The Flying Tigers
Claire Chennault and the American Volunteer Group
By Stephen Sherman, April, 2000. Updated June 27, 2011.
The Flying Tigers were a group of American fighter pilots that flew for China in the early part of 1942. Led by a controversial American, Colonel Claire Chennault, they were actually called the "American Volunteer Group" (AVG), and achieved good success in their aerial battles against the Japanese.
They were a relatively small group, and never had more than 100 Curtis Warhawk P-40's (decorated with the famous red shark mouth) available.
But at the time they were flying (early 1942), they were the only Americans doing ANYTHING against the Axis. With an American public reeling from Pearl Harbor and anxious to strike back "NOW!" the Flying Tigers were "the only game in town" at that point. Thus they received a lot of favorable press coverage, from reporters anxious to write about the only only Americans doing ANYTHING ANYWHERE against the Japanese.
The Flying Tigers comprised three squadrons:
- 1st Squadron - "Adam and Eves"
- 2nd Squadron - "Panda Bears"
- 3rd Squadron - "Hell's Angels"
The top aces of the Flying Tigers were: David Lee "Tex" Hill, Robert Neale, and Chuck Older. James Howard flew with the AVG; he later earned the Congressional Medal of Honor while flying P-51s for the 354th Fighter Group (Ninth Air Force) in Europe. Pappy Boyington was another Tiger who went on to greater fame; he had a falling out with Chennault, who gave him a Dishonorable Discharge. The mercurial Boyington never forgave him.
"Colonel" Claire Lee Chennault had been in China since the mid-Thirties; he called himself "Colonel," though his highest rank had been Major. An outspoken advocate of "pursuit" (as fighter planes were called then), in an Army Air Force dominated by strategic bomber theorists, he alienated many of his superiors. But in China, equipped with P-40's, he developed the basic fighter tactics that American pilots would use throughout the war. The Japanese planes used over China were much more maneuverable than his Warhawks, whose advantages were: speed in a dive, superior firepower, and better ability to absorb battle damage. Chennault worked out and documented the appropriate tactics that capitalized on the relative strengths of the American fighters: intercept, make a diving pass, avoid dogfighting, and dive away when in trouble. This remained the fundamental U.S. fighter doctrine throughout the Pacific War.
My appreciation of the pilot's bravery and Chennault's tactical skills, however, doesn't change my assessment of the unfortunate and perhaps distracting role they played. The Chinese politics and Chinese-American relations at the time were quite complicated. The titular leader of China, Generalissimo Chiang Kai Chek, of the Kuomintang, was engaged in an endless three-way war: his Kuomintang vs. Mao's Communists vs. Japan. And his own power within the Kuomintang was dependent on balancing various warlords, cliques, and factions. Given the understandable problems posed by this situation, he always wanted more and more American aid, which he and his generals then wanted to use against internal enemies as well as Japan, or perhaps, not to use at all, but to hoard as symbols of their power.
General Chennault, got the Generalissimo's ear, and persuaded him that air power could sweep the Japanese from China, almost effortlessly and painlessly, just a few score American B-17 bombers would do the trick. Thus Chiang Kai Chek, General Chennault, Madame Chiang Kai Chek, and the powerful China Lobby used their combined influence with the American government to push Chennault's air power scheme.
Unfortunately, addressing real issues in Nationalist China -- development of democratic or at least stable institutions, the rooting out of corruption in the Kuomintang, the training and deployment of useful Chinese infantry forces against Japan, improving the life of the ordinary villagers, etc. -- had no priority with the Generalissimo. Chennault's proposals seemed to offer such a promising way out.
The American government had its own problems, and couldn't scrape up the numbers of bombers envisioned. But keeping China in the war against Japan was understood to be in America's strategic interest (even before Pearl Harbor). What could be offered to Chiang was about 100 Curtis P-40 Warhawk fighter planes with volunteer military pilots to fly them. They fought with distinction, largely in the defense of Burma, and were absorbed into the United States Army Air Force's 23rd Fighter Group in July, 1942.
The Lady's Story
These plans came together in July, 1941, when Chennault began to organize the American Volunteer Group (AVG). He acquired a chief of staff, Captain Harvey Greenlaw (who followed his boss's lead and promoted himself to Major), in Hong Kong in July, 1941. Along with Harvey came his beautiful wife, Olga Greenlaw, who kept the Group's War Diary and wrote about her experiences in The Lady and the Tigers. (The following paragraphs are based on her book. - ed.)
In August, 1941, the AVG started training in Toungoo, Burma, 175 miles north of Rangoon. Jack Newkirk, Sandy Sandell, John Armstrong, Red Probst, Oley Olson, Bob Little, Pete Atkinson, and other pilots were learning to fly Curtiss P-40's from a primitive airstrip. In these early days, they didn't have too much to do: flight training, drinking, fighting, and hunting. The lack of women (in the 1940's, read "white" women) was also a problem; Olga's personal role in alleviating that problem has been the subject of considerable gossip and speculation over the years.
The Flying Tigers were still training, they hadn't flown their first combat mission, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. As the Japanese threatened one Allied city after another, the British asked for a squadron of Flying Tigers to help defend Rangoon. Oley Olson's Third Squadron, "Hell's Angels," headed south, while the bulk of the AVG flew up to Kunming, to protect the terminus of the Burma Road. On December 20, the AVG engaged Japanese bombers for the first time, downing four and disrupting their bombing raid on Kunming. Over Burma, the Third Squadron also met with success, claiming six on the 23rd and ten on the 25th; before Jack Newkirk's Second Squadron relieved them.
In January, eight pilots of the First Sqn. flew to Burma to reinforce Newkirk, among them Greg Boyington, whom Olga described as "a frequent caller ... popping in at odd times for coffee or whatever." He returned to the AVG in Kunming in time to participate in a bomber escort mission on January 22. Chinese pilots, flying Russian-made SB-2's, attacked Hanoi. Sandy Sandell reported that the bombers' poor formation flying rendered both the escort and the bombing ineffective. "If we'd met any Japs, we'd have been dead pigeons."
By January 24, the Flying Tigers had claimed 73 Japanese planes, while losing 5 of their own. Japanese records indicate they had lost about one-third that many, mostly bombers. Olga's "dear, silly Sandy" and Boyington were soon rotated to Burma, where Newkirk's handful of weary Warhawks continued to punish the Japanese bombers. On February 7, Sandell was testing a P-40 with a repaired tail; it stalled and spun in, killing him on impact. The plane was destroyed so completely that only the right wheel and tail wheel were salvageable.
Through mid-February of 1942, the Japanese advances continued; Singapore fell and Rangoon became untenable. About this time, Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai Chek hosted a dinner in honor of the AVG. Olga's version of the speeches is replete with sentiments like, "Boys .. you are angels, with or without wings," and "the indomitable courage of the Chinese people," and "a bond of friendship and friendship which serves us well in the crucible of war, and will serve us equally well when vistory is ours." Oblivious to the speeches, the war, and particularly, the Japanese in Burma, pressed on. The AVG contingent (the Third Squadron replacing the First) pulled back to an airdrome at Magwe in early March. On the 9th, Rangoon finally fell. The Group held a funeral (for some officers killed in a CNAC plane crash), a wedding (for Daffy Davis and Doreen), and a birthday party (for Olga). One of the pilots, Tom Jones, gave her a .25 caliber Colt pistol.
When her work as squadron diarist, newspaper editor, and den mother/confidante overwhelmed her, she did what any proper lady of that era did. She checked herself into the hospital for a week's rest. While there, she heard about the raid on Chiang Mai, when Jack Newkirk was killed. The Chiang Mai raid, in which four Flying Tigers destroyed fifteen Japanese planes on the ground (3.75 apiece), was largely the basis of Boyington's claim to have destroyed six Japanese planes with the AVG. Also in late March, the AVG finally quit Burma, its forces on that front re-assembled at Loiwing, just over the Chinese border.
During the spring of 1942, Chennault struggled to keep the AVG the independent air force that it had been, reporting directly to Chiang Kai Chek. Pressure mounted to subsume the AVG into the Chinese Army under "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell or into the regular US Army Air Force. Casualties kept mounting - Tom Jones and Bob Little were killed. During a short trip to Delhi, India, Tex Hill and others speculated about their futures in the USAAF. At this point, it became clear that the AVG was going to disband, the 23rd Fighter Group, under Col. Robert L. Scott, would take over its responsibilities. Tex hoped for a major's commission.
In the end, only five AVG pilots joined the 23rd Fighter Group, while nineteen went to work for CNAC, the Chinese National Airlines. Many factors contributed to this. Some AVG pilots were former Marines and Navy fliers, who weren't necessarily interested in flying for the Army. Others, notably Boyington, has lousy disciplinary records, and the USAAF didn't offer them commissions. Like Tex Hill, many felt that their combat experience entitled them to higher ranks in the unblooded Army Air Force. Finally, the USAAF officer responsible for inducting the AVG men used very little tact and told them to sign up, on the Army's terms, or else go home and face the draft boards.
Olga and Harvey Greenlaw returned to the States, where Olga penned The Lady and the Tigers. Not long afterwards, their tempestuous marriage finally ended, Olga remarried and Harvey moved to Mexico.
Interestingly, Colonel Robert L. Scott, author of the best-selling God is my Co-Pilot, never was a Flying Tiger. He commanded its successor organization, the 23rd F.G., but never served with the American Volunteer Group.
Thus, while there can be no doubt about the courage, tenacity, and tactical successes of the Flying Tigers, nor about the useful role they played in boosting American morale at a critical point, strategically, they typified so much that was wrong with the Nationalist Chinese government and the American efforts to help the Chinese people.
I hope that these paragraphs do not annoy any of my loyal visitors. If so, I highly recommend Barbara Tuchman's Stillwell and the American Experience in China. She describes the background of these years in China, with obvious sympathy for "Vinegar Joe" Stillwell, a great American and friend of the Chinese people, but a bitter foe of Chiang Kai Chek and Chennault. Her thoughtful and fascinating study provides good insight on many of these issues.
Recommended Web sites:
Annals of the Flying Tigers - Dan Ford's great web resource, including a very comprehensive Flying Tigers bibliography
Corey Jordan's excellent Planes and Pilots of World War Two includes stories by Flying Tigers Dick Rossi, Erik Schilling, and Robert T. Smith.
Recommended Books:Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and the American Volunteer Group (Smithsonian History of Aviation), by Daniel Ford, 1995 is available through Amazon.com
The Lady and the Tigers: Remembering the Flying Tigers of World War II, by Olga Greenlaw, edited by Daniel Ford in this 2002 edition