Sharks’ jaws were painted on their P-40s. In only seven months of fighting, they had destroyed almost 300 Japanese planes, losing just over 60 of their own, even though significantly outnumbered, often as much as 8 to 1. They were the American mercenaries fighting for China, officially called the 1st American Volunteer Group. But, they were better known as The Flying Tigers.
The story of the Flying Tigers beganin 1937, when Claire L. Chennault of the United States Army Air Corps retired from active service and decided to accept an offer to make a survey of the Chinese Air Force. That was the beginning of his stay in China that lasted until July 1945.
Chennault’s status in China was quite complicated. He stated, that he was employed as a civilian advisor to Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, Secretary of the Commission for Aeronautical Affairs. But even when Chennault was commanding the Flying Tigers, his official job was the adviser to the Central Bank of China and his passport claimed, he was a farmer.
In 1939, the Japanese were bombing every major population centre in China. They were almost unopposed and these attacks were the main factors that led to organizing the American Volunteer Group. In 1940, Claire L. Chennault was asked by Chiang Kai-Shek to go to America and negotiate the delivery of planes and pilots to fly for the Chinese Air Force.
Chennault came up with the idea of a small, very well trained and equipped force that could attack Japanese supply lines. Unfortunately, Chennault’s plan was not well received and the only result of his actions was the creation of the First American Volunteer Group.
The first problem was planes. As China was a very appreciated customer of the Curtiss-Wright company, Burdette Wright, the company’s vice-president, had developed a plan, but it required British co-operation. The British agreed to the proposition of giving priority to the Chinese and 100 P-40s rolling off the assembly line were given to the First American Volunteer Group. The British were happy to wait for later, better equipped models, as the Chinese P-40 B planes were not equipped, for example, with gun sights and bomb racks.
The main problem was pilots, as the military strongly opposed sending volunteers to China. President Roosevelt had to intervene and signed, on April 15th, 1941, a special executive order, allowing personnel to resign from military air services and, consequently, permitting them to join the American Volunteer Group.
All staff of the AVG were recruited from US Army, Marine and Navy and had to sign a 1 year contract with Central Aircraft manufacturing Company, CAMCO. Although this unit was closely associated with the US Army, all pilots of the AVG were mercenaries and resigned their commission. One enlisted pilot even took a discharge. Salaries were ranging from $250 to $750 per month. All pilots were also unofficially promised $500 for every destroyed Japanese plane. This applied initially only for in-air fights, but later was extended for planes destroyed on the ground.
The first Americans left San Francisco on 10th of July, 1941. The AVG got permission from the British to use its airfield at Toungoo in Burma. All Flying Tigers’ planes were assembled in Burma. When all staff and aircraft had reached their destination, Chennault divided them into three squadrons: “Adam and Eve”, “Panda Bears” and “Hell’s Angels”.
After the Pearl Harbor attack, it was agreed with the British, that one AVG squadron would help with the defence of Rangoon and two others would stay at Kumming.
In the first AVG’s combat, pilots from The First and The Second squadrons managed to shoot down 9 out of 10 Japanese bombers, losing just one plane. Shortly afterwards, the Third Squadron, alongside RAF, fought its first fight over Rangoon. The Allies shot down 6 Japanese bombers, but the British lost 5 planes and The Flying Tigers – 4 aircraft and 2 pilots.
On December 25th, two waves of 80 bombers and 48 Japanese fighters struck Rangoon. The Flying Tigers destroyed 23 of them, without losing a single aircraft. Then on 28th December, 3 days later, the AVG fought off another attack of 20 bombers and 24 fighters, shooting down 10 of them. A day later, The Flying Tigers destroyed 18 planes, out of the attacking 60, losing just one plane. On New Year’s Eve, Japanese lost another 15 planes out of 80 attacking, but this time, they did not manage to shoot down a single Flying Tiger.
Overall, the pilots of the America Volunteer Group officially shot down 75 Japanese planes in just 11 days, and this number does not include any probable kills.
The battle over Rangoon continued for weeks, but in late February, Rangoon was captured by the Japanese ground forces. After being driven to bases at Magwe, and later, into the interior of China, The Flying Tigers continued their fight, supporting Chinese ground forces and defending Chinese cities.
To put everything into perspective, The Flying Tigers while fighting over Rangoon, had a strength of between five and twenty operational planes. They were fighting over a thousand Japanese aircraft. They destroyed 217 of them in 31 encounters, with another 43 probable kills. They lost only 5 pilots and another was captured. During the Battle of Britain, the ratio of destroyed German planes to British was 4 to 1. Over Rangoon, the ratio of destroyed Japanese to Anglo-American was 14 to 1.
When Rangoon was captured by the Japanese, the combined forces of AVG and RAF had fought over North Burma and later over Western and Eastern China.
The Flying Tigers were disbanded July 4th, 1942. Although military experts predicted they wouldn’t last more than three weeks, they fought for seven months. Flying over Burma, China, Thailand and French Indo-China, they destroyed 299 enemy planes, with many probable kills. They fought more than 50 Japanese air battles without a single defeat.
They had lost only 12 planes in fighting and 61 on the ground. 23 of the Flying Tigers’ pilots died and three were taken prisoner. Although Japanese asserted they would be treated as bandits, they were treated as any regular POW. Most of the pilots were decorated by the Chinese government and it was even said the AVG was the best investment China ever made.
Featured picture: Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flying_Tigers_personnel.jpg, Public Domain.