For The Love Of Flying
Claire Chennault and the Flying Tigers of World War II The AVG arrived at an English airfield in Rangoon, Burma, and began what Chennault called "kindergarten," learning to fly fast, single-engine fighters. By Pamela Feltus
U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission, U.S. Army Air Corps Maj. Gen. Claire L. Chennault led the famed 'Flying Tigers' and the U.S. Fourteenth Air Force against the Japanese in China and Burma during World War II.
On February 28, 1942, after two days of intensive fighting during which the Pandas claimed 43 victories, Rangoon fell to the Japanese. There were only six airplanes left to evacuate to Kunming; the rest were grounded for lack of spare parts. Then, on March 20, Japan attacked an RAF base in Burma. The attack wiped out the RAF in Burma and the Hell’s Angels was reduced to four flyable planes. As revenge, Chennault sent ten planes with his best pilots to attack the Japanese air base in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The mission destroyed more than 30 planes on the ground with a loss of only two P-40s.
Combat wasn’t as easy as the recruiters had promised. The Japanese greatly outnumbered the Flying Tigers. They flew sorties nearly every day, with no replacement pilots and few spare parts for the planes. Many contracted tropical diseases. By March, the men were exhausted. And they began noticing more U.S. army officers in Kunming. The fiercely independent pilots began to worry that the AVG would soon be inducted into the U.S. Army Air Force. None wanted to return to the military with its rules and disciplined lifestyle. Pilots and mechanics began to resign.
At the same time, the Flying Tigers were becoming heroes back home. Americans needed to feel they were doing something to avenge Pearl Harbor. Along with Jimmy Doolittle’s bombing raid on Tokyo, the Flying Tigers became the symbol of U.S. military might in Asia. It was not surprising that the USAAF wanted to absorb the unit when the China-Burma-India Theater was organized under the command of Lieutenant General Joseph Stilwell.
Stilwell was already using the AVG for strafing and low-level reconnaissance missions. The missions were useless, but the soldiers on the ground loved to see friendly planes attacking the enemy. But among the pilots who risked their lives, morale plummeted. Finally on April 18, Chennault received orders for a bombing mission to Chiang Mai. The AVG pilots revolted, saying they had joined to fight the Japanese, not to cheer up Allied soldiers. A deal was struck and the mission was aborted, but on May 8, it became irrelevant. The Japanese captured the Burma Road. Supplies for China now had to be flown in from India on a route called "the Hump."
With no mission, the AVG began to disband. The Army Air Forces wanted to induct the group into the 14th Air Force. Chennault received a commission in April 1942, and the remaining AVG members were asked to join. Many had already resigned, others wanted to go home, and the navy veterans in the group wanted to serve with the navy, not the army. When the AVG was dissolved into the 23rd Fighter Group on July 4, 1942, only five members remained. The 23rd inherited the name, which it still carries today. It is estimated that 85 percent of the AVG veterans returned to duty with the U.S.armed forces. The American Volunteer Group ended its career with an estimated 300 victories.
Chennault stayed in China after the war, running an airline that was sold to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency after he died in 1958. It became Air America, a covert air force used in the early days of the Vietnam War.
In 1991, the Department of Veterans Affairs credited AVG service as time served with the U.S. armed services. The pilots were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the technicians and staff were given the Bronze Star. After almost half a century, the first Americans to fight the Japanese were finally being recognized. They were mercenaries, gamblers, idealists, bar brawlers, and adventurers; but most importantly, the men of the AVG were patriots.
Americans have not always waited for their country to enter a war formally to fight for causes they supported, World War I and the Spanish Civil War, Americans formed units to help their allies. The tradition continued during the early days of World War II before the United States officially became a combatant. Some Americans joined the Royal Air Force, forming the Eagle Squadrons and fighting alongside English pilots in the Battle of Britain and other early conflicts. But it was another group of Americans, the American Volunteer Group (AVG) in China, that gained the most fame and notoriety in the early months of the war.
In 1937, Japan invaded China. The Chinese government looked to the United States for assistance, hiring U.S. Army Air Corps veteran Claire Chennault to train its pilots. Chennault was a leading developer of combat tactics for pursuit aircraft whose ideas had fallen out of favor. When he was forced to retire in 1937 from the Air Tactical School because of bronchitis, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, the head of the Chinese Air Force, offered him the job. He accepted and left for China, where his health rapidly improved.
Chennault tried to modify the Chinese tactics. But the pilots were undisciplined, poorly trained, and considered practicing missions disgraceful. They also refused to take orders from a foreigner. Crashes were common and any pilot who survived training was licensed, regardless of skill. Chennault found himself unable to make a difference. By 1940, the Chinese air force had almost ceased to exist. Many pilots were dead and the already obsolete aircraft had been destroyed. When the Japanese pushed the Chinese government to the western city of Kumming, with only the Burma Road, through the mountains of northern Burma, remaining as a supply route, Madame Chiang sent Chennault home to solicit airplanes and pilots to try to save the country.
Chennault’s mission was successful for although the country was still neutral, President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to help China, believing it had the potential to become a great democracy. Through the Lend-Lease program, China received Curtiss P-40 Tomahawks, powerful low-altitude fighters. And the government looked the other way as recruiters went onto military bases, looking for pilots and ground personnel.
Many of the recruits of the AVG resembled the undisciplined band of adventurers, barnstormers, and mercenaries that Chennault had feared the project would attract. They lied about their flying experience, claiming pursuit experience when they had flown only bombers and sometimes much less powerful airplanes. The salary lured some--$500 a month plus $400 per confirmed kill bonus--nearly double the average military pilot salary. Some joined to gain combat flying experience, others for the adventure. During the summer of 1941, 300 men posing as tourists and carrying passports that identified them as teachers boarded boats for Asia.
The AVG arrived at an English airfield in Rangoon, Burma, and began what Chennault called "kindergarten," learning to fly fast, single-engine fighters. Classes in Asian geography, the history of Japanese-Chinese relations, and pursuit flying tactics adapted to the P-40 supplemented flight training.
By November 1941, the pilots were trained and most of the P-40s had arrived in Asia. The volunteers adopted shark’s teeth, which they had seen in a magazine photograph of English P-40s in North Africa, as their squadron symbol, and they painted it on all the AVG planes. The men didn’t know that their stateside administrative office had already chosen the nickname "Flying Tigers" for the group and had contracted Walt Disney Studios to design a logo. Although the flyers initially scoffed at the name and logo, they eventually wore it with pride, along with the shark’s teeth.
At the end of their training, the Flying Tigers were divided into three squadrons: the Adam and Eves, the Panda, and the Hell’s Angels, and assigned to opposite ends of the Burma Road. One rotating squadron was stationed with the RAF in Rangoon and two were sent to Kunming. On December 20,1941, the Kunming units entered their first battle, where they shot down six Japanese planes. On Christmas Day, the Rangoon squadron had its first victories. The victories began adding up, but the small unit was unable to slow the massive Japanese advance.