The first Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club (HAMC) was founded in the areas of Fontana and San Bernardino, California in 1948. From there, the club grew exponentially, becoming one of the largest in the world. The club has since earned a reputation in media and popular culture, thanks to a number of high-profile raids and wars on its various national charters, and in no small part to Gimme Shelter, a 1970 documentary about a riot during a Rolling Stones concert. The Stones’ management allegedly paid the Hell’s Angels to provide security at the concert and paid them in beer, which was a terrible idea. As a banner once read on the club’s website, “when we do right, no one remembers; when we do wrong, no one forgets.”
What the motorcycle club never forgets is its own heritage. While mainstream media gave the club a creation myth involving drunken, misfit airmen who flew bomber missions in World War II and struggled to adapt to life after the war, the real story is much simpler.
The fake story starts with a WWII Army Air Forces unit in Europe during WWII, the 303rd Bombardment Group. The 303rd was not a misfit group, as popular lore has implied, but rather one of the highest performers in the entire air war. In its official history, the motorcycle club tells the story of the B-17 the 303rd named “Hell’s Angels,” and its commander, the capable (and not drunken) Capt. Irl E. Baldwin. Why? To make sure the world knows this aircrew wasn’t a band of drunken misfits, but instead were heroes of the war in Europe. The aircrew has nothing to do with the motorcycle club. The Angels just care that the memory of the crew isn’t dragged through the mud. (They care too much, right? That’s always been a fault of the Hell’s Angels.)
The 303rd’s story starts with naming their B-17 “Hell’s Angels” after the 1930 movie by famed aviator Howard Hughes. The plane was the first 8th Air Force B-17 to complete 25 combat sorties in the European Theater. It even participated in one of the first strikes on Berlin 1944. Two of the plane’s crewmen would earn the Medal of Honor. Another four would ear the Distinguished Service Cross. Fifty years later, the entire 303rd would vote to change its name to the Hell’s Angels, with “Might in Flight” as its motto. That name is the only common thread between the bikers and the airmen of the 303rd.
So where did the name Hell’s Angels really come from? The motorcycle club’s official history says it comes from a World War II veteran from the All-Volunteer Group (AVG), better known as “the Flying Tigers.” This Flying Tiger, named Arvid Olson, was a close friend of the founders of the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club after the war, but never even tried to become a member.
The Flying Tigers were an all-volunteer group of airmen and maintainers in service to the Chinese Air Force who fought the Japanese Imperial Air Forces in China, preparing for combat even before the U.S. entered World War II. The unit’s 3rd Pursuit Squadron, comprised entirely of Marine Corps aviators, called themselves the Hell’s Angels. They first saw combat against Japan days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Over the life of the unit, the Flying Tigers would down almost 300 Japanese aircraft in combat between December 20, 1941 and July 4, 1942.
The Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club’s copyrighted “Death’s Head” logo (below, left) can even be traced back to two U.S. Army Air Corps patches, from the 85th Fighter Squadron (center) and the 552nd Medium Bomber Squadron (right).