OF A MYTH
the end of 1941 in Toungoo, Burma. One hears the tinking of
temple bells. The melody carries through rustling bamboo bushes
and flower-heavy flamboyants onto the burning landing-strip
where a young pilot was busy daubing the nose of his machine.
The job finished, Eric Shilling steps back a little to admire
his work. The idea crossed his mind during an exotic meal
with his missionary neighbour. There, Shilling uncovered a
journal with a photograph of a luftwaffe Messerschmitt 110
stationed far away in the Mediterranean, named "Haifischgruppe"
or Shark group.
So he was busy to adorn his Curtiss P-40 with the same gaping
jaws. Above the double teeth rows he painted a menacing eye
at both sides. Satisfied with the result, he left the field
determinedly and returned with a svelte tanned man, sporty
and with a piercing glance. The newcomer stepped back, observed
the work from various angles and grinned approvingly.
Shilling said he wanted it as symbol of his group. But his
companion, Claire Lee Chennault, thought it better to equip
all the P-40 of the squadron with the same sign.
is impossible to relate the story of Claire Lee Chennault
and the Flying Tigers without backtracking to the beginning
of the adventure of this man who shaped the destiny of all
those he encountered. Chennault was captain in the U.S.A.A.F.
and he didn't enjoy a very good reputation.
Flying Trapeze team"
because he tended to speak up when others kept silent. Secondly,
bacause he was prominent in developing a particularery dangerous
stunt flying act dubbed "Three man on a flying trapeze".
It was not a circus act but a military exercise. Indeed, Claire
Lee Chennault and his two partners Haywood S. Hansell and
Luke Williamson, in the mid-thirties, were convinced that
the future of fighter combat was not in the individual fight
of by-gone knights, but in the joint action of a cohesive
closely knit team. They had established a series of back-to-back
manoeuvres in which the three fighters executed the most difficult
turns while staying packed together, such as to prove that
they could combine their firing power and in defense cover
each other. At that time, magnificient aerial shows were organised,
but fighting was conceived as an individual pursuit, every
man for himself. That's how our three musketeers were somewhat
disgraced, and while S. Hansell and Luke Williamson left for
China as expert instructors, in 1936 captain Chennault was
stiff bored without hope of promotion.
1937, Captain Chennault received another letter from his friends
serving in China, inviting him to join them. Chennault was
tempted but he hated to leave his country, wife and eight
children. Several weeks later he received an official letter
signed by Mrs Chiang Kaï-Shek offering him the job of
instructor of the Chinese air force with a salary of $1000/month
(three times more than his present wage) and all the facilities
for establishing a report on the Chinese air force. This time,
Chennault accepts, and aged 46, he signs his request of an
He embarks on the SS "President Garfield" bound
for the Far East.
The old team of the flying trapeze worked like mad many months
to establish the kernel of a Chinese air force, but the task
is arduous and extremely ungrateful, the more so because they
were forced to retreat by the Japanese advance. Sometimes
the Chinese pilots scored a local victory, but the fight was
Months go by, and early August, 1938, Claire Lee Chennault
starts establishing an international squadron composed
by jobless civil pilots, flying adventurers in search
of exploits, idealistic dreamers, and joy stick cowboys
from various social backgrounds. However, this group
has no true warplanes and that unnerved Claire Lee
Chennault very much. The problem, full of pitfalls,
will be solved through horse trading between the English
diplomacy, Sweden that accepts to abandon 100 machines,
and William Pawley representing Wright-Curtiss in
The latter, throught a commission, will be responsible
for the reception of the Curtiss fighters in Rangoon,
the assembling, their equipment and supply. The total
cost for China is $ 8.900.000. The basis for the hiring
of pilots remains undefined because the smallest error
may lead to major diplomatic problems. An airtight
juristic framework is needed to embark the aspiring
mercenaries. Here, also, William Pawleys intervenes.
He proposed that C.A.M.C.O. serves as cover for recruiting
the volunteers. For the outside world, the squadrons
are "special training units". The volunteers
"instructors" and Claire Lee Chennault supervisor.
those conditions, in April 1941, starts the recruitment
visits to most air force bases of the US Navy,
U.S.A.A.F. and the
U.S. Marine Corps to entice potential candidates.
Contracts will be for one year, possibly renewable.
Candidates are explained that in reality they
will fight the Japanese in China, but to compensate
the risk, they'll be paid the high monthly salary
of $ 600 for an ordinary pilot, $ 675 for a patrol
leader, and $ 750 for a squadron chief. In addition
they'll receive $ 500 for each enemy plane downed.
DEPARTURE OF THE VOLUNTEERS
volunteers of the first batch leave July 7,
1941 for embarkment on the Dutch passenger boat
"Jaegerfontaine". The volunteer pilots
present a mixed bag of motivations. There are
those who don't support any more the red tape
of the big military corpses, those dreamming
of epical fights, those exited about fighting
in the mysterious Far-East, and others hoping
to actually help the hapless Chinese ; some
flee personal problemes and others would do
anything for the money. However, most hail from
well-known families. David Lee Hill son of a
missionary, James H. Howard was son of a doctor,
both with experience in the Middle East. Just
a few agitators manifested themselves as mischiefmongers.
Among those was a man, aged 28, who made a bad
name for himself : Gregory Boyington, leaving
with the second batch August 26. He was much
amused by the missionary passport he got attributed.
The group reached Rangoon in September 1941.
Along the way, in Batavia and singapore, Boyington
Lee "Tex" Hill (B. Freudenthal)
wrecked havoc in bars and nightclubs. Having
celebrated their arrival in the Silver Grill,
the only watering hole in this taut British
colony, they continued their journey by train
265 km northward, till the air base of Tougoo,
training site of the RAF pilots.
Japan, China's position deteriorates since 1938.
One after the other, all ports are occupied by the
Japanese, and after the fall of Hainan Island, their
lock on this huge territory is almost complete.
Feeling the heat, in October 1938, the Chinese government
starts building a long road through the southern
foothills of the Himalayas connecting Kunming with
Lashio in Burma, and China with the outside world
through the port of Rangoon. More than 200 000 coolies
work on this humongous project, soon known as the
"Burma road" (see
map - see
picture). July 1941, the first pilots of the
American Volunteer Group (A.V.G.) arrive in Rangoon,
and continue by train to Tougoo. There, the conditions
were so precarious that number of them talked about
abandonning. But Chennault, back from Chungking,
managed to convince everybody. Finally, the training
may begin !
PREPARING FOR COMBAT
of the 3rd Pursuit Squadron in front of
a P-40B, le n° 68, with a slight retouch
of light brown on his nose. Standing on
the right, Haywood,at the left Olson.Sitting
from left to right, you can see Smith,
Jernstedt, Prescott, Laughhlin and Redd.
a maddening pace, Chennault conveys
his experience, knowledge, and fighting
insight to these men who discover a
surprisingly young boss, awfully dynamic
and demanding as well as appealing.
But the all-out intensive training wears
men and material, and some major events.Three
deadly accidents occur during the training.
The mechanical wear and lack of spare
parts are such that it's decided to
cannibalise irreparable planes.
The most experienced pilots aren't free
of accidents. One funny pilot actually
painted jokingly five American flags
on the body of his plane ; one for each
machine lost, he was flying his sixth
almost with the spirit of a Japanese
Lee Chennault spread his men over three groups
named "Adam and Eve" (No 1 to 33),
"Panda Bear" (No 34-66) and "Hell's
Angels" (No 67-99, see symbols below).
The famous Curtiss P-40 of Chennault squadron
was considered out-dated by the pundits even
before it entered mass-production in 1939.
The A.V.G. was equipped with a later version,
the P40 C, also used by the American Army.
Its disposable fuel tanks, armour and guns
left the plane without manoeuvrability or
climbing speed, but conversely provided a
prodigious diving speed."Use your diving
potential" Claire Lee Chennault advised
In the begining thie procedure had very good
SOPHISTICATED EARLY WARNING SYSTEM
succes of this squadron was primarilary due
to the warning system established by Claire
Lee Chennault. A vast spy web based on large
numbers of Chinese and the fact that the Japanese
essentially occupied enclaves. Sufficed to observe
the take-off of the Japanese planes from their
airfields and notify their flight direction,
pass on the information by word of mouth to
a local radio emitter. All data ended up in
an intelligence center of Kunming, China, where
they were sorted and filtered before possibly
giving the alert.
Chennault might know the enemy intentions even
before the last plane of a Japaneses formation
had taken off !
FIGHT FOR THE A.V.G.
Pearl Harbor, the Japanese assailed
the Philippines and Singapore. Now,
they unleashed their offensive in Burmese
territory from the Thaï frontier,
particularly menacing the city of Rangoon.
December 20, 1941, Chennault's warning
system reported enemy planes approaching
from HanoÏ, 500 km southeast of
Kunming. Immediately, Chennault made
most machines of the "Panda Bears"
group take off, while the others remained
in reserve, along with the "Adam
& Eve" group. For a year the
Japanese bombed Kunming unopposed, so
they didn't expect any resistance this
time too. Quite a surprise for them
when they found themselves, at 50 km
from the town, against planes with menacing
Profiting from their impressive diving
speed, the American P-40 attacked the
ten twin-engined Mitsubishi ki-21, spitting
fire from all their machine-guns.
Supported by the reserve forces they
downed nine Japanese bombers ; the last
one staggering, shifted course back
to Hanoï, closely followed by Edward
F. Rector. In the heat of the action
he pursued the bomber till his tank
raw dry and then he crashed,
but he saved his life in this and only
accident of the squadron's fight.
gratefull Chinese named the valourous
American mercenaries "fei Hou"
or "Flying Tigers".
December 23, three days after the victory
of the tigers over Kunming, the battle
of rangoon started with a heavy attack
of the Japanese air force. Led by Arvid
Olson, the "Hell's Angels"
group hurriedly took off from Mingaladon
airfield to face the Japanese machines.
In the first wave there were 18 Nakajima
bombers, folowed by 30 other bombers
escorted by 20 Nakajima ki-27 fighters.
Facing them, the A.V.G. disposed of
16 P-40 and the R.A.F. of 20 Brewster
Buffalos. In the tropical sky and over
the majestic spire of the Shwe dagon
pagoda a full-scale battle developed.
Hidden by bananas, under the verandas
of bungalows, in the rose-bushes or
on the promenade along the Strand Hotel,
thousands of bystanders, a drink in
their hands, watched the tiny machines
- power diving planes made a deafening
noise. No one could tell the score.
ordered by Claire Chennault, the Flying
Tigers made their first passes two at
a time. Kenneth Jernstedt downed a bomber
with the first shots of his machine-guns.
A Japanese shot Henri Guilbert down,
thereby initiating the list of victims
among the A.V.G. - Charles Older rapidly
finished with two bombers,but one of
them, exploding, threw off balance the
P-40 of Neil Martin which plunged straight
to the muddy river. Edward Overend and
Robert Smith added two victories to
the A.V.G. score. Paul Greene, chased
by two ki-27, had to jump under
fire from his plane aflame. He managed
landing harmlessly but his chute was ridded
with bullets. With their fuel running
out, the Japanese ended the battle and
returned to Bangkok, but their bombers
had set afire the docks of Rangoon. They
lost six bombers and ten fighters. At
their side, the British and the A.V.G.
deplored the destruction os five Brewster
Buffalos and four P-40 only.
later, at Christmas, the Japanese returned.
Sixty bombers escorted by twenty fighters
showed up in successive waves. But an A.V.G.
patrol had alerted the squadron leader Olson
about their approach. This time, a formation
of twelve P-40 waited around Kunming for the
arrival of the assaillants. Sixteen RAF Brewster
Buffalos would join them imminently. It was
going to be a great day for Robert "Duke"
Older standing with his famous P-40 n°68
- Most of the pictures concerning the
Flying tigers , represents his plane...
quiet and self-affacing pilot teamed
up with Charles Older and Thomas Haywood
charged with intercepting the first
bomber wave, the three man downed one
machine each. Joining the fight, the
"Flying Tigers" reduced five
more opponents to nothing. Then Hedman
assaulted the second wave and downed
a Ki-27 fighter, two bombers and another
fighter, awarding himself with five
victories in a single sortie.
Hence, a mercenary became the first
American ace of the war in Asia.
twenty Nakajima fighters and sixty bombers
employed that day, the Japanese lost
nine and fifteen machines respectively.
At the other side, nine Brewster Buffalos
and only 2 P-40 were destroyed. Bill
Pawley, the C.A.M.C.O. president, among
thousands of onlookers, had been present
at the battle.
He put on a feast for the Flying Tigers
with ham, chicken, cool beer and scotch
whisky. The pilots roared with laughter
when two of their comrades reappeared
safely, after being shot down that day.
Ed Overend had been recovered by peasants
after crashing in a pond, and Georges
McMillan had returned with an ox-cart
after an unfortunate chute landing wounded
their December defeats, the Japanese
abstained from bombing Kunming, Chine.
But Rangoon was another thing. The Japanese
infantry wiped out the British forces
on the banks of the Sittang and now
prepared for invading the Burmese capital.
Daily aerial attacks on the town followed
one upon the other. Valourously, the
A.V.G. intervened during two months
helped by the R.A.F. or rather its remmants.
But the Japanese had developed tactics
for countering the Flying Tigers. Henceforth,
victories of the mercenaries required
very tough fighting, and they were insufficient
to win the battle of Burma. Rangoon
finally ceded under the strokes of the
Japanese forces. The end of February,
1942, hordes of soldiers camped at the
city gates ready for the final assault.
group of A.V.G pilots in dicussion in
front of Charles Older's fighter which
is being refilled in. At the foreground
you can see a group of Chinese mechanics
working around a kind of Stearman plane...
END OF THE FLYING TIGERS
1942, the Flying Tigers felt tired and frustrated.
They were still waiting for new material and
equipements promised on arrival of the American
army in China and Burma. Worse, the A.V.G.
risked being absorbed by the U.S.A.A.F. under
General W. Stiwell and later General Clayton
Bissell. When he was tried to impose escort
missions of British Blenheim bombers, the
Flying Tigers revolted.
David "Tex" Lee Hill made his comrade
recognise that the US were at war with Japan
and implored to not turn their back on their
When he learned that the Flying Tigers refused
to sign up with the Air Force, Bissel order
Chennault to assemble the A.V.G. pilots. After
his speech, the Flying Tigers answered with
an unanimous "no !".
typical atmosphere on Kunmings airfield...
realised the game was over. War-weary,
waiting for an elusive leave, refusing
orders from Bissel, most Tigers preferred
to quit. Only five of them stayed. July
4, 1942, the A.V.G. ceased to exist.
In seven months fighting, the Flying
Tigers had destroyed 296 planes at a
loss of 24 of theirs (14 in action and
10 by accident or bombing). For further
information on the Flying Tigers aces,
from "The air mercenaries"
- The French magazine
"le Fana de L'aviation n°136
and 137 - The magazine" Wing Master"