COLUMN: REMEMBER WHEN: The local Flying Tiger

Published 3:00 pm Friday, May 24, 2024

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Ben Crum Foshee, was the 6th and youngest child of George Washington and Ella Lavonia Foshee. He was born in 1915, attended the one-room schoolhouse at Cohassett, was graduated from Red Level High School in 1934 and from Auburn University in 1938. He was #1 in his class finishing with a degree in aeronautical engineering. Having been in the Naval ROTC program, he headed to Pensacola’s U. S. Naval Air Station where he became a Naval aviator receiving his wings in June of 1940.

Ben Crum Foshee passion for aviation continued throughout his life, including his support for the South Alabama Regional Airport. In 2010, the firehouse at SARA was renamed and dedicated in honor of his service.

Training from the carrier, the Lexington, docked in Miami, he met General Claire Chennault one evening at the officers’ club. Chennault, a retired U. S. Army Air Corps officer, was recruiting pilots to go to China with the American Volunteers Group (AVG) under presidential sanction. This time frame was prior to the beginning of World War II and those pilots were revved up, trained, and ready for war, prepared for combat, but there was no war. Adventure was the name of the game.

President Franklin Roosevelt had signed a secret order to form the AVG to help China defend their country from Japanese invasion. Foshee along with approximately 100 other pilots from the Army Air Corps, the Navy, and the Marines resigned their commissions and volunteered with the AVG. Their pay was excellent and bonuses were promised for each Jap aircraft shot down. The men included not only Americans but also Europeans from the Royal Air Force (RAF). Plans were made beginning in the summer of 1941. By the fall, pilots, crew, and 100 P-40’s boarded a ship from San Francisco headed for Honolulu then on to the Far East. One plane fell off the ship in route.

When they arrived, plans were made and training began in the hot and humid environment with insects and rodents all around. Many resigned and returned to the states. General Chennault who had been observing Japanese tactics since 1937 prepared the pilots for combat. There were lots of accidents but confidence grew.

Group morale was important so General Chennault allowed the shark’s teeth emblem to be painted on the nose of the airplanes as well as a Walt Disney logo painted on the fuselage. They became known as the “Flying Tigers.”

The FT’s gained world-wide attention as they faced experienced and fully trained Japanese pilots. News headlines over San Francisco radio was “American airmen – 5 times better in combat than the Japanese.”

The AVG was credited with 297 enemy aircraft destroyed including 229 in the air. About 200 ground crewmen kept the P-40’s flying with salvaged parts. The AVG’s last combat was on July 4, 1942 after the Tigers blocked the Japanese invaders over and over in the Burma campaign. Their success is all the more remarkable since they were outnumbered by Japanese fighters in almost all of their engagements.

On May 4, 1942, the Japanese bombed Paoshaun, China in the attack where Ben Foshee was running to his aircraft. He was wounded in the legs and died before the doctor could get to him. Foshee was buried in the Chinese airmen’s cemetery, but in 1946, his father contacted Congressman George Grant to bring his body back home. A funeral was held at the Long Branch Baptist Church in Cohassett and he was buried in the Fairmount Baptist Church Cemetery in Red Level.

At a 50th reunion in 1992, the “Flying Tigers” were described as magnificent, spectacular American heroes. They were recognized as members of the U. S. military for their stunning record during the seven months the group was in combat against the Japanese. A History Channel documentary called them the world’s most illustrious squadron and the most colorful group of warriors in modern times.

In 1996, the remaining “Flying Tigers” were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and ground crews were awarded the Bronze Star for dedication to duty and extraordinary heroism. Pilots and ground crew were awarded the Nationalist Chinese Order of the Cloud.

Nephews Wheeler and Crum Foshee remembered their uncle as a hometown boy raised in Cohassett who had a River Falls girlfriend. He liked to fish and hunt, drive the dirt roads, and go to the movies in Andalusia in his green Pontiac.

Foshee became the personal pilot of Madam and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek flying them all over the South Pacific. After his death, they sent letters of sympathy to his mother.

It is said that many grateful citizens in China have not forgotten the “Flying Tigers.” In 2003 China opened the only museum in the world dedicated exclusively to the “Flying Tigers” with displays incorporating artifacts obtained from the AVG veterans.

A “Flying Tiger” display can be seen at the Naval Air Station Museum in Pensacola reflecting the fact that many Navy and Marine aviators were a part of the AVG. Memorials are also dedicated to the AVG at the National Museum of the U. S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, in California at Vandenberg Air Force Base, in Thailand, and in Taiwan at Hualian AFB. Many military enthusiasts even to this day talk on the blogs about the heroism of the FT’s.

Renewed interest was sparked in 2008 when a local committee was organized with plans to honor the late Ben Crum Foshee. In November 2010, the Firehouse at the South Alabama Regional Airport was named and dedicated to Foshee where relatives, FT enthusiasts, military personnel, Covington Historical Society members, airport officials, and even representatives from his AU fraternity Sigma Pi gathered for a fitting ceremony.

Crum Foshee stated, “Even though Ben’s service with the AVG was misunderstood for many years, our family is so proud for him to be honored at the airport. After many years, history has smiled on all of their efforts. After all these are the skies he trained and flew in.”

This story was last told in 2010 so it is once again featured in this Remember When column for another generation this Memorial Day weekend of 2024.

Sue Bass Wilson, AHS Class of 1965, is a former choral music teacher (K-12), local real estate broker, and long-time member of the Covington Historical Society. She can be reached at