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American good deed remembered -- and appreciated -- 70 years later

LAST UPDATED: 1:57 a.m. HST, May 30, 2011

Military Appreciation Month in Hawaii seems the perfect time to recount a recent experience that defines military appreciation.

As an American with a busy international travel schedule, I'm often drawn reluctantly into political discussions with citizens of countries I am visiting.

These exchanges frequently lead to critical comments being directed at me regarding U.S. foreign aid and trade policies and our real or perceived arrogance.

Rarely do I hear, "We really appreciate what America has done for us."

What a welcome change, then, on a recent trip to hear kind words from foreign officials and common citizens alike about the contribution made by a small group of brave Americans long ago.

The country was the Republic of China, now the People's Republic of China. The period was 1941-1942. The group was the 1st American Volunteer Group, commonly known as the Flying Tigers.

Hardly an American alive from the World War II era doesn't recognize the name "Flying Tigers."

Most of us knew them only from their exploits and their aircraft — Curtiss P-40 Warhawks with fierce eyes and shark's teeth painted on their noses.

This daring bunch was taking the fight to the enemy against overwhelming odds at a time when much of our Pacific fleet lay in a blackened, twisted heap on the bottom of Pearl Harbor. Although the term had yet to be coined, the Flying Tigers were our "first responders" after the disastrous Pearl Harbor attack. They gave America a morale boost when we desperately needed one.

What many of us didn't realize was that the Flying Tigers were technically civilians at the time (they were later integrated into the U.S. Army Air Forces and fought on as the 23rd Fighter Group of the Fourteenth Air Force). Most were former military pilots and ground crewmen working under contract for the Republic of China.

China has never forgotten the selfless Americans who shed their sweat and blood — some making the supreme sacrifice — fighting alongside their own citizens to save their country.

This story has its beginning at the Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor where I work as a volunteer. One of our "treasures" is a P-40, painted in Flying Tigers' livery, recently acquired through the generosity of Fred Smith, founder and chief executive of Federal Express. Our intention is to develop a special exhibit honoring the Flying Tigers with the P-40 as the centerpiece.

Because of the link with the China, we wanted to seek its support in making the exhibit a joint project. A trip was made possible through an invitation to our chairman, retired Navy Adm. Ron Hays from the China Association for International Friendly Contact.

Our objective was to visit Chengdu and Kunming, two cities in Southwest China closely associated with Flying Tigers' activity, and assess local interest in our project. We were overwhelmed by the positive responses. Most heartwarm- ing, though, was the depth of understanding and appreciation for the Flying Tigers among those who had not even been born during World War II.

We left China with assurances that our Flying Tigers' exhibit could indeed be a joint undertaking. But more important, we left with the feeling that a nation's good deeds don't always go unappreciated.

Our exhibit will serve to show the millions of visitors to Hawaii that the friendship and close cooperation that existed between the U.S. and China in WWII are just as relevant today. With the differences that divide us, both of our great countries can certainly benefit from such private initiatives that bring us closer together.

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