By Carolyn Kuhn, Gene Chan and Bill Chen
Editor’s note: May 7, 1843, marks the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States and May 10, 1869, marks the completion of the transcontinental railroad where the majority of the workers who laid the tracks were Chinese immigrants. In 1990, former President George H.W. Bush signed a bill to extend Asian-American Heritage Week to a month-long commemoration of Asian American contributions.
The first major contribution by Chinese Americans in the United States was the building of the transcontinental railroads – the Central and Pacific Railroads linking east and west, resulting in economic development, commerce, passenger travel and tourism. But full recognition of the role of the pioneering Chinese railroad workers has been a slow process. The May 2014 induction of Chinese Railroad Workers in the Department of Labor’s Hall of Honor was a significant but long overdue step toward recognition of their accomplishments, which entailed hard labor and skilled work, with corresponding high risk of life.
Launched in 2012, Stanford University’s Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project constitutes a comprehensive research and collection effort to detail who the workers were, how they lived and how their experiences changed their lives. The project involves an interdisciplinary, transnational effort that will result in an online multilingual digital archive.
Upon the submission of input to the Stanford project by one of the authors, a serendipity finding surfaced – there were two other descendants who served in World War II in China in the 14th Air Force (Flying Tigers) under the legendary General Claire L. Chennault. All three served as officers; two in the U.S. Army Air Corps and one in the Chinese Air Force. Two were pilots: one a Hump pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps, one a P-40 and P-51 fighter pilot in the Chinese Air Force.
This article pays tribute to these three Chinese American Flying Tigers who are descendants of Chinese Railroad Workers, while highlighting the accomplishments of their forefathers:
- First Lieutenant W.C. Chin, grandson of railroad foreman and labor contractor Chin Lin Sou.
- Captain Bill King, grandson of railroad foreman and labor contractor Jim King.
- Captain Moon Chen, son of railroad worker Chan Fong.
These veterans of World War II truly befit Tom Brokaw’s characterization of the Greatest Generation of our times - men who served during the war and then returned to civilian life to continue their contributions to the nation.
These descendants of Chinese Railroad Workers attained the competencies and skills of aviation, which constituted a Legacy of Progress - progress that was totally unimaginable to those in the first generation who built the railroads. Where the technology of the 19th century was locomotives and railroads, the technology of the 20th century was aircraft and aviation. The descendants in the 20th century were successful in attaining levels of achievement consistent with the advanced technology of their time.
Three successive organizations were known as the Flying Tigers:
- The American Volunteer Group (AVG) was formed in 1941 consisting of American pilots and volunteers who went to Burma and China; and were commanded by Claire Chennault as a civilian, retired from the U.S. Army Air Corps. These volunteers were released from the U.S. armed forces to aid China against the Japanese. They flew P-40 aircraft where the noses of the P-40s were painted with shark’s teeth. After their first air battle victory on Dec. 20, 1941, against attacking Japanese aircraft, the Chinese press referred to the AVG as Flying Tigers, and the name stuck.
- The China Air Task Force was formed in July 1942 after the AVG was dissolved and commanded by Brigadier General Claire Chennault.
- The 14th Air Force (Flying Tigers) was formed in March 1943 when the China Air Task Force was dissolved; and commanded by Major General Claire Chennault. Of significance is that one of the wings assigned to the 14th Air Force (Flying Tigers) was the Chinese American Composite Wing, organized as a mix of U.S. Army Air Force and Chinese Air Force pilots and airmen.
First Lieutenant W.C. Chin (1916-2012), a third generation American-born Chinese, was a communications officer during World War II with the 23rd Fighter Group, Flying Tigers in the China-Burma-India Theater.
1st Lt W.C. Chin
His grandfather, Chin Lin Sou (1836-1894), was from Guangdong Province. Chin Lin Sou stood six feet tall, had grey eyes and spoke fluent English and Cantonese. When he immigrated to the United States in 1859, he served as a foreman labor contractor for the Central Pacific Railroad.
Chin Lin Sou
Following completion of the railroad in 1869, he settled for a time in Black Hawk, Colorado. He became a supervisor in a mine and was able to bring his wife to Colorado from China. Chin and his family eventually moved to Denver where he became a successful businessman. His children and descendants became important figures in the city. His first born, Lily Chin (1873–1933), was known for her beauty and intelligence as well as being the first recorded Chinese American born in Colorado. His son, William C. Chin, was known in Denver as Willie Chin, Honorary Mayor of Chinatown.
As a Colorado pioneer, Chin Lin Sou is memorialized in stained glass at the State Capitol Building, also at the Central City Opera House, and on a mosaic tile wall at the Colorado Convention Center along with many other Colorado pioneers.
Grandson W.C. Chin, son of Willie, was born on Feb. 29, 1916 in Denver. He entered the U.S. Army Air Forces Communications School at Scott Field, Ill., and was commissioned a second lieutenant on Dec. 25, 1942. Chin was initially assigned as a squadron-training officer for the Heavy Bombardment Group, 4th Air Force.
Reassigned overseas, he arrived in China on March 27, 1945, and was assigned to the 23rd Fighter Group, 14th Air Force (Flying Tigers) as a communications and cryptographic security officer. His campaigns were the China Offensive and China Defense. Recalling his assignment with the 23rd Fighter Group, he stated he “was probably one of two Chinese in the entire 23rd Fighter Group, and we had a good time together. The officers and enlisted personnel always gave courtesy and respect to an officer, even a lowly lieutenant.”
Chin returned to the U. S. on Jan. 6, 1946, and was honorably discharged at Ft. Logan, Colo. on Feb. 28, 1946. He had been awarded the Asiatic-Pacific Service Medal, American Service Medal, and World War II Victory Medal. Upon his return to Denver, he helped to found and became the First Post Commander of Cathay Post No. 185, an affiliation of American Legion Post in Denver, comprised mostly of Chinese and Japanese veterans of World War II.
Chin eventually became a television station soundman in Los Angeles. He returned to Parker, Colo., in 1993 and died on March 13, 2012, at age 96. He was survived by three children (son William Edward Chin, daughters Cindy Hofman and Diane Probst), numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren, sisters, nieces and nephews. Chin was a proud World War II veteran. Until his last days, he never went out without pinning to one lapel an American flag and to his other his Flying Tiger pin. He has a marker at the Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver.
Bill King (1916 -2002), a third generation American-born Chinese, volunteered to fly for the Chinese Air Force in World War II and was assigned to the Chinese American Composite Wing (CACW) of the 14th Air Force. He was a highly decorated Flying Tiger pilot.
Capt. Bill King
Bill King’s grandfather, Jow Kee or Chow Yook Kee (1840-unk) came to San Francisco from Zhongshan, Guangdong Province, in 1855 when he was 16. He found a job with gold miners who liked him, taught him English, and gave him an American name – Jim King. Knowing English, he went to work as a foreman and labor contractor for the Central Pacific Railroad building the western end of the transcontinental railroad. The payroll records of the Central Pacific Railroad in January 1866 show the listing of Jim King, Contracting Co. After completion of the transcontinental railroad, King continued as a labor contractor, hiring former railroad workers and other workers from his home village, for the Sacramento River levee construction. After clamshell dredgers displaced the workers, they became agricultural workers in the region and King became a tenant farmer. He married Hel Shee, whom he met in San Francisco. They settled in a farmhouse in the Delta and had eight children.
Jim King, labor contractor
Grandson Bill King graduated from Sacramento City College with an aeronautics degree and learned how to fly at Solano County airport in 1938. He joined the Chinese American Volunteer Group in San Francisco; the group trained pilots for China with donations from local Chinese. At the time, the U. S. was not at war with Japan yet, so it was hush–hush. After about 50 hours of flight training, a group of 17 pilots and 17 mechanics shipped off to China in 1939.
King attended the Chinese Air Force Academy, graduated in February 1941, and flew for the Chinese Air Force. He was assigned to the 5th Fighter Group of the Chinese American Composite Wing (CACW), 14th Air Force (Flying Tigers).
He flew 109 combat missions in 16 months while with the CACW. Among his medals were the Distinguished Flying Cross awarded by the United States and the Presidential Unit Citation.
In August 1944, King and his commander, Colonel Frank Rouse, left for an early morning bombing mission over Hunan Province, and were intercepted by eight Japanese Zeroes. According to U.S. Army Air Forces Captain James R. McCutchan, in a letter to King’s mother, “Bill, seeing the enemy first made a pass on the entire (Japanese) formation and broke it up, enabling the colonel to make good his escape.” The letter continued by stating that King shot down one Zero and fled south. After his plane was hit by enemy fire, he crashed it in a rice field, crossed a river and hiked four days back to base.
King returned to Locke, Calif., in 1947 with two samurai swords given to him by a general he escorted after the Japanese surrender in Nanjing.
He met his wife Ruby Chann, who worked at the Yuen Chong general store in Locke. “My cousin bet me $1 I wouldn’t go out with him, so I did,” she said. “He’s one of those guys you meet and right away you like him.”
King managed a girl’s basketball team and worked as an inspector for General Mills in Lodi for 28 years. According to Ruby, he was the type who didn’t like to talk about the war because he had seen so much.
Bill King was highly decorated.
Bill King’s awards and decorations
Moon Chen (1908–2009), a second generation American-born Chinese, had a career in aviation that spanned 44 years - serving successively as an airline pilot, U.S. Army Air Corps Hump pilot, Flying Tiger, airline executive and aerospace company executive.
Capt. Moon Chen
His father, Chan Fong (1860–1924), was from Hoiping, Guangdong Province. Chan Fong was given a house by his father, a village elder and Chinese scholar. He converted the house to a school. While he was devoted to teaching, he was urged by his friends to leave China to seek gold in California. After surviving the harsh sea voyage, the group was taken to a remote area to work on the Southern Pacific Railroad. Because Chan was educated, he served as a liaison between the railroad contractor and the workers and assisted in giving explanations to the workers. He also was a letter-writer for the workers. When the railroad from California to Texas was completed, the workers were released.
Chan migrated to Biloxi, Mississippi and worked with some Chinese people in a grocery store. The store was successful enough for him to travel to New York City, and while in Chinatown, he was introduced by a matchmaker to meet Haylee Wong (1880–1918), who was born in New York and was working as a nurse’s aide in a hospital. He fell in love at first sight and they got married in 1900. Their first daughter and first two sons were born in Mississippi. Due to hostility and prejudice toward Chinese, Chan’s family lost everything in Mississippi and settled in Ohio to start a new life, establishing a Chinese laundry. Six other sons and a daughter were born in Ohio. Chan and Haylee were very happy raising eight sons and two daughters. Unfortunately, in 1918, six months after the youngest son was born, Haylee caught the Spanish flu and died at the age of 38. Chan Fong passed away in 1924.
Son Moon Chen, orphaned at age 15, worked his way through high school and college. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1932 with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering. Unfortunately, during the Depression, he was unable to find a job in aeronautical engineering. Even though he was American-born, aircraft companies at the time exercised hiring discrimination against those of Oriental origin. That did not deter him. He had a passion for aviation.
Moon Chen believed that to be successful, he had to pursue something different and distinctive, and be self-reliant. He saved enough money to take flying lessons and graduated from the Curtiss Wright Flying School, Long Island, N.Y.
One of his early experiences was flying cross-country in an open cockpit biplane for the U.S. Mail Service. He loved it. “Sky is the limit, sky is my companion,” he said. “To be sitting on top of the world and way above the clouds, what a beautiful feeling –- a wonderful feeling of heavenly peace and tranquility.” Flying gave him added confidence during the dark days of the Depression.
Armed with a commercial pilot’s license but no employment contract, Chen went to Shanghai in 1935. Multi-engine qualified, he interviewed with China National Aviation Corporation (partially owned by Pan American Airways), passed a flight test, and started flying as an airline pilot.
Chen met Priscilla Chang in August 1936 in Shanghai through an American-born Chinese “cousin.” Chen’s flying schedule often kept him away, and they were not able to go on their first date until January 1937. But, they probably set a record in terms of getting engaged on May 2, 1937, and married on May 20, 1937!
The Japanese attack of Chinese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge southwest of Beijing occurred on July 7, 1937. Chen was flying over the bridge and observed the clash. He immediately reported the incident to Nanjing authorities; the incident marked the beginning of the second Sino-Japanese War. Subsequently, as the Japanese attacked Nanjing, Chen flew multiple flights from Nanjing to Hankou, and later to Chongqing, evacuating government officials to the China interior.
In 1939, Chen was a pilot with the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO). CAMCO supported the AVG known as the original Flying Tigers and was the employer of record for the AVG pilots. Chen also helped to recruit men to be trained for the CAMCO Loiwing factory near the China–Burma border. This factory assembled and repaired P-40 aircraft for the AVG/Flying Tigers. Its airfield at Loiwing was used by the AVG to mount raids into Thailand and Burma.
After Pearl Harbor, Chen joined the U.S. Army Air Forces and piloted C-47 and C-46 aircrafts. He flew VIPs (Chinese and Americans), military supplies, and made surveys into unknown areas for the establishment of new airfields. He flew the Hump route and made more than 500 missions over the Hump, without a dent in his aircraft. He was assigned to the China Air Task Force and the 14th Air Force (Flying Tigers) under. Chennault. Chen was selected and served as Chennault’s personal representative and liaison officer to the Chinese Air Force in Chongqing.
Moon and Priscilla had frequent household moves and separations because of the wartime situation. Priscilla, along with the then family of two young boys, lived in Ohio and New York while awaiting the end of World War II.
After World War II, Chennault co-founded an airline, Civil Air Transport (CAT) in China to carry rehabilitation and recovery supplies across war-torn China. Chen joined the fledging airline as the area manager in Shanghai and later was the area manager in Guangzhou. In Hong Kong, he was assistant to the CAT President Chennault. Shortly thereafter, he was assigned as area manager in Japan-Korea, where the airline supported the U.S. Air Force in airlift operations during the Korean War. In January 1952, Chen became CAT’s first director of traffic and sales. He helped establish passenger routes to Tokyo, Manila, Seoul and Bangkok. Subsequently, he was promoted to vice president of sales & marketing and contributed to establishing the American-owned CAT, as a highly reliable and reputable regional airline in the Far East.
In the early 1970s Chen was a consultant to and later an executive with Northrop Aircraft Corporation. He assisted Northrop in winning the F-5E jet fighter aircraft coproduction program and subsequently served as the program director.
Chen was an active community leader. He was a strong advocate for Chinese Americans to assimilate into the American society. With a loud booming voice, he was always the center of attention at receptions and cocktail parties. In 1952, he was the youngest and first of Chinese origin to be designated as a 33rd degree Mason. A strong supporter of his alma mater, Chan received the University of Michigan Distinguished Alumni Service Award in 1958 for advancing the presence of the university in the Asia-Pacific region. In 2014 he was designated, posthumous, a Distinguished Alumnus in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Michigan.
Chen retired in 1980 in San Francisco and later moved to Chevy Chase, Maryland. His bride of 71 years, Priscilla, passed away in 2008 at the age of 97.
At age 101, Chan passed away peacefully on Dec. 7, 2009.His last gesture embodied his life as a pilot and airman:, he gave a “thumbs-up” -- signifying “All is Well” in aviator’s language while also meaning “ding how” or the “very best” in Chinese.
Chen is survived by three sons: Bob, Bill and Moon Jr. All three are military veterans. Together with Moon Jr.’s daughter Debbie, an Army Aviator, the Chen family has three consecutive generations who served in the U.S. armed forces, probably a rarity for Chinese Americans.
Where the first major contribution of Chinese Americans in the United States was the building of the transcontinental railroads, we can say with reasonable confidence that probably the second major contribution of Chinese Americans was their service in the U.S. armed forces during World War II and their deeds and accomplishments on the home front in support of the war effort. By their combined efforts, they demonstrated their competencies, skills, courage, loyalty, and patriotism - and they opened up opportunities for all Chinese Americans to work in all walks of life in mainstream America.
W.C. Chin, Bill King, and Moon Chen ably demonstrated that Chinese Americans could be competent, skilled, and patriotic military officers. They set the example and paved the way for subsequent generations of Chinese Americans to serve in the U.S. armed forces. Each was proud to be a Flying Tiger.
It is important for our younger generations to understand history and the legacy of those who contributed to it. The descendants of Chinese Railroad Workers who were Flying Tigers established a Legacy of Progress beyond the accomplishments of our first generation immigrants.
We are confident that successive generations will continue with a Legacy of Progress and attain higher levels of achievement in new endeavors consistent with the advanced technologies of their time.
- Carolyn G. (Jew) Kuhn, niece of W.C. Chin works at the University of Colorado Medical Campus in Aurora, CO as a Standardized Patient Clinical Educator.
- Gene O. Chan, nephew of Bill King , had a successful career as a rocket propulsion designer and retired after working 34 years at Aerojet.
- Bill Chen, son of Moon Chen, is a major general, U.S. Army Retired and a retired defense industry executive.