousin, wrote home about his experiences. Jimison has compiled his letters into a book.

“He was a much better writer than me,” Jimison said. “He wrote very detailed letters. I just felt like he wanted more people to see those letters than just his family.”

Donovan, who was outspoken, wrote in his letters about his anger about the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

“But also he described the moon over Burma and he wrote about how well-preserved Madame Chiang Kai-shek was and how (Col. Claire) Chennault was the shining star; that they all just admired him,” Jimison said. “The book has all of his letters in it, and it just tells their story.”

The book, “Through the Eyes of the Tiger: the John Donovan Story,” is sold by Amazon and Deeds Publishing.

For the reunion group, the Museum of Aviation created a special gallery of portraits and photos of the Flying Tiger pilots. Only a few of the portraits usually hang in the museum at one time, being rotated in and out for preservation and space needs.

Like others assembled, John Newkirk had his picture made next to the portrait of his cousin: “Scarsdale Jack” Newkirk.

“He joined the AVG in 1941, and he was squadron leader of the second pursuit squadron called the Panda Bears,” John Newkirk said. “He was killed in action in March 1942, so I never knew him.

“But after he was killed, my father was so upset that he quit his job and joined the Navy at age 22 and spent the rest of his World War II years in the South Pacific.”

John Newkirk was wearing his 96-year-old father’s WWII bomber jacket. The jacket had the Panda Bears’ patch that belonged to “Scarsdale Jack” Newkirk.

“I wear this jacket in their honor to remind everybody of what they went through to give us what we have today,” Newkirk said. “Obvously, I’m not a World War II vet as it says on the back.”

Keith and Fay Lee joined the group to bring awareness to Chinese-Americans who served in support roles to the AVG.

Pak On Lee, their father, was recruited in the U.S. and started with the group in 1941. He was a member of the ground crew that fixed the airplanes upon return from battle.

“So we’re here to support the AVG and to bring the Chinese story out that hasn’t been told for pretty near 70 years,” Keith Lee said.

His self-published book, “A Chinese in the AVG,” can be purchased by emailing him at sinooverseas@juno.com.

Tripp Alyn, chairman of the historical and museums committee of the AVG Flying Tigers Association, put together the trip of more than 50 reunion members from across the country.

His cousin was Flying Tigers pilot Max C. Hammer Jr.

“He got off the ship in Rangoon, Burma, Sept. 15, 1941. He was taking his first flight on a rainy Monday morning Sept. 22, 1941 — exactly 75 years ago today — when he was killed,” Alyn said.

Becky Purser: 478-256-9559, @BecPurser