Willows Korean Aviation School Fueled Independence Movement

UC Riverside scholar’s new book details role of post-WWI pilot-training program and Korean Americans in fight to free Korea

Korean combat pilots

Pilots training for combat in the Korean independence movement pose for a photo at the Willows Korean Aviation School/Corps.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – The Willows Korean Aviation School/Corps survived barely a year. But the California school that trained fighter pilots in the Korean independence movement a century ago left a significant legacy: The birth of the modern Korea Air Force.

A new book by Edward T. Chang, professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside, and Woo Sung Han, advisor to the Republic of Korea Air Force Chief of Staff, examines the little-known history of the school that trained more than 30 combat pilots, its place in the fight to free Korea from Japanese rule (Japan occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945), and its significance in Korean American history.

“Korean American Pioneer Aviators: The Willows Airmen” (Lexington Books) details the development and operation of the aviation school in rural Glenn County, located 85 miles northwest of Sacramento, Calif., its key players, and its establishment by the Korean American community with the blessing of the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai.

The 164-page book also correctly identifies the first Korean pilot as World War I combat veteran George Lee.

“Until now, people believed the first Korean aviator was Ahn Chang Nam ,” explained Chang, who is the founding director of the Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American Studies at UCR. “He obtained a pilot’s license in Japan in 1921. We found that George Lee enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1918 and flew 156 missions during World War I. The Korea Air Force is rewriting its history because of these findings and wants to create a historical monument in Korea.”

Edward T. Chang

Edward T. Chang


Scouring century-old newspaper articles and historical documents, and conducting numerous interviews in Korea and the United States, Chang and Han discovered that the Korean American community did far more than raise money to support the Korea independence movement. It also trained pilots for combat.

“This fact is very little known among Korean Americans and Koreans everywhere,” Chang said. “It sheds new light on an important chapter of Korean American history and highlights the sacrifice and dedication of early Korean Americans. The Willows aviation school was not simply a civilian-run aviation school. It was established by the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai and became the foundation of the Korea Air Force. Though some researchers have known of the school’s existence, its role has been marginalized in Korean American history.”

The Willows Korean Aviation School/Corps was established sometime between March 1 and March 19, 1920, and officially closed in the summer of 1921. Korean Provisional Government Defense Minister/General Roh Paik-lin helped establish the school after he learned of the Korean American community’s desire to open a combat-pilot training facility.

Kim Chong-lim, the first Korean American millionaire (known as the “Rice King”), provided major financial support for the school until a disastrous flood destroyed his rice fields and erased his fortune in early October 1920. “His contributions were previously known, but underappreciated,” Chang said.

Two of the school’s pilots – Park Hee-sung and Lee Yong-keun – were appointed by the Korean Provisional Government as its first aviation officers. Both were cadets at the Willows school, directly linking Korean aviation history with American aviation history.

At the time the Willows Korean Aviation School/Corps operated, the aviation industry was in its infancy.

“Just jumping on an aircraft was a major risk,” Chang noted, adding that he and Han decided to call the cadets Willows Airmen, with a nod to the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. “It was unsafe to fly in many aircraft. That risk shows the willingness and dedication of these cadets to sacrifice themselves for the independence of their homeland.”

book cover

Edward T. Chang co-authored “Korean American Pioneer Aviators,” which details the little-known history of a combat-pilot training school in Willows, Calif.

“Korean American Pioneer Aviators” is a revised version of a book published previously in Korea. It places the Willows school in the context of racism and segregation that targeted Asian immigrants in the U.S. early in the 20th century, and the uncertain status of Korean immigrants in relation to Japan’s occupation of their homeland.

The latter was decided by U.S. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan in 1913 after a trainload of farmworkers left Riverside, Calif., to pick apricots in Hemet 35 miles to the east.

“The Koreans were mistaken for Japanese, and people in Hemet threw them out of town,” Chang explained. “Japan claimed the Korean workers were Japanese subjects, and it caused an international incident. The Korean National Association, founded by Ahn Chang Ho, sent a letter to Bryan saying they were Korean, not Japanese. Bryan announced that Koreans living in the U.S. were not Japanese subjects and would be represented by the Korean National Association. Without that decision, the Korean American independence movement would not have been possible.”

Many participants in the Willows school were members of the Korean National Association, which was founded by Ahn Chang Ho and continues to connect people of Korean descent around the world. The organization held a national convention in Riverside in 1911. A statue honoring Ahn as a patriot in the independence movement stands in downtown Riverside, which housed the largest Korean immigrant community in the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century.

Media Contact

Tel: (951) 827-7847
E-mail: bettye.miller@ucr.edu
Twitter: bettyemiller

Additional Contacts

Edward T. Chang
E-mail: edward.chang@ucr.edu

Carol Park
Tel: (951) 827-5661
E-mail: carol.park@ucr.edu

Archived under: Politics/Society, , , , , , , , , ,

Top of Page