The Flying Tigers: the incredible story of the Americans who fought for China in WWII

Pilots of “The Flying Tigers” race towards their Curtiss P-40 fighters as an air raid warning sounds at an unknown base in China, on November 2, 1943. The AVG was integrated into the US Army in 1942 as part of the 23d Fighter Group, which continued to use the name Flying Tigers (AP)

This week marks the 80th anniversary of the first time a group of American soldiers engaged in combat in the WWII. But this first fight has a peculiarity: It was not with the insignia of the American armed forces on the chest, but fighting for China in its war against Japan. The group called itself the American Volunteer Group (AVG, for its acronym in English) until the press baptized them The Flying Tigers, and they had come to the Asian giant as contractors to assist its relatively weak troops.

The group participated in combat for seven months, but that time was enough to make its mark in the history books thanks to its shocking victories against a better prepared and equipped air force such as the Japanese. Victories that came at a time when the Imperial forces seemed unbeatable and provided some hope not only for the Chinese who witnessed the battles firsthand but also for the citizens of U.S who learned how the war was progressing from the other side of the world. Larry Jobe, president of the Historical Organization of the Flying Tigers, he stated in a note to the middle NPR that “AVGs were a bright spot in history when everything was bleak and black, and they have received a lot of recognition for it.”.

In 1937 China was immersed in a civil war between the Chiang Kai-Shek Nationalists and the communist forcesBut both groups stopped fighting and put aside their differences to focus on the looming Japanese threat. Thus, in July of that year, the chinese japanese war. But the Chinese military had little to do with the Japanese bombers, so they had to find outside help. This is how it appears on the scene Claire Lee Chennault.

Chennault was an aviator, instructor and strategist who had had to retire from the Air Force for health problems and problems with his superiors. His retirement was also in 1937, when he was only 43 years old. But he quickly got a very tempting job offer: to go and analyze the combat capacity of the Chinese fleet in exchange for a good sum of money. But when he arrived in the country, he found a surprise: the conditions of the vehicles were not what he had been told about. “Chiang Kai-shek thought he had 500 planes“, he says NPR Nell Chennault Calloway a, who is Chennault’s granddaughter and CEO of the Chennault Aviation and Military Museum, “And Chennault said to him: ‘You have 500, but there are only 91 that fly‘. That’s how backward they were in aviation. “

Flying Tigers Second World War 1920
Claire Lee Chennault first traveled to China to study the readiness of the Chinese Air Forces, and stayed to lead the creation of the American Volunteer Group. (Gettyimages)

In agreement with their initial work and pressured by the official declaration that started the war with Japan, the Chinese government hired him as an advisor to the armed forces and Chennault became the head of the armed force. By 1940, the lack of airplanes was such that the government had to go and ask for help from U.S, who had to Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president. Although the United States had not been officially involved in the war conflict yet, it was concerned about the Japanese advances and feared what its possible victory over China would mean for the future international scene. That is why Chennault was authorized to travel back to America and an agreement was reached for China to buy 100 Curtiss P-40 fighter jets.

Regarding the personnel who would operate the vehicles, Chennault had to dispatch recruiters to US bases as the Chinese pilots were not sufficiently trained to carry out the task. This is how dozens of pilots and military personnel resigned from their posts, with the government’s backing, and went to China to provide their services under private contracts. “By using Chinese funds to buy the planes and supplies and pay the salaries of the proposed crews, the US government was able to maintain a facade of neutrality, while helping China against the Japanese.”Explains the book published by the Air Force“The Flying Tigers”.

The recruitment was a success because the pilots and mechanics were offered salaries much higher than those they received working directly for the army. And that’s how it was in mid-1941 99 pilots and 200 operators traveled to China to begin their new tasks. One of the pilots, Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, declared in the 1980s to the magazine Aviation History that “I resigned my commission and took the job with AVG in September 1941, as the rank was slow to come and I needed the money. … And with an ex-wife, three kids, debt, and my lifestyle, I really needed the job”.

But it was not easy to set up a base there, with everything that a military base for so many teams and military needs. Kunming, the city where the group was based, did not even have runways that could be used for the new vehicles. So thousands of Chinese citizens had to get to work on this by hand, and they built the tracks. “The Chinese people – the peasants and in particular the working class people – volunteered to help build those runways and airports and also to provide services to the American pilots.“, He says Yue-him Tam, a professor of history of Macalester College studying China and Japan, NPR. “They had no tools, modern tools. They actually used their own hands to build those tracks”He added.

Flying Tigers Second World War 1920
Pak On Lee of Portland, Oregon, George Lum of New York, and Kee Jeung Pon of New York were among the Chinese-American mechanics who served on the AVG. Here they are seen in Kunming, China, in November 1942 working on a Curtiss P-40 of the 23rd Fighter Group, which evolved from the AVG. Department of Defense, Department of the Air Force / National Archives

Thus they began to carry out the training sessions, which at first were more complicated than Chennault expected. The pilots who had accepted the challenge were less experienced than expected and in the first months the group suffered 3 casualties and several vehicles were damaged in accidents.

His first battle came shortly after his arrival in the country: the December 20, 1941, 13 days after the Japanese attack on Pearl harbor and 12 days after the United States declared war on Japan. That day Japanese bombers attacked the Tigers’ base in Kunming, but their response was relentless. Shot down 9 out of 10 enemy planes, according to Chennault’s granddaughter, and They only lost a plane that crashed after running out of gasoline but the pilot was unharmed.

The Tiger group had yet another disadvantage compared to the Japanese army, which was better prepared and had a much larger fleet: AVG’s Curtiss P-40 aircraft were of lower quality than their Japanese counterparts. But this is where Chennault’s ingenuity took center stage, as Thanks to their different strategies, AVG pilots were able to exploit some key weaknesses of the Japanese Air Force.

The fighting continued during the first months of 1942, in which, according to Calloway, officially they shot down 299 Japanese planes, they shot several more than were ever made official, and they only lost 12 of their own troops. However, the Japanese forces outnumbered and outnumbered the AVGs and the British and conquered Rangoon, which was the center of the fighting between the two air forces. Anyway, Efforts made by the Flying Tigers succeeded in slowing down the Japanese advance and kept supply lines open for China to continue fighting..

Flying Tigers Second World War 1920
A group of 52 American WWII veterans who served in China, including members of the Flying Tigers, visit Chongqing, China in 2005 to attend commemorative events (Gettyimages)

But by this time the United States was formally engaged in the war and there was no more need to pretend. The American military leaders asked to absorb the AVGs from the American army and, together with the entire group, Chennault was re-entered the military in April 1942. On July 4, 1942, AVG officially joined the new 23rd Hunting Group. A handful of pilots and support personnel stayed, but most of the original AVG’s men rejoined their previous branch of the military. Others became civilian transport pilots in China or returned to the United States to work as civilians.

Chennault was appointed Brigadier General and led the China Air Task Force, which included the 23rd unit and others,Before being promoted to Commander of the 14th Air Force in China in March 1943. There he stayed, in China, until the end of the war. Shortly after, before the end of 1945, he retired from the army again.

The Chennault-led group quickly gained fame and prestige within the United States, thanks to press coverage of their early and heroic wartime appearances that served as a boost of encouragement when the war seemed to be going over to Japan’s side. . Today there are various monuments, plaques and museum exhibits commemorating the Flying Tigers both in China and the United States but also in Taiwan and Thailand – where they had some battles. The last survivor of the original group, Frank losonsky, passed away in February 2020 at the age of 99.


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