“The victories of these Americans over the rice paddies of Burma are comparable in character, if not in scope, with those won by the RAF over the hop fields of Kent in the Battle of Britain.”
— Winston Churchill
By Bill Yenne
IN DECEMBER OF 1941, U.S. newspapers were filling with grim reports from the Pacific. Pearl Harbor was in flames. The Philippines and Singapore in the crosshairs. Wake Island and Hong Kong were under siege.The Japanese were on the march everywhere it seemed and hope was in short supply. America desperately needed heroes — it’d find them in the Flying Tigers.
This small obscure band of volunteer pilots from the United States were striking back against Japan, sweeping enemy bombers from the skies over China. Until that moment, few had heard their name before. But suddenly, everyone was asking: Who are these Flying Tigers?
As with the fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force who saved the United Kingdom during the Battle of Britain, the Flying Tigers became a heroic symbol during America’s darkest hours of World War Two.
Today, the Flying Tigers remain as probably the best known American fighter aircraft group in history. Their name still resonates in the historical memory of World War Two, just as the image of their shark-faced P-40s is an essential icon of American airpower in that conflict.
1. The Flying Tigers were not part of the U.S. military
Because of their place in the pantheon of great American military organizations, it is hard to imagine that the Flying Tigers did not wear the uniform of any American service. They were not soldiers, but soldiers of fortune employed by a mysterious shell company. While the pilots who were part of the American Volunteer Group had all served in the U.S. Army, Navy or Marine Corps, they had all resigned from those services to sign up as civilian contractors with the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO), a Chinese firm that started out in the 1930s as a joint venture between that country’s national government and Curtiss-Wright, an American aircraft manufacturer doing business in China. CAMCO itself was under contract with an entity called China Defense Supplies, Inc., which had been set up in Washington, D.C. by Tommy Corcoran, a close advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and T.V. Soong the brother-in-law of Chinese leader Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. It functioned as a mechanism for funneling money into the defense of China, and to process the acquisitions made possible by cash and carry financing, and later by Lend Lease.
2. They were actually bounty hunters
The pilots and support personnel of the American Volunteer Group who were hired as CAMCO “employees” received monthly salaries — ranging from $250 for ground crewmen to $750 for flight leaders — plus expenses routed though a Chinese bank account. In addition, the pilots were verbally promised a $500 “bonus” — equal roughly to about $7,000 in 2016 currency — for every Japanese plane they destroyed. This promise was not in writing. The volunteers were told simply that there was a “rumor” that the Chinese government would pay the bonus. Ultimately it did. A total of 296 were eventually paid to 67 pilots, most of whom shot down multiple Japanese aircraft.
3. The Flying Tigers never lost an air battle
Like Alexander the Great and a mere handful of heroes and heroic units throughout military history, the Flying Tigers were never defeated in combat. The pilots of the American Volunteer Group fought around 50 major aerial battles and never lost one. In their various engagements, they were almost always outnumbered by a factor of two-to-one, and usually by more than four-to-one, but they always prevailed. Radio Tokyo estimated that AVG combat strength was around 300 aircraft. In fact, the average rarely exceeded 36 available, with more than a dozen in the air at any given moment. The Japanese knew they substantially outnumbered the AVG, but but never imagined by just how much. A good laugh was had by the men when they tuned in to Radio Tokyo’s English language broadcasts to listen to the enemy report on their exploits. Only ten Flying Tigers were killed in action; seven of which perished in aircraft accidents. A full 19 of the unit’s pilots achieved the status of “ace,” which denotes five confirmed kills. Nine Flying Tigers topped 10 aerial victories, and Robert Neale exceeded 15.
4. They were in action for only seven months
Though their legacy looms large, making it seem as though their combat career must have spanned most of World War Two, the “undefeated season” of the American Volunteer Group lasted only from mid-December 1941 through mid-July 1942. The effective date of their contracts was July 4, 1941, but because of the logistical issues related to transporting the men and aircraft to the Far East, they did not fight their first aerial battle until Dec. 20 of that year. The contracts officially expired on July 4, 1942, but 55 AVG pilots and ground crewmen agreed to stay on for an additional two weeks until July 18. After that, the American Volunteer Group faded into history.
5. A civilian farmer led the contingent
Claire Lee Chennault was a chain-smoking former U.S. Army flier with a face that seemed like it had been cut from worn leather with a dull knife. Nearly deaf and suffering from chronic bronchitis, he spent his last months in the service lying in a hospital bed. He entered civilian life in 1937 at age 43 at which point he planned to retire to his Louisiana farm. The ink was barely dry on his discharge when Chennault received an intriguing job offer — come to China job and serve as the chief military aviation advisor to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek! On the first day of May, 1937, just 24 hours after his retirement became effective, Chennault departed for for the Far East. He figured he’d give the new job three months; he ended up staying for eight years. As a farm owner, his passport identified him as a “farmer,” though officially, he was an “advisor” to the Central Bank of China. He was never to be offered a rank of any level in the Chinese Air Force, though he was always referred to informally in China — and later by all of the American flyers who served under him — as “Colonel Chennault.” In turn, he became the civilian leader of the Flying Tigers in 1941 when he convinced President Roosevelt to go along with his crazy idea for an “aerial foreign legion.”
6. The Flying Tigers couldn’t call themselves ‘pilots’
Just like Chennault, the aviators of the American Volunteer Group carried passports that did not list them as flyers. In the new passports handed to them by CAMCO in the summer of 1941, each man’s alternate occupation was listed: banker, clerk, musician, student, etc. Ironically, the hard-drinking, barroom brawling, womanizing Greg Boyington was listed as a member of the clergy! An American missionary who was traveling on the same ship with Boyington as the Flying Tigers sailed across the Pacific saw through the cover story almost immediately. When he asked Boyington whether he would like to deliver the sermon at the services on the upcoming Sunday, the red-faced former Marine Corps pilot declined.
7. The White House disavowed involvement in the Flying Tigers
It is widely believed that President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the American Volunteer Group through an executive order, but this is not true. In fact, the outfit’s very existence teetered on the edge of noncompliance with existing neutrality laws. Roosevelt anxiously wanted to help China save itself from the Japanese war machine, which was infamous for its “Rape of Nanking.” He got his chance when Chennault came to him with daring a scheme for an “aerial foreign legion.” However, Roosevelt did it off the books to avoid legal inconveniences. As such, there was no executive order. Within the numbered, consecutive list of 381 executive orders issued by the president in 1941 and contained in the Federal Register, nothing remotely like the American Volunteer Group is mentioned. In fact, the dubious legality of the Fliying Tigers greatly disturbed many in the corridors of power, like Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. Others, from Air Corps chief general Hap Arnold to Secretary of War Henry Stimson also harboured concerns.
8. The Flying Tigers struck America’s first blow against Japan
On Jan. 3, 1942, four American Volunteer Group pilots, Jack Newkirk, Jim Howard, Tex Hill, and Bert Christman, decided — partly to break the tension and partly out of sheer cockiness — to “take the war to the enemy” and stage a dawn raid on the Japanese base at Tak Airport near Raheng, north of Bangkok. Christman had to turn back early in the mission because of engine trouble, but the other three carried out the strike. Historian C. Douglas Sterner, the curator of the Military Times “Hall of Valor” has proposed that this spur-of-the-moment and ultimately successful mission was the first pre-planned American offensive action of World War Two. Of course, the three pilots were all civilian soldiers of fortune, and not active duty military personnel.
9. The Flying Tigers altered the course of the war in China
Though often overlooked in the history books, the actions of the American Volunteer Group at the Salween River Gorge probably altered the course of Chinese history by halting a Japanese offensive that might not have otherwise been stopped. By May 1942, the gorge was the only natural obstacle for the Japanese 56th Division marching into China from Burma. Had they crossed the Salween River, there would have been little to stop their march to Kunming, the headquarters of the Flying Tigers or even Chongqing, China’s wartime capital. Rather than dropping their few bombs directly on the Japanese column, the Tigers targetted the steep banks of the gorge, across which snaked the road in a long series of switchbacks. As the ordnance exploded, the road avalanched. Tons of falling rock and dirt snowballed into tens of tons of sliding gorge face dropping away from the cliff face like a calving glacier. Hundreds of troops and dozens of vehicles were swept downhill along with the plunging rocks and gravel to be buried in a massive, dust-billowing heap at the bottom. Without a route to advance, the 56th Division was forced to withdraw into Burma. They never threatened China from that direction again.
10. One of the fliers was a famous cartoonist
When he joined the Flying Tigers, Bert Christman’s name was already a household word. During the 1930s, he had been the illustrator for the Scorchy Smith comic strip about a crime-fighting freelance pilot, and he was the artist and co-creator of the Sandman series for DC Comics. Anxious for adventure himself, Christman became a naval aviator, flying SB2U Vindicators off the USS Ranger — while continuing his career as a cartoonist in off hours. Craving something even more exciting, he resigned in 1941 to join the Flying Tigers. As a real life Scorchy Smith, he found the adventure he sought, and his fellow pilots found an illustrator who could create fantastic nose art for their aircraft. During an immense aerial battle over Rangoon, Burma on Jan. 23, 1942, Christman attacked a formation of enemy bombers but was jumped by several Japanese fighters. He managed to bail out of his burning aircraft, but was shot dead by Japanese pilots who fired at him as he hung helpless beneath his parachute. His comic strip would survive, in the hands of several other artists, until 1961. The Sandman, has enjoyed various revivals and continues to make occasional cameo appearances, featured in retro settings, in DC Comics.
11. The Flying Tigers who were captured made dramatic escapes
Only three American Volunteer Group pilots are known to have been captured in action. Arnold Shamblin is believed to have bailed out of his plane, but never came back and is presumed to have been killed by his captors. Lew Bishop and William “Mac” McGarry both became prisoners — and then escaped. Bishop, who had been picked up by the Vichy French in Vietnam, was eventually turned over to the Japanese. Amazingly, he broke out of a prison train headed from Shanghai to Manchuria one night in early 1945. He managed to work himself free of his leg restraints in the dark without his captors noticing. While his train moved across the open country, he just stood up, hopped over the side of the car and rolled into a gully. Shots were fired but the engine did not stop. Bishop eventually made contact with an English-speaking Chinese man who was connected to the underground resistance and was smuggled to safety. Captured by Thai police after being downed over northern Thailand, Mac McGarry was handed over to the Japanese for interrogation, but when they were finished with him, they handed him back. The Thai authorities then jailed him in Bangkok. Enlisting the aid of an inside man, the U.S. Office of Strategic Services forged a death certificate so that McGarry could be successfully spirited out of the prison and out of the country in a coffin!
12. One of the Flying Tigers’s greatest heroes was almost arrested in San Diego
When Flying Tiger Jim Howard returned home in 1942 after the American Volunteer Group was dissolved, he found invitations from both the USAAF and the U.S. Navy to enlist as an officer. A former navy aviator, he tired to return to North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego where he had served before the war. He still had his old pass and was waved through the front gate. When he went to call on the station commandant, the heavy-set captain became enraged and threatened to have Howard, an ace with six Japanese aircraft to his credit, arrested for illegal entry. He soon joined the USAAF and was overseas again, this time to serve with the 354th Fighter Group, where he piloted P-51 Mustangs with the Eighth Air Force out of England. He scored six aerial victories against the Luftwaffe, and on Jan. 11, 1944, he single-handedly engaged around 30 German fighters that were attacking American bombers over snow-covered Germany. Using tricks learned over the steamy jungles of the Far East, he downed three enemy aircraft that day, and continued to distract the Germans even after running out of ammunition. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for this action.
Bill Yenne is the author of the recently released When Tigers Ruled the Sky, as well as more than three dozen other non‑fiction books, mainly on historical topics. His dual biography of Dick Bong and Tommy McGuire, Aces High: The Heroic Story of the Two Top-Scoring American Aces of World War II, was described by pilot and best-selling author Dan Roam as “The greatest flying story of all time.” Mr. Yenne has contributed to encyclopedias of both world wars, and has appeared in documentaries airing on the History Channel, the National Geographic Channel, the Smithsonian Channel, and ARD German Television. He lives in San Francisco, and on the web at www.BillYenne.com.