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Recruiting a bomber group for China

From the beginning, Claire Chennault though of his 1st American Volunteer Group as a down payment on the 'Special Air Unit' he and Lauchlin Currie had outlined in the winter of 1940-41, to bolster China's air defenses and to take the war to Japan. Even as the 1st AVG began training at Toungoo, Burma, the CAMCO recruiters in the United States were angling to set up the bomber force that Chennault wanted. As early as August 17, 1941, Richard Aldworth was proposing a thousand-man Bomber Wing consisting of two groups with '276 officers and 783 men, and 64 medical' personnel, commanded by a brigadier general. There would be six squadrons with a total of 66 medium bombers. Except for the elaborate and overstaffed structure, this was what Chennault and Currie had talked about in Washington that spring, and Currie had already located the aircraft: 33 Douglas DB-7 attack planes of the sort adopted by the RAF as the Boston and by USAAF as the A-20 Invader, plus 33 Lockheed Hudson light bombers. The planes would be diverted from British orders and provided gratis to China under the Lend-Lease program passed by Congress in March. (China had paid list price for the 100 Curtiss P-40s that equipped the 1st AVG.)

In September, Chennault proposed a more modest goal: that CAMCO should recruit 82 officers and 359 enlisted men for the 2nd AVG, plus 10 pilots per month to reinforce the fighter group already in Burma. He specified that they should all be bachelors, that they be told that they'd be entering combat, and they be given no promises about transfers or promotions--an indication of the illusions that the recruiters had fostered when signing up men for the 1st AVG. In Washington, T.V. Soong agreed to this goal.

In September, Chennault had proposed that Royal Leonard--an American pilot flying for the China National Aviation Corporation--return to the United States 'to lead a formation of bombers back along the Pan-American route or north over the Alaska-Siberia route' at the end of December, and 'to accept command of the Bombardment group for subsequent tactical operations.' Since the plan was for the Hudsons to fly directly across the Pacific in early December, this presumably was a reference to the Douglas DB-7s. In any event, Chennault soon modified his plans. On November 4, he cabled that 'CNAC pilot Royal Leonard free to return to States on leave to discuss plans for flying bombers out here ... but unable to obtain seat on Clipper. Will return on steamship arriving about December twentieth. If his earlier arrival desired by you please obtain priority on Clipper leaving Hongkong about November seventeenth.' Soong cabled back that this wouldn't be necessary 'because adequate experts here' to brief the pilots. And indeed, Leonard returned by steamer, reaching the US weeks too late to play any part in the 2nd AVG.

Meanwhile, the recruiting goal became more ambitious, to provide 32 'American pilot officers in each squadron,' as Chennault cabled Soong. 'This will make a total of ninety-six for three squadrons [plus] staff. Be sure however that recruitment is selective as only qualified men desired. Radio operators should be chosen with view to being used as gunners in emergencies.' The Hudsons would also have a Chinese gunner manning the top turret. Soong replied that pilots were proving hard to sign up: 'While recruitment enlisted personnel progressing satisfactorily, increasing difficult being experienced recruitment pilot personnel particularly experienced bombardment pilots. Aldworth suggests higher salary rate for latter. Another alternative would be to give bombardment airplane personnel bonus for every successful completed mission.'

Chennault didn't like the notion of paying the bomber pilots more than the $600-$750 being earned by the men of the 1st AVG, 'unless all pilot salaries raised equally'. He counter-proposed that a bonus of five cents a mile for each successful bombing mission. 'This bonus should increase pay two to five hundred dollars per month. Desire volunteers rather than high paid mercenaries. Believe large number British pilots available immediately at rates offered.' (The fighter pilots, of course, been promised a $500 bonus for each Japanese plane shot down.)

T.V. agreed to this arrangement, but soon he was whinging again: 'Endeavoring obtain highest type volunteer available however recruitment experienced pilot increasingly difficult.'

About the same time that Royal Leonard sailed for California, Chennault seems to have turned his mind to the question of a commander for the 2nd AVG. Evidently T.V. suggested the same retired Colonel John Jouett who had set up the American flight school in Hangzhou in the 1930s. Chennault cabled back on November 21: 'Recommend either following men be engaged for personnel employment instead of Jouett: E. C. Parsons Hollywood Athletic Club, Hollywood California or J. M. Schweizer Humble Oil Company, Houston Texas.' Jack Schweizer--then flying for the oil company that would become today's Exxon-Mobil--had been one of Jouett's original instructors. While at Hangzhou, he'd met and married Alicia Sowers, younger sister of Olga Greenlaw. No doubt it was Harvey Greenlaw who'd nominated him for the post. Alicia is still with us--and celebrating her 100th birthday this month--but she doesn't recall whether CAMCO actually tried to recruit her husband.

While the Hudsons made their own way to Manila, Singapore, and Rangoon, the Douglas bombers were to have been broken down and shipped by sea to Rangoon. In the leisurely way that drove Chennault wild, the British port officers agreed that the 'packages' could indeed be accommodated, but that a brick wall would have to be removed and replaced by a portable fence, requiring 'a full month's notice of arrival of the consignment'. And on November 27, T.V. cabled the good news that the first contingent had sailed on the Bloemfontein, the same Java-Pacific liner that had carried many of the 1st AVG to Burma in August:

'Following American Volunteer group personnel sailed November 21st from San Francisco on S.S. Bloemfontein[:] 1 pilot 2 administrative chiefs 5 clerk typists 1 finance clerk 2 operating clerks 1 mess sergeant 1 line chief 28 crew chiefs 10 armorers 7 radio operators 3 auto mechanics 1 photographer 3 parachute riggers 1 supply officer total 67. Of these 1 pilot 10 crew chiefs 7 radio operators are replacement for pursuit airplane group[;] balance for bombardment group. Group disembardking [sic] at Singapore arrangement being made through CAMCO Rangoon office for transportation Singapore to Rangoon. Arrival date Singapore uncertain due Manila about December 12th.'

Earlier, I'd read reports that Noordam, another Java-Pacific liner, also sailed that day with men of the 2nd AVG, but this isn't confirmed in the Chennault-Soong cables. The accounts conflict: one says 99 ground crew and 1 pilot sailed for Burma, another says 49, and a third (nicely tracking T.V.'s list) that Bloemfontein carried 2 officers and 65 ground crew.

In a cable sent the last day of November, Chennault had a workaround in case CAMCO couldn't come up with enough bomber pilots: 'I planned using American pilot and co-pilot capable of bombing and navigating in one airplane thus eliminating special bombardier and navigator officers. Can operate under this plan or can use Chinese co-pilots and American navigator bombardier. Now have in this group about fifteen experienced bombardment pilots who can transfer to second group as replaced by experienced pursuit pilots.' This would have cut in half the number of high-paid American pilots needed for the 2nd AVG.

The Hudson flight had been scheduled to depart Los Angeles on December 10 or 11. The Japanese breakout of December 7/8 put paid to that idea. On December 12, T.V. cabled: 'Policy of U.S.A. Government with reference to additional air personnel undergoing change. Exact U.S.A. policy uncertain, but we hope in future men and planes will be sent out as complete U.S.A. army unit. Necessary to cut CAMCO recruitment staff to skeleton necessary to maintain operation with respect to personnel already in Far East.'

And a day later, T.V. confirmed that the 2nd AVG was moot, and that indeed the 1st AVG could expect no further recruits: 'Pending clarification future policy of U.S.A. army and navy air force all recruitment for F.A.V.G. suspended. Suggest you temporary absorb all personnel including 49 men slated for bombardment group arrived on SS Bloemfontein in your present organization. Upon request of U.S.A. authority 10th group which was slated to leave Los Angeles on December 11th being released for re-induction into U.S.A. air force. Baumler delayed at Honolulu.'

Indeed, Capt. Ajax Baumler--who'd been denied a passport to join the 1st AVG, and who on December 7/8 had been caught at Midway by Japanese strafers--had made his way back to Hawaii and would not join Chennault until the spring of 1942. Bloemfontein was diverted to Australia, where CAMCO put at least some of the men to work assembling planes for the USAAF, and where most were eventually re-inducted into U.S. service. The same thing happened to the Lockheed and Douglas light bombers that were to have equipped the 2nd AVG.