In 1931, the Chinese government alarmed by the Japanese invasion of Manchuria started preparing for war. At this time, high ranking German army officers, forced into retirement because of the Treaty of Versailles, were recruited to train the Chinese military.
During this time, a retired U.S. Army colonel by the name of John H. Jouett was chosen to rebuild the Chinese Air Force. Arriving in China in 1932, Jouett found the Chinese Air Force almost non-existent with few airplanes and almost no pilots. He set up the Central Chinese Aviation Academy at Hanchow. From 1932 until 1934 when Jouett left China, 250 pilots were trained to fly airplanes that had been purchased in Europe and the United States.
Following the departure of Jouett, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek asked Mussolini to send 40 pilots and 100 mechanics to China in 1935. The Italians then set up a flying school at Loyand with a Fiat aircraft assembly plant at Nanchang.
In 1937, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, who had been appointed by her husband to oversee the development of the Chinese air defenses, invited Claire Chennault to access the combat readiness of the Italian trained Chinese Air Force.
Claire Lee Chennault was born on Sept. 6, 1893 in Commerce, Texas. Chennault’s family moved to Louisiana and at age 16 he entered Louisiana State University. Due to setbacks in the finances of his father’s farm, Chennault was unable to finish his schooling.
Chennault went on to become a school teacher and married in 1911. The pay was not sufficient and he was working in a tire factory in Akron, Ohio when war with Germany was declared in April 1917.
Chennault volunteered for the U.S. Army and was commissioned a first lieutenant in the infantry. He transferred to the Signal Corps and served in an observation balloon section. He then applied for flight training and graduated on April 9, 1919.
He went on to serve in Pursuit Squadrons. He would also serve as a flight instructor at the Air Corps Tactical School and even wrote a manual for pursuit pilots. He also formed an Air Corps aerobatic team known as “The Three Men on a Flying Trapeze.” However, after clashes with his superiors, Chennault at age 42 retired April 30, 1937 on a medical discharge (for partial deafness). He sailed for China eight days later to accept the offer from Madame Chiang Kai-shek.
Chennault planned to complete his three month inspection of the Chinese Air Force and return home. His inspection showed that the Italian-trained Chinese Air Force was unprepared for the defense of China against a Japanese attack. The size of the Air Force had grown, but it was lacking in quality of men and equipment. Because the pilot cadets were from wealthy families, all were graduated from the Flying School at Loyang. Chiang Kai-shek was pleased to see a large number of Chinese pilots, but was completely unaware how poorly trained they were.
On July 7, 1937, Japan engineered the Marco Polo Bridge incident at Peking which led to the invasion of China. During the first weeks of the war, Japan easily swept the poorly trained Chinese pilots from the sky.
By October 1937 the Italian advisers were leaving China. This was due to a treaty between the Italians and the Japanese.
An International Air Squadron, composed of British, Dutch, and American volunteers, was hastily formed. The men and aircraft were no match for the Japanese and ceased to exist in early 1938.
Following the slaughter of the International Air Squadron, the Russians arrived with six air squadrons. The Russians sent 400 aircraft to China and opened several flying schools to train Chinese pilots. These Russian trained Chinese pilots proved to be very effective although vastly outnumbered.
Chennault stayed in China and became a colonel in the Chinese Air Force. In October 1940 Chiang Kai-shek proposed that Chennault and General P. T. Moe of the Chinese Air Force go to the United States to purchase American aircraft and hire American pilots to fly them. Also at this time the United States was showing interest in expanding its aid to China.
The Chinese delegation wanted 500 airplanes piloted by U.S. men. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morganthau, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, and Chinese Ambassador to the United States T. V. Soong (Madame Chiang’s brother) were successful in convincing President Franklin D. Roosevelt to give his tentative approval to this project. Although Roosevelt gave his approval, he thought that it was illegal because the United States was not at war with Japan.
Obtaining the needed aircraft was another matter, however, and Chennault criss-crossed the United States visiting aircraft factories. The fact that the Army and Navy were expanding their ranks was one reason Chennault could not buy aircraft for China. Another reason was that the Royal Air Force was given first priority to purchase aircraft. Things were looking grim for Chennault.
William D. Pawley, an agent of Curtiss-Wright in China, and Burdette Wright, vice-president of Curtiss-Wright Aircraft Corporation were able to arrange for the purchase of 100 Curtiss P-40B fighters. These aircraft had been consigned to the British, but were rejected by them as being obsolete.
Chennault had studied the new Japanese Mitsubishi Type O fighter and alerted the U.S. military. He knew that the P-40 was no match for the Zero, but with training, the pilots could take advantage of the Zero’s weaknesses.
By Feb. 1, 1941, the P-40s were crated and on the docks in New York ready for shipment to Rangoon, Burma, when a disagreement erupted between the Curtiss-Wright Corporation and William Pawley. Morgenshau stepped in and broke the deadlock, thereby freeing the aircraft to be shipped on April 1, 1941.
On April 15, President Roosevelt issued a presidential directive that would allow Chennault to recruit military personnel for the American Volunteer Group (AVG). However, to escape violating any neutrality laws, the AVG would be employees of the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation (CAMCO). From April to July CAMCO agents toured U.S. air bases in search of recruits for the AVG.
The Army, Navy, and Marine Corps did not look kindly on these CAMCO agents taking men that were already trained. In fact, some of the commanding officers refused to release the volunteers, but they were given a telephone number in Washington, D.C. that they should call. The telephone call informed them that it was in the interest of the United States to release these men.
The contract for the AVG members was for one year. Pilots had to be between 22 and 28 years old and each pilot would receive $600 per month with squadron commanders receiving $750 per month. A bonus of $500 was to be paid for each Japanese airplane shot down. The mechanics and ground crew received between $350 and $400 a month. There would be no rank and the contract stated that they could be dismissed for insubordination, habitual use of drugs or drink, illness or injury not in performance of duties, malingering, or giving out confidential information.
The volunteers also had their reservations about joining the AVG. They did not want to lose their commissioned status and especially seniority toward higher rank. But with Washington’s under-the-table okay and the assurance that their commissions would be reinstated without loss of seniority, many of the men did sign up. Also signing up were two young women volunteer nurses.
By June 1941, 100 pilots and 150 ground personnel had been recruited. This broke down to about 50% from the Navy, 40% from the Army, and 10% from the Marine Corps.
The volunteers assembled in San Francisco in July. In groups of 20 to 40, with passports listing them as clerks, students, tourists, actors, and everything else, they boarded the Dutch ship, Jagersfontein, and got under way on July 10, 1941. After the ship passed the Hawaiian Islands, it was escorted to Manila by two U.S. light cruisers, the North Hampton and Salt Lake City. They then went to Singapore where the group boarded a second ship, arriving at Rangoon on July 28. The other AVG members made the Pacific crossing aboard the M.S. Boschfontein, Zandan, and Bloomfontein, with the last group arriving at Rangoon in November.
From Rangoon they went to Kyedaw airdrome at Toungoo, a hot, humid, inhospitable place, to begin their training. At that time, the 99 P-40s (one was lost when it fell over the side of the ship while being unloaded) were assembled in Rangoon and flown to Toungoo. Beginning at six in the morning, Chennault began to train these former bomber and transport pilots in tactics to become full-fledged fighter pilots. Few had even flown a P-40. Chennault knew that the P-40 was inferior to the Japanese aircraft and the pilot’s lives depended on learning how to out-maneuver the Zero. He told them to never try to turn with or dogfight a Zero. He stressed that the best tactic was to gain altitude, dive and make a firing pass through a Japanese formation, and continue to dive. In this manner, the lighter Japanese aircraft could never catch the P-40.
The pilots were finally allowed to fly the P-40 around the field in the two-plane element. Chennault could always tell a navy pilot upon landing became he made a three point landing in order to engage the tail hook on an aircraft carrier. The army pilots made landings on the two main landing gear.
Some of the pilots left shortly after they arrived and three were killed in training accidents. By the first week of December their training was complete and Chennault had enough personnel to make up three squadrons. The 1st Pursuit Squadron, the “Adam and Eve,” was made up of former army pilots and was commanded by Robert Sandell. The 2nd Pursuit Squadron, the “Panda Bears,” was made up of former Navy pilots and was commanded by John Van Kuren Newkirk. The 3rd Pursuit Squadron, the “Hell’s Angels,” was made up of former Army, Navy, and Marine Corps pilots and was commanded by Arvid Olsen.
The P-40 carried two .30 caliber machine guns in each wing and two .50 caliber machine guns synchronized to fire through the propeller. The aircraft was painted in camouflage tan and dark green and sported the Chinese national emblem on the wings. The squadron emblem was just forward of the cockpit or on the side of the fuselage.
Charley Bond was reading a British magazine when he noticed a picture of an Australian P-40 in North Africa with a tiger’s mouth painted on it. Thinking he would like to have his airplane painted in a like manner, he asked Chennault for permission. Chennault said that he would like to have the whole group of planes painted with the tiger’s mouth.
The AVG did not have to wait long because on Dec. 8, 1941 (December 7 in the United States), Japanese naval air forces attacked Pearl Harbor, Oahu, in the Hawaiian Islands. At the same time the Japanese also attacked Hong Kong, Batavia, Singapore, and Manila. The Japanese seemed to be running wild.
There is a misnomer that the AVG fought against the Japanese before Pearl Harbor. This may be due to the John Wayne movie, Flying Tigers, which shows them in combat before Pearl Harbor was bombed.
The AVG entered battle with Japanese aircraft over Kunming on Dec. 20, 1941. Four P-40s of the 2nd Squadron led by Jack Newkirk were scrambled. Four more P-40s were also scrambled, led by James Howard, who would later serve with the U.S. 9th Air Force in Europe, where he would receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The group destroyed eight out of 10 Japanese bombers, but only one of these made it back to base. One P-40 was lost when Ed Rector had to make a crash landing due to lack of fuel. The newspapers were filled with accounts of the air battle telling about the young Americans and calling them Fei Hu—Flying Tigers.
On December 23 a group of 18 Ki-21 bombers (code named Sally by the Allies) was able to bomb the docks at Rangoon before the AVG or RAF fighters could get to them. However, a second wave of 30 bombers, along with an escort of Ki-27 (Nate) and Ki-43 (Oscar) fighters were heading to Mingaladon airdrome when they were bounced by 14 P-40s from the “Hell’s Angels” and 16 American-made Brewster Buffalos of the RAF. In the ensuing battle Neil Martin became the first AVG pilot killed in combat.
Henry Gilbert was also shot down and killed and Paul Greene had to bail out. While descending in his parachute, Greene was strafed by Japanese fighters, but made it to the ground safely. The tally for the day was 10 Japanese planes shot down but the AVG lost four P-40s with two pilots killed, and the RAF lost five planes and pilots.
On Christmas Day, the Japanese returned with 60 bombers and 20 fighters. The “Tigers” were waiting with 13 P-40s and the RAF with 16 Buffalos. They jumped the Japanese formation about 10 miles from Rangoon, and using Chennault’s tactic of hit and run, cut them to pieces. The AVG shot down 23 aircraft for the loss of two while the RAF shot down 12 for a loss of five.
Parker Dupouy collided with a Japanese fighter and returned to base with four feet of his wind gone. Duke Hedman shot down four bombers and one fighter to become the AVG’s first ace. Charles Older was the first to have five Japanese flags painted on the side of his P-40. (Older would later serve as a judge and try the Charles Manson case.)
Returning to Mingaladon, Squadron Leader Arvid Olson radioed Chennault: “Like shooting ducks. Would put entire Jap force out of commission with group here.”
A broadcast from Tokyo that night showed that the Tiger’s claims had not been exaggerated. The announcer called them bandits and added: “If they do not cease their unorthodox tactics at once, they will be treated as guerrillas.”
By the end of December, Chennault realized that the Hell’s Angels were near exhaustion. On December 30 he sent 17, P-40s of the Panda Bears to Rangoon to relieve the Hell’s Angels.
On Jan. 3, 1942, John Newkirk, leader of the Panda Bears, along with Jim Howard, Bert Christman, and “Tex” Hill, led a raid to the Japanese air base at Tak, Thailand, where they found bombers neatly lined up.
They started their dive on the bombers, but were attacked by Japanese fighters from above. Although their P-40s took some hits, Newkirk and Hill were able to destroy two Japanese fighters each.
The air battles continued and on January 8 Charles Mott was shot down, becoming the first AVG prisoner of war.
By January 24, the AVG had shot down 62 (confirmed) Japanese aircraft in the air while destroying another 11 on the ground. The Tigers had lost three men killed in combat and two due to accidents.
In the latter part of January the Japanese made six major attacks against the AVG. The strain was beginning to show and there were only 10 serviceable P-40s left to the Panda Bears. Chennault relieved them by sending Robert Sandell and the Adam and Eve Squadron which included Gregory “Pappy” Boyington. Boyington shot down six aircraft while with the AVG. He later rejoined the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific where he shot down 22 aircraft and received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
On February 7, Robert Sandell, leader of the Adam and Eve Squadron was killed testing a P-40 after repairs. Robert Neale took command of the squadron, leading them in the final air battle over Rangoon.
With the fall of Singapore on February 15, the Mitsubishi A6M2 “Zero” (Zeke) made its first appearance. The Japanese pilots seemed older and more experienced.
The P-40s were beginning to show the wear of constant combat. However, the ground crews were able to keep them flying and still knocking down Japanese planes using Chennault’s hit and run tactics. By February 23, Neale only had 11 P-40s and pilots.
That afternoon, 40 Japanese planes raided Rangoon for the first time since early February. The air combat was heavy, but the AVG managed to shoot down 13 of the attacking aircraft.
The following day saw 200 Japanese aircraft attack Rangoon, causing great damage. This action saw the Tigers down 18 aircraft.
Although Edward Liebolt was still missing after bailing out of his airplane two days before, the AVG evacuated Rangoon on February 29. With the P-40s as air cover, the ground personnel in a truck convoy headed north-northeast for Magwe. Rangoon fell to the Japanese on March 7.
On a reconnaissance mission to Moulmein airfield just outside Rangoon on March 19, Bill Reed and Ken Jernstedt spotted 20 to 30 Japanese aircraft on the field. They destroyed between 15 to 20 of them.
The next day the RAF visited their old airfield at Mingaladon. It was a good day for the RAF because they shot down 12 aircraft while destroying 16 on the ground.
The Japanese retaliated on March 21 when a force of 27 bombers and 20 fighters struck Magwe. During the melee, four Zeroes were shot down but the RAF lost six Hurricane fighters and the AVG lost one P-40.
The following day the Japanese again hit Magwe leaving the field in shambles. Not a single Allied aircraft was able to make it into the air. The AVG lost a pilot and a crew chief.
With Magwe all but destroyed, the RAF went to Akyab, located on the Bay of Bengal. The AVG also left and went to Loiwing, China, just over the Burma border.
Chennault wanted revenge against the Japanese for the raid on Magwe and knew that the Japanese had a base at Chiengmai, Thailand. On March 23 the AVG struck the field and destroyed 20 aircraft. The raid did have a sour note because John Newkirk was shot down and killed and William McGarry had to bail out of his stricken airplane.
With Newkirk’s death, James Howard took over as squadron leader of the Adam and Eve.
The AVG received 20 P-40Es in March. This improved P-40 had three .50 caliber machine guns in each wing and carried a bomb rack designed to hold a 500 pound bomb. If needed, an auxiliary 52 gallon belly tank could be fitted in place of the bomb rack. The aircraft also had a new reflector gunsight instead of the old ring and post sight of the P-40B.
The first part of April brought the first attack on Loiwing. A group of 24 Zero fighters attacked and strafed the field. The AVG, however, had been warned of their approach and shot down four of the attacking fighters.
Two days later a group of five Zeroes and 27 bombers arrived over Loiwing at 1100 hours. The Tigers had been alerted and were already airborne. Because of a heavy overcast no aircraft were shot down and little damage was done to the field.
At three in the afternoon, 20 Zeroes appeared over Loiwing. Robert “Tadpole” Smith, with a flight of P-40s and RAF Hurricanes, made short work of the enemy shooting down eight Zeroes with no loses.
“Pappy” Boyington was disenchanted and decided to leave and have his commission in the Marine Corps reinstated. Chennault was not happy about this. Boyington left anyway and Chennault thought that he should be drafted into the Tenth Air Force as a second lieutenant. Boyington could have been carried on the AVG rolls as a deserter. However, research by LTC Rhodes Arnold, USAF (Ret.) into the Chennault files in the Hoover Archives at Stanford University shows that Boyington received a dishonorable discharge from the AVG. (These files are open to the public.)
Japanese ground forces were on the move and had captured Magwe, Meiktila, and Taunggi and were now threatening to capture Yemangyaung, Mandalay, and Lashio. British forces were retreating and destroying the oil fields and depots at Yemangyaung.
The AVG was now used in a reconnaissance and air cover role for the Chinese army. By mid-April Chiang Kai-shek asked Chennault for more strafing missions on the Japanese front lines. He also asked the AVG to fly low over the lines so that the Chinese troops could see friendly aircraft and boost morale. These low flying “morale missions” did not sit well with the AVG.
Chennault wanted the AVG to escort a group of British Blenheim bombers to Chiengmai, Thailand. Exhausted, with poor food and living conditions, plus the “morale missions,” 23 pilots turned in their resignations. “Tex” Hill, who was not scheduled for the mission, tried to reason with them, and even offered to lead the mission. Ed Rector and three others volunteered for the mission.
Three days after the mass resignations, Chennault received a radio message from Chiang Kai-shek stating that the AVG was to be used to fight Japanese planes, not for low altitude recon. The resignations were put aside. On April 27 Chiang Kai-shek sent a message praising the AVG.
The following day, “Tex” Hill and Arvid Olson led 15 P-40s against 27 bombers, with an escort of Zeroes, headed for Loiwing. In this air battle, the AVG shot down 22 Zeroes without the loss of a single plane.
By April 29, Japanese forces were approaching Loiwing, taking the city two days later. The last flyable P-40s were flown to Paoshan and Yunnanyi leaving 22 burned P-40s on the airfield.
The Chinese retreat became a route, with refugees and soldiers crowded into Paoshan. Fifty bombers then bombed Paoshan killing many people, including Ben Foshee. Charley Bond was able to get airborne and shot down two bombers, but was himself shot down after being jumped by three fighters.
The next day nine P-40s attacked an incoming group of Japanese bombers over Paoshan, shooting down eight. A second wave of bombers dropped their bombs before reaching the target and turned for home.
By May 5, most of the Chinese had crossed the Salween River, blowing up the bridge after crossing. This left the Japanese Red Dragon Armored Division, composed of armored cars, tanks, artillery, and infantry stalled on the west bank of the very deep Salween gorge. The armored column, which stretched for 20 miles, waited for bridge pontoons in order to cross the river and continue their drive for Kunming.
The following day an eight-plane formation set course for the Salween gorge. Four airplanes in the formation were P-40Es, which were piloted by “Tex” Hill, Tom Jones, Ed Rector, and Frank Lawlor. Flying top cover were four P-40Bs piloted by Arvid Olson, R. T. “Tadpole” Smith, Eric Shilling, and Tom Haywood.
The skies were clear and the Japanese column, with a rock wall on one side and a sheer drop on the other, lay exposed. The P-40Es made their attack, starting at the end of the column, dropped their bombs and machine gunned the column. With their ammunition exhausted, the P-40Bs dropped down and machine gunned the column until their ammo was used up.
For four days Chennault sent everything he had against the Salween gorge. He even borrowed a flight of Curtiss Hawk dive bombers plus SB-3 Russian twin engine bombers from the Chinese Air Force to pound the Japanese column. By May 11, the Japanese force was all but destroyed.
The following day the AVG strafed a Japanese airfield in Hanoi destroying a number of airplanes. As John Donovan pulled up from his strafing run, he was hit by anti-aircraft fire and crashed in the jungle.
On May 22, the AVG raided Japanese artillery positions near Paoshan. The right wing of Bob Little’s airplane was shot off and he was killed in the crash.
Colonel Robert L. Scott, U.S. Army Air Forces, arrived in April to learn tactics from the AVG. On May 28, Scott and Lewis Bishop made a strafing raid at Laokay. Bishop was shot down by flak, and after parachuting from his plane, was captured by the Vichy French. The French then turned him over to the Japanese at Hanoi.
At the beginning of June, the men began counting the days until July 4. This would be the expiration date for their contracts with CAMCO.
The 2nd and 3rd squadrons remained at Kunming and the 1st squadron was sent to Kweilin, which had been bombed by the Japanese. But on June 12, the AVG was up and waiting when 11 fighters and 10 bombers appeared over Kweilin. On the first pass Bob Neale, George Burgard, Robert H. “Snuffy” Smith, and John Rossi each shot down a fighter. The bombers turned out to be a twin engine fighter, described by the AVG pilots as a Japanese version of the German Me-110 (possibly a Kawasaki Ki-45 ([Nick] fighter). However, Joe Rosbert and Robert Prescott did score on the twin engine fighter. Thirteen Japanese aircraft were destroyed but Charley Bond was missing. He said later that he was attacked by two fighters, and after his engine was hit, crash landed in a rice paddy.
The AVG continued their raids, but between raids, they taught young U.S. Army Air Force pilots to “P-forty” the Japanese. Radio Tokyo, however, jubilantly announced that the “American renegades” was nearing its end.
The end of the AVG “Flying Tigers” came at midnight on July 4, 1942. General Clayton Bissell, U.S. Army Air Forces, told the members of the AVG that if they did not transfer to the U.S. Army Air Forces 23rd Fighter Group, that they would be drafted into the army as privates. This alienated the AVG and only five pilots and 32 of the ground crew elected to join the 23rd Fighter Group.
Many returned to the United States to serve in the military forces, while 17 others elected to join the Chinese National Airline Company (CNAC) and fly supplies over “the hump.”
Twenty pilots elected to stay on an extra 14 days to train the new pilots. One of these, John E. Petach, who had married Emma Jane Foster, one of the AVG nurses, was killed while dive bombing gunboats.
In the short time that the AVG was in existence, they destroyed 299 Japanese aircraft with another 153 probably destroyed to produce 32 fighter aces. They lost nine pilots in combat, nine in accidents, and four missing in action. Honorable discharges from China were given to 254 men.
On July 4, 1991 all members of the AVG were finally granted veteran status by the U.S. government.
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