John Hua Yee, who as a young man in China joined the famed Flying Tigers and acted as an interpreter for American military aviator Claire Lee Chennault, died March 26 in Wheat Ridge at age 97.
During World War II, Yee came to the United States to act as a translator in the training of Chinese air force cadets on American soil. He became ill and wound up in Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Aurora. Yee remained in the U.S. and became a naturalized citizen in 1952.
Born on Nov. 29, 1921, in a remote area of China, Yee was raised by an English missionary couple in Kunming. In the late 1930s, he studied at St. Stephen’s College in Hong Kong. Returning to Kunming, Yee hooked up with the American Volunteer Group, which became known as the Flying Tigers.
Yee had survived Japanese bombing raids in Kunming. In a 2012 interview with The Denver Post, Yee recalled air raid sirens, darkened streets and people running for cover in fear. He saw bodies lying in the streets and fields.
In concert with the Flying Tigers, Yee worked mostly in flight control, listening to messages radioed from farmers who spotted Japanese planes. Yee plotted the reported sightings on a grid to determine when, and from which direction, the Japanese planes would arrive over Kunming.
On Dec. 20, 1941 — just two weeks after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor — 10 Japanese bombers left Hanoi, in what was then French Indochina, headed for Kunming, unaware of what awaited them. From the ground, Yee saw multiple Japanese fighter planes fall from the sky, casualties of the Flying Tigers.
“For the first time in the history of the war, the Japanese had been shot down,” Yee told The Denver Post. “That put some joy into the Chinese — by God, we got one of ’em.”
Before the Flying Tigers disbanded July 4, 1942, members, including Yee, received a pin with the famed group logo — a V for victory, with a winged tiger in the middle — designed by Walt Disney.
After recovering, at Fitzsimons, from illness and gaining citizenship, Yee earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Denver and a master’s degree from the University of Colorado. In 1956 Yee began a teaching career, which lasted more than 20 years, with Aurora Public Schools. He taught social studies, world and Asian history, and Chinese. He also taught at DU and Metropolitan State College.
Former Congressman Mike Coffman, in the early 1970s, was student of Yee’s at Aurora Central High School. Coffman was in the 11th grade at the time.
“He was amazing. He always maintained the focus of his students,” Coffman recalled. “He really stimulated our intellectual interests. He was an incredible teacher.”
Prior to his class with Yee, “I was not a good student,” Coffman said.
Yet Yee’s class, and his particular way with students, turned Coffman around, he said.
“He stimulated in me a life-long commitment to learning that wasn’t there before,” Coffman said.
Coffman said he considers Yee among the most influential people in his life. Coffman dropped out of high school to join the Army and earned a degree while in the service.
The student and teacher had not seen each other for years when their paths again crossed about 15 years ago. “I just happened to run into him,” Coffman recalled. “He was active in the Chinese community” in Aurora; “He was revered in that community.”
The two maintained a renewed relationship, and Coffman would visit Yee at his Aurora home. “His background is so incredible,” Coffman said. “He led an extraordinary life.”
In the 1980s, Yee helped orchestrate Kunming and Denver being named sister cities. In his retirement years, along with his wife, Nai-Li, Yee traveled to Kunming with groups of teachers and even then-Mayor Wellington Webb.
Over his lifetime, Yee received numerous service and teaching awards including the Americans by Choice Award for Distinguished Service, 1961; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award, 1998; Minoru Yasui Community Volunteer Award, 2005; Friendship Award, Denver Sister Cities International, 2010; Asian American Heroes of Colorado Award, 2011; Lifetime Achievement Award, Colorado Asian Culture and Education Network, 2011.
Yee, in 2012, was honored with a tribute brick in the “Runway of Honor” at Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum from the Denver-Kunming Sister City Committee. In 2015 he received a medal from the People’s Republic of China, Central office of Military Affairs, in recognition of his World War II service. In 2016, Yee was recognized in a statement by Coffman on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming part of our Congressional Record.
In the 2011 Denver Post story, Yee was humble in recalling his life accomplishments. “I think what I’ve done speaks for itself,” he said.
Yee was preceded in death by a wife, daughter and great-granddaughter. He is survived by his wife, a son, three grandsons, a granddaughter, four great-grandsons and two great-granddaughters.
A memorial service will be held from 2 to 3 p.m. Sunday, April 14, at Olinger Crown Hill Mortuary, 7777 W. 29th Ave, Wheat Ridge.