America's Flying Tigers heroes will never be forgotten: not at home, not in China

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Joseph Cooper is remembered as a veteran Flying Tigers soldier who served in China. 
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Gail Cooper Baumgartner-Brown places a bunch of flowers on the tomb of her father in a cemetery about 60 kilometers northwest of Chicago, and her husband William Brown pours some water into the flower bottle, to help the blossoming flowers last longer. 

The headstone on the ground reads: Joseph Cooper: 1920-2006. Besides being the father of Gail Cooper Baumgartner-Brown, Cooper is also remembered as a veteran Flying Tigers soldier who served in China. 

The Flying Tigers unit, with General Claire Lee Chennault as its commander, is a household name in China. It is a general name for the First American Volunteer Group, the 23rd Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Corp and the US 14th Air Force that once stood shoulder in shoulder with Chinese people in China’s fight against Japanese invaders. The menacing shark-mouth design painted on the Flying Tigers’ planes has become an icon and the most recognizable image of any combat unit in World War II. 

The Flying Tigers bragged an amazing combat record during their stay in China from 1941 to 1945: destroying more than 2,600 enemy aircraft, 44 enemy warships, 13,000 enemy ships and 335 bridges; killing over 66,000 Japanese soldiers; and transporting 800,000 tons of war supplies and 100,000 soldiers and refugees.

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Gail Cooper Baumgartner-Brown and her husband William Brown at the tomb of her father Joseph Cooper to commemorate the veteran Flying Tigers member in Chicago.

Chicago native Joseph Cooper, then 21, was enlisted in the US Army two days after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

In addition to basic training, he went through mechanic school and flight training at various bases throughout the United States before shipping out of California on the USS Hermitage.

He and his fellow soldiers didn’t know exactly where they were going until after refueling in Perth in West Australia, they realized they were heading to India.

Once in Mumbai Cooper and the rest of his group finally found out their final destination was China. They left for Chabua, where they would be flying over the Himalayan Mountains, affectionately referred to as “the Hump” by the soldiers.

One of Cooper’s roles with the AVG was KP, or Kitchen Police, a role often served as punishment, but Cooper genuinely enjoyed the duty. One day, Cooper was informed he’d be leaving to fly over the hump to Kunming in southwest China, and his fellow KP would follow on the next flight. 

But the flight on the next day never landed as it crashed into a mountain in the heavy fog, killing all on board. Cooper was the only one of the eight KP that survived.

This was just one of the five narrow escapes through Cooper’s military career. 

By training, Cooper was a mechanic and an engineer. He never intended to be a gunner. However, when one day in darkness a Japanese bomber opened its bomb bay door, and inadvertently left a light on, Cooper and others in his group jumped on anti-aircraft guns and began to fire. 

“He got a gun and just tried to do his best to take aim and follow the light as best as he could,” Gail said. “He didn’t know if he ever actually scored a hit because other fellas were shooting too, but he did find out that plane never dropped a bomb that night. He or somebody did get him and it went down.” 

According to Gail, Cooper spent the last two years of his four years’ service in various cities in China. They would set up a base and then as the Japanese army approached, they would leave and set up a new base somewhere else.

“It was like the Japanese kept following them. He spent the most amount of time in Guilin. And they left the base right before the Japanese were coming to attack,” Gail said. “They destroyed the entire base, all the equipment and they blew up the runway because they didn’t want the Japanese to have access to it.” 

Cooper returned to the US on December 26, 1945 after the second world war ended a few months earlier. He met for the first time the woman he had been exchanging letters with throughout the war, Gail’s mother.

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Gail Cooper Baumgartner-Brown tells stories of her father.

In Gail’s eyes, her father was a very hard-working man. “He made furniture for us, some of which I still have.

“There wasn’t anything he couldn’t fix. Whenever anyone needed something fixed, they always called my dad, and he was always there.”  

Cooper shared with his daughter his wealth of war stories before he passed away in 2006. 

In his stories, Cooper recalled the Chinese people completely embraced the Flying Tigers. They looked on them as heroes for their aid to China against the Japanese Army.

Many Chinese stepped up to fulfill duties, including cooking, cleaning and repairs so the Flying Tigers could have their hands free to work on fixing the engines or going on missions.

“Most of what he talked about was China. He loved the people they worked with,” Gail said. “He always talked about them, and as soon as he started to talk about them, he’d smile and get a twinkle in his eye. 

“I can’t help but think that (China) became integrated into the person he was when he came home, that he carried through his entire life in the way he handled his relationship with my mother, the way he raised and taught my brother and me, the way he was,” Gail said.

“This had a huge impact on his life and how he treated others because he saw how the Chinese people treated them.” 

Gail said that she did not remember ever not knowing the Flying Tigers.

“It was a part of his life that he always shared,” she said. “Dad said his association with the Flying Tigers was the proudest time of his life.” 

After the war, members of the Flying Tigers remained very close, keeping in touch through mail, email and even holding reunions around the country every three to four years.

In 1991, they decided to have their reunion in China. For Cooper, that was his first time back in China since the war. The reunion was marked by a variety of celebrations, dinners and tours around China. 

“He had a wonderful time. Being back where he had been 45 years before, he, of course couldn’t believe how much everything had changed,” Gail added. 

Whenever Cooper went out in the US wearing his baseball cap marked with the Flying Tigers emblem along with his Flying Tigers shirt and jacket, there were always Chinese coming up to him with big smiles on face and saying “you’re a Flying Tiger, you’re a hero.”

“It just melted my heart to see the joy in his face,” Gail said. 

Gail and her husband will soon be moving to Arizona. Standing beside the resting place of her father, the couple’s biggest worry is they can no longer visit Cooper’s grave every year.

Shen Qiwen at the Chinese Consulate in Chicago heard the concern and assured them that there will always be someone from the consulate to place flowers on Cooper’s grave every year.

It puts Gail in tears.


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