FARGO – A former Flying Tigers pilot who flew a P-40 fighter plane over Japan before the United States entered World War II was posthumously awarded for his service Saturday at the Fargo Air Museum.
Lt. Percy Robert Bartelt was one of several American pilots who joined the First American Volunteer Group (AVG) under former President Franklin Roosevelt’s authority and before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The pilots were directed to defend China, which was being invaded by Japan. The P-40s, known as Fighting Tigers because of the face painted on the nose of the plane, flew with Chinese colors but were under American control. During his time with the AVG, Bartelt shot down five enemy aircraft.
He finished his military career in the Navy in 1951.
When he returned home to Minnesota, he was modest about his service. While some people in the area would bring their children to Bartelt’s Detroit Lakes home to shake the hand of a Fighting Tigers pilot, his time with the AVG was largely unknown.
A local historian recently discovered Bartelt’s story and contacted the Taiwan government to see if Bartelt, who died in 1986, could be recognized for his service.
On Saturday, April 27, that hope came true. At a presentation at the Fargo Air Museum, Bartelt’s family received the Order of the Resplendent Banner, one of Taiwan's highest military awards, and a certificate of recognition from the Taiwan government. The award was presented by Taiwan Air Force Lt. Col. Tung Kao, an attache who is based in Washington, D.C., to three of Bartelt’s four children, former Marine Master Sgt. Ed Bartelt, Sue Schechter and Rick Bartelt.
Gov. Doug Burgum attended the event and thanked Bartelt’s family for his service.
“This was a very special group of people that were volunteering to help fight aggression,” said Burgum, who added that the event had personal significance to him because his father served as a naval officer in World War II. “They were fighting Japan as they were trying to spread the idea of Imperialism all across the Pacific at the same time Germany had been unstopped in Europe. The victories of which this group (the Flying Tigers) achieved were substantial; took out 296 aircraft with a loss of only 14 of their own.”
A member of U.S. Rep. Kelly Armstrong’s staff presented the family with a certificate of recognition as well.
Ozzie Groethe, a local historian who rediscovered Bartelt’s Fighting Tigers service and an honorary air museum board member, wrote a letter to the Taiwan government to ask if Bartelt could be recognized. Groethe heard about Bartelt from his granddaughter, who married one of Richard Bartelt’s sons.
“(Percy Bartelt) hasn’t gotten the fame and attention that other pilots and heroes have gotten,” Groethe said at the presentation.
“I knew about the Tigers since I was a little kid, cause I’m that old. I remember reading in the papers informing about this group. I was about 15-years-old,” Groethe later said, but he didn't begin doing his own research on the subject until about 20 years ago.
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Groethe researched Bartelt’s story and helped create the Flying Tigers exhibit that is now open at the Fargo Air Museum. A P-40 fighter plane was flown in from from Granite Falls, Minn., by Ron Fagan, from the Fagan Fighters WWII Museum.
Bartelt’s son, Ed, said his father would have been honored by Saturday’s presentation.
“But what really touched him was when people knocked on the door and wanted to shake his hand,” Ed said. “That meant more to him than anything.”
CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to note the P-40 airplane was not flown in from Minot, N.D., but from Granite Falls, Minn., by Ron Fagan, from the Fagan Fighters WWII Museum.