The Flying Tigers: How a Group of Americans Fought for China in World War II
They were called the American Volunteer Group and later known as the Flying Tigers. Although the group had only been in combat for less than seven months, by the time they became famous for their ability to inflict great damage on Japan’s better-equipped and larger aircraft fleet.
Their victories came when Japan seemed unstoppable. “The AVG was a ray of hope when everything was dark and black, and they have received a lot of recognition for that,” said Larry Jobe, president of the Flying Tiger Historical Organization.
On the 80th anniversary of their first fight, here is an abridged story of how Americans fought for China.
The Sino-Japanese War
In the west, 1939 is considered to be the beginning of the Second World War. But in Asia, China and Japan have been at war since 1937.
China was already waging its own civil war between the Chiang Kai-shek nationalists and communist forces. The two sides reached a truce to fight the Japanese. However, China had little air force to repel Japanese bombing attacks.
Step inside Claire Lee Chennault, an aviator, instructor, and tactician in the US Army once described by Time Magazine as “lean, tenacious, taciturn”. Health problems and disputes with his superiors forced him to retire from his position with the Army Air Corps in 1937 at the age of 43.
But he quickly got a lucrative job offer with the Chinese Air Force, which operated under Chiang’s nationalist government. Chennault was asked to check the readiness of his fleet.
“Chiang Kai-shek thought he had 500 planes,” says Nell Chennault Calloway, Chennault’s granddaughter and CEO of the Chennault Aviation & Military Museum in Monroe, La Fliege. ‘ That was how far back they were in aviation. “
When war with Japan officially broke out that summer, China hired Chennault as an advisor to its Air Force. He became their de facto commander.
In 1940, China desperately needed more planes after losing Soviet support. At the time, the US was not officially part of World War II. However, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was concerned about the prospect of Japan defeating China and targeting the US
Chennault traveled back to the US and pulled all the strings he could to get airplanes. With the help of TV Soong, a Chinese official who was also Chiang’s brother-in-law, a deal was worked out that would allow China to purchase 100 U.S.-made Curtiss P-40 fighter jets.
As to who would fly and wait, many of the pilots in the existing Chinese Air Force were poorly trained. So Chennault sent recruiters to US military bases.
“He managed to get Roosevelt to allow some of our military pilots – that was the original AVG – to resign from their missions in the US military and go to China as mercenaries, basically because it was against international rules for American ones The military failed to be involved in the conflict there, “Jobe told NPR.
That was in mid-1941 – before Pearl Harbor and before the US declared war on Japan.
“By using Chinese money to buy the planes and supplies and pay the salaries of the proposed crews, the US government could maintain a facade of neutrality while helping China against the Japanese,” the story of the Flying Tigers said Ministry of Defense.
To facilitate recruitment, pilots and mechanics were offered salaries that were often more than double what they were before.
In the summer and autumn of 1941, according to the history of the DOD, 99 pilots – 59 from the Navy, seven Marines and 33 from the Army – traveled to Asia along with about 200 crew members who supported them. About a dozen of them were Chinese-Americans, says Yue-him Tam, a history professor at Macalester College who studies China and Japan.
Those who traveled had various motivations – a change of scenery or the chance to prove their skills in combat. Calloway believes many have stayed to help with the “desperate situation” in China. Some came for the money.
Pilot Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, who later received the Medal of Honor and Navy Cross, told Aviation History Magazine in the 1980s, “I resigned and took the job with the AVG in September 1941 because of the rank it was slowly coming and I needed the money. … And with an ex-wife, three children, debts and my lifestyle, I really needed the work. “
Burma was central to China’s supply
The AVG was based in Kunming in southwest China, far from areas under Japanese occupation.
There was one problem with being there though – no runways to land planes on.
So thousands of Chinese built them by hand. “The Chinese people – the farmers, especially the working class – have volunteered to help build these runways and airports and also to provide services to American pilots,” Tam told NPR. “They had no tools, no modern tools. They actually used their bare hands to build these runways.”
Meanwhile, the Americans were training at a British airfield in Burma, now Myanmar.
Her early training was not particularly successful. The pilots had far less experience than Chennault wanted. In various accidents, three pilots were killed, aircraft and equipment were damaged.
It wasn’t long before they had to use their training. The Flying Tigers’ first battle took place on December 20, 1941 – 13 days after Pearl Harbor and 12 days after the US declared war on Japan. Japanese bombers attacked the AVG base in Kunming.
The AVG “shot down nine out of ten Japanese bombers, so they were the first Americans to actually win a victory in World War II,” says Calloway. Their only loss was an AVG plane that crashed into the pilot after running out of gas; he was unharmed, according to the history of the DOD.
In the days that followed, the focus of their fighting quickly shifted to near Rangoon, Burma. Burma was a British colony at the time and the AVG was intended to assist the British Air Force in defending Rangoon against Japanese attacks.
Burma was vital to China’s war effort. Japan had sealed off China’s coastline from supply lines, leaving China reliant on supplies coming from the port of Rangoon via the mountainous Burma Strait to Kunming.
AVG’s planes, the Curtiss P-40s, weren’t as good as those of the Japanese. But by performing certain maneuvers as described by Chennault – namely, high-speed diving and climbing – the AVG pilots were able to take advantage of some of the weaknesses of the Japanese aircraft.
“Although the AVG was bloody over China, it was the Rangoon air battles that made their mark on their reputation as the Flying Tigers,” Chennault later wrote in his memoir Way of a Fighter, as quoted by the AVG Flying Tigers official website.
The fighting lasted until January and February 1942 in Burma and Japan-controlled Thailand.
“They are credited with shooting down 299 Japanese planes, about that many unconfirmed, and losing only 12 of their own in actual combat, a record that has never been broken to date,” says Calloway.
However, the Japanese armed forces outnumbered the AVG and the British and overwhelmed them. Rangoon fell in March 1942. But their efforts slowed the Japanese advance, kept supply lines open, and helped China keep fighting.
The AVG was integrated into the US military
At this point the US was officially at war with Japan and there was no need for an excuse. US military leaders called for the AVG to be incorporated into the US Army Air Force. Chennault rejoined the army in April 1942.
The AVG continued to fly missions through the spring and summer, including halting a Japanese advance over a crucial river canyon in May, after which Japan “never again threatened China from the west,” according to DOD history.
On July 4, 1942, the AVG was officially incorporated into the new 23d Fighter Group. A handful of pilots and relief crews stayed, but most of the men in the original AVG returned to their previous military branch. Others became civilian transport pilots in China or returned to the United States to work as civilians.
Chennault was promoted to brigadier general and headed the China Air Task Force, which included the 23d and other units, before assuming command of the 14th Air Force in China in March 1943. He stayed in China for the remainder of the war before retiring from the military (again) in 1945.
An 80 year legacy
The AVG quickly gained notoriety in the US and China for its early victories – it was a morale boost when the war raged in Japan’s favor.
It’s unclear who came up with the nickname “Flying Tigers”, although it was already being used a week after their first fight when Time magazine said the “Flying Tigers crashed, let the Japanese have it”. Other attention came when TV Soong, who had previously worked with Chennault in Washington to collect the planes, helped The Walt Disney Company design the logo of the group of a Bengal tiger jumping through a V for victory sign. And John Wayne played a Chennault-based character in the 1942 film Flying Tigers.
Today there are several plaques, memorials, and museum exhibits dedicated to the Flying Tigers in China, the United States, Taiwan, and Thailand. The Flying Tiger Heritage Park opened in 2015 in the southern Chinese city of Guilin and was built in collaboration with Jobe’s Flying Tiger Historical Organization.
The last surviving member of the original AVG, Frank Losonsky, died in February 2020.
Flying Tigers historians are quick to point out the importance of the common Chinese to the mission. Those who paved the runways did so as volunteers, says Tam, “to help American fighters because they fought for China, for freedom.”
Chinese villagers also suffered tremendously when pilots were shot down. “The Japanese went to these villages and tortured and mutilated and killed the villagers to find out where the Flying Tigers were. And in most cases the villagers didn’t say anything to them, ”says Jobe. “You would face the consequences.”
“I think the memory and respect for the Flying Tigers were really real in China,” says Tam.
“The people of the United States have volunteered to help China. They are risking their lives to save the Chinese,” he added, leading many Chinese to regard these Americans as “always friends of China.” [Copyright 2021 NPR]