A group of American civilians flying fighter planes for the Chinese against the Japanese during World War II.
In 1941, war between the United States and Japan seemed imminent. The Japanese had been bombing Chinese cities since 1937 and had virtually destroyed China’s Air Force. The idea for a group of American volunteer pilots to assist the Chinese in their struggle, similar to the Lafayette Escadrille of American volunteers who flew for France during World War I, had been brewing for some time.
Claire Lee Chennault, a retired Army Air Corps captain and air advisor to China, was authorized by Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek to form a volunteer group consisting entirely of American airmen to protect China’s skies and to help train Chinese aviators. The idea was sold to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, on April 15, 1941, signed an executive order authorizing the formation of the American Volunteer Group (AVG), as the Flying Tigers were officially known.
The order permitted members of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, and U.S. Army Air Corps to resign from their branches of service with the assurance that they would be reinstated to their former rank or grade upon completion of their contract. The Flying Tigers were to defend the Burma Road, China’s lifeline to Burma and Indian Ocean ports. Because the United States technically remained at peace with Japan in April of 1941, the plan required some subterfuge. Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO) was chosen as a cover. CAMCO, owned by William Pawley, had an aircraft factory at Loiwing, China, supplying parts and planes to Chiang’s air force. The volunteers signed one-year contracts with CAMCO to perform certain services not technically relating to combat.
In September, 1941, Chennault and the volunteers gathered in Toungoo, Burma (now Myanmar), about 170 miles north of Rangoon. At Toungoo, Chennault taught and trained his pilots in the intricacies of the P-40 Tomahawk, the volunteers’ fighter plane, and taught them how to use the P-40 against the Japanese fighter pilots. Chennault emphasized that although the Japanese fighter planes had superior maneuverability and rate of climb, the P-40 had superior armor, firepower, and diving speed.
The Flying Tigers first clearly demonstrated their abilities on December 20, 1941, when they attacked a formation of ten Japanese bombers on its way to Kunming (K’un-ming), the capital of Yunnan (Yün-nan) Province, China. Only one Japanese bomber returned safely to its base. During January and February, 1942, the Flying Tigers began compiling the extraordinary record of victories that placed them firmly in history.
Over the skies of Myanmar and China in January and February, 1942, the Flying Tigers destroyed at least 217 enemy aircraft in thirty-one encounters and lost only six pilots. It was during these two months that the Chinese dubbed the AVG the Flying Tigers. AVG personnel painted the sharp-toothed mouths of sharks on the noses of their P-40’s.
The men of the AVG did not always fly P-40’s. In March and April, 1942, the AVG obtained P-40E Kittyhawks as replacements for lost P-40’s. The P-40E’s had all the instrumentation that the original Tomahawks never had as well as six free-firing .50-caliber machine guns in the wings and bomb racks. When Japanese planes were hit by a P-40E’s machine guns, the Japanese planes would often disintegrate in the face of a single well-aimed burst.
After the Flying Tigers disbanded, members who wished were absorbed on July 4, 1942, into the United States Tenth Air Force, which became the nucleus of the China Air Task Force and was reorganized in March, 1943, as the Fourteenth Air Force. This group remained under the command of Chennault, who was promoted to brigadier general. During their six and one-half months of aerial combat, the Flying Tigers destroyed 297 enemy planes, with another 153 probably destroyed. Twenty-two AVG personnel lost their lives. The Flying Tigers were so important to the war effort that Winston Churchill lauded them on the floor of Parliament in London. Starting with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States suffered a number of disasters. As a result, Americans saw the AVG in Myanmar as one early bright spot in the war against Japan.
A great many Flying Tigers later became airline captains. One even started his own airline, with the help of several members of the group. Some became test pilots. Others went on to successful military and business careers.
Baisden, Chuck. Flying Tiger to Air Commando. Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer, 1999. An enlisted man’s story of over twenty years of service to his country, including the Army Air Corps and the American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers. Bond, Charles R., and Terry H. Anderson. A Flying Tiger’s Diary. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1993. The wartime diary of General Charles Bond, who flew as a Flying Tiger in southern China during World War II. Ford, Daniel. Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and the American Volunteer Group. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995. An account of General Claire Chennault and the volunteers who fought for China against the Japanese both before and after Pearl Harbor. Losonsky, Frank S., and Terry M. Losonsky. Flying Tiger: A Crew Chief’s Story. Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer, 1996. The war diary of a Flying Tiger crew chief from the Third Pursuit Squadron, describing much of the unit’s history from the pilot’s viewpoint.
Air Force, U.S.
Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, bombing
World War II
The Flying Tigers painted shark teeth on their P-40’s to symbolize their ferocity in keeping Chinese supply lines open in the face of Japanese aggression in the early days of World War II.