Chinese WWII pilot: From war hero, to outcast, to hero again

CHONGQING, China — By all accounts, Long Qiming was a Chinese hero during World War II. He piloted cargo planes over the Himalayas, helping to resupply China after Japan's military had cut off land routes into the country's interior.

Yet after WWII and the founding of the People's Republic of China, Long paid a harsh price for his decision to stay in his adopted homeland, mainland China. Long was born in Hong Kong, so he held a British passport. He also had flown planes for the 14th Air Force Chinese-American Composite Wing, an arm of China's nationalist government.

When Mao Zedong and his Communist Party seized power in China, both of these connections — Long's British passport and his collaboration with U.S. and nationalist forces — came into question. At the start of China's Cultural Revolution, the government stopped treating him like a war hero. Instead, according to his son, Long Wenjun, "they thought he was a spy."

In a recent interview at his Chongqing apartment, Long Wenjun recounted the ups and downs of his father's roller coaster life. From an early age, his father was a refugee, then a war hero, then an outcast and finally a hero again.

The senior Long had expressed hope that he would live to see this year's 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, but that was not to be. Last October, he passed away at age 91.

Born in Hong Kong, Long had always considered China to be his homeland, and he and his brother fled to the mainland after the Japanese had invaded Hong Kong in 1941.

Proficient in English, Long was admitted into a U.S. Army Air Forces training program in 1942 to aid the Chinese resistance against Japan. The next year, he started flying "The Hump" — cargo deliveries over the Himalayas. Later, he reportedly flew bombers.

"During this period of time, my father was very passionate about the country (China)," said Long Wenjun, now 67. "He was different than the Americans. He wasn't just fighting against the Japanese, he was fighting for our own country and families."

After the war, Long Qiming could have returned to Hong Kong or possibly emigrated to the United States, but he chose to stay in China. He joined a Chinese aviation company but, amid the mass paranoia of the Cultural Revolution, he was forced to give up that job. He went to work for the Chongqing Iron and Steel Group.

Long Wenjun was visibly uncomfortable sharing what his family went through during this period, but he did share some details. He said his father at one point was detained for 20 days, after police raided the family's home and took away some of his war mementos. The family was split up, with some of Long Wenjun's six siblings "sent off to the country."

One piece of evidence that police used against Long was the money and food he had received from overseas, including from U.S. buddies. According to Long Wenjun, the gifts were sent by friends worried that his father and the family were going hungry during China's Great Famine, which killed millions in a three-year period starting in 1958.

Long Wenjun was able to find work in Chongqing and escape the kind of punishment meted out on his father. But to avoid arousing suspicions, he decided not to learn English and avoided revealing details of his family.

After Mao died and China opened up to the world, Long Qiming was again lauded for his WWII heroics, and he was allowed to travel and interact with fellow war pilots in China, Hong Kong and the United States.

In Chongqing, the city opened a museum on the "Flying Tigers" — mostly U.S. pilots who fought against Japan in 1941 and 1942 — that includes a display dedicated to Long Qiming. In 2014, Long published a memoir — "Hero of the Himalayas" — using Eddie Long as his pen name.

Long's family also recovered from the Mao years. Long Wenjun made a good income in a gold extraction business. He now lives in an elegant high-rise that overlooks Chongqing, the former wartime capital of China.

When his health deteriorated last year, Long Qiming became the focus of numerous Chinese news stories, including an extensive piece in the Shenzhen Evening News that included details of his life during the Cultural Revolution. That story noted a Chinese TV series was in the works that might highlight Long Qiming's role during the war.

According to Wang Luoyong, an actor who is part of the project, Long will indeed be featured in the series, which may air as early as next year.

When he passed away, Long Qiming was widely memorialized. Numerous state newspapers and broadcasters proclaimed him to be "the last surviving 'Flying Tiger.' " Even that provoked controversy.

The "Flying Tigers" was a nickname given to the American Volunteer Group, or AVG, commanded by Claire Lee Chennault and paid by the Chinese government. Although they didn't start flying missions until after Pearl Harbor, their training started prior to the Japanese sneak attack. The "Flying Tigers" were essentially top-secret mercenaries, and effective ones, inflicting serious damage to Japanese forces.

The AVG officially disbanded in July 1942, and since then, among U.S. veteran groups, the term "Flying Tigers" has been reserved for those early AVG pilots. But in China, the label of "Flying Tigers" has been extended to any pilot who helped fight the Japanese, before or after 1942.

Based on the Chinese definition, Long may actually have been the last living Flying Tiger. Some WWII historians, such as Richard B. Frank, think that Long and other Chinese pilots in the war deserve more credit than history has given them.

"Their achievements are real and deserve to be remembered," Frank, the author of several books and papers on the war, said in an email exchange with McClatchy. "That is presumably why in China it is common to call all these aviators 'Flying Tigers,' whether they were with the AVG or not."

(McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report. )
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