The First American Volunteer Group [AVG] popularly known as the Flying Tigers was a civilian contractor group of US Army, Navy and Marine Corps aviators who volunteered to fight for the Chinese against the Japanese in the early days of World War II.
Although the Flying Tigers were in existence for a very short time, they established a stellar combat record and have become one of the most iconic units of the war, readily identifiable by their Shark’s tooth nose art painted on their P-40 fighters.
The AVG was recruited from the military with Presidential authority and was commanded by Claire Lee Chennault. The strength of the group was never more than about 90 planes with three squadrons of 30 aircraft each. The three squadrons were named “Adam & Eve”, “Panda Bears” and “Hell’s Angels” after the 1930 Howard Hughes film.
Although they were in combat from only December 20, 1941 – July 4, 1942, they shot down 229 Japanese aircraft and destroyed another 68 on the ground against a loss of just 16 of the AVG. The members of the volunteer group were in actuality members of the Chinese Air Force although their pay $250 a month for a mechanic, and up to $750 a month for a squadron commander was about three times what they were paid in the US military.
Chennault, was a retired U.S. Army Air Corps officer who had worked in China since August 1937, as an advisor to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and later as the director of a Chinese Air Force flight school centered in Kunming.
The pilots were discharged from the military and promised $600 a month for flight officers, $675 for flight leaders and $750 for squadron commanders. They were promised a bounty of $500 for every Japanese plane shot down. In April 1941, the pilots took ships from the United States to Burma while they awaited their aircraft to be shipped over and shuttled to their training fields.
Chennault’s Training Doctrine Proves Effective: Chennault studied the Japanese aircraft, their tactics and the results the Soviet pilots had while flying against them in 1940. He decided to break from established US doctrine that was being taught to US fighter pilots in the states.
Chennault’s doctrine forbid the AVG pilots from taking on the enemy in a turning dogfight. The Japanese fighters were far too maneuverable for the P-40s to take on in a dogfighting. Instead, the AVG would dive on enemy aircraft in teams from an altitude advantage, and then to execute a diving or slashing attack and to dive away to set up for another attack. This “dive-and-zoom” technique proved to be extremely effective once the Tigers took on the Japanese fighters. Although much more nimble, the Japanese fighters didn’t have the dive speed of the heavier American fighters.
The P-40 was superior to the Japanese fighters in a few areas. The pilot’s armor protection, much heavier armament and self-sealing gas tanks. Plus, they had the advantage of diving faster which fit their tactics to a tee.
Combat begins: Shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the AVG was now combat ready. Chennault moved a squadron [Hell’s Angels] to Kunming to defend the Burma road on December 20, the Japanese sent a force to bomb Rangoon and the AVG shot down four aircraft with no losses of their own while breaking up the attack.
On the 23rd, the Japanese struck again and the Tigers shot down eight more of the enemy while losing three of their own.
On Christmas Day 1941, the Japanese Air Force sent 63 bombers escorted by 25 fighters to attack again, they were met by a force of just 14 P-40s. The AVG ripped into the Japanese formations shooting down a combination of 35 bombers and fighter with a loss of just five of their own.
The combat continued into 1942 as the AVG found itself consistently outnumbered by superior Japanese numbers and although the Chinese and Allies were pushed back, the AVG took a toll on the attacking Japanese pilots. The AVG maintained a superior kill ratio to the enemy and far beyond anyone else in the theater.
Nineteen AVG pilots became Aces while in the service of the Chinese:
Robert Neale: 13 victories
Ed Rector: 10.5 victories
David Lee “Tex” Hill: 10.25 victories
George Burgard: 10 victories
Robert Little: 10 victories
Charles Older: 10 victories
Robert T. Smith: 8.9 victories
William McGarry: 8 victories
Robert Walters: 8 victories
Charles Bond: 7 victories
Frank Lawlor: 7 victories
John V. “Scarsdale Jack” Newkirk: 7 victories
Robert Hedman: 6 victories
C. Joseph Rosbert: 6 victories
J. Richard Rossi: 6.25 victories
Robert Prescott: 5.5 victories
Percy Bartelt: 5 victories
William Bartling: 5 victories
Edmund Overend: 5 victories
Robert Sandell: 5 victories
Robert H. Smith: 5 victories
Return to the US Military: In typical bean-counter form, the US military decided to revert the AVG back into the armed services in mid-1942, and in a total snafu sent a general officer General Clayton Bissell to strong-arm the Tigers back into the US military. Bissell was a long-time hater and enemy of Chennault. His “recruitment” speech for the AVG was full of demands and threats as to what would happen to the Tigers if they refused. Most of the pilots told him to pound sand. Only a few stayed on out of respect for Chennault who was promoted to Brigadier General and put in command of the new unit.
From the diary of Dick Rossi: We were in actual combat for seven months; we had less than 300 people. As of Dec 2, 1941, there were 82 pilots and of the original 100 P-40s sent out to Chennault, 78 remained with 62 in commission, 68 with radios and 60 with armament. There were shortages of just about everything and no spare parts to speak of. The group has a confirmed count of 297 enemy aircraft destroyed with another 150 probable. Our losses were 4 pilots lost in aerial combat, 7 shot down and killed by anti-aircraft fire during strafing runs, 8 killed in operational and training accidents unrelated to enemy action. Four were MIA and of those 3 were found to be POWs. Three died from Japanese bombing raids. One was shot down and seen alive, but no word as to his fate. The American Fighter Aces Association confirms 20 AVG pilots as Aces with another 6 pilots achieving Ace status during the next few years.
Chinese Memorials: Despite not being on the best terms with the US during the Communist years, the Chinese people remember the Flying Tigers and the AVG quite fondly and there are numerous memorials built to honor the memory of the American men who risked their lives for the Chinese people.
From Wikipedia: A Flying Tigers Memorial is located in the village of Zhejiang, Hunan Province, China and there is a museum dedicated exclusively to the Flying Tigers. The building is a steel and marble structure, with wide sweeping steps leading up to a platform with columns holding up the memorial’s sweeping roof; on its back wall, etched in black marble, are the names of all members of the AVG, 75th Fighter Squadron, and 14th Air Force who died in China. In 2005, the city of Kunming held a ceremony memorializing the history of the Flying Tigers in China, and on 20 December 2012, the Flying Tigers Museum opened in Kunming. The date is the 71st anniversary of the first combat from Kunming of the Flying Tigers. The Memorial Cemetery to Anti-Japanese Aviator Martyrs in Nanjing, China features a wall listing the names of Flying Tiger pilots and other pilots who defended China in World War II, and has several unmarked graves for such American pilots.
The largest private museum in China, Chengdu Jianchuan Museum, devotes a wing in its military section to the history of the Flying Tigers, including a tribute wall featuring a thousand porcelain photos of members of the Flying Tigers as well as many historical artifacts from the era.
In March 2015, the Flying Tiger Heritage Park was opened in Guilin in collaboration with the Flying Tiger Historical Organization. The park is built on the site of Yangtang Airfield and includes a museum, aircraft shelters, and relics of a command post located in a cave.
Photos; US Archives