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JG Ballard

JG Ballard

Last week I added a wonderful movie to my iTunes library - Empire of the Sun. The film was based on a book by J.G. Ballard who sadly passed away last Sunday (April 19, 2009) at the age of 78. Ballard based the “Empire of the Sun” on his boyhood experiences (< Ballard’s real story) in a World War II internment camp outside of Shanghai. Many photos and a video of  J(ames) G(raham) Ballard’s original home - 31A Amherst Ave Shanghai, China. Shanghaiist has a write up > HERE


Jim Graham (Christian Bale) is separated from his parents - Shanghai Dec 8, 1941

This 1987 film was directed by Steve Spielberg and starred John Malkovich. It was also the very first role for Christian Bale who delivered an amazing performance. Bale plays young James Graham, who is separated from his parents during the 1941 Japanese invasion of Shanghai. The 12-year-old Graham goes from living a life of privilege to becoming a prisoner of war in a Japanese internment camp in Lunghua, China. The film has many poignant moments and I highly recommend it. See > video trailer.

23fgb24p40The Empire of the Sun has some personal meaning for me. My uncle, Lud Lozier, flew B-24D Liberator missions from India to China. In May 1942, the Japanese captured the Burma Road, the only ground route available to supply Chinese forces. As a result, B-24 transport units had to fly over the Himalayas from airfields in India to China. My uncle flew many of these “over the hump” (Himalayas) missions and recounted how bitterly cold it was flying at 30,000 ft. His flight jacket and hat were all he had to keep warm. No heated/pressurized cabins like we enjoy in today’s aircraft. When the B-24s dropped down into China, they were vulnerable to Japanese fighter attack. Hence they were often joined by AAF P-40s Warhawk fighters who would escort them safely into China. Many of these P-40 fighter pilots were part of the original American Volunteer Group (AVG) … also known as the “Flying Tigers.”

118th TRS P-51s on the flightline at Laohwangping, China, June 1945

118th TRS P-51s on the flightline at Laohwangping, China, June 1945

The Flying Tigers were originally a non-military, non-government flying unit contracted to assist the Nationalist Chinese in their fight against the Japanese invasion of China. Most of the Flying Tigers’ fighter pilots were Americans. In 1940 the US was officially neutral to the Sino-Japanese war, but President Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) wanted to help the Chinese and FDR transferred a number of P-40 Warhawk fighters to India. And so the Flying Tigers unit was born. Later on in WWII, a number of the Flying Tigers pilots were assimilated into official US squadrons.

The 118th Tactical Reconnaissance “Black Lightening” Squadron, which flew fast and nimble P-51C Mustangs, were involved in a number of missions against Japanese positions and airfields in China.

empire-of-the-sun1empire-of-the-sun2In the Empire of the Sun there is a powerful scene where members of the Black Lightening Squadron attack the Japanese airfield at Lunghua, China. The airbase is adjacent to the Japanese internment camp where the young Jim Graham and fellow expats are being held prisoner. Jim has a passion for military aircraft, and ignoring all danger, he races to the top of a building to watch the American fighter pilots strafe the airfield. Jim is overwhelmed when an American fighter pilot zooms by in his P-51 and screams at the top of his lungs P-51 Mustangs …the Cadillac of the sky!”

bloodchitnew1There is one other personal moment I’d like to share about the Flying Tigers. About the same time that Empire of the Sun was released to theatres (1987), I happened to be running in a race in Reno, Nevada. Picture 1In those days I was fleet of foot and very skinny (ah memories). I also was the proud owner of numerous Flying Tigers memorabilia. My friend Randy happened to be a pilot for Flying Tigers Freight Line and he had given me many of his t-shits with the Flying Tigers logo and depictions of P-40 fighters. Well the morning after the Reno 5K race, I went to breakfast at an all you-can-eat casino buffet with a group of my running buddies. I was wearing a colorful Flying Tigers t-shirt. As I was standing in the buffet line, I happened to notice an Asian family sitting at a nearby table. They seemed to be staring intently in my direction. As I made my way down the buffet I looked back once or twice more and it was apparent that the family was indeed paying close attention to me. Yet I had no idea why? I noticed that the parents, appearing to be in their 70s, seemed to be quite emotional. A few moments later the Asian son got up from the table and approached me. He was polite and almost apologetic as he spoke; “Excuse me, I am sorry to interrupt your breakfast, but I was wondering about your shirt? … Did your father fly for the Flying Tigers?”

picture-43I explained that he did not, but my uncle flew in WWII and knew a number of the original American Volunteer Group pilots. The Asian son did not want to interrupt me any further so he thanked me and turned to leave. I stopped him before he could walk away; “Wait … I’m curious, why did you come over to ask me about the Flying Tigers?” He responded; “Well, my parents saw your shirt and they remember the American pilots very well. You see, they were held captive in China by the Japanese. They are very grateful to the Americans and the Flying Tigers. Your shirt brought back many memories for them. It is very emotional for them.”

That brief encounter had a big impact on me. I will never forget that family. It brought home in a personal way how much the Flying Tigers meant to the lives of so many who struggled to survive under the most austere circumstances. Something to think about when we bemoan our present day lives. ??

Empire of the Sun (1987) pilots:
Hoof Proudfoot…. aerial unit mustang pilot
Mark Hanna …. aerial unit mustang pilot
Picture 2Ray Hanna …. aerial unit chief mustang pilot (P51 pilot of “Tugboat” who waives at Jim – Christian Bale)
Tom Danaher …. aerial unit chief zero pilot

Ray Hanna

Ray Hanna - 1928-2005

6 Responses to “Empire of the Sun and the Flying Tigers”

  1. Dan Butterfield says:

    During my recent travels in China, I had a chance to visit JG Ballard’s boyhood home in Shanghai. It is presently undergoing extensive renovation. Thankfully, the historical society in Shanghai recognizes the significance of Ballard’s home and it will not be unduly modernized. It looks like the home will retain its original essence, albeit it’s now a restaurant. See Rick McGrath’s site for more on Ballard > http://www.jgballard.ca/shanghai/jgb_shanghai_home.html

  2. Dan Butterfield says:

    Comment by Kathy (transferred from old site):

    Submitted on 2009/12/09 at 4:25pm
    My husband and I live in Nampa, ID about 1.5 miles from the Nampa airport and the Warhawk Museum http://www.warhawkairmuseum.org/
    We have been married for 14 years and since meeting him I have become a WWII fighter plane enthusiast. We knew how close we were to the museum when we bought the house, but little did we know how often we would be treated to the Warhawks, Mustangs and myriad other vintage aircraft flying over the house. I am sure the neighbors think we are quite mad as we come running out of the house, jumping up and down and pointing whenever they are flying!
    “My” plane is the Mustang. The first time I saw one flying I actually heard it first and knew it immediately!! How? Because the sound of the engies is exactly the same as in Empire of the Sun. That scene moves me to tears every time I see it and I had noted the special sound of the engines and often wondered if it was a special effect. Very special indeed!! I thank Speilberg for his attention to detail.
    On that Saturday morning I was out in the pasture talking to a friend on the cell when I first heard an then visually confirmed “my” plane taking off from the field. I was jumping up and down screaming Mustang, Mustang!! And as she passed overhead I shouted “P-51 Mustang, Cadillac of the skies!!” My friend thought I was talking about a horse and said I was wierd… I still get goosebumps remembering it.
    We have lived here for 2 years now and can’t wait for the flying season to begin.
    If you are ever in the area the Warhawk is a terrific museum and well worth a visit.

    Comment by Robert Bourlier (transferred from old site):
    In the movie “Empire of The Sun” one of the 118th TRS Mustangs drops a bomb and blows up the Japanese hanger. Al Cardelli, the pilot who dropped that bomb, lives in Chicago. I have several pictures of him during training in Sarasota, FL and one of him in his “Black Lightning” Mustang in China.

    My uncle, LtCol Phil Dickey, was the man who designed the “Black Lightning” markings worn by the 118th TRS airplanes and he painted most of them in China.

    on July 2, 2009 at 4:23 am | ReplyDan Butterfield

    Thanks for your comment and for your article on the 118th TRS. Definitely worth a read http://www.118trs.com/history-of-the-118th

  3. @Chris Really great site on the 118th

    I also read through your grandfather’s “walkout” after being shot down in China. http://www.118trs.com/earl-j–davis
    Very interesting! Thanks for sharing.

    The Black Lightning squadron has a place in WWII history. They played a very important role in China’s battle for freedom from occupation.

  4. Chris says:

    He was shot down on his first combat mission. You can read about his walk out on my site. The site has pictures, Missing Air Crew Reports, walk out stories, and unit histories from China.

  5. Thanks for the feedback Chris. I’ve corrected the post. Love to hear more about your grandfather’s role with the 118th

  6. Chris says:

    My grandfather was in the 118th (stateside & India/China). There were no original AVG Flying Tigers in the squadron. Some lead other squadrons of the 23rd FG, but not the 118th.

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