Day 203: The Skies Light Up Over China – The Flying Tigers’ Legacy

originally published July 21, 2012

Inside that gristly cloud prior to an imminent war, men have been known to indulge in some strange undertakings. Those iron-grey months before the Japanese squirted their rage onto the US Navy base at Pearl Harbor carried the distant flugel-blasts of impending battle, and for a group of American servicemen, this meant acting, not waiting.

Colonel Claire L. Chennault, whose jawline could cut through the air and cause it to shriek in agony, had been working in China since 1937 as the director of a Chinese Air Force flight school. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, not liking his army’s chances against a hungry Japanese empire, called up Chennault and asked him if he’s use some pull to snag a little American support for their cause.

The Americans were doing their best to stay out of the mess in the Far East, but FDR was tuned in. He knew that a Day of Infamy was very likely on the horizon, so in 1940 he (allegedly) gave the okay for Chennault to scoop up some volunteers and head over to China to provide some air support. Unofficially, of course.

Chennault spent that winter securing the purchase of 100 Curtiss P-40 fighter planes, the recruitment of 100 pilots, 200 ground crew personnel and a workable office staff. And so was born the 1st American Volunteer Group, also known as the Flying Tigers.

You’ve heard of a rag-tag group – these guys aspired to reach that level. 60 pilots joined up from the Navy and Marine Corps, another 40 from the Air Force. The problem was, a lot of these pilots were a lot less qualified than they’d claimed to be. Some had claimed combat experience but really only flown bombers. Some had flown even less-powerful planes. One or two had only ever actually flown a kite.

So why lie about dogfight experience when applying for a job that will undoubtedly position you in the crosshairs of the enemy? There are a few reasons I can think of.

Let’s start with the noble one. Japan was not an official American enemy yet, but it was clearly only a matter of time before the puffed-out chests of cross-Pacific nemeses thumped against one another in a show of dominance. Americans have a storied history of really hating the folks they deem to be the bad guys. I’d like to think a number of these pilots signed on to protect freedom, democracy, and the sanctity of American life.

Another reason might be Claire Chennault. The guy was shooting down bad guys in World War I. He’d led the 1st Pursuit Group of the Army Air Corps aerobatic team, those pilots who perform wild stunt-tricks at air shows. He was affable and charming enough to be respected by the leadership of China, and he’d earned the respect of American servicemen. Also, there were rumors that he’d flown combat missions for the Chinese Air Force, which added a delightful highlight of badassery to his traits.

Then there’s the money. Pilots were eager to climb out of government bucks for a guaranteed $600 a month ($675 for flight leaders). This amounts to over $10,000 in today’s money, enough to buy a shiny new Ford back then. Not bad for a month. I’d embellish my resume for that kind of cash.

Chennault gathered his recruits and announced they’d be learning a completely different style of combat than they’d performed (or claimed to have performed) in their service to the US Military. Their planes were considered to be the state of something quite removed from the art. They were clunky and less maneuverable than Japanese planes, so rather than pursuing the enemy with swoops and turns, Chennault instructed his pilots to grab an altitude advantage, focusing on slashing dives for their attacks. American forces had never employed this tactic, neither had the Royal Air Force stationed in Burma. But the Russians had used it with great success, and success was the metric Chennault was looking to maximize.

Charles Bond and Erik Shilling are credited with applying the shark-face design to the numerous P-40s in the Flying Tigers’ inventory. They weren’t the first squad to adopt this idea, but the design ultimately became synonymous with the Flying Tigers as their reputation grew in Southeast Asia.

And oh, how it grew. After setting up camp and doing their best to ensure their pilots were at least trained enough to fly the P-40s without crashing, the Flying Tigers unleashed their first combat mission in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, on December 20, 1941. They caught up with ten Japanese bombers running amok over Kunming. Six of them slinked away, four didn’t make it. No bombs were dropped, and the Tigers were unscathed.

A few days later the Japanese went after Rangoon. The Tigers, along with the 67 Squadron of the Royal Air Force, pummeled the invading bombers, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Rangoon from snarfing down a gullet-full of shrapnel. Many bombs found their marks, and about a thousand Rangoonians were killed.

The Flying Tigers moved around, earning a reputation as one of the most successful air squads in the conflict. They blasted bombers in Mingaladon, Magwe, Baoshan, and Thailand. Their stock of planes was depleting though, and eventually the 23rd Fighter Group of the US Air Force came in to relieve them. The Tigers were absorbed into the US Military; their final mission as a volunteer force was flown on July 4, 1942, with the same end-result as their first: four Japanese planes down, zero damage to the Tigers’ forces.

The Flying Tigers were officially credited with 297 enemy aircraft destroyed. Later post-war analysis disputes this number, and after comparing it to Japanese deployment statistics the number was estimated to be about 115. This number is still impressive up against the 14 Flying Tigers pilots were killed, captured or MIA.

The Tigers were outnumbered almost every time they took to the skies. They had clunkier planes, some of their pilots had questionable training, and yet they still kicked unbelievable ass.

Most of the Flying Tigers resumed military life, two of them (Gregory “Pappy” Boyington and James H. Howard, because they deserve a mention) earning the Medal of Honor. Sure, they had to take a dip in pay and once again assume the burden of authority – there were no ranks in the Tigers, just job assignments – but it was war-time, and they did their duty. Chennault worked his way up to Lieutenant-General, and created the Civil Air Transport, also known as Air America, starring Robert Downy Jr. and Mel Gibson.

This was what men with steel balls did when the call came. Were I wearing a hat, I’d remove it in respect. Then I’d be thankful that my country is not on the brink of war, and that I’ve been outfitted with a much shorter stack of courage and cajone-tude than these men. Then I’d go back to sleep.

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