The “Flying Tigers” are the most famous air squadron in history. They are such a legend that it is now difficult to separate mythology from reality.
P-40 Warhawk, US Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola FL
The Japanese Empire, under the control of expansionist military officers, invaded China in 1931 as part of its efforts to form a “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere”. By 1940, Japanese troops controlled most of the coastal cities and parts of the Chinese interior. The United States and other nations objected to the invasion and imposed economic sanctions on Japan, but the isolationist mood of the American people prevented President Roosevelt from taking any concrete military action against the Japanese. The Chinese government, under strongman Chiang Kai-shek, was barely holding on, bolstered by deliveries of food and weapons from the port city of Rangoon delivered by truck convoys along a jungle pathway called the Burma Road all the way to Kunming. And now the Japanese were making moves into southeast Asia that would bring the Burma Road into bomber range, threatening to cut off this vital supply line.
Chiang had hired a retired American Army officer, Claire Chennault, as one of his military advisors. Chennault tried to train a squadron of Chinese pilots, but his efforts were failing. The Japanese had better planes, better-trained pilots, and more reliable supply lines. And so, in early 1941, several of Chiang’s advisors, including Chennault, went to Washington to ask for help.
Although the US was still officially neutral, President Roosevelt knew that he would eventually have to fight the Tokyo militarists, and that keeping China in the war was crucial—the Chinese were tying down a massive number of Japanese troops. So he worked out a secret deal: the US would supply 100 of its P-40E Warhawk fighter planes to China, and an “American Volunteer Group” of 100 pilots and 200 ground support, would go to China to fly them. Chennault was allowed to recruit US military personnel as volunteers: to maintain American neutrality, these recruits would be required to resign from the Army, Marine Corps or Navy, and go to China as civilians, for a term of one year. Chennault offered them a salary of $600 per month—twice what they were getting in the US military—and a bonus payment to pilots for every Japanese plane they shot down.
The American Volunteer Group began arriving in Rangoon in September 1941. It was, in the end, a motley collection. About half of the pilots were from the Navy and about one-eighth were Marines. Few of them had more than basic experience flying fighters, and many of them were bomber or cargo pilots who had never seen a P-40, much less flown one. Some of them were motivated by a patriotic idealism; others were motivated by a sense of adventure.
While the ground crews assembled and tested the crated P-40s, Chennault began whipping the pilots into shape. The plan was to train the pilots in Burma until they were combat-ready, then move them to Kunming to defend the Chinese supply routes. But in December 1941, the Japanese launched their attacks across the Pacific, and the AVG found itself at war.
Two of the AVG’s squadrons were quickly moved to Kunming where they saw their first action, intercepting a flight of ten Japanese bombers and shooting down six of them. The remaining squadron at Rangoon saw combat shortly later, intercepting Japanese air raids into the city. The group’s P-40 Warhawks were severely outclassed by the Japanese planes, particularly the new Zero and Oscar fighters, but Chennault and his pilots worked out methods to use the Warhawk’s strengths and capitalize on the Zero’s weaknesses, and found out that the Zero, while unbeatable in a turning dogfight, could be defeated with a rapid diving attack. The Americans soon racked up an impressive kill-to-loss ration, and when Chiang Kai-shek’s wife told the newspapers that the AVG “fought like tigers”, the group earned its nickname. In 1942 the Walt Disney Company designed a logo of a winged tiger leaping through a V for Victory and soon the group’s P-40s all sported it, along with the world-famous “shark’s mouth” paintjob on the nose. At a time when there was very little good news for the Allies in the Second World War, the Flying Tigers were media darlings and a propaganda staple. In all, the AVG claimed 296 “confirmed” air victories and another 300 “probables”, and 19 Flying Tigers were credited as “aces”.
But the heroic legends that grew around the squadrons didn’t present the whole story. The Flying Tigers were isolated in China and recieved few supplies. The P-40s deteriorated for lack of parts, and damaged planes were quickly cannibalized. The inexperienced pilots found the P-40 difficult to fly, and almost half of the planes were lost in accidents and crashes. (One sarcastic pilot painted five American flags on the side of his cockpit as “kill markers”, since he had smashed up five Warhawks, which made him a Japanese ace.) Of the 100 pilots, 22 were killed in crashes or combat, and three more had been captured by the Japanese after being shot down. By the summer of 1941 the AVG had only thirty airworthy P-40s.
Chennault himself had been a controversial figure before the war, and remained one during it. Although he liked to call himself “Colonel”, his actual rank in the US Army had been as a Major, and he had gotten himself a reputation as a troublemaker for his undiplomatic and outspoken advocacy of fighter power at a time when the bomber was the queen of the skies. After retiring from the Army in 1937, he went to China and quickly became a favorite of Generalissimo Chiang. In the 1930s, the war in China went three ways: even before the Japanese had invaded there was a civil war going on between Chiang’s Nationalist government and the Chinese Communists led by Mao Tse-tung, and now the Nationalists and Communists continued to fight each other as the Japanese fought both. Chennault convinced Chiang that he could defeat the Japanese through airpower—a strategy that Chiang liked because it allowed him to save his ground forces for the ultimate war against Mao’s Communists. Throughout the Second World War, under Chennault’s influence, Chiang refused to commit to any major ground offensives against the Japanese, which frustrated the Allies. But Roosevelt and Churchill agreed that, strategically, they needed to keep China in the war, and therefore accepted all of Chiang’s political excuses.
With the entry of the US into the war, meanwhile, the very basis for the American Volunteer Group’s existence was no longer necessary, and so the US Army Air Corps officially absorbed the unit on July 4 as the China Air Task Force, commanded by now-General Chennault and part of the 10th Air Force. The 40-odd remaining Flying Tiger pilots, who were technically civilians, were offered Army commissions to keep flying and, more importantly, to help train new arrivals, but all but 5 refused—some because they were Navy or Marine pilots and didn’t want to fly for the Army, some because the Army wouldn’t give them a promotion based on their combat experience, and a few including famed future ace Greg “Pappy” Boyington because they were discipline problems and weren’t offered a commission.
The Army Air Corps now assigned three new squadrons of P-40s and a squadron of B-25 bombers to Kunming. The Warhawks were organized into the 23rd Fighter Group, which retained the distinctive “shark’s mouth” markings of their predecessors, but now with American insignia instead of Chinese. By 1945, the US air groups in China had grown into the 14th Air Force, with over 20,000 personnel. US plans originally called for B-29 bombers to pound Japan from bases in China, but this was continually frustrated by Chiang’s reluctance to use his ground forces to capture the required areas, and the Americans switched to air bases in the Pacific Islands instead.
Today, none of the P-40s that actually flew with the AVG survive. But a number of air museums across the world exhibit Warhawks, and virtually all of them are presented in the paint scheme made famous by the Flying Tigers.