Never before had there been such a total air victory in the history of aerial combat.
The name "Flying Tigers" burned itself in the pages of world history for all time.
For years after the Flying Tigers disbanded in 1942, they had been known as a mercenary air force in the service of the Chinese government. Finally on July 4, 1991, in a ceremony honoring the Flying Tigers, the United States Government belatedly admitted the truth - the Flying Tigers had been created by secret order of President Franklin Roosevelt months before Pearl Harbor to help the Chinese defend their cities from the relentless bombing by the Japanese, who had invaded China in 1937.
Three hundred men and women were recruited from within the ranks of the U.S. Armed Services. Pilots, aircraft mechanics, propeller specialists, doctors, nurses, clerks and even a chaplain joined what was called the American Volunteer Group. They signed a one-year contract to protect the only supply route open for the United States to deliver war material to China - the Burma Road. They boarded ships from the West Coast in the spring and summer of 1941, traveling as missionaries, planters, even circus performers - disguises to mask their true mission and protect FDR's secret effort to keep China from falling to the Japanese without provoking a war with Japan.
A.V.G. The American Volunteer Group The Japanese had been bombing Chinese cities since 1937 and had virtually destroyed China's Air Force. War between the United States and Japan seemed imminent. The idea for a "Lafayette Escadrille" to assist the Chinese in their struggle had been brewing for some time. Claire Lee Chennault, a retired Army Air Corps captain and air advisor to China, was authorized by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek to form a volunteer group consisting entirely of American airmen to help train Chinese aviators and protect China's skies. With the help of T.V. Soong, Chiang's brother-in-law, Tom Corcoran, an advisor to the President, and other high-ranking officials, Chennault sold the idea to Roosevelt. On April 15, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Executive Order authorizing the formation of the American Volunteer Group. The Order permitted members of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Army Air Corps to resign from their branch of the service with the assurance that they would be reinstated to their former rank or grade upon completion of their contract. The group was to defend the Burma Road, China's lifeline to Burma and Indian Ocean ports. Since the U.S. was technically at peace with Japan, the plan required some subterfuge. Central Aircraft Manufacturing Co. (CAMCO) was elected as the middleman. CAMCO, owned by William Pawley, had an aircraft factory at Loiwing, China, supplying parts and planes to Chiang's Air Force. The "Volunteers" would sign a contract with CAMCO for one year, performing certain services not technically relating to combat. Recruiters fanned out across the country. The rumors soon spread that there was adventure and excitement in the exotic Orient. Pilots and crewmen of two carrier groups, temporarily at Norfolk, Virginia, for the Christmas holidays, were contacted by retired Commander Rutledge Irvine in early 1941. Many were fascinated, but most were somewhat skeptical. The pay, perks, and rewards sounded too good to be true. A few months later, and after three more meetings with our supersalesman, a group of pilots and crew were off to San Francisco on the way to the land of Kipling. Other recruiters signed up Army and Marine personnel. Chennault had some bad experiences with the International Squadron. He now wanted to put his own theories to the test. As the author of the controversial book, The Role of Defensive Pursuit, and as a member of the famous aerobatic team "Three Men on the Flying Trapeze", Chennault was held in awe by many airmen who wanted to fly with him. The AVG recruiters signed up 100 pilots and 200 mechanics, armorers, parachute riggers, radio operators, photographers, meteorologists, and other ground support crews. The pay was good: $600 to $675 per month for pilots and from $250 up for ground crews. The contract didn't mention another important perk - $500 bonus for each enemy plane shot down - but it was understood (this point was not understood by all - ed. note). The first contingent sailed from San Francisco aboard the Dutch vessel Jaeggersfontaineon July 11, 1941. Chennault had left a few days before on a Pan American clipper. The group was supposed to sail under complete secrecy. The passports read school teachers, entertainers, surveyors, farmers, engineers, and other innocuous professions. No one was fooled. A few days after the ship sailed, the Japanese newspapers announced that a group of American pilots has sailed for the Far East to fight Japan in China. "The ship will be sunk" the paper said. But it made it. A month later the second contingent sailed aboard another Dutch ship, the "Bloemfontaine." The name of David Lee "Tex" and mine appeared on the passenger list. We had flown together as dive bomber pilots aboard the Navy carriers Ranger and Yorktown. Those of us who expected to enjoy the mysterious beauties of the Far East and the exotic Orient were in for a rude awakening. When we arrived in Burma we had little time to explore the forbidden fruits of Rangoon. Instead we were sent 170 miles North to Toungoo in the heart of the jungle. Kyedaw Airdrome, an abandoned RAF field, was to be our training headquarters. It had a 4,000 foot blacktop runway with decent barracks of bamboo and teak. But the heat in September, 1941 was stifling and every biting critter known to man infested the area. And when we saw the planes we were to fly, it didn't make us much happier. Some of the pilots had only flown bombers or transports. Even Hill, Neale, myself, and others with fighter experience had a tough time learning the quirks of the P-40 Tomahawk. But Claire Chennault was a great teacher. He inspired confidence and a fierce loyalty. Even the hottest pilots forgot their prior training and absorbed Chennault's lessons in tactics. For over three months he personally instructed and drilled us in his innovative tactics. "The Japanese are superbly trained pilots. . . they have proved themselves in years of combat in China. . .the Japanese fighter planes are more maneuverable, have a better rate of climb but are more vulnerable than the P-40. . .the P-40 has better armor, more firepower and can dive at an extraordinary speed. . .use the P-40s good points and you'll stay alive and beat the enemy. . .", he lectured day after day. He sent us aloft to practice his strategies while observing our performance from his bamboo tower. Accidents occurred daily while pilots tried to get the hang of the temperamental P-40. The heat, training, lack of entertainment, the insects and boredom caused growing dissatisfaction. Some quit the AVG and went home. Some asked for other duties. But Chennault finally whipped a highly trained gung-ho group together. We were ready. He had our admiration and respect. Most called him "Colonel" or referred to him as "the Old Man." December 7, 1941, "Pearl Harbor attacked by Japan." It was December 8th in Burma. Chennault ordered his men on the alert. We would not be caught on the ground. But nothing happened at Toungoo. Chennault had organized his group into three squadrons. On December 12th, he sent the 3rd Squadron,FT1st.gif (3230 bytes) "Hell's Angels" to Rangoon to assist the RAF. The other two squadrons stood by on continuous alert. On December 18th, the Japanese attacked Kunming, China with a large force of bombers. The 1st Squadron,FT3rd.gif (4859 bytes) "The Adam & Eves" and the 2nd, FT2nd.gif (1942 bytes)"The Panda Bears," were sent on the 650 mile trip to Kunming early the following day and immediately went out on patrol, but there was no action. There was an early morning patrol on the 20th and again nothing. But Chennault was certain that the enemy would attack after its successful raid on the 18th. His intuition and early warning net paid off. Early during the morning of December 20th, a report was received warning that enemy bombers had been sighted 60 miles away. "The Old Man" said this is what he had been waiting for, American planes with American pilots with a little advance warning. He fired his red flares and the two squadrons took to the air. The enemy never reached Kunming. The first report was that six of the ten Japanese bombers had been shot down. Later in the war Chennault learned that only one of the enemy returned to its base. But the mission had one casualty. Me! Chennault wrote, "The last the other pilots saw of Rector, he was still chasing the Japes at full throttle". I had chased a little too far and didn't have enough gas to return. I bellied my P-40 in...and walked back to base (I was credited with shooting down the first enemy bomber that day). The 20th of December, 1941 was a costly day for the Japanese. The lost nine out of ten bombers and never hit the target. The Japanese never again tried to bomb Kunming as long as the AVG defended the city. It was not until two years later that they made another try, and this time escorted by a large number of fighters. During January and February, 1942, the AVG started to rack up the extraordinary record that gained them fame. Over the Skies of Burma and china we destroyed 217 enemy aircraft in thirty one encounter and probably destroyed at least another 50. During that same period, we lost six pilots. The grateful Chinese dubbed us the "Flying Tigers" and the name stuck. When the AVG was disbanded on July 4, 1942, after only seven months in combat, we had destroyed 297 enemy planes with another 153 probably destroyed. Twenty-two AVG personnel lost their lives: four in aerial combat, six on strafing missions, ten in training accidents and two on the ground from bombing (four were POWs, three returned). Unfortunately, because of lack of tact and shortsightedness on the part of Army brass, much of this valuable talent left China. Most of the AVG would have stayed on if they had been given decent treatment. All most wanted was a short leave and recognition of the service they had performed for their country. Eighty-two members of the AVG stayed on for various periods. Forty-four pilots and ground crew agreed to stay an extra two weeks because of their loyalty to Chennault. Two pilots, John Petach and Arnold Shamblin paid for that two weeks with their lives. Bob Neale, the top AVG ace. led the newly formed 23rd Fighter Group until July 19th, when Col. Robert Scott, Jr. assumed command. In addition to the 20 pilots and 24 ground crew that stayed two extra weeks, five AVG pilots and 28 ground personnel joined the Army Air Corps and stayed in China. They formed the cadre of the 23rd Fighter Group. Five of Chennault's staff stayed on to form Headquarters of the China Air Task Force. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd Pursuit Squadrons were redesignated the 74th, 75th and 76th Fighter Squadrons. Frank Schiel was named C.O. of the 74th. Tex Hill commanded the 75th with Gil Bright as his second in command, and I commanded the 76th, with Chuck Sawyer as my deputy. One chapter in history ended July 4, 1942, and another began the same day with the same equipment, the same planes, and many of the same men. Most of the AVG who did not stay in China returned to their former branches of the service and performed brilliantly in other theaters. Some later returned to China and served with the 14th Air Force. We did not consider ourselves mercenaries or soldiers of fortune. We were paid sums considerably larger than our military salaries. Most of those who volunteered felt his was a unique opportunity to serve in a cause important to our country and a chance to improve our skills. A chance to get in on the ground floor with excitement and adventure thrown in make an irresistible combination. ("The Original Flying Tigers" by Ed Rector, 2nd Sqdrn, Vice Squadron Leader) * In 31 encounters they destroyed 217 enemy planes and probably destroyed 43 others. * The Tiger's losses in combat were four pilots killed in the air, one killed while straffing and one taken prisoner. * In the initial day in Rangoon, between Christmas and New Year's Eve of 1941, the Americans officially shot down 75 planes with a loss of two Tiger pilots and six planes of their own. Never before had there been such a total air victory in the history of aerial combat. The name "Flying Tigers" burned itself in the pages of world history for all time. * In the seven months of combat that followed, the 85 surviving pilots and their tiger-toothed P-40s shot down, by official count, 299 enemy planes. They destroyed another known 240 Japanese aircraft. In addition, the Tigers estimated a kill total upwards of a thousand aircraft which could not be confirmed officially, but which pilots recounted having watched disappear into the mountains or sea.