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China Tiger: Claire Lee Chennault, 1893-1958

Major General Claire 
"Boy, if the Chinese only had 100 good pursuit planes and 100 fair pilots, they'd exterminate the Jap air force!"

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 American 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.

Hot War

President Roosevelt had authorized a 500-plane air force for China: the Tomahawk group already training in Burma, another to be equipped with Republic P-43 Lancers and Vultee P-66 Vanguards, and a bomber group equipped with Lockheed A-28 Hudsons that could reach the Japanese home islands. In addition, the British had promised a Buffalo fighter squadron and perhaps a squadron of Blenheim bombers. Some of the American planes and ground crews were already at sea when Japan closed out Roosevelt's plan by attacking U.S., British, and Dutch possession on December 8, 1941 (December 7 in Hawaii, east of the international date line). With no reinforcements in sight, the three understrength, half-trained squadrons at Toungoo would have to defend the entire length of the "Burma Road," 2,000 miles from Rangoon to Chongqing, by river barge, railway car, and truck, over 10,000-foot mountains and mile-deep gorges.

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.

continued in part 2