Relics and Realities: Stories from the Hump Route

By Mei Jia and Song Ming (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-09-19 08:25
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Relics and Realities: Stories from the Hump Route

A group photograph of American pilots and their Chinese friends in Hanyuan county, Sichuan province. Photos provided to China Daily

An exhibition in Sichuan honors American pilots who helped China during World War II, and showcases the aid they got in return from the ethnic Yi tribe. Mei Jia and Song Ming tell us more.

Searching for the wrecks of US airplanes that crashed into Southwest China during the early 1940s was not an easy task. Some of the debris had already been reincarnated as pots, pans and knives.

But what researchers did uncover were the touching stories of how the Yi people helped the pilots after their planes were downed.

The heroics of US General Claire Lee Chennault and his Flying Tigers are well-documented in history, but this current exhibition turns the limelight on some other American pilots who had risked their lives to help China.

"The rare items and photos of the exhibition show the Yi people's contributions in World War II when they joined hands with the US Air Force to combat the invasion," says Deng Haichun, office director of the Liangshan Yi Slavery Society Museum in Xichang, Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture, Sichuan province.

Relics and Realities: Stories from the Hump Route

Li Shi'an still remembers helping American pilots who had parachuted into Yi territory. Photos provided to China Daily

In 1944, four bombers of the US 20th Air Force and two cargo planes of the Air Transport Command crashed in the mountainous Liangshan region along the Hump Route.

More than 30 American pilots had parachuted and landed in areas where the Yi people lived.

Most of the Yi had never seen planes or foreigners at that time, and Deng says that locals regarded the planes as huge eagles that had come to attack their cattle, and that the blonde pilots were seen as deities. There were also rumors that some pilots were captured and enslaved by Yi headmen.

Deng says the exhibition is meant to separate reality from rumors and also to capture fading memories before they vanished forever.

He spent a year trekking in the mountains in search of witnesses and relics. He did find some plane wrecks, but the debris had been largely turned into utilitarian items such as a carpenter's square rules, pot covers and knives.

However, Deng also met Li Shi'an, already in his 90s and once a head servant to a Yi chief. He was involved in the rescue of the Americans and remembers the details well.

Li says the Yi were appalled at first by the plane crashes and the foreigners who emerged from the wreckages. When they couldn't understand what these strangers were saying, they sent them to the chief, who treated the guests to freshly slaughtered beef and mutton.

The chief then sent them into town with his guards and gave them silver taels as gifts, Li says.

Other pilots who crashed were also treated well by the Yi chiefs, who were more worldly-wise than the rest of the tribe.

"They knew the foreigners were there to help fight the Japanese so they were willing to lend a hand," Deng says.

The Yi people helped wounded pilots reach the larger towns with better medical supplies and treatment, where they could safely recuperate. Some of the Americans even made toys for the local children, Deng says.

James R. Stover, a US veteran from the 58th Bomb Wing under the 20th Air Force, was among those rescued. Through the exhibition's main contributor Li Xiaowei, Stover got in touch again with the Chinese who had helped him.

Li is an avid collector of World War II relics, and the Chengdu-based television journalist has also written a book on this period in history.

He managed to locate some American veterans, including Stover, and several years ago, he helped Stover reunite with those who had rescued him during the war.

"Thanks for keeping us in your history. It was a great part of our lives," Stover wrote to Li upon seeing photographs of the exhibition online.

Deng says the exhibition will continue at his museum until October, and the exhibits will tour the Liangshan autonomous prefecture.

Relics and Realities: Stories from the Hump Route

James Stover (left) was one of the US pilots who had been helped by the Yi. Photos provided to China Daily