- Korean American Pioneer Aviators: The Willows Airmen by Edward T. Chang and Woo Sung Han
This slender volume recounts a little-known aspect of the overseas Korean independence campaign against Japan that occurred against the backdrop of the high point of that campaign—the March First Movement of 1919. It was in that year that a Korean Provisional Government in exile was established in Shanghai, and Koreans abroad, including those in the United States, believed that liberation might be at hand after nearly a decade of colonial rule.
By this time, there were some five thousand Koreans in Hawaii and another thousand on the mainland, mostly in California. In early 1920, as part of the liberation movement and with $50,000 in financial support from wealthy Korean rice farmer Kim Chong-lim in California, a Korean Aviation School was established in Willows, about 150 miles north of San Francisco. Ostensibly, the aviators, numbering about two dozen, were training with a view toward using their flying skills against Japan. However, the effort proved to be short-lived, closing after a year when its wealthy benefactor suffered financial reverses.
The existence of this school has not been unknown to scholars of Korean American history, meriting a mention most recently in Marn J. Cha’s Koreans in Central California (1903–1957): A Study of Settlement and Transnational Politics (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2010). Now, thanks to this volume, we have a more complete picture of [End Page 158] the Willows effort. The authors, Edward T. Chang of the department of ethnic studies at the University of California at Riverside and Woo Sung Han of the Korean Air Force, have carried out prodigious research in the archives at the University of Southern California as well as in local newspapers to tease out the details of the school, down to the type of aircraft used and the personal histories of several of the aviators. Although curiously not acknowledged, a Korean-language version of this book appeared initially two years earlier with Woo Sung Han [Han U-sŏng] as the sole author, titled 1920, Taehan Min’guk hanŭl ŭl Yŏlda [1920, The opening of the Korean skies] (P’aju, Kyŏnggi-do: 21-segi puksŭ [21st-century books], 2013).
As welcome as this volume is, there are several lacunae in the telling of the story. Readers familiar with the history of the Korean nationalist movement abroad will be aware that this was not the first example of a militant response to Japanese imperialism. For instance, a decade earlier in Nebraska and later in Hawaii, Park Yong-man had been drilling cadets. Had the authors embedded the Willows experiment into that context, the analysis would have been much richer. The authors might also have noted that the nationalist movement was not of one mind on how best to oppose Japan. Syngman Rhee, for example, ridiculing such military efforts as ineffectual, eventually split from Park’s Kungminhoe to form the Dongjihoe, yet the authors barely acknowledge the existence of factionalism in the nationalist movement. Also not mentioned was opposition from some racist Americans living near the airfield. Because Japan monitored overseas Koreans, the fact that the authors did not consult sources such as Beikoku oyobi Hawai chihō ni okeru futei Senjin jokyō [The situation of insubordinate Koreans in the United States and the Territory of Hawaii] leaves the reader wondering if Japan felt in any way threatened by these aviators. These omissions tend to render the book more akin to a public relations piece on the nationalist movement than a critical study. There are also questionable statements, such as the one on page xxxi that the Willows effort ‘‘merged with official American interests regarding Japan,’’ when in fact the United States had accepted Japanese colonial control over Korea and had just recently been allied with Japan during the First World War. Finally, constant repetition, the inclusion of much nonrelevant material, and numerous misspellings suggest a need for more rigorous copyediting...