Fred Chiao, 95, is one of the last surviving members of the Chinese-American Composite Wing. Here, he showcases a letter from Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou.

ATLANTA and KAOHSIUNG, TAIWAN  – Allen Judd spent most of his life not knowing much about his father’s time in China during World War II.

When Capt. Arza D. Judd returned from the front lines, he became a physician in Iowa and never volunteered much about his role as an information officer in one of the rarest air units in U.S. military history.

Allen grew more interested after serving in the U.S. Marine Corps in Asia traveling there frequently for First National Bank of Atlanta. But by then his chances for unraveling the mystery were slim. He believed that his father’s two trunks containing rusted canisters of archival film had been lost in a house fire.

But a new clue emerged in 1996 when Mr. Judd visited his mother in Florida after his father’s death. She  gave him a video labeled “Japanese Surrender China” in his father’s handwriting. Not all the film had been lost, and what remained had been transferred onto a tape by a colonel at Eglin Air Force Base.

Mingled with family shots, the footage of a military transport ship’s journey through the Suez Canal, bombing targets,  daily life in China and a ceremony on a crowded airfield was less revealing than Mr. Judd had hoped. 

“It had no sound, no script, no story, so I just put the tape in a box and forgot about it,” he told Global Atlanta.

Then in 2010, while looking through old photos for a 30-year retrospective on the Japan-America Society of Georgia, Mr. Judd found a formal document written in Chinese characters.

A longtime Chinese friend in Atlanta, the late Raymond Lo, helped him ascertain that it was a numbered letter sealed with the chop of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, president of the Republic of China, thanking the elder Mr. Judd for serving in the Chinese-American Composite Wing.

That’s when Allen started digging deeper into a video that would unlock his father’s history and tap into the memories of the last survivors from a unit that came to epitomize Chinese-American military cooperation.

A Legend Next Door

Mr. Judd and business partner Rocky Ball edited the film into a rudimentary story, digitized it and brought it to Mr. Lo, who asked if they knew Fred Wu-O Chiao, a Chinese fighter pilot who had served in the same unit as Mr. Judd’s father.

“I said, ‘When did he die?'” Mr. Judd said. “He says, ‘He’s still alive and he lives in Norcross.’ I said, ‘Wow,’ and the hair stood up on my arm.”

In October 2010, a luncheon premiere was arranged, and a group of 12 local Chinese packed into the Mambo Italian Restaurant on Peachtree Parkway, just around the corner from Mr. Chiao’s two-story home.

As soon as he saw the film, the 94-year-old began to narrate.

“He starts naming dates and people and who he knew and where it was, and it became pretty extraordinary, just like seeing and speaking with the past,” Mr. Judd said.

What unfolded was more than a travelogue. Mr. Chiao was almost certain that the film contained unique shots of Japan’s surrender to Chinese forces at Chihkiang airfield in China’s Hunan province.

“When Raymond told us about the film, I knew that was exclusive footage. I never saw any photo or film outside the surrender,” Mr. Chiao told Global Atlanta.

It was a poignant moment for the former fighter pilot, who is set to turn 96 on Nov. 5.

Mr. Chiao is one of the last remaining members of the Chinese-American Composite Wing, a special joint unit of Chinese and American fighter pilots launched under the command of American Maj. Gen. Claire Lee Chennault in 1943.

Mr. Chennault headed to China in 1937 to reorganize the country’s air forces after retiring from the U.S. Air Force. Through Soong May-ling, Chiang Kai-shek’s wife and an English speaker by virtue of her studies at Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga., the two military men were able to communicate.

Mr. Chennault assembled his first unit in 1941. The American Volunteer Group included some 100 U.S. fighter pilots who scrambled to meet the Japanese threat. The first to engage the Japanese air force, even before Pearl Harbor, they were renowned for undertaking daring missions against superior numbers.

With planes painted with the grinning mouths of tiger sharks and a fearsome reputation for shooting down enemy aircraft, the unit became known as the Flying Tigers.

In 1943, the American Volunteer Group was subsumed into the 14th Air Force established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt under Mr. Chennault’s command. Faced with scant resources, Mr. Chennault banded together with Mr. Chiang to create the Chinese-American Composite Wing.

Unlocking Memories

For Mr. Chiao and other families with connections to the war, Mr. Judd’s video of the Japanese surrender provided a sense of closure.

“He waited 66 years to see that. He never saw it, although that was what he was fighting for,” said David Chiao, Fred’s son, who also lives in Atlanta.

The elder Mr. Chiao was recovering in an American hospital in India at the time of the ceremony on Aug. 23, 1945. His wing men escorted the Japanese plane as it came in to land.

Earlier that year, on Jan. 20, he was flying a mission over occupied territory in Hengyang, China, to disrupt Japan’s overland supply lines. A Japanese fighter intercepted from above and peppered him with 7.7-millimeter bullets that penetrated his windshield and struck him in the face.

“They knocked out my left jaw,” he said, noting that he still has shrapnel lodged there. “Lucky shot.”

He tried to maneuver the plane back to base but eventually had to eject behind enemy lines. That’s when the fight for survival really began. For hours he evaded Japanese dogs that chased the scent of his blood across the countryside.

But as he was drinking from a rice paddy, about to faint, Chinese resistance fighters knocked him out with a rifle butt, unsure of which side he was fighting for.

From then on, fate smiled on him.

“The old Lord really helped me,” Mr. Chiao said with a chuckle.

The Japanese didn’t give up their pursuit; as a fighter pilot, Mr. Chiao was a valuable intelligence asset. They chased him for 21 days, but Chinese soldiers valiantly protected him against Japanese incursions, some even losing their lives in the process, according to his son, David.

Finally, American intelligence agents arranged for him to be transferred to a hospital station 30 miles away.

“They loaded me on the sedan [chair]. You know the morphine was helping me feel like a king,” he said.

To Taiwan and Today

Hearing these stories and meeting people like Mr. Chiao were unexpected but rewarding aspects of the video’s resurfacing, Mr. Judd said.

“What I’ve learned is that my dad’s film has been a key that unlocks lots of other information from people who either had no reason to bring it yet or they saw something and it triggered a memory, so it’s been really spectacular,” he said.

Its influence hasn’t been limited to Georgia’s borders. The video has made its way across the Pacific to Taiwan, reaffirming historic ties between the Republic of China (the island’s official name) and the United States even as the latter’s interests grow increasingly intertwined with the communist People’s Republic of China, which took over the mainland in 1949.

“It’s a very glorious history on both sides,” said Mike Tien, an air force major general in Taiwan and self-taught Flying Tigers historian. “Both sides, they sacrificed their lives to fight for freedom against the Japanese invasion, so I think that this is very important. We need to keep that and educate our younger generation, even to the whole world.”

Mr. Tien received Mr. Judd’s video soon after it was shown to Mr. Chiao. In 13 years of collecting books, films and memorabilia from the Flying Tigers, he had never seen anything like it, he told Global Atlanta during an interview in Taipei last year.

“Almost crying,” was his initial reaction. “I was very impressed. That’s a very historic film.”

Mr. Tien sent a copy to Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, who ordered it placed in the national archives before sending letters of appreciation to Mr. Chiao and Mr. Judd, who became the second in his family to receive a letter from a sitting president of the Chinese republic. 

Permanent Displays

Perhaps more thrilling for Mr. Judd is that the video is on display in the Flying Tigers exhibition at the Republic of China Air Force Museum in Kaohsiung, a city in southern Taiwan.

The large room with blue walls boasts sections with photos, paintings, medals, letters and myriad other items. It’s an appropriate place to enshrine what Mr. Judd sees as a gift to Chinese and Japanese families who lost loved ones in the war.

Even more fitting: a few stalls away from the video, behind a glass case, is the blood-stained green jumpsuit Mr. Chiao wore when he was shot down, an integral part of the story that brought two men together across generations in a city half a world away.

Back at Mr. Chiao’s home, the second floor is like a museum of its own. His upstairs den overflows with books, airplane models, paintings and photos depicting his post-war stations. He’s particularly proud of one where he stands beside Chiang Kai-Shek and King Hussein of Jordan during the monarch’s visit to Taiwan. King Hussein, also a pilot, had selected Mr. Chiao as his personal attache.

Though the artifacts may seem obscure to some, they weave a picture of an often-overlooked period of U.S.-China collaboration with only a few witnesses left. 

In 2010, Mr. Chiao headed back to Chihkiang, now called Zhijiang in mainland China’s Hunan province, to inaugurate a monument to Mr. Chennault and the Flying Tigers at the site of the old air base of the Chinese-American Composite Wing.

Another Georgian – President Jimmy Carter – also made the trip. Mr. Carter, a former U.S. Navy sailor who was stationed off the China coast in the 1940s, normalized relations between mainland China and the United States in 1979.

Mr. Chiao grabbed a handful of dirt from the site to commemorate his fallen brothers in arms, said David Chiao, who accompanied his father on the trip.

“If the old Lord gives me a little longer time, I’ll still last to tell those stories,” Mr. Chiao said.  

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...