Flying Tigers were U.S. pilots who flew their shark-faced painted fighter planes to defend China from the Japanese onslaught. (Herald photo courtesy of Dr. Richard Lee Lasbury)
Flying Tigers were U.S. pilots who flew their shark-faced painted fighter planes to defend China from the Japanese onslaught. (Herald photo courtesy of Dr. Richard Lee Lasbury)
In the winter and spring of 1941-42, America came under the spell of the Flying Tigers, U.S. pilots who flew their shark-faced painted fighter planes defending China from the Japanese onslaught.

A collection of myths, magic and mystery have surrounded the accounts of the American Volunteer Group (AVG)7 nicknamed the Flying Tigers. The latest version of myth creation is the book by Bill Yenne, When Tigers Ruled the Sky.

In the early months of the Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese pilots easily defeated the poorly trained and equipped Chinese Air Force. In 1937, retired U.S. Air Corps officer Claire Lee Chennault was employed by the Chinese as the director of its fledgling flight school, arriving in China after resigning his commission. His resignation ostensibly was because of poor health, deafness and chronic bronchitis, in addition, he was quarrelsome, belligerent and detested by his superiors.

Now a civilian, he was paid $1000/month by the Chinese Government. As an advisor to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, the leader of the Republic of China, he was asked to go to Washington as Chiang’s emissary. Chiang needed more planes and pilots to protect his country from the aggressive Japanese.

Since the U.S. was not yet at war, the “Special Air Unit” could not be overtly organized but the request was approved by President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself. Chennault remained in Washington supervising the purchase of 100 Curtiss P-40 fighters. One hundred pilots, 200 ground crew and administrative personnel were recruited and this constituted the first American Volunteer Group (AVG). They were officially members of the Chinese Air Force and pilot officers were paid $600 per month, $675 a month for a flight leader and $275 for a skilled ground crewman. By oral agreement, a bounty was offered of $500 for each Japanese plane destroyed; however no one was sure if this was myth or truth. But when they returned home, they found all their bounties had been deposited to their bank accounts.

After training in Burma and engaging the Japanese in defending that country, the AVG had little resources at their China bases. Even though they were located in areas where malaria and cholera were epidemic, they were provided with only four doctors and three nurses and “a bottle of iodine.” The food was “foreign” and undesirable and the mail from the states arrived slow and slower. Only one-half of the necessary maintenance personnel were available and major repairs to damaged planes required an inordinate amount of time. In spite of what should have been low morale, the AVG was credited with 297 enemy air-craft destroyed. The AVG kill ratio was superior to all contemporary air groups in the Pacific Theater, which is remarkable because they were always outnumbered by Japanese fighters in all engagements. Chennault had dispersed his squadrons to provide the best air protection for China. After the Doolittle raid, in 1942, the Japanese attempted to eliminate the AVG air bases in their belief that they could be used for attacks on their homeland.

Fourteen AVG pilots were killed in action, captured or disappeared on combat missions. Six were killed in non-combat accidents during the existence of the Flying Tigers.

Author Daniel Ford attributed the AVG’s high success to its elevated morale and the group’s “esprit de corps.” The pilots were all “triple volunteers.” They had volunteered for service in the U. S. Military, the AVG, and the most brutally dangerous combat missions in Burma. The result was a corps of experienced and skilled volunteer pilots who were eager for combat.

The AVG’s last combat mission was over Hengyang on the day it was disbanded, July 4, 1942. On that final day of combat, the AVG destroyed four Japanese Ki-275s, with no AVG losses.

After the U. S. declared war on Japan, Gregory “Pappy” Boyington resigned his contract with the AVG and returned to active duty with the U.S. Marine Corps. He went on to command the “Black Sheep” Squadron. There were two AVG pilots awarded the Medal of Honor, Boyington and James H. Howard for their meritorious service in WWII.

Charles Older, an AVG double Ace, earned a law degree, became a California Superior Court Judge and presided at the murder trail of Charles Manson.
Basta und damit!