The story of aviation is peppered with great challenges, significant milestones, and heroic individuals who made history while advancing the notion of human flight. I have written about some of these in my posts, and I now introduce you to the AVG, the American Volunteer Group, popularly known as The Flying Tigers. Many will recognize that famous name and the intimidating business-end of the tiger-shark portrayed on the Curtiss P-40 fighter aircraft they flew.
Photo: R.T. Smith/AVG
Nothing about the nature of the AVG is familiar or ordinary – not the circumstances of its existence, the people in the organization, nor its legacy!
Although the name Flying Tigers is still recognized by the public (save today’s youngsters), very few understand the circumstances and the heroics that cemented their place in aviation history – indeed, in world history. As a young lad living in San Mateo, California, and building model airplanes many years ago, the P-40 Warhawk was one of my favorite models. The Warhawk joined my other model airplanes in full flight across the open and cloudless skies of my bedroom, suspended just two feet below the ceiling!
Surprisingly, given its notable fame and legacy, the American Volunteer Group existed for less than one year. The group fought for and under the auspices of the Chinese Air Force and The People’s Republic of China, with no direct ties to America’s armed forces. Indeed, most of the young pilots had resigned previous commissions in the United States Army Air Corps, Navy, and Marines prior to boarding a ship in San Francisco in July of 1941 and setting-sail for far-off Indo-China.
There, they would fly under the leadership of former U.S. General Claire Chennault and fight the invading Japanese. Japan had swept into neighboring Burma intending to block land-locked China’s access route to the Pacific Ocean with its important shipping lanes.
By December 7, 1941. Pearl Harbor Day, the AVG was operational in Burma. It is fascinating to ponder that this small, mercenary force from America was already engaging Japan – on behalf of The Republic of China – just prior to Pearl Harbor and Roosevelt’s subsequent declaration of war on Japan.
The initial reception in Washington to the proposed AVG in 1939/40 was decidedly cool; only direct and intense lobbying by Gen. Chennault and others finally convinced President Roosevelt to endorse the idea. As small as the AVG mobilization was (one-hundred P-40 Tomahawk aircraft and three-hundred pilots and ground crew), Roosevelt surely foresaw the coming conflict with Japan and must have concluded that this initial, although indirect, mobilization of U.S. airpower would prove useful in kick-starting any future U.S. engagements.
There was even an early proposal that the AVG be used to directly bomb Japan as opposed to being limited to the defensive role of keeping open China’s access to the sea. By early 1941, it was clear that creating the landing strips necessary to reach Japan from China/Burma was not feasible given the Chinese defensive posture. In 1941, it had been many years since airpower first made its battle-field debut in World War I, and the airplane had become dramatically more sophisticated since then. There was much to be learned about mobilizing air power in 1941, and the AVG was to prove invaluable in that respect.
As was true in the contemporary Battle of Britain where outnumbered pilots of the RAF (Royal Air Force) performed heroically in the skies above England to save the homeland from the German Luftwaffe, the AVG Flying Tigers routinely were outnumbered in sky by odds typically three-to-one in favor of Japan.
Flying Tiger Scramble to Meet the Enemy!
As for the fighting effectiveness of the AVG Flying Tigers: the group was credited with 297 enemy aircraft destroyed (229 in the air). Fourteen AVG pilots were killed or missing in action, with another six deaths due to accidents. The final engagement of the original AVG took place on July 4, 1942 in which four Japanese Ki-27s were downed with no friendly losses.
Were the Flying Tigers blessed with a better airplane than the Japanese fighters, one might ask? The answer is: neither better nor worse …but different. The P-40 could not out-turn the more agile Japanese fighter planes – a decided disadvantage in classic dogfights. Gaining on an adversary while engaged in a tightening circle of high-speed turns is the obvious way to get on the enemy’s “tail,” to get him in your gunsights, and to shoot him out of the sky.
General Chennault taught his young pilots to minimize “turning tactics” in the air and to rely, instead, on the P-40’s ability to climb out of compromised situations with adversaries. Chennault instructed his men to then utilize their altitude advantage using the P-40’s superior high-speed dive capability to position themselves on the enemy’s tail. Part of the reason the P-40 suffered in agility compared to the Japanese fighters was the heavier airframe and the armor installed to protect the pilot from enemy fire. In general, the P-40 was a ruggedly constructed airplane by any standard, with the pilot’s safety in mind.
Routine Boredom Punctuated with Moments of Sheer Terror
Despite their unique situation, those who flew with the Flying Tigers wrestled with the same demons that bedeviled thousands of flyers who followed in World War II. Many of those found themselves based on the open airfields of Northeast England or somewhere in Italy. Imagine being a fighter pilot in the European theatre. More likely than not, you are there to provide cover to the B-17 or B-24 heavy bombers as they lumber to and from their targets – usually over well-defended German territory. Your chief adversaries were the German fighter pilots who came up to intercept the bomber formations before they could deliver their bomb loads. Your job was to shoot them out of the sky. Your other concern were the long German flak guns on the ground whose shrapnel from exploding high-altitude shells could rip apart even the largest of nearby bombers.
To best describe the life and emotions of a fighter pilot, I quote one of the best ever to fly in the European theatre: Clarence “Bud” Anderson who chalked-up over sixteen victories in the skies over Europe flying that iconic fighter, the P-51 Mustang.
Staying alive was no simple thing in the skies over Europe in the spring of 1944. A lot of men couldn’t. It was a bad thing to dwell on if you were a fighter pilot, and so we told ourselves we were dead men and lived for the moment with no thought of the future at all. It wasn’t too difficult. Lots of us had no future and everyone knew it.
From all that I have read and heard, that was the way many fighter pilots lived and stayed sane: they lived only for the moment. Great bonds and lifelong friendships were formed among many of those flyers in World War II who, day after day, went up to face deadly threats in the skies. Many flyers eschewed forming close relationships with any of their comrades given the familiar and gut-wrenching experience of one’s best friend in the unit not returning from a mission.
Imagine the added uncertainty, anxiety, and excitement the Flying Tigers must have felt when boarding a ship at San Francisco in July of 1940 headed for Hong Kong with an ultimate destination somewhere in the strange environs of Burma. They, of course, knew full well that they would be flying as “lend-lease” mercenaries for the Republic of China under its leader, Chiang Kai-shek, with only tenuous ties to the U.S. military with its customary lines of support. This was to be “adventure in spades,” and most understood and readily accepted the challenges they were about to face. Flying with the Tigers out of Burma was nothing like being based in England! For one thing, Chinese, not English, was the dominant language among most of the local support crew comprised of armorers, second-level mechanics, and general helpers. Crew chiefs and lead mechanics were, in-general, like the pilots: AVG recruits from the States.
What prompted these volunteers to go on such an uncertain adventure? Certainly money was one motivation: the pay was very high, and pilots were awarded a $500 bonus for every victory in the air – a lot of money, back then. Then there were others who wanted to help in the effort to stem Japanese aggression in the Pacific as well as those who could not resist the call to unmitigated adventure in a far-off and unfamiliar part of the world. There were many of the latter, individuals who shunned security and comfort for the chance to satisfy their yearnings.
“You will regret most the things in life you did not do, not the things you did!”
Mark Twain’s wise admonition coupled with the irresistible mystique of the fighter pilot and my father’s aviation legacy persuaded me to finally take the plunge on Memorial Day, 2018, and buy a ticket-to-ride in the dual-seat/dual-control trainer version of the P-51D Mustang operated by the Collings Foundation. The chance to experience and to actually fly the most iconic fighter of World War II was one of the great thrills of my life. Here is a segment of my blog-post account of that flight that represents my best effort to encapsulate in words the powerful mystique that surrounds that era of wartime aviation:
I wanted to experience, as best I could, what it must have felt like to ride out to the flight-line in a far-away place on a cold, early dawn, to greet your crew-chief who got up even earlier to prepare your plane, and then to clamber into the cockpit for yet another mission over Germany. Your crew chief helps you strap-in and briefs you on the status of your airplane. You look at him and he looks at you, briefly, each realizing that you might not come back from today’s mission. Then you close the canopy to form an eerie silence, and your crew-chief slides off the wing to the ground – perhaps the last human you will see…at least for several hours. At your touch of the starter, the big four-bladed propeller slowly turns, and turns some more, and turns some more, and finally the powerful, twelve-cylinder Rolls-Royce/Packard Merlin engine coughs and belches its way to life, shaking the cockpit in the process. In a matter of seconds, the big Merlin engine settles into a smooth, steady cadence and you are set to face the great unknowns that await all pilots on such missions.
To capture some essence of that scenario in a real P-51 Mustang is what drove me to do what I did last Monday. What better way to pay tribute to the memory of our flyers than to take to the skies over Livermore in a vintage airplane on an absolutely gorgeous, cloud-free day like Monday, May 28, 2018. It was everything I had hoped it would be, and more. I will never forget the experience.
Photo: Collings Foundation
Meet James Howell Howard: Ace and Medal of Honor Recipient
Tigers: James Howard on the right. Howard went on to fly P-51 Mustangs in the European theatre. He is the first and only pilot ever awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroic service in Europe. Greg “Pappy” Boyington was the only pilot ever accorded the same honor in the Pacific Theatre.
James Howell Howard (above picture) and his story first ignited my deeper interest in the Flying Tigers. I learned of him from a family relation who knew of my interest in aviation. I am thankful for the lead that got me started down this fascinating trail.
James Howard, like several other surviving AVG pilots, left behind their memories in book form and via numerous interviews for which they were much in demand.
They are gone, now – all of them, but their memory will linger long after many other recollections of wartime will have been lost and forgotten. The mystique of those who flew in World War II is powerful – a challenge to express in meaningful words for those of us who like to write.
These aviation interests of mine stem from an “aviation legacy” left me by my father’s longtime passion for and involvement in aviation. I have written about that in some detail in various blog posts. Only late in life, did I fully realized just how deeply ingrained in my psyche was everything aviation, thanks to my father.
No wonder, then, that the subject of The Flying Tigers would eventually find its way into a blog post of its own!
50th anniversary “first-day cover” from Sept. 6. 1990 celebrating the Flying Tiger’s creation and featuring the Chennault stamp’s “first day of issue.” Chennault’s home-town was Monroe, Louisiana. This collectable cover carries the autographs of six members of the early organization including top ACE pilots, David Lee “Tex” Hill and Dick Rossi.