Flying Tigers was the nickname of the 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG) that operated within the Chinese Air Force in 1941 and 1942. In essence, the group was a private military contractor, although they have also been called mercenaries. Its members were former United States Army (USAAF), Navy (USN), and Marine Corps (USMC) pilots and ground crew, recruited under Presidential approval and commanded by Claire Chennault. The group consisted of three fighter squadrons that trained in Burma before the American entry into World War II with the intention of defending China against Japanese forces.
The Tigers' 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. The Tigers were credited with destroying almost 300 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 Group went on to achieve similar combat success, while retaining the nose art and nickname of the volunteer unit.
The AVG was largely the creation of Claire L. Chennault, a retired U.S. Army Air Corps officer who became military aviation advisor to Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in the Sino-Japanese War. Chennault's retirement from the U.S. Army, ostensibly for physical disability, probably owed much to the unpopularity of his advocacy of "pursuit" aviation over bombardment, contrary to the beliefs of the upper echelons of the USAAC, and to his hope that he could implement his theories in China. Even before he retired, Chennault had been approached by Chinese Air Force (CAF) officials and offered the opportunity to undertake the training and organization of the CAF. He also saw it as a "chance to put his ideas into effect" in China.
The Soviet Union supplied fighter and bomber squadrons to China, starting at the end of 1937, but the Russian units were mostly withdrawn from China in 1940. Chiang then asked for American combat aircraft and U.S. pilots to fly them. Since the U.S. was not at war, this could not happen openly, 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 intimate 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.
Although sometimes regarded as a mercenary unit, the AVG was funded and tacitly approved by the U.S. government. Most histories of the Flying Tigers say that on 15 April 1941, President Roosevelt signed a "secret executive order" authorizing servicemen on active duty to resign from the U.S. military 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 until the unit was disbanded.
The 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG) was formed with plans for a follow-on bomber group and second fighter group that were aborted after the Pearl Harbor attack. During the summer and fall 1941, some 300 men carrying civilian passports that boarded ships destined for Burma. They were initially based at a British airfield in 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.
AVG fighter aircraft came from a Curtiss assembly line producing Tomahawk IIB models for the Royal Air Force in North Africa. The Tomahawk IIB was essentially the same variant as the U.S. Army's earlier P-40B model. (The major difference was that the fuel tanks on the P-40B/Tomahawk IIA were protected by an exterior rubber membrane, while those on the IIB had an interior membrane, believed by the RAF to be more effective at sealing leaks.) 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 No. 112 Squadron RAF in North Africa sporting a fierce shark mouth, which in turn had adopted the shark motif from German pilots flying Messerschmitt Bf-110 fighters in Crete. About the same time, the AVG was dubbed "The Flying Tigers" by their Washington support group, called China Defense Supplies.
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.
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 northern Burma.
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. This was a very credible performance, especially when 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. Although it was more maneuverable than the P-40, its armament and performance was inferior. In fact, its cruising speed was less than that of the Ki-21 bombers it was intended to escort.
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 in China.
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" of the 11th Sentai and two "Anns" on 5 May. 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.
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.
However, success with the P-40 in this theater of war was not unique to the AVG. Other P-40 equipped squadrons operating in the CBI (China / Burma / India theater), notably the 10th and 14th air forces, fared well against the Japanese Air Force. P-40s were credited with 64.8 percent of all the enemy aircraft claimed by U.S. pilots. Aviation historian Carl Molesworth stated that "the P-40 simply dominated the skies over Burma and China. They were able to establish air superiority over free China, northern Burma and the Assam valley of India in 1942, and they never relinquished it."
During their service with the Nationalist Chinese air force, 33 AVG pilots and 3 ground crew received the Order of the Cloud 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 Wing Medal.
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.
Nineteen pilots were credited by the AVG with five or more air-to-air victories:
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 Zhijiang, Hunan 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 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.