That boast -- made in September 1937 by Claire Lee Chennault -- turned out to be a prescription for the American Volunteer Group he would bring to Asia in the summer of 1941, to win immortality as the "Flying Tigers" of Burma and China.
Japan's aggression on the mainland of Asia had begun more than forty years before. First Korea, then Taiwan, and finally Manchuria -- China's five northeastern provinces, beyond the Great Wall -- came under the blood-red banner of the Rising Sun. China did little to resist, with her cities garrisoned by foreigners and her villages ruled by competing warlords. Only one man seemed able to unify this helpless giant: a stubborn, vain, vindictive, shaven-skulled officer named Chiang Kai-shek. He had served in the Japanese field artillery and studied in Soviet Russia, but his dominant trait was fear and suspicion of everything foreign.
Chiang made an exception for Claire Chennault from Waterproof, Louisiana. Recruited with other Americans as an instructor and adviser for the Chinese Air Force, Chennault was forty-four when Japanese marines landed at Shanghai in September 1937. (He was born September 6, 1893, three years after the birthdate generally ascribed to him.) He seemed a generation older, his faced seamed and his hearing dimmed from years of flying open-cockpit fighter planes, and his lungs wracked by bronchitis -- the penalty for a two-pack-a-day addiction to Camel cigarettes. The U.S. Army had forced him to retire, supposedly because of his health, but more likely because of his gadfly insistence -- against the wisdom of the time -- that fighter planes could destroy incoming bombers before they reached their target.
Though only a captain in the army reserve, who had never served at a rank higher than major, Chennault in China gave himself the honorific of "colonel." He became a favorite of Chiang Kai-shek's Wellesley-educated wife, the beautiful, clever and unscrupulous Soong Mei-ling. And Chennault was captivated by Madame Chiang, "who will hereafter be 'The Princess' to me," as he pledged in his diary.
Chennault's theory of "defensive pursuit" was quickly proved in the air over Hangzhou and Nanjing, as Chinese fighter pilots cut a murderous swath through unescorted enemy bomber squadrons. As Chiang's chief of staff for air, Chennault could call upon a small cadre of Americans who knew and loved him from their service in the U.S. Army Air Corps -- most notably, "Luke" Williamson and Billy McDonald. They had been Chennault's wingmen in the Flying Trapeze, an army precision-flying team that prefigured the Thunderbirds of today.
Unfortunately for the Chinese fighter pilots, the Japanese navy soon brought in Mitsubishi A5Ms, open-cockpit monoplanes with fixed landing gear and two rifle-caliber machineguns. The Japanese fighters were faster and more agile than the American-built biplanes flown by the Chinese. Defeated in the air and on the ground, Chiang's government retreated 2,000 miles up the Yangzi River to Chongqing in the western mountains.
Though he could do little about improving China's aircraft, Chennault did experiment with hiring "fair pilots" from abroad. The mercenaries proved more formidable as boasters and boozers than they were at fighting, and the 14th Volunteer Squadron was disbanded after a few comic-opera missions. There was talk that Chennault and some of the other American instructors -- Billy McDonald especially -- also flew as mercenaries for the Chinese Air Force, earning $500 and $1,000 for each plane they shot down, but apparently it was only talk.
In 1938 Chennault was sent to Kunming in the province of Yunnan, his assignment to train a new generation of Chinese fighter pilots. War supplies continued to trickle in through French Indochina (Vietnam) on the south and British Burma on the west, but never in sufficient quantity. In the summer of 1940, by which time his capital had earned the unhappy title of "most- bombed city in the world," Chiang sent T. V. Soong -- Madame's brother -- to Washington in search of American aid. Chennault went along as Soong's air adviser.
Thus did China obtain "100 good pursuit planes" -- Curtiss fighters of a type known to the U.S. Army as the P-40C and to the British Royal Air Force (for whom they had been intended) as the Tomahawk II. The "100 fair pilots" were recruited from the U.S. armed services for a starting salary of $600 a month plus $500 for each Japanese plane destroyed. Two hundred technicians were also required. The army and navy, already preparing for war with Germany, threw obstacles in the way of China's recruiters, and it was November 1941 before the last contingent reached Burma, where Chennault had obtained the loan of an RAF base near the town of Toungoo.
Some of the recruits had never flown anything hotter than a basic trainer. Others joined the American Volunteer Group with the apparent intention of quitting at the first opportunity, so they could take civilian airline jobs. Between accidents and resignations, the AVG never reached the strength that had been planned for it. In the first week of December, Chennault counted just sixty-two Tomahawks on the flight line at Toungoo, with about the same number of pilots qualified to fly them.
To safeguard them from a surprise attack, Chennault moved his 1st and 2nd squadrons back to Kunming, and it was near that highland city that the AVG was blooded on December 20, 1941. Like the admirals at Shanghai, Japanese generals sent ten twin- engined Kawasaki bombers winging northward from Hanoi, French Indochina -- without fighter escort. The AVG shot down three or four bombers and killed at least fifteen army airmen, at the cost of one Tomahawk crash-landed when it ran out of gas. It was the first Allied victory of the Pacific War, and very nearly the first defeat ever suffered by a Japanese military unit.
Alone of U.S. publications, Time magazine recognized the importance of that fateful skirmish over the dun-colored mountains of Yunnan province. In its issue of December 27, 1941, the popular newsweekly celebrated Chennault's mercenary pilots as "Flying Tigers" -- a name that was coined by China's military-aid office in Washington.
Tigers they proved to be, especially in Burma. Despite his flamboyant and sometimes abrasive manner, Chennault did not like to take risks: he played to win, whether at tennis, poker, or war. He wanted to concentrate all his squadrons in Kunming, but Chiang Kai-shek overruled him. Determined to keep American lend-lease supplies moving up the Burma Road, Chiang decided to loan the AVG 3rd Squadron to the British for the defense of Rangoon.
Eighteen planes, eighteen pilots. In two stupendous air battles -- December 23 and December 25 -- they proved that the victory in Yunnan had been no accident. The "Hell's Angels" lost two pilots and half a dozen Tomahawks, but the survivors shot down at least fourteen and probably seventeen of the enemy. Most of their victims were heavy bombers, meaning that the Japanese army lost 90 men in less than two hours of combat over Rangoon. The AVG also destroyed two retractable-gear fighters, identified at the time as Mitsubishi A6M Zeros. In fact, they were Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusas -- nimble monoplanes with a spectacular combat range, but undergunned compared to the American fighters, and without protection for their pilots and fuel tanks. They belonged to the Japanese army's 64th Sentai, famed for its exploits against Chinese and Soviet pilots. Christmas Day marked the first time the group had ever been bested in combat, and the first time a Hayabusa had been shot down.
These were portents of the battle to come. Chennault rotated his squadrons through Rangoon in a doomed attempt to conserve planes and pilots. At the same time, he fought a losing battle against his own government in the person of General Joseph Stilwell, a salty-tongued infantryman who detested Chiang Kai-shek and scoffed at the claims of "air boys" like Chennault. "It's the man in the trenches that will win the war," he would say, to which Chennault replied: "Goddammit, Stilwell, there aren't any trenches." Hoping to obtain reinforcements, Chennault agreed to return to active duty as a brigadier general, with the result that he put himself and the AVG under the command of this feisty but unimaginative officer.
The Japanese captured Rangoon in March and the rest of Burma in May. The muscular air power of the United States enabled war material to keep trickling into China, over "the Hump" of the Himalayas from a pierced-steel airstrip in India. The AVG fought on until July 1942, when China's mercenary fighter group was formally inducted into the U.S. Army. Only five Tigers followed Chennault into uniform; the rest went home or became transport pilots in Asia.
In six months of combat, Chennault's irregulars were credited with destroying 296 planes and 1,000 airmen, at a cost of 16 Americans killed or captured in combat operations. Japanese records show that the AVG victories were not nearly so great -- perhaps 115 planes and 300 airmen. Nevertheless, in five years of combat against Chinese, Soviet, French, British, Dutch, and American pilots, this marked the first time that a Japanese air force had come out second-best. The psychological value of the Flying Tigers' record was incalculable, as the United States geared up to drive the Japanese back to their homeland.
As commander of the U.S. Army's 14th Air Force, Chennault continued to work miracles of ingenuity and determination in China. Despite its imposing name, the 14th suffered a logistical poverty as great as that of the AVG. Its pilots were still celebrated in the American press as "Flying Tigers," and like the original Tigers they outfought the Japanese air units almost every time they met.
Meanwhile, Chennault continued to battle his own superiors -- Stilwell, chief of staff George Marshall, and air force commander H. H. Arnold. He lost, of course. He was promoted to major general, and he even forced Stilwell's recall. In the end, however, he accepted Hap Arnold's pointed suggestion that he "take advantage of the retirement privileges now available to physically disqualified officers." He understood that if he did not go, he would be reduced to his permanent rank of colonel, then forcibly sent into retirement.
He left China on August 1, 1945. In a tumultuous outpouring of love and admiration, hundreds of thousands of Chinese filled the streets of Chongqing, inspiring Chennault's driver to turn off the ignition and let the throng push the car to the airport.
Two weeks later, Japan surrendered, with 80 of her cities so devastated by air attack that they were not fit for human habitation.
His new assignment was to build an airline to carry relief supplies and refugees around a continent-sized nation whose transportation system -- medieval to begin with -- had been ravaged by eight years of war. The task was not made easier by the rebellion waged by Mao Tse-tung, armed by Japanese weapons that the Russians had captured in Manchuria. To Chennault and many other Americans, this was clear evidence that the Soviet Union meant to conquer all of Asia, using local revolutionaries as its proxies.
From the beginning, Chennault's airline had links to the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime agency that had conducted espionage and guerrilla operations for the United States. The connection was formalized in 1949. By then, the OSS had become the Central Intelligence Agency, and Mao Tse-tung had occupied most of China. Chennault's pilots -- many of them veterans of the AVG and the 14th Air Force -- moved Chiang's troops, supplies, and government assets from one imperiled city to another, and finally to a last fortress on the island of Taiwan. The CIA loaned money to keep the airline in business, and eventually it bought out Chennault's company.
Indeed, Asia seemed engulfed by a red tide. No sooner did Mao Tse-tung take control of China than communist tanks drove across the 38th parallel in Korea, involving the United States in a war that became one of the most costly in its history. Meanwhile, a French colonial army waged an underfunded and essentially hopeless battle against communist guerrillas in Indochina (now Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia). Chennault's transport planes flew 15,000 missions on contract for the U.S. Air Force in Korea. In Indochina, flying C-119 "Boxcars" with the U.S. Air Force insignia painted out, his pilots dropped supplies to French garrisons, culminating with the siege of Dien Bien Phu in the spring of 1954.
Chennault by this time had become a figurehead in his own airline. Like the War Department in 1945, the CIA bureaucrats worried that his affection for China might compromise his loyalty to his own country. When they planned covert operations that might not meet with the approval of Chiang Kai-shek, they tried to schedule them for times when Chennault was in the United States on business.
Increasingly, Chennault's preoccupation was to warn Americans about the dangers of communism, and to suggest ways to turn back the tide. He urged the U.S. to support clandestine operations in the People's Republic of China: "Assuming an outside source of supply, the airplane, the cargo parachute, and the portable radio, twentieth-century guerrilla warfare can assume maddening dimensions." The guerrillas should be Chinese, however. Almost alone in the 1950s, Chennault understood that American troops must not be used to subdue revolutions, whether in Asia or in Europe: "If the people and the governments in those areas do not wish to fight Communism, we should let them be communized."
A clandestine air force, however, was another matter. Chennault had urged the creation a new AVG to fight Mao's Red Army in 1949. Now he now wanted to form an International Volunteer Group -- latter-day Flying Tigers -- to put out communist brush fires in Asia, and especially in Vietnam. The Eisenhower administration actually sketched the outlines of such a unit: three squadrons of F-84 Thunderjet fighter-bombers, with the pilots cross-trained in B-29 Superfortresses in case it became necessary to use heavy bombardment. The idea was abandoned. For the next generation, clandestine air operations would be carried out by unarmed transports and light planes, most of them painted the featureless gray of Air America, the corporate descendant of Chennault's airline.
Chennault died of lung cancer on July 27, 1958. As if to symbolize his dual loyalty, his grave is the only one at Arlington National Cemetery to bear a Chinese inscription, and the bust of him in Taipei is the only statue of a westerner to grace the Taiwanese capital.
Thrown out of his own air force in 1937, for all practical purposes, he became one of the best-known and most- admired commanders of World War II -- then was thrown out again. He was a useful tool in the Cold War that followed, but historians did not thank him for it. More recently, however, his star has risen again. An air force base in Louisiana was named in his honor; in 1987, he became the subject of two full-length biographies; and on September 6, 1990, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp bearing his jut-jawed likeness. (A companion stamp was issued by the Republic of China on Taiwan.)
Appropriately, for this argumentative and controversial man, one biography gave his birth year as 1890, the other as 1893. The stamp was meant to be issued on Chennault's centenary, but in the end the postal service wisely omitted any reference to his birth year. Instead, the Chennault stamp -- valued at forty cents, a suitably maverick sum -- pays tribute to the "Flying Tigers, 1940s," thus ducking the still-lively debate about whether to extend that title to every U.S. airman who served in China during World War II, or to reserve it for Chennault's irregulars of 1941-1942.
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Posted May 2015. Websites ©1997-2015 Daniel Ford. All rights reserved.