Claire Chennault and the American Volunteer Group
Flew Curtis P-40 Warhawks in China and Burma against the Japanese
Tigers were a group of
American fighter pilots that flew for
China in the early part of 1942. Led by a controversial American,
Colonel Claire Chennault, they were actually called the "American
Volunteer Group" (AVG), and achieved good success in their aerial
battles against the Japanese.
They were a relatively small group, and never had more
than 100 Curtis Warhawk P-40's (decorated with the famous red shark
But at the time they were flying (early 1942), they
were the only Americans doing ANYTHING against the Axis. With an
American public reeling from Pearl Harbor and anxious to strike back
"NOW!" the Flying Tigers were "the only game in town" at that point.
Thus they received a lot of favorable press coverage, from reporters
anxious to write about the only only Americans doing ANYTHING ANYWHERE
against the Japanese.
The Flying Tigers comprised three squadrons:
- 1st Squadron - "Adam and Eves"
- 2nd Squadron - "Panda Bears"
- 3rd Squadron - "Hell's Angels"
The top aces of the Flying Tigers were: David
Lee "Tex" Hill, Robert Neale, and Chuck
Older. James Howard flew with the AVG; he later earned the
Congressional Medal of Honor while flying P-51s for the 354th Fighter
Group (Ninth Air Force) in Europe. Pappy
Boyington was another Tiger who went on to greater fame; he had a
falling out with Chennault, who gave him a Dishonorable Discharge. The
mercurial Boyington never forgave him.
"Colonel" Claire Lee Chennault had been in China since the
mid-Thirties; he called himself "Colonel," though his highest rank had
been Major. An outspoken advocate of "pursuit" (as fighter planes were
called then), in an Army Air Force dominated by strategic bomber
theorists, he alienated many of his superiors. But in China, equipped
with P-40's, he developed the basic fighter tactics that American
pilots would use throughout the war. The Japanese planes used over
China were much more maneuverable than his Warhawks, whose advantages
were: speed in a dive, superior firepower, and better ability to absorb
battle damage. Chennault worked out and documented the appropriate
tactics that capitalized on the relative strengths of the American
fighters: intercept, make a diving pass, avoid dogfighting, and dive
away when in trouble. This remained the fundamental U.S. fighter
doctrine throughout the Pacific War.
My appreciation of the pilot's bravery and Chennault's tactical skills,
however, doesn't change my assessment of the unfortunate and perhaps
distracting role they played. The Chinese politics and Chinese-American
relations at the time were quite complicated. The titular leader of
China, Generalissimo Chiang Kai Chek, of the Kuomintang, was engaged in
an endless three-way war: his Kuomintang vs. Mao's Communists vs.
Japan. And his own power within the Kuomintang was dependent on
balancing various warlords, cliques, and factions. Given the
understandable problems posed by this situation, he always wanted more
and more American aid, which he and his generals then wanted to use
against internal enemies as well as Japan, or perhaps, not to use at
all, but to hoard as symbols of their power.
General Chennault, got the Generalissimo's ear, and persuaded him
that air power could sweep the Japanese from China, almost effortlessly
and painlessly, just a few score American B-17 bombers would do the
trick. Thus Chiang Kai Chek, General Chennault, Madame Chiang Kai Chek,
and the powerful China Lobby used their combined influence with the
American government to push Chennault's air power scheme.
Unfortunately, the addressing real issues in Nationalist China --
development of democratic or at least stable institutions, the rooting
out of corruption in the Kuomintang, the training and deployment of
useful Chinese infantry forces against Japan, improving the life of the
ordinary villagers, etc. -- had no priority with the Generalissimo.
Chennault's proposals seemed to offer such a promising way out.
The American government had its own problems, and couldn't scrape up
the numbers of bombers envisioned. But keeping China in the war against
Japan was understood to be in America's strategic interest (even before
Pearl Harbor). What could be offered to Chiang was about 100 Curtis
P-40 Warhawk fighter planes with volunteer military pilots to fly them.
They fought with distinction, largely in the defense of Burma, and were
absorbed into the United States Army Air Force's 23rd Fighter Group in
These plans came together in July, 1941, when Chennault began to
organize the American Volunteer Group (AVG). He acquired a chief of
staff, Captain Harvey Greenlaw (who followed his boss's lead and
promoted himself to Major), in Hong Kong in July, 1941. Along with
Harvey came his beautiful wife, Olga Greenlaw, who kept the
Group's War Diary and wrote about her experiences in The
Lady and the Tigers. (The following paragraphs are based on
her book. - ed.)
In August, 1941, the AVG started training in Toungoo, Burma, 175
miles north of Rangoon. Jack Newkirk, Sandy Sandell, John Armstrong,
Red Probst, Oley Olson, Bob Little, Pete Atkinson, and other pilots
were learning to fly Curtiss P-40's from a primitive airstrip. In these
early days, they didn't have too much to do: flight training, drinking,
fighting, and hunting. The lack of women (in the 1940's, read "white"
women) was also a problem; Olga's personal role in alleviating that
problem has been the subject of considerable gossip and speculation
over the years.
The Flying Tigers were still training, they hadn't flown their first
combat mission, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. As the Japanese
threatened one Allied city after another, the British asked for a
squadron of Flying Tigers to help defend Rangoon. Oley Olson's Third
Squadron, "Hell's Angels," headed south, while the bulk of the AVG flew
up to Kunming, to protect the terminus of the Burma Road. On December
20, the AVG engaged Japanese bombers for the first time, downing four
and disrupting their bombing raid on Kunming. Over Burma, the Third
Squadron also met with success, claiming six on the 23rd and ten on the
25th; before Jack Newkirk's Second Squadron relieved them.
In January, eight pilots of the First Sqn. flew to Burma to
reinforce Newkirk, among them Greg
Boyington, whom Olga described as "a frequent caller ... popping in
at odd times for coffee or whatever." He returned to the AVG in Kunming
in time to participate in a bomber escort mission on January 22.
Chinese pilots, flying Russian-made SB-2's, attacked Hanoi. Sandy
Sandell reported that the bombers' poor formation flying rendered both
the escort and the bombing ineffective. "If we'd met any Japs, we'd
have been dead pigeons."
By January 24, the Flying Tigers had claimed 73 Japanese planes,
while losing 5 of their own. Japanese records indicate they had lost
about one-third that many, mostly bombers. Olga's "dear, silly Sandy"
and Boyington were soon rotated to Burma, where Newkirk's handful of
weary Warhawks continued to punish the Japanese bombers. On February 7,
Sandell was testing a P-40 with a repaired tail; it stalled and spun
in, killing him on impact. The plane was destroyed so completely that
only the right wheel and tail wheel were salvageable.
Through mid-February of 1942, the Japanese advances continued;
Singapore fell and Rangoon became untenable. About this time,
Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai Chek hosted a dinner in honor of
the AVG. Olga's version of the speeches is replete with sentiments
like, "Boys .. you are angels, with or without wings," and "the
indomitable courage of the Chinese people," and "a bond of friendship
and friendship which serves us well in the crucible of war, and will
serve us equally well when vistory is ours." Oblivious to the speeches,
the war, and particularly, the Japanese in Burma, pressed on. The AVG
contingent (the Third Squadron replacing the First) pulled back to an
airdrome at Magwe in early March. On the 9th, Rangoon finally fell. The
Group held a funeral (for some officers killed in a CNAC plane crash),
a wedding (for Daffy Davis and Doreen), and a birthday party (for
Olga). One of the pilots, Tom Jones, gave her a .25 caliber Colt
When her work as squadron diarist, newspaper editor, and den
mother/confidante overwhelmed her, she did what any proper lady of that
era did. She checked herself into the hospital for a week's rest. While
there, she heard about the raid on Chiang Mai, when Jack Newkirk was
killed. The Chiang Mai raid, in which four Flying Tigers destroyed
fifteen Japanese planes on the ground (3.75 apiece), was largely the
basis of Boyington's claim to have destroyed six Japanese planes with
the AVG. Also in late March, the AVG finally quit Burma, its forces on
that front re-assembled at Loiwing, just over the Chinese border.
During the spring of 1942, Chennault struggled to keep the AVG the
independent air force that it had been, reporting directly to Chiang
Kai Chek. Pressure mounted to subsume the AVG into the Chinese Army
under "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell or into the regular US Army Air Force.
Casualties kept mounting - Tom Jones and Bob Little were killed. During
a short trip to Delhi, India, Tex Hill and others speculated about
their futures in the USAAF. At this point, it became clear that the AVG
was going to disband, the 23rd Fighter Group, under Col. Robert L.
Scott, would take over its responsibilities. Tex hoped for a major's
In the end, only five AVG pilots joined the 23rd Fighter Group,
while nineteen went to work for CNAC, the Chinese National Airlines.
Many factors contributed to this. Some AVG pilots were former Marines
and Navy fliers, who weren't necessarily interested in flying for the
Army. Others, notably Boyington, has lousy disciplinary records, and
the USAAF didn't offer them commissions. Like Tex Hill, many felt that
their combat experience entitled them to higher ranks in the unblooded
Army Air Force. Finally, the USAAF officer responsible for inducting
the AVG men used very little tact and told them to sign up, on the
Army's terms, or else go home and face the draft boards.
Olga and Harvey Greenlaw returned to the States, where Olga penned The
Lady and the Tigers. Not long afterwards, their tempestuous
marriage finally ended, Olga remarried and Harvey moved to Mexico.
Interestingly, Colonel Robert L. Scott, author of the best-selling
is my Co-Pilot, never was a Flying Tiger. He commanded its
successor organization, the 23rd F.G., but never served with the
American Volunteer Group.
Thus, while there can be no doubt about the courage, tenacity, and
tactical successes of the Flying Tigers, nor about the useful role they
played in boosting American morale at a critical point, strategically,
they typified so much that was wrong with the Nationalist Chinese
government and the American efforts to help the Chinese people.
I highly recommend Barbara Tuchman's Stillwell and
the American Experience in China. She describes the background of
these years in China, with obvious sympathy for "Vinegar Joe"
Stillwell, a great American and friend of the Chinese people, but a
bitter foe of Chiang Kai Chek and Chennault. Her thoughtful and
fascinating study provides good insight on many of these issues.
Recommended Web sites:
Flying Tigers - Dan Ford's great web resource, including a very
comprehensive Flying Tigers bibliography
Corey Jordan's excellent Planes and Pilots
of World War Two includes stories by Flying Tigers Dick Rossi, Erik
Schilling, and Robert T. Smith.
Tigers: Claire Chennault and the American Volunteer Group
(Smithsonian History of Aviation), by Daniel Ford, 1995 is available
Lady and the Tigers: Remembering the Flying Tigers of World War II,
by Olga Greenlaw, edited by Daniel Ford in this 2002 edition
The Origin Of The Flying Tigrs
Flying Tigers was the popular name of the 1st American Volunteer
Group (AVG) of the
Chinese Air Force in 1941-1942. Arguably, the group was a
private military contractor, and for that reason the volunteers have
sometimes been called mercenaries.
The members of the Flying Tigers had lucrative contracts with the Chinese
government with salaries ranging from $600 for a pilot to $750 for a squadron
commander. These salaries were three times what they had been making in the U.S.
forces. They were mostly former United States
Navy (USN), and
Marine Corps (USMC) pilots and ground crew, recruited under
Presidential sanction and commanded by Claire
Lee Chennault The group consisted of three
squadrons with about 20 aircraft each. It trained in Burma before the
American entry into World
War II with the mission of defending China against
shark-faced fighters remain among the most recognizable of any individual
combat aircraft of World War II, and they demonstrated innovative tactical
victories when the news in the U.S. was filled with little more than stories of
defeat at the hands of the Japanese forces.
The group first saw combat on 20 December 1941, 12 days after
Pearl Harbor (local time). It achieved notable success during the lowest
period of the war for U.S. and Allied Forces,
giving hope to Americans that they would eventually succeed against the
Japanese. While cross-referencing records after the war revealed their actual
kill numbers were substantially less, the Tigers were paid combat bonuses for
destroying nearly 300 enemy aircraft,
while losing only 14 pilots on combat missions.
In July 1942, the AVG was replaced by the U.S. Army
23rd Fighter Group, which was later absorbed into the
U.S. 14th Air Force with General Chennault as commander. The 23rd FG went on
to achieve similar combat success, while retaining the nose art
and fighting name of the volunteer unit.
Click on Picture to enlarge
Chennault in his Kunming office, May 1942. He wears a US Army brigadier
general's star on his left shoulder but Chinese insignia otherwise.
The AVG was largely the creation of
Claire L. Chennault, a retired
U.S. Army Air Corps officer who had worked in
China since August 1937, first as
military aviation advisor to
Chiang Kai-shek in the early months of the
Sino-Japanese War, then as director of a
Chinese Air Force flight school centered in Kunming.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union supplied fighter and bomber squadrons to China, but
these units were mostly withdrawn by the summer of 1940. Chiang then asked for
American combat aircraft and pilots, sending Chennault to Washington as advisor
to China's ambassador and Chiang's brother-in-law, T. V.
Since the U.S. was not at war, the "Special Air Unit" could not be
organized overtly, but the request was approved by President
Franklin D. Roosevelt himself. The resulting clandestine operation was
organized in large part by
Lauchlin Currie, a young economist in the White House, and by Roosevelt
Thomas G. Corcoran. (Currie's assistant was
John King Fairbank, who later became America's preeminent Asian scholar.)
Financing was handled by China Defense Supplies – primarily Tommy Corcoran's
creation – with money loaned by the U.S. government. Purchases were then made by
the Chinese under the "Cash and Carry" provision of the
Neutrality Act of 1939.
Chennault spent the winter of 1940–1941 in Washington, supervising the
purchase of 100 Curtiss
P-40 fighters (diverted from a
Royal Air Force order) and the recruiting of 100 pilots and some 200 ground
crew and administrative personnel that would constitute the 1st AVG. He also
laid the groundwork for
a follow-on bomber group and a second fighter group, though these would be
aborted after the
Pearl Harbor attack.
The first American Volunteer Group
Of the pilots, 60 came from the
Marine Corps and 40 from the
Army Air Corps. (One army pilot was refused a passport because he had
earlier flown as a mercenary in Spain, so only 99 would actually sail for Asia.
Ten more army flight instructors were hired as check pilots for Chinese cadets,
and several of these would ultimately join the AVG’s combat squadrons.) The
volunteers were discharged from the armed services, to be employed for "training
and instruction" by a
private military contractor, the
Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company, which paid them $600 a month for
pilot officer, $675 a month for flight leader, $750 for squadron leader (no
pilot was recruited at this level), and about $250 for a skilled ground crewman,
far more than they had been earning.
($675 translates $9,973 in 2010 dollars, and at the time sufficed to buy a new
The pilots were also orally promised a bounty of $500 for each enemy aircraft
Although sometimes considered a mercenary
unit, the AVG was closely associated with the U.S. military. Most histories of
the Flying Tigers say that on 15 April 1941, President Roosevelt signed a
executive order" authorizing servicemen on active duty to resign in order to
join the AVG. However, Flying Tigers historian Daniel
Ford could find no evidence that such an order ever existed, and he argued
that "a wink and a nod" was more the president's style.
In any event, the AVG was organized and in part directed out of the White House,
and by the spring of 1942 had effectively been brought into the U.S. Army chain
During the summer and fall 1941, some 300 men carrying civilian passports
boarded ships destined for Burma. They were initially based at a British
Toungoo for training while their aircraft were assembled and test flown.
Chennault set up a schoolhouse that was made necessary because many pilots had
"lied about their flying experience, claiming pursuit experience when they had
flown only bombers and sometimes much less powerful airplanes."
They called Chennault "the Old Man" due to his much older age and leathery
exterior obtained from years flying open cockpit pursuit aircraft in the Army
Air Corps. Most believed that he had flown as a fighter pilot in China, although
stories that he was a combat ace are probably apocryphal.
The AVG was created by an executive order of Generalissimo Chiang
Kai-shek. He did not speak English, however, and Chennault never learned to
speak Chinese. As a result, all communications between the two men were routed
Soong May-ling, or "Madame Chiang" as she was known to Americans, and she
was designated the group's "honorary commander."
Chennault's Fighter Doctrine
Chennault preached a radically different approach to air combat based on
his study of Japanese tactics and equipment, his observation of the tactics used
by Soviet pilots in China, and his judgment of the strengths and weaknesses of
his own aircraft and pilots. The actual average strength of the AVG was never
more than 62 combat-ready pilots and fighters. Chennault faced serious obstacles
since many AVG pilots were inexperienced and a few quit at the first
opportunity. However, he made a virtue out of these disadvantages, shifting
unsuitable pilots to staff jobs and always ensuring that he had a squadron or
two in reserve.
His doctrine called for pilots to take on enemy aircraft in teams from an
altitude advantage, since their aircraft were not as maneuverable or as numerous
as the Japanese fighters they would encounter. He prohibited his pilots from
entering into a turning fight with the nimble Japanese fighters, telling them to
execute a diving or slashing attack and to dive away to set up for another
attack. This "dive-and-zoom" technique was contrary to what the men had learned
in U.S. service as well as what the
Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots in Burma had been taught; it had been used
successfully, however, by Russian units serving with the Chinese Air Force.
Contributing to Chennault's success in China was the country's warning
net, "a vast spidernet of people, radios, telephones, and telegraph lines" that
provided information about enemy attacks, directed interceptors against them,
located and guided lost planes, directed aid to pilots who had crashed or bailed
out, and directed intelligence experts to wrecks of enemy aircraft
Click on Picture to enlarge
Curtiss P-40 fighter aircraft of the
Flying Tigers, with their iconic shark face
12-point sun of the
Chinese Air Force
Royal Air Force in North
Africa. The Tomahawk IIB was similar to the U.S. Army's earlier P-40B model,
and there is some evidence that Curtiss actually used leftover components from
that model in building the fighters intended for China.
The fighters were purchased without "government-furnished equipment" such as reflector gunsights, radios and wing guns; the lack of these items caused
continual difficulties for the AVG in Burma and China.
Gunsights used in WWII aircraft
is the Mk II reflector gunsight which came into service in 1941.
A Diagram showing how a MkII* reflector sight is mounted in a Spitfire.
upper dial of the Stadiametric Ranging Procedure set the required rane on
the upper dial.
The bottom dial was set to the wingspan of the target aircraft
The 100 P-40 aircraft were crated and sent to Burma on third country
freighters during spring 1941. At Rangoon, they were unloaded, assembled and
test flown by personnel of
Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO) before being delivered to the
AVG training unit at Toungoo.
One crate was dropped into the water and a wing assembly was ruined by salt
water immersion, so CAMCO was able to deliver only 99 Tomahawks before war broke
out. (Many of those were destroyed in training accidents.) The 100th fuselage
was trucked to a CAMCO plant in Loiwing, China, and later made whole with parts
from damaged aircraft. Shortages in equipment with spare parts almost impossible
to obtain in Burma along with the slow introduction of replacement fighter
aircraft were continual impediments although the AVG did receive 50 replacement
P-40E fighters from USAAF stocks toward the end of its combat tour.
AVG fighter aircraft were painted with a large shark face on the front of
the aircraft. This was done after pilots saw a photograph of a P-40 of
No. 112 Squadron RAF in North Africa, which in turn had adopted the shark
face from German pilots of the Luftwaffe's
ZG 76 heavy fighter wing, flying
Messerschmitt Bf 110
fighters in Crete. (The AVG nose-art is variously
credited to Charles Bond and Erik Shilling.) About the same time, the AVG was
dubbed "The Flying Tigers" by its Washington support group, called China Defense
The P-40's good qualities included pilot armor,
self-sealing fuel tanks, sturdy construction, heavy armament (two 50-cal.
and four 30-cal. machine guns), and a higher diving speed than most Japanese
aircraft – qualities that could be used to advantage in accordance with
Chennault's combat tactics. Chennault created an early warning network of
spotters that would give his fighters time to take off and climb to a superior
altitude where this tactic could be executed.
The port of Rangoon in Burma and the Burma Road
leading from there to China were of crucial importance for the Republic of
China, as the eastern regions of China were under Japanese occupation so
virtually all of the foreign
matériel destined for the armed forces of the Republic arrived via that
port. By November 1941, when the pilots were trained and most of the P-40s had
arrived in Asia, the Flying Tigers were divided into three squadrons: 1st
Squadron (“Adam & Eves”); 2nd Squadron (“Panda Bears”) and 3rd Squadron (“Hell’s
They were assigned to opposite ends of the Burma Road to protect this vital line
of communications. Two squadrons were based at Kunming in
China and a third at
Mingaladon Airport near Rangoon. When the United States officially entered
the war, the AVG had 82 pilots and 79 aircraft, although not all were
The AVG had its first combat on 20 December 1941, when aircraft of the 1st
and 2nd squadrons intercepted 10 unescorted
Kawasaki Ki-48 "Lily" bombers of the 21st Hikotai raiding Kunming.
Three of the Japanese bombers were shot down near Kunming and a fourth was
damaged so severely that it crashed before returning to its airfield at Hanoi. No P-40s
were lost through enemy action, and the bombers jettisoned their loads before
reaching their target. Furthermore, the Japanese discontinued their raids on
Kunming while the AVG was based there.
At this time, the focus of Japan's offensive efforts in the AVG's coverage
area was southern Burma. The 3rd Squadron — 18 aircraft strong — defended
Rangoon from 23 December–25 December. On 23 December,
"Sally" heavy bombers of the 60th, 62nd and 98th Sentais,
along with single-engined
Mitsubishi Ki-30 "Ann" attack bombers of the 31st Sentai, sortied against
Rangoon. They were escorted by
"Nate" fighters of the 77th Sentai. The
Imperial Japanese Army Air Force (JAAF) formation was intercepted by the AVG
Brewster Buffalos of
67 Squadron. Eight Ki-21s were shot down for the loss of three AVG P-40s.
The 60th Sentai was particularly hard hit — it lost five out of the 15 bombers
it had dispatched. But Rangoon and Mingaladon airfield were successfully bombed,
with the city suffering more than a thousand dead. Two Buffalos and two P-40s
were destroyed on the ground, and one P-40 crashed when it attempted to land on
a bomb-damaged runway.
Click on Picture to enlarge
|A "blood chit"
issued to the American Volunteer Group Flying
Tigers. The Chinese characters read: 「This foreign person has
come to China to help in the war effort. Soldiers and civilians, one and
all, should rescue and protect him.」 (R.E. Baldwin Collection)
On 25 December, the JAAF returned, reinforced by Ki-21s of the 12th Sentai
and Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusas of the 64th Sentai. Hayabusa, Japanese for "Peregrine
Falcon", was code named "Oscar" by Allied pilots. A total of 63 bombers
escorted by 25 fighters were committed. These were intercepted by 12 P-40s of
the AVG's 3rd Squadron and 15 Buffalos of 67 Squadron. Ten Japanese aircraft
were lost in the resulting battle: two Ki-43s, four Ki-27s and four Ki-21s. The
Allies lost five Buffalos and three P-40s. Mingaladon airfield was once again
damaged, and eight Buffalos were destroyed on the ground.
After its losses in the 23-25 December battles, the 3rd Squadron was
relieved by the 2nd Squadron "Panda Bears", which carried out a series of raids
on JAAF airbases in Thailand. The Japanese had moved aircraft to
Malaya to finish off Singapore,
and its remaining aircraft in the area (the 77th, 31st and 62nd Sentais)
launched fighter sweeps and counter raids on the Allied airfields at Mingaladon.
On 12 January, the Japanese launched their
Burma Campaign. Significantly outnumbered, the AVG was gradually reduced
through attrition, but often exacted a disproportionate toll of their attackers.
On 24 January, six Ki-21s of the 14th Sentai escorted by Ki-27s attacked
Mingaladon. All the Ki-21s were shot down by the AVG and RAF defenders. On 28
January, a fighter sweep of 37 Ki-27s was engaged by 16 AVG P-40s and two RAF
fighters. Three "Nates" were shot down for the loss of two P-40s. The next day,
another sweep of 20 Ki-27s of the 70th Sentai was met by 10 Allied fighters
(eight P-40s and two Hawker Hurricanes). Four were shot down for the loss of no Allied aircraft.
Despite these minor victories and Chennault's reinforcement of the "Panda
Bears" with pilots from the "Adam and Eves", by mid-February, only 10 P-40s were
still operational at Mingaladon. Commonwealth troops retreated before the
Japanese onslaught, and the AVG was pressed into the ground attack role to
support them. One unfortunate result of these missions was a prolonged air
attack on a suspected Japanese column on 21 February that turned out to consist
of Commonwealth troops. More than 100 Allied lives were lost in this
friendly fire incident. On 27 February, after hearing that the RAF was
retreating and pulling out its radar equipment, the AVG withdrew to bases in
It is estimated that while defending Rangoon, the AVG destroyed 50
Japanese aircraft while losing 20 P-40s. Ten AVG pilots were either killed or
listed as missing--a very creditable performance, considering that the AVG was
outnumbered and faced experienced and fully trained Japanese pilots. The main
disadvantage of JAAF fighter pilots of this period was the near-obsolescence of
their predominant fighter type in the theater, the Ki-27. Though more
maneuverable than the P-40, its armament and performance was inferior. Lightly
constructed and armed, it could not withstand frontal attacks nor could it
out-dive most allied fighters such as the P-40; if it attempted to, it often
came apart in the air. In fact, its cruising speed was less than that of the
Ki-21 bombers it was intended to escort.
After Rangoon was lost to the Japanese at the end of February, the AVG
relocated to Magwe,
a small British airfield more than 300 miles north of Rangoon. Chennault started
moving elements of the now reconstituted 3rd Squadron to Magwe as reinforcement
to his worn down 1st and 2nd squadrons. Aircraft attrition became so high that
at this point, individual squadron distinctions became meaningless, and all
three squadrons had elements based there, along with a number of RAF aircraft.
In total, the Allies had 38 aircraft, including eight P-40s and 15
Hawker Hurricanes. Opposing them were 271 Japanese aircraft, including 115
fighters. Although the AVG and the RAF scored some successes against the JAAF,
Magwe was continuously bombed, including a very heavy raid on 21 March by 151
bombers and fighters. On 23 March with only four aircraft left, the AVG was
forced to relocate to Loiwing, just across the Chinese border.
Click on Picture to enlarge
Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa was a single-engined land-based fighter used
by the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force in World War 2
Reinforced by new P-40E "Kittyhawks" and by repaired aircraft from the
AVG's excellent maintenance group, 12 P-40s were based at Loiwing on 8 April.
Despite the long retreats, their losses and incessant air combat, the AVG still
retained their abilities. That day, 12
Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusas from the 64th Sentai raided the base. In the
ensuing series of dogfights, four Ki-43s were downed in exchange for one P-40E
destroyed on the ground. During this period, Chinese and American commanders
pressured Chennault to order his pilots to undertake so-called "morale
missions". These were overflights and ground attacks intended to raise the
morale of hard-pressed Chinese soldiers by showing they were getting air
support. The AVG's pilots seethed with resentment at these dangerous missions
(which some considered useless), a feeling which culminated in the so-called
"Pilot's Revolt" of mid-April. Chennault suppressed the "revolt" and ordered the
ground attack missions to continue. But despite their efforts, the Allied
situation in Burma continued to deteriorate. On 29 April the AVG was ordered to
evacuate Loiwing and relocate to Baoshan
Like the AVG's other bases, Baoshan was repeatedly bombed by the Japanese
Army Air Force. Still, the AVG scored against their JAAF tormentors, bringing
down four "Nates" on 5 May of the 11th Sentai and two "Anns". By 4 May, the
successful Japanese Burma offensive was winding down, except for mopping up
actions. One of these was an attempt by a regiment of the Japanese 56th division
to drive for Kunming, an effort that was stopped by the Chinese army operating
with strong air support from the AVG. Despite being on the defensive, the AVG
continued to harass the JAAF with raids on their Vietnamese bases.
With the Burma campaign over, Chennault redeployed his squadrons to
provide air protection for China. The
had prompted the Japanese to launch an offensive to seize AVG
air bases that could be used as launching points for attacks on the Japanese
homeland. By 1 June, personnel that would form the nucleus of the new USAAF 23rd
Fighter Group (the AVG's replacement) were beginning to trickle into the
theater. Some of the last missions the AVG flew were defending Guilin against
raids by JAAF Nates, Lilys and new
Kawasaki Ki-45 Toryu
"Nick" heavy fighters. The AVG's last combat was over
Hengyang on the day it was disbanded, 4 July. In this final action, four Ki-27s
were shot down for no loss.
Click on Picture to enlarge
|Flight leader and
Robert "R.T." Smith stands next to his P-40 fighter at
Kunming, China. The “Flying Tiger” insignia was created by the
Walt Disney Company.
The AVG was officially credited with 297 enemy aircraft destroyed, including
229 in the air.
As often happens, however, a researcher who surveyed Japanese accounts concluded
that the number was much lower: 115.
Fourteen AVG pilots were killed in action, captured, or disappeared on combat
missions. Two died of wounds sustained in bombing raids, and six were killed in
accidents during the Flying Tigers' existence as a combat force.
Even using the lower figure of Japanese aircraft downed, the AVG's kill ratio
was superior to that of contemporary Allied air groups in Malaya, the
Philippines, and elsewhere. The AVG's success is all the more remarkable since
they were outnumbered by Japanese fighters in almost all their engagements. The
AVG's P-40s were arguably superior to the JAAF's Ki-27s, but the group's kill
ratio against modern Ki-43s was still in its favor. In Flying Tigers: Claire
Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941–1942, Daniel Ford attributes the
AVG's success to morale and group esprit. He notes that its pilots were "triple
volunteers" who had volunteered for service with the U.S. military, the AVG, and
brutal fighting in Burma. The result was a corps of experienced and skilled
volunteer pilots who wanted to fight.
During their service with the Nationalist Chinese air force, 33 AVG pilots
and three ground crew received the
Order of the Cloud and Banner, and many AVG pilots received the Chinese Air
Force Medal. Each AVG ace and double ace was awarded the Five Star or Ten Star
Major Greg "Pappy" Boyington was discharged from the AVG in April 1942 and
returned to active duty with the U.S. Marine Corps. He went on to command the
Squadron and was one of two AVG veterans (the other being
James H. Howard of the USAAF) to be awarded the
Medal of Honor.
David Lee "Tex" Hill, later commander of the USAAF 23rd Fighter Group.
Charles Older postwar earned a law degree, became a California Superior
Court judge, and presided at the murder trial of
Kenneth Jernstedt was a long-time Oregon legislator and mayor of his home
town of Hood River.
Robert Prescott founded
Flying Tiger Line as a cargo carrier, along with other AVG pilots.
Allen "Bert" Christman, killed at Rangoon in January 1942, had earlier
scripted and drawn the
Scorchy Smith and
Sandman comic strips.
Joseph Alsop served as Chennault's "staff secretary" while the AVG trained
at Rangoon; he was interned at Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941.
As with all air forces, there was over claiming by the AVG due to the
confusion and speed of air combat. For example, in the big Christmas Day battle
over Rangoon, AVG and RAF pilots claimed 28 Japanese aircraft while 10 were
actually lost. In the same combat, Japanese Army Air Force pilots and gunners
claimed 36 Allied aircraft while eight were actually shot down. It would only be
after the war that true combat losses could be determined by comparing the after
action and loss reports of the combatants.
Nineteen pilots were credited by the AVG with five or more air-to-air
Robert Neale: 13 victories
David Lee "Tex" Hill: 10.25 victories
- George Burgard: 10 victories
- Robert Little: 10 victories
Charles Older: 10 victories
Robert T. Smith: 8.9 victories
- William McGarry: 8 victories
- Charles Bond: 7 victories
- Frank Lawlor: 7 victories
- John Newkirk: 7 victories
- Robert Hedman: 6 victories
- C. Joseph Rosbert: 6 victories
- J. Richard Rossi: 6 victories
- Robert Prescott: 5.5 victories
- Percy Bartelt: 5 victories
- William Bartling: 5 victories
- Edmund Overend: 5 victories
- Robert Sandell: 5 victories
- Robert H. Smith: 5 victories
The AVG's Legacy & Transition To The
The success of the AVG led to negotiations in spring 1942 to induct it
into the USAAF. Chennault was reinstated as a colonel and immediately promoted
to brigadier general commanding U.S. Army air units in China (initially
China Air Task Force and later the
14th Air Force), while continuing to command the AVG by virtue of his
position in the
Chinese Air Force. On 4 July 1942, the AVG was replaced by the 23rd Fighter
Group. Most AVG pilots refused to remain with the unit as a result of the strong
arm tactics by the USAAF general sent to negotiate with them. However, five
pilots accepted commissions in China including "Tex" Hill, one of Chennault's
most loyal devotees, with others remaining for a two-week transition period.
(U.S. airmen and the press continued to use the “Flying Tiger” name to refer to
USAAF units in China to the end of the war, and the name continues to be applied
to certain air force and army aviation squadrons.) Most AVG pilots became
transport pilots in China, went back to America into civilian jobs, or rejoined
the military services and fought elsewhere in the war.
One of the pilots drawn to the success of the AVG was
Robert Lee Scott, Jr. who was flying supplies into Kunming over the Hump
from India. He convinced Chennault to loan him a P-40 which he flew to protect
the supply route; his aggressiveness led to Chennault's recruiting him as
commander of the 23rd Fighter Group. Scott brought recognition to his exploits
and the Flying Tigers with his best selling book
God is My Co-pilot that was also made into a popular movie.
Click on Picture to enlarge
Ocala, Florida Memorial Park
There are several museum displays in the United States honoring the Flying
Tigers. The National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton,
Ohio, has an extensive display dedicated to the AVG, including an A-2 jacket
worn by an AVG pilot in China, a banner presented to the AAF by the Chinese
government, and a P-40E. The
National Museum of Naval Aviation in
Pensacola, Florida also has a Flying Tiger display. The AVG monument in the
National Museum of the United States Air Force Memorial Garden features a
marble sculpture of a pagoda crowned
with a brass model of a P-40; the monument stands nearly 14 feet tall. The Palm
Springs Air Museum has a display of memorabilia inside a mockup of AVG ground
facilities, with a P-40N painted in AVG markings. Finally, a memorial to the AVG
and 14th AF is located at
Vandenberg Air Force Base in California,
depicting a P-40 in AVG markings with a bronze plaque describing the unit's
history and Vandenberg's role as headquarters for the 14th AF.
There are also several memorials to the AVG in Asia. In Chiang Mai, Thailand, a marble obelisk was
dedicated on 11 November 2003, inscribed to Chennault; to Jack Newkirk, who was
killed in North
Thailand on 24 March 1942; and to Charles Mott and William McGarry, who were
shot down and captured in Thailand. In Taiwan, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek requested
a statue of Chennault in the New Park of Taipei to commemorate this wartime
friend after his death (the statue has since been relocated to Hualian AFB). A
Flying Tigers Memorial is located in the village of
Province, China and is the only museum in the world dedicated exclusively to
the Flying Tigers. The building is a steel and marble structure, with wide
sweeping steps leading up to a platform with columns holding up the memorial's
sweeping roof; on its back wall, etched in black marble, are the names of all
members of the AVG, 75th Fighter Squadron, and 14th Air Force who died in China.
In 2005, the city of Kunming held a ceremony memorializing the history of the
Flying Tigers in China. The Memorial Cemetery to Anti-Japanese Aviator Martyrs
in Nanjing, China features a wall listing the names of Flying Tiger pilots and
other pilots who defended China in WWII, and has several unmarked graves for
such American pilots.
The wreckage of a P-40 with CAF serial number P-8115 is on display
The aircraft is believed to be that flown by William “Mac” McGarry when he was
hit by anti-aircraft fire while flying top cover over Chiang Mai on 24 March
1942. The aircraft crashed into the
rain forest in northern Thailand.
McGarry was captured and interrogated, and spent most of the war in a Thai
prison. Toward the end of the war the
Office of Strategic Services (OSS) arranged for the
Free Thai Movement to spirit him out of the prison to a PBY Catalina in the
Gulf of Thailand. The wreck of his P-40 was discovered in 1991, and consists of
the P-40's Allison engine, Hamilton Standard propeller and parts of the
airframe. Today the wreckage is displayed at the Tango Squadron Wing 41 Museum
in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
The wreck of another AVG P-40 is believed to be in
Lake Dianchi (Lake Kunming). The fighter is believed to be a P-40E piloted
by John Blackburn when it crashed into the lake on a gunnery training flight on
28 April 1942, killing the pilot. His body was recovered from the aircraft,
which was submerged in 20 feet of water. In 1997 a U.S.-Chinese group called the
Sino-American Aviation Heritage Foundation was formed to locate the aircraft and
possibly raise and restore it. In March 1998, they contacted the China
Expedition Association about conducting the recovery operation. Over 300
aircraft are believed to have crashed into Lake Dianchi (including a second AVG
P-40) so locating the aircraft proved difficult. In 2003, an aircraft believed
to be Blackburn's was found embedded in nine feet of bottom silt. An effort was
made in September 2005 to raise the aircraft, but the recovery was plagued with
difficulties and it remains deep under the lake bottom. Since the aircraft was
complete and relatively undamaged when John Blackburn's body was removed from it
in 1942, it is hoped that the aircraft will be in good condition and capable of
being restored, possibly to flying condition.
Recognition By The United States
Just before their 50th reunion in 1992, the AVG veterans were
retroactively recognized as members of the U.S. military services during the
seven months the group was in combat against the Japanese. The AVG was then
awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for "professionalism, dedication to duty,
and extraordinary heroism." In 1996, the U.S. Air Force awarded the pilots the
Distinguished Flying Cross and the ground crew were all awarded the Bronze Star.
Popular Culture & The Flying Tigers
A number of feature films have referenced the AVG directly or indirectly.
Flying Tigers is a 1942 black-and-white war film from Republic, starring John Wayne
John Carroll as fighter pilots. The Sky's the Limit (RKO, 1942)
Astaire as a former AVG volunteer on leave in New York City before joining a
USAAF squadron. God is My Co-pilot,
Robert L. Scott's book about his time with the USAAF in China, was filmed in
Dennis Morgan as Scott,
Raymond Massey as Chennault, and John
Ridgely as Tex Hill. In Hers to Hold (1943),
Joseph Cotten plays an AVG pilot who falls in love with a B-17 assembly
worker. In China's Little Devils (1945), two AVG pilots befriend Chinese
orphans. Currently, producer John Woo
has a major film in the planning stage, apparently emphasizing the cooperation
between American and Chinese pilots in fighting the Japanese.
Similarly, the Flying Tigers have been the focus of several novels,
including Tonya, by
Pappy Boyington, and
Remains, by Daniel
Seventeen years after the war, Robert Prescott, an AVG and 14th Air Force
veteran, started a restaurant called the “Hungry Tiger” in Los Angeles,
The venture grew into a 40-unit seafood restaurant chain, which was bought out
in 1985 and absorbed into the “Reuben's” restaurant chain.
Another AVG-themed restaurant was "Flying Tiger Joe's" in North Carolina,
managed by chef and former pilot C. Joseph Rospert.
- Ford 1991, pp. 30–34.
- Ford 2007, pp.
- How Ford Works
- Ford 2007, pp.
Claire Chennault and the Flying Tigers of World War II. U.S.
Centennial of Flight Commission.
- Scott 1973, p. 7.
- Scott 1973, p. 21.
- "Flying Tigers." Yunnan good.com. Retrieved: 20 May 2009.
- Ford 2007, p. 36.
- Howard 1991, p.
- Ford 2007, pp.
- Scott 1973, pp. 61–65.
- Olynk 1986
- Ford 2007, pp.
- Ford 2007, ch.
- Former 'Flying Tigers' Visit Nanjing Memorial Cemetery.
china.org (Xinhua News Agency), 25 August 2005. Retrieved: 17 February
- "Flying Tigers Curtiss P40." thaiaviation.com. Retrieved: 27
- Ford 2007, p.
- "AVG Flying Tiger films, past and present." warbirdforum.com.
Retrieved: 17 February 2010.
- Daniel Akst and
"Small Bites the Man who fed Hungry Tiger's success moves on.; 'Hobby'
Ends in Restaurant Merger Deal - Hungry Tiger Chain Started With Single
Sherman Oaks Eatery." Los Angeles Times, 13 August 1985, via
the thefreelibrary.com, 2006. Retrieved: 23 August 2009.
- “Grace to turn Hungry Tiger into Reuben's restaurants.”
findarticles.com. Retrieved: 17 July 2009.
- Rospert, C.
Joseph. Flying Tiger Joe's Adventure Story Cookbook. Franklin, NC:
Giant Poplar Press, 1985.
- Baisden, Chuck. Flying Tiger to Air Commando. Atglen, PA:
Schiffer Publishing, 1999.
- Bishop, Lewis S. and Shiela Bishop-Irwin. Escape From Hell: An AVG
Flying Tiger's Journey. New York: Tiger Eye Press, 2005.
- Bond, Maj. Gen. Charles and Terry Anderson. A Flying Tiger's Diary.
College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1993.
- Byrd, Martha. Chennault: Giving Wings to the Tiger. Tuscaloosa,
AL: University Alabama Press, 2003.
- Clements, Terrill. American Volunteer Group Colours and Markings.
London: Osprey Publishing, 2001.
- Dumas, Jim. Longburst and the Flying Tigers. Tollhouse CA:
Scrub Jay Press, 2004. www.Scrubjay.net
- Ford, Daniel. Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American
Volunteers, 1941-1942. Washington, DC: HarperCollins-Smithsonian
- Hill, David Lee and Regan Schaupp. Tex Hill: Flying Tiger.
Spartanburg, SC: Honoribus Press, 2003.
- Howard, James H. Roar Of The Tiger: From Flying Tigers to Mustangs,
A Fighter Ace's Memoir. New York: Crown, 1991.
- Losonsky, Frank S. Flying Tiger: A Crew Chief's Story: The War
Diary of an AVG Crew Chief. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2000.
- Meredith, Kenneth T. Tiger Tenacity: Courage and Determination
Forged the Don Rodewald Story. Lake City, CO: Golden Stone Press,
- Olynyk, Frank J. AVG & USAAF (China-Burma-India Theater) Credits
for Destruction of Enemy Aircraft in Air to Air Combat, World War 2.
Aurora, OH: Privately published, 1986.
- Schramm, Leo J. Leo The Tiger. Charleston, SC: BookSurge
- Scott, Robert Lee , Jr. Flying Tiger:
Chennault of China. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood-Heinemann Publishing,
- Shilling, Erik. Destiny: A Flying Tigers Rendezvous With Fate.
Pomona, CA: Ben-Wal Printing, 1993.
- Smith, Robert M. With Chennault in China: A Flying Tiger's Diary.
Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1997.
- Smith, R.T. Tale of a Tiger. Van Nuys, CA: Tiger Originals,
The Annals Of The Flying Tigrs
Here's a great video showing a P-40C in AVG
warpaint. The film is by "Captain Lou" Costello, who is building a page on
the Curtiss fighter in China. Don't you
just love the sound of that Allison engine? I especially like the fact that
the pilot lands the plane on the two main wheels, the way it really ought to
be done. I doubt the AVG would have suffered so many ground loops if the
Tigers had been told to do wheelies.
This particular P-40C actually was one of a
hundred or so that went to Russia. It was one of several warbirds recovered from the former
Soviet Union after the collapse of Communism there. I have a particular
warm spot for it, because it bears the name of Erik Shilling as pilot, along
with the fuselage number 71 which may or may not have been the photo plane
that he flew. (There's some dispute about whether it was 71 or 78.) Erik and I
used to battle one another on the rec.aviation.military newsgroup, but in
the we reconciled sufficiently that he helped me annotate the RAF pilot's manual for
the Tomahawk ... plus he was the one who inspired me to take up flight training
and get my recreational certificate in 1999. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford