Rita Wong (Photo: China Daily)BEIJING, Aug 15 -- The story of Rita Wong, the only Chinese nurse at the hospital for the Flying Tigers, could be one of the most touching tales of World War II.
And it is being told again as people today celebrate the Japanese surrender 61 years ago.
Her story is about hardship and a lost love.
At 94, Wong, also known as Huang Huanxiao, could have kept silent forever about her past if she hadn't wanted to meet her colleagues at the hospital and the Flying Tigers in the last years of her life.
The woman from Macao, who got her degree in nursing at the University of Hong Kong in 1941, had lived in anonymity in Kunming, capital of Southwest China's Yunnan Province, for the past six decades.
Wong's children didn't even guess how eventful her life used to be until she and her husband, who was the only Chinese doctor at the hospital, took them to the Hump Flight Monument in the suburbs of Kunming one day in 1989, her eldest son Gao Demin told China Daily.
With a hunched back, which was broken in beatings during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), she read out the inscriptions in a firm voice and a graceful British accent.
"China and the United States lost more than 500 airplanes, and more than 1,500 airmen devoted their lives" she said as tears fell from her eyes.
It was not until the death of her husband, Gao Shengdao or Vivian Gao, in 2002 that she began to write down her memories in a diary, which she initially kept to herself.
But in 2004, the 92-year-old learned from media reports that several Flying Tigers were to visit their old airport in Yunnanyi town in the mountains of Yunnan's Dali. She told her children that she wanted to go and meet them.
In an effort to persuade the children, Wong showed them her diaries, fading pictures and letters from the US.
She only received the letters in 2003, 57 years after they had been posted.
"I thought I was too old to cry, but I just couldn't help it when I read the lines," said Gao, the son, who is in his late 50s.
He flew with her to Dali, where he had an ambulance waiting. Lying in the ambulance, Wong travelled a dozen hours back to the deserted airport.
She met the Flying Tigers, who were in their 80s and 90s. They remembered her as the only woman working at the small hospital beside the airport.
Since then they have been helping Wong look for her friends at the hospital and at the AVG.
Help has also come from all those who have heard of her and her wish, including descendants of the Flying Tigers in the US; descendants of Chinese pilots at the non-governmental organization the Sino-American Aviation History Foundation in Beijing and Kunming; and Donald M. Bishop, former minister-counsellor for press and cultural affairs at the US Embassy in Beijing.
It was two months ago that they were informed about one of those whom Wong was longing most to see.
Hubert S. Bush, president of Wong's hospital at the airport, went back to his medical practice in Long Island, New York, after the war. He passed away in 1992.
Hearing the news, Wong's son wrote a letter to Bush's son, who is also a doctor and is in his 70s.
Following this, Bush's son invited Wong's children to visit him in Connecticut.
Last month Wong's daughter, Gao Aimin, and her husband flew from Stuttgart in Germany, where they live, to Connecticut to visit the family of Bush Jr.
The two families brought daisies to the grave of the late Bush, and spent a week sharing information about their heroic parents.
"I saw many pictures of mum, with her colleagues and the pilots," said Gao the daughter. "I couldn't believe them at first - she looked so great!"
In these pictures, Wong was wearing her nurse's uniform and had her hair in curls as she laughed heartily. Her stories, which she had hidden so well, became known to her daughter.
At the beginning of the last century, when most Chinese girls got married in their teens and stayed at home afterwards, Wong decided that she should receive an education and become a professional.
She had just finished her course in nursing and started her internship at a hospital in Kowloon, Hong Kong, when Japanese troops attacked the region and took over on Christmas Day, 1941.
All foreigners working at the hospital were sent to a concentration camp, and the Chinese were gathered at a hospital where they had nothing to do but wait for their meagre food rations.
The Japanese made it a rule that no doctors or nurses were to leave Hong Kong and those who were caught doing so would be killed.
But Wong was determined to flee. One night, on a small sampan, she floated with her brother, who was also in Kowloon, back to Macao.
There she worked at a church hospital and saw dozens of people die every day for lack of medicine.
When she met one of her friends at nursing school and learned that several of her classmates were working at the American hospital in Chongqing, the wartime capital of China, Wong decided that she would go and join them.
Her brother accompanied her on the arduous and dangerous trip of more than 1,000 kilometres from Macao to Chongqing.
Once there she went to the headquarters of Allied Forces, showed her nursing certificate and applied for a job. She was told that English-speaking nurses were badly needed in Yunnan and was sent the next day to a hospital in Kunming, capital of the province.
It turned out to be a hospital of the US 14th Air Force, which was stationed in Kunming during the World War II.
First established as the American Volunteer Group (AVG), its airmen, whose planes had shark's teeth painted on them, were better known in China as Fei Hu, meaning Flying Tigers, because of their courageous battles in the skies over China and Mymmar during World War II.
These US soldiers made their name in aviation history by flying with their Chinese counterparts on the air supply route known as the "Hump," which linked China's Southwest and India via the Himalayas.
The flight over the Himalayas was so dangerous that planes crashed almost every day. Most often the airmen were never found, Wong recalled in her diary.
On one particular day she saw two pilots, who were the boyfriends of her two best friends at the hospital, die after being wounded.
A small hospital was built beside Yunnanyi Airport, one of the destinations on the China side of the Hump, in the mountains of Dali in 1944.
Wong was transferred there and was astonished to find she was the only woman working among more than 30 men.
On one of the first days after her arrival, she saw an airplane, having been attacked by Japanese fighters, crash land at the airport. When the cabin was opened, several crew members inside had been disfigured or burnt.
Despite the great risks, Wong fell in love with a pilot called Panny, who returned to the US towards the end of the war after his father's death, and promised to find Wong at her family's address in Macao after the war.
When the war ended, Wong was reunited with her family in Macao. But when her mother passed away and her father lost his business, the family had to move to a cheaper home. When they were moving, Wong's purse was stolen so she lost Panny's address.
At the end of 1946, Gao Shengdao, Wong's colleague at the airport hospital, found her in Macao. He managed to do so because Wong once mentioned casually that she would often go to a lighthouse in Macao so he waited for her there on and off until she finally came.
At 34, Wong married Gao. The couple returned to Kunming and worked at an army hospital.
They stated to work at a local hospital after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.
They didn't flee to Taiwan at the end of the civil war in 1949 partlly because Gao's mother was too old to travel. Wong made the decision that the whole family would stay with her.
They had a happy life in the following years, apart from during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). The couple had two sons and a daughter.
When China opened its doors to the rest of the world at the end of the 1970s, Wong set up a toy factory in Macao at an age of 67 with funding from her sisters sent from overseas.
She became the general manager and had more than 200 people working for her three years later.
She then handed the management of the factory to her children and returned to Kunming to live with her husband until he passed away in 2002.
In 2003 she received a package from the US. The family of her brother, who had died that year, sent it to her after they had found some papers relating to her while sorting through his things.
When she opened it, she saw her identity card used at the airport hospital, a picture of Panny and also several unopened letters, which were postmarked 1946.
They were from Panny, who tried desperately to get into touch with her and even flew to Macao in a failed attempt to find her in 1946.
(Source: China Daily)