Famed Tigers families get to see portraits

  • Published
  • By Angela Woolen
  • Robins Public Affairs

Lining the hallway of the Flying Tigers AVG display were 27 portraits of original American Volunteer Group Flying Tigers who died in combat or non-combat related scenarios. 

This was the first time in several years these paintings were on display together at the Museum of Aviation’s Eagle Building, said Mike Rowland, curator at the museum. 

“I’m delighted for the family members to see this part of our shared heritage. As a family member, you have a special tie to the portraits,” he added. 

More than 50 AVG family members visited to see their loved ones’ framed likeness. They were celebrating the 75th anniversary of the AVG during “Warbird Weekend” at Dekalb-Peachtree Airport. 

The portraits of the 24 members who died in combat and three others who died in non-combat scenarios, were painted by Raymond P.R. Neilson, according to Rowland. 

“It was touching for me to see this,” said John Newkirk who is named after his father’s cousin John Van Kuren “Scarsdale Jack” Newkirk. 

Newkirk, who is from Denver, Colorado, said his uncle always wanted to be a pilot. 

“He finally got picked and they named him squadron leader for the 2nd “Panda Bear” Squadron. He was given the name “Scarsdale Jack” because he was from Scarsdale, New York. 

Newkirk has also written a book, “The Old Man and the Harley” about his own father who enlisted in the Navy after his cousin died. 

The Flying Tigers were American Volunteer Group members who served in China during World War II, flying P-40s. From Dec. 1941 to July 1942, the Flying Tigers are credited with destroying 293 Japanese aircraft in China and Burma. 

There are only three of the Flying Tigers alive today. 

One of those is Frank Losonsky, whose nephew Steve Yenchar of Ionia, Michigan, was at the reunion.

“He was the crew chief for the 3rd Squadron. I’ve always been real proud of him,” Yenchar said. 

For some, it was a way to tell the story of what their relative did during the war. For others, it was a way to shed light on what Chinese Americans did for the Flying Tigers. 

“They fought the entire war with the Flying Tigers,” said Keith Lee whose father, Pak On Lee, was stationed with the AVG starting in 1942. 

Stationed in Kunming, Lee was sent out to recover downed planes and was trained as an Allison engine mechanic. 

Keith Lee has written a book, “A Chinese in the AVG” about his father, complete with photographs his father took while in China. 

“This is their story. We’re bringing that story back to China,” he said. 

Tripp Alyn, a cousin of Maax Hammer Jr. who died in an accident during monsoon conditions, spoke about how grateful he was to the museum for putting out all of the portraits for the members of the reunion to see. 

“It truly is a wonderful thing,” he said.

Did you know:

The Museum of Aviation usually only exhibits 10 AVG portraits at a time; this is the first time in decades that all 27 portraits will be on display together. The portraits were unveiled at the Smithsonian Institution in 1945 and were again exhibited at the Smithsonian in 1972. The portrait exhibit opened at the Museum of Aviation in 1996.