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The Flying Tigers: American Pilots in China

The Second Sino-Japanese war, that waged over China from 1937 to 1945, was the gruesome climax of Sino-Japanese hostilities that persisted over decades. In China, serving under Chiang Kai-shek, an American volunteer took it upon himself to establish his own volunteer air force to fight against the Japanese. Throughout the war, the record of these volunteers was remarkable, to put it mildly: they destroyed 297 enemy aircraft while losing only 14 of their own planes in combat. This is the remarkable story of the First American Volunteer Group, also known as the Flying Tigers.

Background of the Tigers

In winter 1941, the frozen airfield of Kunming, in China’s Yunnan province, harboured a little over 50 American Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighters. They were marked with the blue-white Kuomintang flag, the Chinese nationalists that had fought against the Communists. The Kuomintang had now taken up arms against the Japanese invaders, however, agreeing to a temporary ceasefire with the Communists. On the planes were painted snow-white teeth, some planes even had extra large fangs painted on them. Barracks stood near the Tomahawks. In them, the American pilots of the First and Second squadron of the American Volunteer Group in China (the AVG) resided. The squadron was under the command of the American Claire Chennault, who was nicknamed ‘old leatherface’. He had been the aviation adviser to Chiang Kai-shek, the successor of Sun Yat-sen and leader of the nationalist Kuomintang. As Chiang’s adviser, Chennault felt he too had been at war with the Japanese for over 4 years by now.

Claire Lee Chennault

Initially Chennault had retired from the American Air Corps in 1937. It didn’t take more than a few months for him to turn up in China, however. The Chinese air force was small, badly equipped and poorly trained. They were unable to resist the military machine of Japan. Chennault was tasked with organising and overseeing the construction of airfields in remote areas where the Japanese wouldn’t be able to reach them, establishing radio net so others could be warned when a bombing raid by the Japanese took place and he introduced western battle tactics. It is safe to say that Chennault wasted no time and his projects were incredibly successful. Within several days of his battle tactics to be implemented, 54 Japanese aircraft had been shot down. Before this, the Japanese let bombers fly over China unescorted as the Chinese posed no threat. Now they had to revise their tactics and have bombers escorted, at least.

As for Chennault, well aside from his management on the ground he flew several missions as well. He did so in his trusted aircraft, a curtiss hawk 75 Special, bought for him by Madame Chiang Kai-shek. That reminds me, I promised to make a video about the Soong sisters over 2 months ago… it’ll come, eventually! Now, as the war lasted on, developments in aircraft became the focus on both sides. On the Japanese side the Mitsubishi Zero came into service. It was Japan’s main fighter plane for the first three years of the second world war. The plane had its upsides and downsides. To begin with, it was heavily armed with two 20mm cannons, two 7.7mm machine guns and two 130 pound bombs. Its top speed was 300 miles per hour (which is around 480 kilometres per hour). Due to this, and its ability to easily perform agile moves and climb, it was an ideal dueller. The Tomahawks certainly were up for a challenge. 

While the Flying Tigers are the main focus in this video, politics too continued during the war. In the summer of 1937 a non-aggression pact had been signed between China and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union supplied China with military material, but by the end of 1940 this stream of supplies started to dry up. They became occupied with their own German problem all the way in Europe, the other side of the world. Chennault was quick to realize China could only last against Japan if they received American aid. The United States wasn’t too eager as they stuck to their neutrality, which caused serious diplomatic problems. Direct intervention wasn’t likely. But by February 1941 a persistent Chinese lobby managed to persuade the US government and military to agree to the formation of an American aerial foreign legion. 190 ground personnel and 109 former army, navy and marine corps pilots would serve in this legion. A private company, the central aircraft manufacturing company would employ them, and in June 1941 the first US volunteer group set sail from San Francisco to China.

The Flying Tigers

The American volunteers were to fly the Curtiss Wright P-40 Tomahawk. It wasn’t one of the greatest fighter planes but it certainly stood the test of time and was able to do the job. It had a self-sealing fuel tank and its two wing mounted .303 browning machine guns and .5 browning AN/M2 light barrel pair of synchronised guns that fired through the propellor certainly packed a punch. Thanks to its weight in armor and guns, the Tomahawk was able to outdive the Japanese Mitsubishi Zero. But dueling up in the sky… well the Tomahawk certainly had a hard time against its nimble adversary. 

The American volunteers first were based in Toungoo, in Burma. Surrounded by a malarial jungle, the airfield was leased by the Chinese government from the British RAF, as long as the area was only used for training. Chennault enjoyed much freedom training the volunteers at their Burma base. Some of the men had never even flown an airplane and Chennault now took on the task to mould this group of pilots into a disciplined fighter force. Placing emphasis on tactics, gunnery and outsmarting the Japanese Zero’s that most likely wanted to duel with Tomahawks, the tension between the United States and Japan kept increasing.

By December 1941 Chennault had trained 82 pilots and had 62 aircraft in commission. That month, on the 7th of December, the Japanese attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. The following day the US declared war on Japan. Chennault was ready to go on the offensive. It is what he had trained his men for. Ironically, he initially was ordered to remain in Burma to cooperate with the British RAF. A week after Pearl Harbor he received orders to maintain one squadron in Burma, and move his other two towards Kunming in China. The idea behind this was that 2 squadrons would fight in the violent and chaotic months ahead, whilst one stood on standby in Burma. As such, two volunteer units moved to Kunming and one stood in standby.

Action

Right before Christmas day in 1941 the volunteers saw their first combat. Monsoon season was over and the Japanese made eager use of the calmer weather to increase the volume of bombers flying over China. Over the city of Kunming, 10 Japanese planes were intercepted by the Flying Tigers. 6 of the Japanese were downed, while the Flying Tigers lost none. It was the first time the Japanese experienced serious resistance in China’s sky, and thus the sudden appearance of the Flying Tigers was a real blow to the Japanese morale. 

Three days later the Third Squadron that was held back at Rangoon fought their first battle. They were utterly outmatched. 54 Japanese bombers that flew from their air base in Bangkok were escorted by 20 fighter planes, including eight Mitsubishi Zeros. 14 Flying Tiger Tomahawks and 23 Buffalo fighters from the RAF faced the Japanese. 32 Mitshubishis were shot down, while between the Tigers and RAF 14 aircraft and 7 crewmen were lost. 

Something else happened during this battle. Tigers’ Bob ‘duke’ Hedman and R.T. ‘Tadpole’ Smith both shot down 5 Japanese aircraft, making both of them the first Americans ever to become aces in a single encounter. The Tigers became a force to be reckoned with and caught the attention of the press, not to mention the US military high command.

As Christmass passed savage fighting in the air over Rangoon continued. Heavily outnumbered, the Flying Tigers managed to stay on par with the superior Japanese airforce. Changing tactics after several humiliating defeats, the Japanese now tried a new tactic: luring the Tigers up as other Japanese Mitshubishis hid among the bright rays of the sun. The Japanese amped up their bombing volume of airfields in the area as well. But the Tigers had a nice little deception in store for them. They’d build dozens of dummy Tomahawks, stuffed them with combustible rice straw only to line them up on the runway. As such, the real Tomahawks often evaded the attention from the Japanese bombers(they would be stored under mango and banyan trees next to the airfield). The Japanese thought they destroyed countless aircraft, when in fact most Tomahawks evaded being destroyed. The Tigers’ deception paid off very well during the war.

The Tigers’ Stagnate

Due to the Tigers’ continued success over the Japanese, even though they were outnumbered and out armed, there were calls to change tactics on the Japanese side. Daylight raids, bombings and firefights were canceled. From now on, the Japanese Mitsubishis would engage in night bombings. While the Tigers enjoyed success over the Japanese near Rangoon, the Japanese managed to extend their control over the Pacific islands. They invaded lower Burma as well and by March 1942 they were directly threatening the Tiger base in Rangoon.  

The Japanese weren’t the only persistent threat however. The United States Army Air Force had been operating, ever since Pearl Harbor, to try and get the Tigers back under the American flag. Chennault was opposed to this – he saw the benefits of an independent force. It was flexible, could strike whenever time allowed it without waiting for agreement from higher up and the damage it did to the Japanese far outsized the benefits the US would enjoy by integrating them into their own air force.

As Chennault was discussing this behind the scenes, on the battlefield the Japanese advanced onto Rangoon. In march the Tiger base was abandoned. It was the Tigers that protected the fleeing columns of military personnel, mechanics, civilians and what not from Japanese air attacks. The Tigers settled in Magwe, deeper in-land of Burma. The lack of resources and continual trekking from airbase to airbase, meant infantry opposition to the Japanese became more prioritized. Now, during this time a third problem arose for Chennault. The new US military commander of China, Lieutenant-General Joseph Stilwell, arrived. His nickname, ‘Vinegar Joe’, gives an idea about his personality and tact. Stilwell was an infantryman and as soon as he was appointed a discussion between prioritizing airforce over infantry emerged. This debate would not be settled for several years.

Recalled

Chennault wasn’t going to win the two battles outside of the battlefield. In April 1942 he was recalled to active duty by the US air force. Promoted to the rank of Brigadier-General, he became the commander of the China Air Task Force. It was basically the Flying Tigers squad, except they were now officially serving under the US flag. On July 10th they formally joined the US air force. At their disposal they had 34 Tomahawks and 7 B-25 bombers. Within a year Chennault was promoted to Major-General and the China Air Task Force was redesignated as the 14th Air Force. During this time Chennault had managed to get the Air Force command to agree to let his squadron serve independently once again. Oh, and he was still engaged in a bitter battle for power against Stillwell. 

On the battlefield against the ever advancing Japanese, heavy fighting continued.  As the Japanese overtook Burma, Chennault’s forces had to relocate in Baoshan, far west in China. The fact the Flying Tigers were no more in name due to Chennault being drafted for active duty in 1942 left them an incredible legacy. At the time of disbandment they officially destroyed 297 Japanese aircraft, merely losing 14 of their own. They not only ensured the safe evacuation of Rangoon as the Japanese advanced on the stronghold, but they also played a crucial role in defending the Burma Road as the Japanese were advancing onto it. The road itself wasn’t saved eventually, and the Japanese cemented their power base in the area. As for the feuding with Stillwell, in 1944 Chennault managed to convince Chiang Kai-shek to plead with President Roosevelt to send home Stilwell. Stilwell was subsequently recalled.

This fascinating story about the Flying Tigers, the American volunteers that fought in China’s skies, is one of the many incredible stories from the second world war in that region. Now, in 1944 the Japanese met a disastrous fate during their U-go offensive, namely the Battle of Kohima and Imphal. The Battle of Kohima is also referred to as the ‘Stalingrad of the East’, just to give you an idea of the horrors. That’s the battle I’ll cover next week.

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