Flying Tigers

Feb. 1, 1958
Americans everywhere are saddened to hear of the serious illness of the great airman who led and whose name is synonymous with the great feats during World War II of the American Volunteer Group in China—the Flying Tigers. The following is one of the thirteen chapters of Five Down and Glory, a history of US air aces by Capt. Gene Gurney, edited by Mark P. Friedlander, Jr., being published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, N.Y., on February 21, at $5.75, with this chapter reprinted here with special permission.

From Five Down and Glory

By Capt. Gene Gurney

Edited By Mark P. Friedlander, Jr.

Copyright 1958 by Gene Gurney and Mark P. Friedlander, Jr.

The American Volunteer Group in China—the Flying Tigers—generated thirty-nine American aces during the short span of their combat history; yet the one man more instrumental in the destruction of enemy aircraft than any one of the individual aces did not himself shoot down a single plane. This man was Claire Chennault.

Claire Chennault left his job as principal of a small Texas high school to enlist in the Army air Service in 1917. After the war he stayed in the service and served for twenty years in many exciting and useful capacities. He was a daring acrobatic stunt pilot and a recognized leader in the field of precision air-to-air and air-to-ground pursuit maneuvers. Even in the sluggish pace of the peacetime military his thoughts were constantly on the improvement and development of new fighter strategy. During his tour as an instructor with the Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field, Ala., He wrote a textbook on the subject, The Role of Defensive Pursuit, which the school published in 1935. Also while at Maxwell he became the leader of an aerobatic act called “Three Men on a Flying Trapeze.” In this act, with Lts. Haywood S. Hansell and John H. Williamson and later with Lt. William C. McDonald replacing Hansell, Chennault performed at Cleveland’s National Air Races in 1934 and 1935.

But the many years of flying in open airplanes had gradually damaged his ears, causing partial deafness; so in 1937 Chennault was retired from active duty in the permanent rank of captain.

With thoughts of more leisurely occupations and of comfortable settling down, Chennault had taken his wife and eight children to Louisiana when he received the amazing offer of full command of the Chinese air Force.

Six years had passed since the Japanese octopus had begun to stretch and spread its armed tentacles into the provinces of China. In 1931 the Japanese army had swept into Manchuria; in 1932 Shanghai had fallen; and now in 1937 the Imperial Army of Japan stood poised for their big invasion into the heart of the Chinese mainland.

As early as 1932 Col. John H. Jovett, A West Point graduate and famous balloon commander in World War I, had begun the work of organizing the Chinese Air Force along a US design, but development had been slow. In 1936 McDonald and Williamson, Chennault’s old friends of the “Three Men on a Flying Trapeze,” had gone to China at the invitation of Madame Chiang Kaishek, the National Secretary of Aviation, to organize a flying school. But now the Japanese serpent was coiled to strike, and there was still no Chinese Air Force to meet pending onslaught. Under the urgings of McDonald and Williamson, plus another old Air Corps friend, Roy Holbrook, Captain Chennault accepted the Chinese offer and went to the Orient with the Chinese rank of colonel.

He arrived at Kunming Field, located in a valley beneath the She-shan mountains, in July 1937 slightly behind the Japanese attack on Peiping, to find that his air force was only a miserable handful of obsolete aircraft manned by a few Chinese and professional-international pilots. Nevertheless, their training had been good, and a well-conceived skeleton organization had been established. Colonel Chennault was not discouraged for he was determined to teach and employ his own advanced concepts of aerial warfare, and equally determined to build the Chinese organization along the lines of his own theories of pursuit tactics.

Madame Chiang Kai-shek purchased for Chennault’s personal use a $50,000 Curtiss-Wright P-36 which he used extensively to observe from the air the training of his men and the development of their dogfight tactics.

To protect his embryo air force from Japanese air raids he instituted a Chinese radio warning system. Radio lookout stations were established along the Japanese bombing route fro the advance Japanese air base at Hanoi, Indochina, to his own Kunming Field. As the stations warned of oncoming enemy bombers, the Chinese planes were air-evacuated and dispersed throughout the countryside. This warning system was considered so effective that the United States War Department reported that “the Chinese headquarters was warned of a raid while the Japanese bombers were still warming up at their bases.” It was among the earliest successful early-warning air-raid systems.

Among the American people there was a great deal of sympathy for the sufferings of the Chinese people as the victorious Japanese army overran and ravaged their country. Early I n 1941 this sympathy had concrete expression in the granting of a hundred Curtiss-Wright P-40B Tomahawks to China. (Later models used by the United States were the P-40E Kittyhawk and the P-40F Warhawk.) However, the grant made no provision for parts or replacements, so whenever one of the crates containing a wing was dropped into the water during the loading process, it was carefully salvaged for what used could still be made of it. Later a hundred liquid-cooled Allison engines, which had been rejected by the Air Corps because of minor faults, were acquired by the Chinese. Dr. T. V. Soong, head of the Bank of China and brother of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, was in the United States making the arrangements and putting up the financial backing (although the payment eventually came from United States lend-lease funds).

After planes had been secured for China, Colonel Chennault set about acquiring American pilots to fly them. President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially approved the American Volunteer Group acquisition of military pilots. With the United States government’s blessing, Chennault raided the military services for fighter pilots. He found forty of his old pursuit squadron friends and sixty naval and marine fighter pilots who were willing to fly for China against the Japanese. The youngest pilot was Henry Gilbert (twenty-one) and the oldest, Louis Hoffman (forty-three), who was later to become an ace. The Chinese government paid them well; in addition to a basic salary of $600 a month, a bonus of $2,500 was paid to each man, as he became an ace. (Actually a rate of $500 was established for each enemy aircraft shot down.) Flight leaders were paid $675 and squadron commanders $750 a month. However, the money was an incidental factor to a majority of the adventurous men who believed in the Chinese cause.

The United States was still maintaining diplomatic relations with Japan; so special arrangements were made to give the pilots recruited by Chennault a release from their respective services. Hundreds of supporting personnel were obtained in the United States to help the fighter pilots perform their mission which technically was “to protect the air over the Burma Road lifeline to the Chinese Army.” The first contingent of 150 support personnel included a flight surgeon’s unit with two nurses. Chennault stubbornly insisted that his pilots be in top physical condition at all times, so when they weren’t flying he usually saw to it that they had a boisterous baseball game going in which Chennault ceremoniously reserved for himself the position of pitcher.

The Americans in this volunteer group had to sign one-year contracts “to manufacture, service, and operate aircraft in Asia” with the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company of China, called CAMCO, and set up to handle the American Volunteer Group.

When the men sailed on July 11, 1941, from San Francisco on the crack Dutch liner Jaeggersfontaine the newspapers picked up the story in spite of the cloud of secrecy under which she sailed. They predicted that Japan would never allow her to reach China—the Jaeggersfontaine sailed westward while the world waited and watched. West of Honolulu, in dangerous waters, two cruisers suddenly appeared alongside the Jaeggersfontaine—American escorts. The ex-carrier boys among the AVGs identified the cruisers as the Salt Lake City and the Northampton: President Roosevelt had not forgotten the young Americans.

Both men and planes poured into Rangoon, Burma, during the summer of 1941. Chennault formed his material into three squadrons: the 1st, or “Adam and Eve” Squadron; the 2nd Squadron, called the “Panda Bears”; and the 3rd Squadron, “Hell’s Angels.” The Adam and Eve and hell’s Angels Squadrons had their planes decaled with colorful females. Inspired by a magazine picture of a fiercely painted British fighter, Chennault had the ground crews paint a row of shark’s teeth along the air-intake recess of the noses of all the P-40s. The men added blood-red tongues and fierce eyes to complete the picture of the tiger shark. This was especially symbolic to the Chinese whose national emblem was the tiger – an emblem growing out of the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty and the formation of the Republic in 1911. The nickname, Flying Tigers, quickly sprang up in reference to the Disney Studios of Hollywood prepared an official Flying Tiger emblem. The blue-and-white identification of the Chinese Air Force was never really needed after that.

Training of the new units took place according to the concepts of fighter tactics for which Chennault became world famous. Especially revolutionary was his two-plane element as opposed to the commonly used air Force three-plane element. In his two-plane element tactics, Chennault had a third plane fly over top cover. Advantage was concentrated on double firepower, which accounted for so many 1/2, 1/3, and 1/4 victories being credited to the Flying Tigers. Chennault studied the Japanese first-line fighter, the Zero, and analyzed its superior performance in three categories. During training he stressed to his men the necessity of fighting the Zero on the P-40’s most favorable points. He pointed out that if his men had the Zeros they could just as easily fight against the weaknesses of the P-40.

His pilots found the narrow landing gear of the P-40 especially troublesome when operated from hard earthen runways. Even the men who had had previous experience in the P-40 had “ground-loop” trouble and gear-retraction problems. Still, the Flying Tiger continued to train. Chennault wanted a crack outfit before he would send them into battle with the Japanese.

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and their activity against the Chinese Air Force was stepped up. On December 18 they bombed Kunming t a much higher level than had been used during the raids of the previous spring. The next day their formations struck again, but by this time Colonel Chennault was ready for them and the Flying Tigers came prepared to fight.

The radio warning net reported ten twin-engine Japanese bombers of the Mitsubishi 97 type climbing to great altitude out of the Hanoi in the direction of the She-shan Mountains where Chennault sent four planes of Jack Newkirk’s Panda Bear Squadron to intercept the bombers, six other planes to cover the Tigers’ home field, and fifteen planes of the Adam and Eve Squadron to cut off any enemy retreat. In this last group Bob Sandell led the six-plane assault formation and Bob Neale the four-plane support group with Bob Little leading the reserve ships. Newkirk’s men sent the bombers hurrying for home and into the waiting guns of the Adam and Eve boys. Only four Jap bombers returned to their base at Hanoi. Fritz Wolf, formerly a dive-bomber pilot on the USS Saratoga, had the best tally that day with two confirmed Mitsubishis destroyed and one assist. Wolf’s report reads:

“I attacked the outside bomber in the V. Diving down below him, I came up underneath, guns ready for the minute I could get in range. At 500 yards I let go with a quick burst from all my guns. I could see my bullets rip into the rear gunner. My plane bore in closer. At 100 yards I let go with a long burst that tore into the bomber’s gas tanks and engine. A wing folded and the motor tore loose. Then the bomber exploded. I yanked back on the stick to get out of the way and went upstairs. … There I went after the inside man [of the Japanese bomber formation]. I came out of a dive and pulled up level with the bomber just behind his tail. I cold see the rear gunner blazing away at me, but none of his bullets were hitting my plane. At fifty yards I let go with a long burst, concentrating on one motor. The same thing happened and I got No. 2. The bomber burned and then blew up.”

A few days later, on December 23, the Japanese bombers attacked Rangoon, which was 1,000 miles from Chennault’s Kunming headquarters, but he had his 3rd Squadron, Hell’s Angels, at Mingaladon Field to meet them. Six Japanese bombers and four Jap pursuit planes were shot down in the engagement, and the air war was on.

Rangoon was the Burma port, which served as the pouring end of the funnel for the supplies flowing up the Burma Road into China. Millions of Dollars’ worth of goods were centered and stored around this thriving port city. It was an important target, and the Japanese were determined to destroy it. On Christmas Day 1941, Chennault’s early-warning system reported that a large force of over one hundred Japanese planes was headed toward Rangoon.

The 3rd Pursuit Squadron rose to meet the attack. As the Japanese armada swept over—seventy bombers protected by a top cover of thirty-eight fighters—the eighteen Tomahawks of the Hell’s Angels, led by Arvid Olson, screamed down out of the blinding sun, surprising and panicking the Japanese by the speed and fury of the attack. In the ensuing fight nine Japanese fighters and fifteen bombers crashed into the rice paddies, and without accomplishing their mission the armada fled for home. Along the way nine additional Japanese planes crashed. They were delayed victims of the fire-breathing tiger sharks.

The Hell’s Angels switched locations with the Panda Bears, and on December 28, the 2nd Pursuit Squadron met the next massive Japanese air assault on Rangoon, exchanging one Flying Tiger for eighteen Japanese planes.

In the next three months, Japanese planes were shot down at a ratio of twenty to one, with ninety-two Japanese airmen killed for every AVG pilot lost—a record never to be equaled. Chinese morale benefited greatly from the exploits of the Flying Tigers and they became endeared in the hearts of the Chinese people. To Madame Chiang Kai-shek, whom the boys had made the Honorary Commander of their group, they were “my angels, with or without wings.”

In April 1942, Claire Chennault was recalled to active duty in the United States Army Air Corps and given the rank of temporary colonel, with permission to remain in his position with the Chinese government. A few weeks later he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. In that same month col. Robert L. Scott arrived in China to observe and later to take command of the 23rd US Pursuit Group which was to be formed from the Flying Tiger unit—which formal transfer took place on July 4, 1942, when the American Volunteer Group was officially disbanded and replaced with the 23rd. The official score of the AVG at the time was 299 Japanese planes destroyed in seven months and an equal number of probables (not confirmed victories).

Ten AVG pilots and one crew chief had been killed in action (four in air combat, six were hit by ground fire); nine pilots had been killed in accidents. The remaining Flying Tigers, with the exception of Chennault and five others (John Bright, Dave Hill, Ed Rector, Charles Sawyer, and Frank Schiel) returned to the United States where most of them later rejoined their Navy and Army Air Fore units. “Pappy” Boyington and Jim Howard went on to fly their way to move victories, command positions, and Congressional Medal of Honor. The remaining five men formed the nucleus of the 23rd Pursuit Group under Colonel Scott.

Clair Chennault assumed command of the China Air Task Force, which included the 23rd Pursuit Group, the 16th Pursuit Group, and the 11th Bombardment Squadron (Medium). In March 1943, as a major general, Chennault was made the commander of the 14th Air Force, which was formed out of the China Air Task Force.

Fresh young men from the AAF cadet schools poured into China to replace the old Flying Tigers and form the new units in America’s growing Air Force. Of these men, General Chennault, in January 1944, wrote (in a letter to Gen. H. H. “Hap” Arnold, chief of the Army air Force, in regard to the 14th Air Force’s outstanding combat record): “It is indicative of what the American youngster with the fine training he has received under your careful guidance can accomplish in the vat country.” The old pilots had held the enemy until the young Americans could pour through the flying schools to take over a tough job well done.

General Chennault continued his work with fighters and developed the most valuable tactical concept to come out of the war – low –level fighter bombing. He continued, as commander of the 14th Air Force, to perfect to a high degree his ideas of fighter-plan versatility. He conceived the plan for a fragmentation bomb, timed to go off at any altitude, to be carried by fighters to enable them to get above an enemy bomber formation and bomb them with a sort of upside-down flak. This technique was never developed to a precision point, although late in World War II it was feared that the Germans had nearly perfected a similar type weapon. Chennault was also able to watch an idea he had propounded early in 1932 become a useful realization: the paratrooper and the paradropping of artillery and other heavy equipment.

This man, who was known as the Old Man to the men who flew for him, and Old Leather Face to the Chinese people who loved him, was also dubbed Father of Ace for his brilliant leadership of the Flying Tigers, whose remarkable performances left a proud entry on the selective pages of aviation history.

About the Author

Author Gene Gurney, a veteran of fifteen years in the air Force, was commissioned a fighter pilot at nineteen, and received his Regular commission at twenty-one. After World War II, he was assigned to counterintelligence duty in Germany and performed a stint with OSI investigating gold smuggling in the Near East. Later, he was reassigned to SAC as a tanker pilot and is now stationed at Westover AFT, Mass. Since boyhood, he has been fascinated with air aces, an interest which led him to work on his Five Down and Glory. Mark Friedlander, Jr., who edited Five Down and Glory, is a first lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve, and is now practicing law in Washington, D.C. He met author Gurney during his Air Force days, when they were both stationed at Turner AFB, Ga. There they joined forces on this work.