Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek knew he had a problem. The Chinese air force was in terrible shape, beset with a lack of trained pilots and aircraft, and the war brewing with the highly professional military of Imperial Japan in 1937 made reforms a priority. His decision to bring in American experts to help led to the formation of one of the famed air groups of the war, the Flying Tigers.
Captain Claire Chennault had resigned from the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1937 over dissatisfaction with his promotion prospects. A former tactical instructor, he took an offer to help train and survey the Chinese Air Force. When the second Sino-Japanese war broke out later that year, Japanese air superiority let them bomb China with virtual impunity. The massive destruction and loss of life would presage the terrible destruction wreaked on Japan by American bombing years later, with biological weapons taking the place of nuclear ones.
Faced with the utter collapse of an already Chinese inferior air force, Chennault was sent back to the United States with a Chinese delegation in 1941 to arrange for as many planes and as much logistical support as possible. Chennault had conceived of raising a small, elite air force of American personnel to fight the Japanese directly. President Franklin Roosevelt and key members of his administration were sympathetic to the Chinese cause.
As Chennault saw it, war between the United States and Japan was all but inevitable, and unlike many of his former colleagues, believed that China could serve as a base for later offensive operations against the Japanese home islands. Many senior military leaders totally opposed the idea, seeing it as draining experienced and vital personnel during a time of large scale armed buildup.
In the end it took direct presidential intervention to make the idea a reality. Roosevelt authorized Chennault to recruit U.S. pilots and support personnel to work directly for the Chinese government. An executive order was issued allowing members of the Army, Marine Corps, and Navy to resign in order to join the group. The new organization was designated the American Volunteer group.
Despite the small size of the proposed group, consisting of a few squadrons averaging a total of 60 aircraft, getting the planes needed proved difficult. In the end, they had to settle on P40B fighters that had no modern gunsights or bomb racks, necessitating the fabrication of crude substitutes. This made their later successes all the more astonishing.
The AVG essentially operated as legal mercenaries, in the tradition of privateers operating under Letters of Marque. Recruits would operate under one year contracts and the pay, ranging from $250 to $750 a month depending on the position, was excellent for the time. It included extensive allowances and paid leave, while pilots received an unofficial bonus of $500 for each confirmed kill of a Japanese plane. This served as an excellent motivation for aggressive flying.
The lack of available infrastructure was a serious problem. Chennault arranged for the formation of a large air spotting network across much of China using radios, telephones, and telegraphs, since they had no access to radar. An extensive network of airfields was built using mass Chinese civilian labor. “All over Free China these human ant heaps rose to turn mud, rocks, lime and sweat to build 5000 ft. runways,” Chennault later said.
Chennault instituted an extensive training program for his new recruits, based off everything he had learned about Japanese tactics and aircraft over the last four years of fighting. This included Japanese flight manuals captured by the Chinese and studies of crashed Japanese aircraft. This first hand knowledge would prove to be invaluable
The AVG was first deployed on Dec. 12, 1941. It was split between the vital port city of Rangoon Burma, and the southern Chinese city of Kunming. They faced overwhelming Japanese numbers, but their preparation and experience paid off. In one lopsided example, a large Japanese air raid on Rangoon on Christmas Day led to the AVG downing 29 enemy planes with no losses. After the fall of Burma to a Japanese invasion, the AVG retreated to southern China, where they would continue to score remarkable numbers of kills. In 7 months of ferocious fighting stretching to July of 1942, the small force of often less than 40 pilots shot down nearly 300 enemy aircraft, destroyed dozens more on the ground, and took out hundreds of enemy bridges, trucks, and riverboats. This kill ratio was seldom equaled in the war, and the Chinese air minister T.V. Soong later called the AVG “the soundest investment the Chinese ever made.”
In the face of a string of defeats from the Japanese, the U.S. public and media went wild over the AVG’s exploits. The media dubbed them the Flying Tigers, even though the unit itself did not use the name and actually painted shark mouths on the noses of their planes. Winston Churchill himself stated that the Tigers achievements equaled what the Royal Air Force did in the Battle of Britain against Germany. Even a wartime movie starring John Wayne was made to celebrate their achievements. Eventually the AVG was merged back with the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942, but they had achieved a romantic image of volunteers defending China and Burma against impossible odds.
American volunteer pilots fighting before war was actually declared stretched back to World War I and the Lafayette squadron, but the Tigers amazing performance in combat despite small numbers and extreme logistical difficulties made them a breed apart. They straddled the line between military and mercenary, something like the modern military contractors of today’s wars. Unlike the often unsavory reputation such quasi-mercenaries have today, they became national heroes and showed that such hybrid organizations could fight as well or better than their more formal military counterparts.