Although there were several acts of heroism during World War II, few, if any, can compare to what the Flying Tigers did for the oppressed people of China. The Flying Tigers were a motley crew of army pilots, mercenaries, and other men from all walks of life who worked together to accomplish one goal, to protect the Burma Road, China’s lifeline to foreign aid. This paper will detail the history of the Flying Tigers in their heroic fight for the Chinese people’s freedom.
While the rest of the world was caught up in the struggles of Europe, the Japanese Army started to attack the Chinese homeland in a play for resources and land. Although the Chinese Army had an enormous number of soldiers, most of them were unarmed and without proper training. Therefore, they stood no chance against the well equipped and battle hardened Japanese Army. In addition, the Japanese Air Force was wreaking particular havoc on Chinese cities and civilians. The Chinese Air Force (CAF) was flying junk planes that for practical purposes only provided the Japanese Air Force with extra target practice. The CAF’s leaders knew they needed outside help in order to stand a chance against the Japanese. They sent scouts to America to find airmen qualified to survey their air force and make recommendations.
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One of the CAF’s scouts, Colonel Mao Pang Chu, attended a performance of the Three Men on the Flying Trapeze. This Army Air Force group performed flying stunts at air shows. Colonel Mao was so impressed that he offered all three pilots jobs on the spot. Initially all three refused. However, several months later the group’s organizer, Claire Lee Chennault, retired. When the Chinese made another offer, he accepted. Soon he was in China where he began a whirlwind tour that took him all through the country. While he was surveying the Luoyang airfield, reports were received of Chinese troops skirmishing with the Japanese. The skirmish soon became a battle for the control of Beijing, the capital. During this moment of urgency, Chennault offered his services to the CAF. Soon he was telegramed orders to take control of the CAF’s leading squadrons stationed in Nanchung. While there, he learned of the Chinese airmen’s inability to fly. In addition, only a third of their airplanes was flight worthy. Chennault began training Chinese pilots, and the CAF improved drastically.
Soon the Chinese got the chance to show off their new skills. During a raid in which the Japanese sent 12 bombers against Beijing, the CAF managed to destroy all of them before they reached their targets. This came as a great surprise to the Japanese generals who considered the Chinese pilots to be inferior. Victories became more difficult later in the war, however, when the Japanese began using a newly designed plane called the Zero. Faster than any other plane at the time, the Zero was also more maneuverable. With its new plane the Japanese air force tore the fledgling CAF to shreds. In 1941, Generalissimo Chiang once again sent emissaries to the United States asking for aid. Chiang wanted American planes and pilots to fight the Japanese, who were threatening to destroy China’s supply route to the outside world – the now famous Burma Road. Chiang promised to pay the pilots $600 a month, plus a bonus of $500 for every Japanese airplane shot down. This was approximately three times the amount pilots were earning at the time. Chiang also offered to pay $250 a month to ground crew members willing to enlist.
When Chiang’s request was presented to President Franklin Roosevelt, the President signed an Executive Order that authorized the creation of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) and extended Lend-Lease aid to China. Chennault, who had returned to the U.S. to recruit pilots and get more planes, became head of the AVG. However, because the U.S. was still at peace with Japan, a middleman, or a recruitment company based in China was needed. The private agency that was used was CAMCO (Central Aircraft Manufacturing Co.). CAMCO hired pilots and ground crew to perform non-combat services. However, the American pilots really flew for the CAF. As soon as pilot groups were assembled, they were shipped out in civilian clothes to Rangoon in Dutch passenger liners. From Rangoon, the pilots were flown immediately to the air base at Kunming.
During the following monsoon season the Kunming base became unusable. The AVG pilots were glad to leave it behind because of the intense heat that had been difficult for them to adjust to. The solution was to renovate a deserted British airfield outside of Toungoo. Soon, it was transformed into a bustling airfield. But, Chennault still faced many problems. First, although he had some experienced and qualified pilots, the majority were unqualified, and some had not flown in a year. In fact, during routine training maneuvers one pilot managed to crash three planes in one day. Second, there was a serious lack of good equipment. All of America’s newly produced planes were being sent to Britain to aid them in their battle against Germany. Because China was of little strategic importance to the U.S. and its major allies, initially the AVG was sent the old and often defective planes that Britain rejected. However, once the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, everything changed. China was now seen as a potential ally that could halt Japanese advancement. Therefore, Chennault no longer had to disguise his motives in China.
Chennault began receiving the Curtiss P-40C Tomahawk, the newest American plane, designed for coastal defense. The Tomahawk had a top speed of 340 mph, with two .50 caliber machine guns in its nose and four 7.92 mm. guns in the wings. Although the Tomahawk was the best America had in 1941, there were several drawbacks compared to Japanese planes. For instance, the Tomahawk was slower than the Japanese fighters and could not fly as high. Lacking a supercharger, it could not fly higher than about 20,000 feet. Therefore, Chennault had to devise tactics that would play to the Tomahawk’s strong points – its fast diving speed (500 mph) and its powerful arsenal of machine guns. Against the faster and more maneuverable Japanese planes, Chennault’s strategy was to fly above the enemy, then dive and open fire. This scattered the Japanese, making them easier to destroy. Chennault also advised his pilots to avoid dogfights with the faster and more maneuverable Japanese planes.
Chennault’s pilots got the first chance to test their skills in late December. The Japanese sent light bombers against Kunming in a routine raid. This time, however, the AVG was prepared. In the ensuing battle, the AVG pilots destroyed four light bombers and damaged several more while sustaining no casualties of their own. The AVG had been put to the test, and it had passed with flying colors. A newsman stationed in Kunming to watch the rumored American squadron picked up the story and immediately radioed it to Washington. Although The New York Times did not make much of the story, Time Magazine published it on the front page. The headline was “Blood For the Tigers.” The nickname “Flying Tigers” came from the ancient Chinese proverb,“Giving wings to a tiger,” in other words, bestowing more power to an already powerful beast (speaking about the relationship between China and the AVG). During the next seven months the Flying Tigers engaged in many battles in defense of the Chinese people. They destroyed a total of 297 enemy planes, with only 16 losses of their own. Unfortunately, on July 4th, 1942, the AVG was disbanded by top military brass in Washington. Most of the members of the Flying Tigers never received any public medals or honors because many considered them mercenaries. Some Flying Tiger members stayed in China with Chennault who later became a general in the U. S. Army Air Force. In 1943, he was given command of the new 14th Air Force, based in China. Though The Tigers did not get the recognition they deserved, they are commemorated in the insignia of the 14th, a winged Bengal tiger. The 14th remained throughout the war to help protect China’s mainland.
I believe that the Flying Tigers’ service to the Chinese and American people will never be fully recognized. If the Flying Tigers had not defended China through the crucial period of seven months before they were disbanded, the Japanese would not have halted their advancement into China and soon would have had a straight path to their Axis allies. This would have been a defining blow to the Allies’ fragile war plan. Although the original Tigers were drawn in by promises of money and glory, they fought for an honorable cause, and they fought with dignity. I hope that the sacrifices the Flying Tigers made will never be forgotten by the American people. I would like to conclude with a quote from Generalissimo Chiang.
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