World War Two. Japanese occupied China. One cousin’s courage, another’s determination to help a wounded American pilot. Taking place during one of the darkest hours of Chinese history, Wings of a Flying Tiger by Iris Yang explores heroism, love, sacrifice, kindness, and bravery. Here is an exclusive excerpt from the novel:
“Get the hell out of there, Jack. Now!” Danny Hardy barked into the radio.
Through the debris that erupted from the enemy plane he’d shot down, he gazed at a flaming aircraft emblazoned with tiger’s teeth. God, please, he silently prayed, hoping to see his wingman pop out of the airplane any second.
Danny hadn’t heard Jack’s voice on the radio since he’d been hit, but that didn’t stop him from calling out again: “Jack, bail out!”
Minutes ago Jack Longman had sent two Japanese aircraft spinning down to earth, but now his plane was on fire. Two Zeros flanked him. He’d been hit from both sides. Fire blazed from the fuselage tank of his P-40 and roared into the cockpit. His airplane remained level for only a moment then plunged, nose down, toward the earth. Rolling back the canopy, Jack leaned left and tumbled out of the plane, which was now wreathed in smoke. When he opened his parachute, part of his body was on fire.
Danny let out a relieved breath when he saw Jack’s tall figure drop out of his airplane. One corner of his lips tilted upward. But before his smile had formed completely, to his horror, a Japanese fighter dropped on Jack, firing a heartless spray of bullets.
“No!” Danny cried. His heart thundered. Waves of panic spread throughout his body. It all had happened too fast. He wasn’t close enough to catch up with the Japanese. Helplessly, he watched as his best friend was strafed to death while strapped in his parachute.
“Jack!” A lump formed in the back of his throat and burned as Danny tried to choke back tears. He couldn’t let the enemy get away. He roared after the Japanese. His P-40 wasn’t as versatile as the enemy airplanes, but it was faster in a dive. Flying Tigers were trained to exploit that advantage. Within seconds, he caught up with one of the two fighters that had killed Jack. He brought his guns in line for a shot from the rear. Before the Japanese pilot realized his fate, Danny poured a salvo directly into his cockpit. Flames erupted from the Zero. A fireball spun earthbound.
This maneuver exposed Danny’s P-40 to the other Japanese fighter, who fired at him from the left. An explosion blasted his left wing, and the plane shook. At the same time, bullets riddled his cockpit. One of them grazed his scalp; others buried themselves in the instrument panel. Blood gushed from his forehead, covering his goggles and blocking his sight. Red spots spattered the white scarf around his neck.
Pulling his stick with his right hand, and lifting his left to wipe the blood off his goggles, he realized that his left arm and leg had been injured by shrapnel. In the midst of the white-knuckled fight, the excruciating pain hadn’t hit him until now.
Switching to his right hand, Danny pulled off his goggles. Once he could see, he checked his left wing. What he saw made his blood run cold. The explosion had left a hole two feet in diameter, halfway between the wingtip and the root. He was astonished the wing was still attached.
The shock didn’t last long. No time to waste. He was trained as a fighter pilot, and fighting was second nature.
Ignoring the throbbing pain, Danny hauled his P-40 into a tight turn. Advancing the throttle, he flew toward the enemy fighter who had shot at him. His engine roared. The force jammed him into his seat. Bullets ricocheted through his plane, flashing like firecrackers. But nothing deterred him. Swooping toward the fighter, he thumbed on the gun switch and opened fire. His tracers strafed the front of the Zero.
The Japanese seemed startled by the American pilot’s comeback. The bravery of the American Volunteer Group, the Flying Tigers, was well known by this time, the summer of 1942, but this Tiger was completely insane. The little airman flinched, yet held his course.
“If you don’t ram into me, I’m going to ram you!” Danny shouted, sweating beneath his sheepskin-lined jacket. He knew he shouldn’t do this—the Japanese pilots were disciplined flyers; they were not cowards. And Danny had no intention of dying. However, this Zero was the one that had shot Jack down. Revenge was the only thing on his mind. He had no plan to turn around.
Might as well take someone with me if my number is up…
Although he had lived only twenty-seven years, that was long enough to destroy twelve enemy airplanes. “Let’s make this one the thirteenth!” he shouted, his hand on the trigger and death in his eyes.
The two planes were so close that Danny could see the stone-faced Japanese pilot glaring at him. For what seemed like an eternity, they stared at each other. Time slowed as their planes closed in. It was a contest of wills.
A split-second before the crash, the wide-eyed Japanese pilot lost his nerve and tried to peel away from a head-on collision, a maneuver which left him vulnerable.
Danny jumped at the chance and blazed with everything he had. His hand never left the trigger. His tracers tore the Zero to pieces.
He watched the enemy plane turn into a fireball. It streamed black and white smoke, went into a rapid spin, and plummeted to Earth.
Danny had no time to celebrate his success. Hits that he’d sustained during the death match made his plane wobble like a drunkard. He had to abandon his P-40. As he prepared to jump, he glanced down at the exotic highlands unfolding below him. Yunnan Province of China was composed of magnificent mountains and sweeping plains. He was over a mountainous region carpeted by lush green trees. Somewhere beneath the shady canopy lay his best friend’s body, burned and riddled with Japanese bullets.
Suddenly, Danny changed his mind. By now, fewer and fewer of their aircraft remained intact. God knows we need every single one. Their air-worthy planes were already outnumbered—today four P-40s had had to fight two dozen Zeros. Now, with Jack’s death, two airplanes would be gone if he bailed out.
Danny felt exhausted. He grimaced. The injuries to his head, arm, and leg were nasty, but something else was wrong. Could it be the cold he’d come down with during the past few days? No matter how tired he was, Danny refused to let his plane go down. Not without a fight. Not until he’d tried everything he could. With one last look at his damaged left wing, he took a few deep breaths and forced himself to lean back against his seat. His hand clutched the stick in a death grip, and with what seemed like a superhuman effort, he fought to stabilize the aircraft.
He didn’t think about dying, he was too involved in keeping his P-40 in the air. Setting his course toward Kunming, Yunnan’s capital, he tried to level the plane. But it was so crippled, he could barely maintain control.
He had managed to fly for twenty or thirty minutes, but the mental pain of losing his best friend from childhood, the physical ache of his wounds, as well as that mysterious illness—whatever it was—all crashed in on him, and before long the aircraft would not respond to his commands. The stricken P-40 snapped into a spin, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t recover it.
Now he had no choice. With his last ounce of strength, he slid back the canopy. The wind screeched and plastered the skin over his face. He was barely conscious when he tumbled, head over heels, into space.
Jasmine Bai sat up straighter when she heard Mr. Peterson’s proposal. For a moment her face showed only blank astonishment. What did he say? Marry him? She thought for sure she’d heard him wrong.
They were sitting across a white linen-covered table full of dishes. Nanking Salted Duck, Lion’s Head, Lotus Root Soup, Steamed Shrimp Dumplings, Yangzhou Fried Rice, Red Bean Rice Cake… Mr. Peterson, her art teacher at the college, had invited her to a pre-Christmas celebration. Throughout this fancy restaurant in Chungking, Christmas ornaments twinkled, and red lanterns glowed. Soft light complemented the soothing music. Delicious aromas permeated the air.
“Will you marry me?” Peter Peterson raised his voice and asked again. Fair and lanky, the American was a fine-looking scholarly type. He wore a well-tailored dark blue suit with a light blue shirt and red tie.
This time Jasmine heard him clearly. They’d been talking about art all evening, and this abrupt change of topic took her aback. What’s wrong with him? Is he drunk? Seeing his reddened face, the eighteenyear-old girl turned her gaze to a half-empty bottle of Maotai on the table. The most famous brand of liquor contained fifty percent alcohol.
“God, you’re so beautiful,” said Peter, eyes glowing. His left hand held the bottle while his right hand gripped a large glass.
Not knowing what to say, Jasmine bit down on her lip. She was gorgeous—silky skin, delicate features, and shiny hair cascading like a cloak of satin down to her waist. She was dressed in a carmine red cheongsam. This body-hugging dress with a side slit accentuated the curves of her frame.
“Jasmine?” Without hearing her answer, Peter sprang to his feet, dashed around the table, and dropped to one knee. “Jesus! I’m crazy about you. Can’t you see? Marry me. Please!” Excitement made him look younger than his twenty-seven years. Moved by his own bold gesture, he sputtered, “I don’t have a ring, but I’ll buy one tomorrow—”
“Call me Peter.”
“Yes, Peter. Please…stand—”
“Not until you say yes.”
“Thank you for your…kind gesture,” said Jasmine with all the politeness she could muster. Everyone in the crowded room was now staring at them; some were smiling, others gaped in surprise. The background music was still playing, but the room was quiet. The spectators, a mixture of Chinese and Westerners, held their breath, waiting for her answer.
Peter remained on his knee.
“Sit down. Please. Let’s talk,” she whispered in nearly perfect English. Unlike most Chinese females in the 1930s, she was well educated. Both her parents were professors at the prominent Nanking University. “I need time to think. I didn’t expect… This is happening too fast.” She twisted a strand of hair around her right index finger. Lowering her head, she kept her eyes averted.
Reluctantly Peter stood up. Disappointment was written all over his face. The onlookers let out a collective sigh. Sinking back onto his chair, he poured himself more Maotai. Sullenly, he rolled the glass in his fingers.
An awkward silence descended.
Peter raised the glass to his lips and drained it in two swallows. The strong liquor burned his mouth and tongue, causing him to cough into his fist. When he looked up, he said, “You may think I’m drunk. I’m not.” He licked his lips. “I’ve never done anything like this. True. But I’m serious. Believe me.”
Jasmine hunted for words. When none came, she continued to fiddle with her hair.
“I know it’s hard to believe. Everyone thinks I’m such a cool-headed guy.” Peter gave a wry chuckle. “Most of the time, yes. I used to pride myself on my even-tempered nature. But the first time I met you…”
He stared at Jasmine through steel-rimmed glasses. “God, I don’t know what happened. I lost it. Your beauty, your sweetness. Then… your incredible painting. I…I fell in love…with you, with your artwork.”
Another pause stretched between them.
Peter rubbed his thumb across a furrowed brow and sighed. “Anyway, will you think about it? Seriously, think about it?”
Jasmine dipped her head. She felt bad for Mr. Peterson. Oh, he must feel let down. This is a romantic place.
His proposal was flattering. She had to admit it. If anyone found out about tonight, she would be the envy of the school. And eighteen wasn’t too young to marry. Most Chinese girls got married at this age; some already had children.
But something was wrong. Jasmine picked up a porcelain teacup with a fragile handle and gold rim. What’s missing? She liked Mr. Peterson. The young teacher with blue eyes and curly blonde hair was a great catch: he was kind and well-mannered, his teaching was admired by his students, and his artwork was impressive. Jasmine, for one, was a big fan of his landscape paintings.
But why am I not blushing? Why isn’t my heart beating faster? Her eyes didn’t even glow as she’d expected at a moment like this. Is this it? Sipping her tea, she wished that there was more.
After the party, Peter drove Jasmine to her uncle’s house where she lived.
Related: Read an interview with Iris Yang, author of Wings of a Flying Tiger
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