The most extraordinary heroes generally prove to be average and ordinary folk. Glen Beneda was one case in point. A fighter pilot in World War II, it was his actions after the war that defined the true measure of his heroism.
Beneda fought the Japanese in the air over China as a member of the famous Flying Tigers. This unit was General Claire Chennault’s vanguard of tough and skilled pilots that harassed the Japanese occupation force in China while Douglas MacArthur and his troops were island-hopping their way across the Pacific to Tokyo.
The story is simple but the lessons drawn from Beneda’s life are powerful enough to be passed along across generations. In 1943, Beneda was flying his 81st mission when his plane was shot down over Jianli in Hubei province. Weak and injured Beneda was cared for by local farmers, then by guerrilla fighters and finally by the Chinese Army in that region under the command of General Li Xiannian.
For 60 days the Chinese hid Beneda from capture, tended his wounds and fed him from their meager provisions. Scores of men literally carried him on a stretcher through occupied territory to the safety of the interior. Playing ping pong with his Chinese hosts while recovering from his injuries, Beneda began a life-long process of thanking the Chinese for saving his life.
In the years following the war, Beneda visited China three times. He went back to the village where he crash-landed and spent time with the people there. He met the daughter of the general whose troops had given him aid. Today that woman is Mme. Li Xiaolin; Vice President of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, the leading people-to-people diplomacy organization in China.
In March 2010, at the age of 86, Glen Beneda made his last pilgrimage to China. Accompanied by his wife, children and grandchildren, he sought to inspire a younger generation of Americans and Chinese to take up the torch that was light within him by the fires of friendship and sacrifice during a time of war.
In a moving memorial to Glen Beneda, Mme. Li has produced a documentary, Touching the Tigers, which premiered at the Chinese Embassy in Washington on April 12, 2011. This homage to Beneda, and to all the Americans who fought in China from Stilwell on down, still resonates so many years after the war’s end. The story transcends the issues of trade, commerce or Asian security policy. Further, it demonstrates that singular acts of courage and kindness by ordinary people have profound, transformative and lasting effects far beyond those ever expected by the people involved.
In a final gesture of enduring friendship and affection, a portion of Glen Beneda’s ashes rest in Chinese soil.