Flying Tigers

From Academic Kids

For the airline, see Flying Tiger Line.
Missing image
A "blood chit" issued to the American Volunteer Group Flying Tigers. The Chinese characters read: "This foreign person has come to China to help in the war effort. Soldiers and civilians, one and all, should rescue, protect, and provide him medical care". (R.E. Baldwin Collection)

Flying Tigers was the nickname of the American Volunteer Group of fighter pilots that fought in Burma and China against Japanese forces during the first year of the United States participation in World War II.

The AVG was largely the creation of Claire Chennault, retired US Army Air Corps major who had become military aviation advisor to Chinese generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in the Sino-Japanese War. On occasion Chennault may have piloted a plane himself, though stories that he was a combat ace are probably apocryphal. Due to poor fighter material, results were not impressive, and when Russian air units were withdrawn from China in 1940, Chiang asked for American squadrons to replace them. The clandestine operation was largely organized by Lauchlin Currie, a young economist in the White House, and by Roosevelt intimate Tommy Corcoran.

In the winter of 1940-1941 Chennault helped negotiate the purchase of 100 Curtiss P-40C fighters (also known as Tomahawk IIB). He visited the United States and supervised the recruiting of 100 pilots — 40 from the Army Air Corps and 60 from the US Navy and Marine Corps — and 200 ground crew. The pilots were mostly reserve officers who were discharged to fight as mercenaries in the army of a foreign country. They were officially employees of Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company, and received a salary of $600 a month for pilots, $650 a month for flight leaders (such as Boyington), and $700 for Squadron leader — none of the 100 initial pilots were recruited at this level. They also were promised an additional $500 for each destroyed enemy aircraft, initially only for aircraft shot down, but Madame Chiang Kai-shek later made the announcement that it was also for aircraft destroyed on the ground.

Thus the First American Volunteer Group (AVG) was formed. (Plans for a bomber group and second fighter group were aborted after the Pearl Harbor attack.) Pilots arrived in Burma in the summer and fall of 1941 and began their training. They called Chennault "the Old Man". Pilots learned to take on enemy aircraft in teams rather than alone, since their aircraft were less adept at dogfighting than those of the Japanese.

Many AVG pilots were either inexperienced or quit at the first opportunity. In addition, fighter planes were slow in coming. Real average strength of AVG was never more than 62 combat-ready pilots and fighters. However, Chennault made a virtue out of these disadvantages, shifting inept pilots to staff jobs and always ensuring that he had a squadron or two in reserve. Spare parts were almost impossible to obtain, though the AVG did receive 50 replacement P-40E fighters toward the end of its combat tour.

AVG fighter planes were painted with large shark teeth on the front of the plane. About the same time, they were dubbed "Flying Tigers" by their Washington support group, called China Defense Supplies. The Tigers had three squadrons — 1st Squadron (Adam & Eves); 2nd Squadron (Panda Bears) and 3rd Squadron (Hell's Angels).

When the United States officially entered the war, AVG had 82 pilots and 79 planes, though not all were combat-ready. Two squadrons were based at Kunming in China and a third at Mingaladon near Rangoon, before the Japanese captured southern Burma.

The Flying Tigers had their first combat on December 20, 1941, when they shot down three Japanese bombers near Kunming and damaged a fourth sufficiently that it crashed before returning to its airfield in northern Vietnam. The 3rd Squadron — 18 planes strong — defended Rangoon in December 23-25 and claimed approximately 90 planes, most of them heavy bombers. Other squadrons were rotated through Rangoon in January and February 1942. After the fall of Rangoon to Japanese in March, the AVG was redeployed to bases in China. Not surprisingly, later research has shown Japanese losses to have been smaller than believed at the time. The AVG was officially credited with 297 enemy aircraft destroyed, and popular accounts often inflate this number to 500 or even 1,000 planes, but author Daniel Ford calculated that the AVG actually destroyed about 115 enemy aircraft in the air and on the ground.

21 pilots were killed, captured, or went MIA during the existence of the Flying Tigers. One of the more famous pilots was Gregory Pappy Boyington, who was dishonorably discharged in April 1942. He went on to create the Black Sheep Squadron, modeled after the Flying Tigers, and was one of two AVG veterans (the other being James Howard of the USAAF) to win the Medal of Honor in combat. Other notable AVG veterans were David Lee "Tex" Hill, later commander of the USAAF 23rd Fighter Group; Charles Older, who postwar earned a law degree, became a California Superior Court judge, and presided at the murder trial of Charles Manson; and Kenneth Jernstedt, long-time Oregon legislator and mayor of his home town of Hood River.

Chennault was reinstated into the USAAF as a colonel, promoted to brigadier and later major general as commander of the U.S. Army's Fourteenth Air Force. After July 14 1942, the AVG was replaced by the 23rd Fighter Group. Only five pilots accepted commissions in China (among them, Albert Baumler). However, US pilots and US press went on using the name Flying Tigers after the AVG's dissolution. Especially the 23rd Fighter Group was often called by the same nickname — they too were "Flying Tigers". Most AVG pilots became transport pilots in China, went back to America into civilian jobs, or rejoined the military services and fought elsewhere in the war.

Just before their 50th reunion in 1992, the AVG veterans were retroactively recognized as members of the U.S. military services during the seven months the group was in combat against the Japanese. Survivors were made eligible for veterans' benefits on the basis of that service, and were awarded medals for their participation.

Further reading

  • Charles Bond & Terry Anderson - A Flying Tiger's Diary ISBN 0890961786
  • Martha Byrd - Chennault: Giving Wings to the Tiger ISBN 0817303227
  • Daniel Ford - Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and the American Volunteer Group ISBN 1560985410
  • Frank S. Losonsky - Flying Tiger: A Crew Chief's Story: The War Diary of an AVG Crew Chief ISBN 0764300458
  • Robert Lee Scott Jr - Flying Tiger: Chennault of China ISBN 0837167744
  • Erik Shilling - Destiny: A Flying Tigers Rendezvous With Fate ISBN 1882463021
  • John Toland - Flying Tigers ISBN 0394904052
  • Ralph Vartabedian. 'One Last Combat Victory' Los Angeles Times, Jul 6, 1991. pg.1

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pl:Latające Tygrysy


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