Burlington County WWII Flying Tiger veteran will tell of his exploits

Breingan holds an altimeter similar to the one in the P-51 Mustang fighter plane he flew with the Flying Tigers in the Asia Theater.
Breingan holds an altimeter similar to the one in the P-51 Mustang fighter plane he flew with the Flying Tigers in the Asia Theater. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff)
Posted: December 07, 2012

A few days earlier, they were the hated enemy.

Charles Breingan might have strafed the Japanese soldiers with the .50-caliber machine guns embedded in the wings of his P-51 Mustang fighter plane. He might have dropped 500-pound bombs on them.

But at the end of World War II, after flying 15 combat missions with the famed Flying Tigers in China and news of the atomic bomb's use, Breingan was ordered to simply observe the Japanese withdrawal near Guangzhou, then known as Canton.

Breingan didn't realize how close those observations would be: face to face.

He ran out of fuel and was forced to land at a base held by the Japanese, who initially couldn't decide whether to kill him or gas up his plane. Ultimately, they helped the American on his way.

"There hadn't been a formal surrender but they realized the war was over," Breingan, 94, of Burlington Township, said. "It was very unusual."

Breingan will recall his harrowing service with the Flying Tigers during a talk from noon to 2 p.m. on Friday, the 71st anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The event - which will include a video documentary on Breingan partly filmed in China and a display of his war memorabilia - will be held at the Burlington County Historical Society, 457 High St., Burlington.

"For me, the war was a fantastic adventure from beginning to end," Breingan said. "I was young and taking it one day at a time."

The veterans of World War II were known for "their positive attitude and selfless sacrifice," said Lisa Fox-Pfeiffer, executive director of the society. "So few of them are left to tell their story in person. That's why Charlie Breingan is such an amazing resource."

Breingan was working at his uncle's cast iron pipe foundry in Florence when he was drafted. He briefly served in the Army Signal Corps.

"I was told I was in for the duration," he said, "so I applied for cadet flying training and was accepted."

After attending schools in Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, he served as a flight instructor until he "had enough and asked to be sent into combat."

In October 1944, he got his wish.

He was assigned to the Flying Tigers of the 14th Air Force in central China. His air base at Loahwangping was on a 5,500-foot mountain, part of which had been leveled by 50,000 Chinese workers to create a landing strip.

"I was flying support for the Chinese army against the Japanese, who had been advancing down the Yellow River in sampans," Breingan said. "It was our job to stop them."

On one mission, he was piloting one of four P-51 fighters sent to dive-bomb a bridge used by the Japanese. Two Royal Canadian Air Force pilots assigned to his unit attacked but couldn't pull up in time because of the plane's weak tail section. The fighters crashed and the pilots were lost.

"We were ordered to return to the base," said Breingan, whose plane was nicknamed "Big Dog." "It was frustrating and tragic to lose two guys like that."

In early 1945, he and a second fighter pilot delivered their bombs on another enemy target and headed back. But heavy crosswinds drove them off course, and a faulty radio system prevented them from getting a good fix on their field to adjust the flight plan. They ended up running out of gas and bailing out at night.

The other pilot "broke his leg when he hit the rear rudder," Breingan said. "The bone was sticking through the skin when I found him, so I gave him some morphine.

"The two of us were later taken by Chinese guerrillas to the village of Fengkong, where a truck from our base picked us up," he said.

In summer 1945, Breingan was flying with a squadron of fighters ordered to attack a former Chinese base at Liuzhou in South China that had been taken over by the Japanese.

The planes were supposed to knock out antiaircraft guns and strike aircraft hangars ahead of a heavier attack by B-25 bombers.

"We were trying to dislodge the Japanese and recover the base," Breingan said. "I dropped two bombs, and saw a black puff of 75mm antiaircraft fire near my plane and got out of there."

Above them, the bombers arrived ahead of schedule and began dropping their payloads.

One of the bombs struck the plane piloted by his fighter squadron commander.

"I heard him say, 'I'm hit! I'm hit!' before he crashed," Breingan said. "His body was recovered about a month later."

By February 1946, Breingan had returned home.

He and his wife, Mildred, had a son in 1953. He returned to work at the foundry, selling its products along the East Coast until 1971, when he began working as a life insurance agent. He retired in 1985.

But on the day before the anniversary of the U.S. entry into World War II, he looks back at his service with a feeling of satisfaction that eclipses what he did in civilian life.

"I'm very proud of what we accomplished," he said. "It was a great adventure."


Admission is $5 and includes a light lunch and question-and-answer session and video documentary on Breingan's service.

Contact Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.

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