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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 byJ.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


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

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

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

  1. Dan Butterfield says:

    Dear Dan,

    I would be honored if you would want to include my email to the comments section. It’s fine to use my name too. Thank you for the kind offer.

    I am corresponding with Chris Davis too and we are rehashing a lot of the history surrounding the Shanghai area raids. Turns out the second raid on 20 January 1945 date also saw most of the 118th and another squadron from the 23rd FG on a return visit to the Shanghai area including Lungwha or Lunghua Airfield. If the two spellings indicate the same place (I am pretty sure they represent different spellings using different spelling systems to try to reproduce Chinese phonetics) then that would have been where J.G. Ballard was interned for the war and where and when he would have seen the 118th in action. Two planes went down on that raid with both pilots eventually getting back safely. Whether or not any of the fighters were overhead Shanghai proper on the 20 Jan 45 is debatable. Chris and I are trying to figure out the fuel and airfield between Suichuan airfield and Shanghai where the strike force of 17 Jan 45 refueled. From Wayne G. Johnson’s book we learn that the fuel for that mission had been left there in 1942 by Navy personnel who were prepared to refuel Doolittle’s Raiders outbound from Tokyo April ’42. Obviously, they never got there but the fuel had been left behind and secured by the Nationalists and the airfield kept secret from the Japanese. Mission logs state the strike force staged out of Nancheng airfield (same province but different county than Suichuan) flying to Wuhing (Wuxing) then on to Shanghai. Wuhing is a pretty small town west of Shanghai just south of a lake next to Suzhou (Soochow), my family’s ancestral home. This part of the story may not mean much to us but it means a lot more to the Chinese whose efforts to keep the fuel and airfield secret paid handsome dividends in 1945. The story of my meeting Wayne Johnson and the intersection in time he shared with my father is being translated into Chinese by my mother at the request of an education department official in Hong Kong who is responsible for textbook development in Chinese high schools. The official is a family acquaintance and dedicated to the restoration of accurate, truthful history in the PRC where up until very recently it has been pretty much Communist Party controlled propaganda. This story will hopefully survive all of us.

    Ballard’s book and the movie it inspired was a great first effort at depicting the war in China which remains pretty much unknown here in the US. I plan on corresponding with Hugh Ambrose again to see if I can entice him into writing about this aspect of the war. He’s a good guy and loves great stories like these. Who knows? I think its time the Flying Tigers got an update. It has been awhile since the Duke’s movie in black and white. It’ll be interesting to see if the Chinese might be interested. They have been knocking themselves out putting up memorials and hosting veterans to visit.

    Best Regards,

    On Mon, Apr 28, 2014 at 12:42 PM, Dan Butterfield ?wrote:


    Thank you for sharing your family story. I appreciate that you reached out. As time marches on, many of these personal histories are sadly forever lost. Glad to know that your mother is working with a publisher to document some of these anecdotes. Amazing that you encountered a Flying Tiger pilot who shared a slice in time with your father! Some coincidences seem to be predestined.

    When I was last in Shanghai, I was saddened to see J.G. Ballard’s boyhood home undergoing a significant commercial redo. His Empire of the Sun novel was semi-autobiographical … and hence Ballard too shared that moment in time with your father and Wayne G. Johnson.

    If you would allow… I can add your story (e-mail below) to the comments section of my post, as I’m sure others would appreciate hearing about your family story?


    ~ Dan

    On Apr 28, 2014, at 8:34 AM, Andrew Chiu wrote:

    Thank you for your old post on Empire of the Sun and the Flying Tigers. Your uncle’s service and the response your Flying Tigers T shirt elicited from the Chinese-Americans reminded me of a personal history I thought I would share.
    My father, John Chiu, was a young teen growing up in Japanese occupied Shanghai when he was personal witness to the 17 January 1945 raid on Shanghai that resulted in the destruction of 97 Japanese aircraft. Growing up my dad had always told my brother and I of that day he saw the “Flying Tigers” over his hometown. He lived in a brick three story row house common in Shanghai. It was located adjacent to a large field with Japanese antiaircraft positioned near his row house. I do not know if the field was used for aircraft or not. He heard aircraft low overhead that day which was not unusual but the sound of 50 cals from the sky was definitely out of the ordinary. To my grandparents’ horror, my dad climbed out his bedroom window and watched the raid from the rooftop of his row house. He was 15 years old and didn’t appreciate the danger of the situation.
    Several years ago I inherited a patient from a retiring colleague. I was introduced to Mr. Wayne G. Johnson of Silver Bay, Minnesota and was informed that he was a Flying Tiger (post AVG, 118th TRS/23rd FG/14th AF). Naturally, I was very pleased to be his physician. During an office visit one day, I thanked him for his service and explained the deep significance of the Flying Tigers to anyone of Chinese ancestry. Then I added that my father had personally witnessed the Flying Tigers in action over his hometown. This was when Whitey sat up in his chair and looked intently at me asking, “where’s his hometown?” I told him. There was a long silence as he absorbed this information. He then asked me, “what day did he see the planes?”. I had no idea. At this point, I had assumed that the Flying Tigers had been over Shanghai numerous times. Whitey asked me to ask my father telling me there were only two days the Flying Tigers were ever over Shanghai and that he was on one of the raids. The hair on the back of neck was standing straight up. We just sat there and looked at each other shaking our heads in disbelief. There were only seventeen Americans over Shanghai that day. Whitey wasn’t even supposed to be on it but subbed in at the last minute by this CO when a hungover colleague was observed vomiting on the flight line.
    My father confirmed the details of what he witnessed and the timing, duration and details fit with the raid of the 17th and not the 20th. He has since suffered much from Alzheimers but at that point his recollection was firm and the last time I spoke to him when he still had his faculties, he inquired if I still was caring for “the Flying Tiger”. He derived great satisfaction in knowing that his son was helping in the care of one of the heroes still honored by Chinese today.
    There is an effort underway to collect these histories and to translate them into Chinese. My mother is working with a publisher in Hong Kong to do this and set straight the actual history of that time since the government in the PRC has omitted or distorted the history to exclude any mention of the contributions of the US and especially of the Nationalists. There is interest in the mainland to get the facts straight finally.
    Best Regards,
    Andrew Chiu
    Duluth, MN

  2. 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

  3. 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

  4. @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.

  5. 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.

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

  7. 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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