Friday, November 9, 2007
The Flying Tigers (1941-1942)
Having finished my First World War posts, I'll now move onto the Second. So a new war, new battles, and new locations. For something a little different, I'll start in China and - in a move noticeably different from my usual style - it'll be about Americans. Specifically, the 1st American Volunteer Group, nicknamed the "Flying Tigers". It's possible that some of you may already know this story (there's a John Wayne movie about 'em . . . kinda . . .) but the story is still a neat, unique one that I'm sure anyone can appreciate . . .
For the early part of the Sino-Japanese War, China had relied on Russian-supplied fighters as they didn't have their own at the time. Those Russian fighter planes - for lack of a more effective term - sucked, and by 1940 they got rid of them. Now without effective air support, China looked to the west for help; specifically, they looked to America.
Of course in 1940, The United States still had not entered the war, and Pearl Harbor was still a year away . . . however, America had its methods, able to send supplies and materiel to various nations throughout those early years of the war in one fashion or another. President Roosevelt was for the idea, in any case, and everyone was quick to think up an idea for how they could get American fighters (and as a result, American airmen) into Asia . . .
Most of the economical issues were handled as part of the provisions America was allowed to send eastward as part of the Neutrality Act of 1939. Through this new entity, China Defense Supplies, China was able to acquire the purchase of 100 P-40 "Warhawk" fighters (though granted, the actual funding was still mostly coming from the US government - they were clever that way). As for the actual pilots and ground crews, those were recruited directly from the US armed forces; 40 came from the Army Air Corps, 60 came from the Navy and Marine Corps.
Granted, airmen part of the American military certainly couldn't go to China to fight because America was still technically a neutral power . . . so, those 100 pilots were discharged from US service immediately after; they were then enlisted in the Republic of China Air Force as what was basically a foreign mercenary force (funded by the United States, with an unofficial order passed by the president). The men came to asia in the summer and fall of 1941 by ship with false documents stating that they were tourists going to Burma . . . and while they did go to Burma, their reason was more for training and building the 100 fighter planes that had been shipped there (though all 100 were never in flying condition at any given time during the war).
The flight group went on to paint what would become the historic trademark of the American Volunteer Group: the sharkmouth nose art that detailed every P-40. And thus, the "Flying Tigers" were born.
The AVG's commander was a retired American captain, Claire Chennault, who was in China as an advisor for the Chinese. As such, he had a lot of experience watching Japanese fighter movements and tactics and went on to create his own fighter doctrine based on the strengths and weaknesses of each side's respective planes; the Japanese "Zero" was more maneuverable while the American Warhawk was more heavily armed and armoured and faster in a dive; the Sino-American planes were also going to be vastly outnumbered, so working together in flight groups was key to survival. Chennault was also an excellent planner, setting up a spotting system so pilots would have time to prepare and fly to higher altitudes than enemy planes; he also knew to keep his best pilots in the slowly-growing number of fighters, keeping his less-adept men as ground crews.
Stationed in Burma, the Flying Tigers had their first combat sortie on December 20th - 12 days after Pearl Harbor - intercepting a lone Japanese 10-bomber group headed for Kunming in China. The Flying Tigers shot down 3 bombers and a 4th later crashed from its damage; no P-40s were lost in the attack.
The majority of the American Volunteer Group's battles were of this fashion, defending against Japanese bombing missions. For the most part they did particularly well with a kill/loss ratio for which they could be proud. The fact still stood that they had a finite number of planes compared to the ever-producing planes of the Japanese. The Chinese and American pilots felt every loss, and while they were able to repair some planes (often with parts from other downed planes), their overall resources were never going to be resupplied . . .
From December 1941 to January 1942, the AVG was defending Rangoon against the Japanese Burma Campaign with the help of the local British fighter pilots (it was a British airfield, after all). By February, the Japanese had captured Rangoon, but they paid for it; for the 20 American Warhawks shot down, 50 Japanese planes were shot down.
After Rangoon, the AVG relocated to Magwe to the north. The allies were down to 38 aircraft (among them, only 8 P-40 Warhawks) compared to the Japanese 271 planes. Magwe was bombarded constantly and by March it too was lost; the AVG only had 4 working fighter planes by this point.
It should be worth noting that the mechanic teams on the ground were amazing, often repairing and salvaging incredible amounts from their damaged fighters. After Magwe the AVG relocated to Loiwing with a few reinforcements that brought their aircraft number up to 12. With Chinese forces on the retreat, the Chinese had new "morale missions" for the Flying Tigers. Now not only were they defending from bomber attacks and attacking air bases and the like, but now they were often flying dangerous close-air support for the ground troops. The consensus that these were more for show than they were for actual effective support and revolts were beginning to become an issue . . . with these mindsets, the Flying Tigers abandoned Loiwang for Baoshan in April.
The Japanese Burma Campaign was all but complete, but the vestiges of the AVG continued to fly their missions defending Chinese territory, continued to raid Japanese bases in Vietnam . . . continued to shoot down Japanese fighters . . .
By May, the United States had been entered in the war for half a year. American supplies and manpower was slowly making its way into asia. Eventually by June, enough men and material had made it into China to form a new fighter group: the USAAF 23rd Fighter Group. On July 4th, The Flying Tigers flew their final mission over Hengyang, shooting down 4 Japanese planes for no losses. Once they were back on the ground, the American Volunteer Group was officially disbanded; Chennault went on to command the USAAF 23rd as a Colonel (and later Brigadier General) in the USAAF, and five of the original Flying Tigers opted to stay in China and join the new group.
Back at home, the USAAF 23rd Fighter Group was often still being called the "Flying Tigers" in newspapers and on the radio. The name became synonymous with the American war effort in the air, and the sharkfaced fighters an image burned into the minds of both allies and enemy alike. For the year they were in service, the American Volunteer Group had (on record) almost 300 enemy aircraft destroyed. This was with an average flight strength of about 60 working fighters at any given time . . . it's still a better kill/loss ratio than most other flight groups of the time. Aside from shooting down enemy aircraft, the AVG was also responsible for many supply runs from India over "The Hump" (a stretch of the Himalayan Mountains) into Burma and China - this action proved invaluable for the early years of allied resistance against the Japanese.
After the war, 10 former AVG pilots formed a cargo airline called "Flying Tiger Line" which went on to be successful for 40 years before being bought out by Federal Express.
The men of the American Volunteer Group were extremely unique in that they chose to fight in a war that their home nation still had yet to enter. They volunteered for armed service in the United States, for the AVG, and for the fighting in Burma. They were determined, fierce, and talented. To this day, China still remembers the Flying Tigers in many forms of media and popular culture - one section of the Hong Kong Police's special forces is even nicknamed after the famous fighter group!
This'll probably be something I will never ever say again in any form . . . . . but if you're American and have ever gotten sick of people chiding you for "getting into the war late" and such . . . well, you can tell them about the Flying Tigers and tell 'em to shut the hell up.
(A P-40 Warhawk with the famous sharkface nose art)
(A Chinese propaganda poster showing a US pilot stomping a Japanese officer with a message to the local people: "This is an American pilot, he is driving the invaders out of China, help him.")