Dan Ford's books
For print editions of Dan's books, go here      For the e-books, go here

HOME > TIGERS > VETERANS' STATUS

It's official:
the Flying Tigers fought for the U.S.!

Here's the Department of the Air Force memo, dated 19 April 1991, recommending that "honorably discharged" AVG veterans are eligible for veterans' benefits on the basis of their service with the American Volunteer Group:

Under the provisions of DOD [Directive] 1000.20, "Active Duty Service Determinations for Civilian or Contractual Groups," the Department of Defense Civilian/Military Service Review Board has considered the service of the members of the group known as "Honorably Discharged Members of the American Volunteer Group (Flying Tigers) Who Served During the Period December 7, 1941, to July 4, 1942," and has determined that the service of the group should be considered active duty for purposes of all laws administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)....

The American Volunteer Group (AVG), was created in the summer of 1941 as an element of the Chinese Air Force to aid in the war against Japan.... The group was commanded by retired U.S. Army Air Corps Captain Claire Lee Chennault who, prior to the creation of the AVG, was a civilian air advisor to China.

Technically, AVG personnel were under contract with a U.S. firm, the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO), which in turn was under contract with the Chinese government. As U.S. Air Force historical reports explain:

"Although the establishment of the AVG was undertaken independently of the United States government, members of the Roosevelt Administration, including the President himself, as well as Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau and others, played important roles in establishing the unit prior to Pearl Harbor. In fact, Secretary Morgenthau and other key officials arranged for the U.S. loan to the Chinese government that paid for the CAMCO contract. Furthermore, the Lend-Lease program was used to obtain the aircraft required by the AVG."

The applicant concludes from these "important roles" played by members of the U.S. government that the AVG was actually "... America's first Asian covert military operation of World War II," highlighting the fact that "In 1940, the U.S. had in operation the Neutrality Act forbidding military involvement in countries such as China." The applicant submits excerpts from an originally "Secret" 1944 Tenth Air Force historical study which explained that "... to avoid a breach of international law the entire project was organized as a commercial venture."

Armed with this background, the Board examined the application group against the relevant criteria. Determinations of active military service such as these are made on the extent to which civilian groups were under the control of U.S. Armed Forces in support of a military operation or mission during an armed conflict.... The Board determined that U.S. Armed Forces exerted control as if the group's members were military personnel from the outset of the United States entry into World War II, although this control was transitioning from covert to overt until April 1942.

There is no doubt U.S. military command and control over the AVG existed when Claire Chennault was returned to active duty on April 7, 1942. At this point, the AVG was under direct command of a U.S. military officer [i.e., Chennault] who in turn reported directly to General Joseph W. Stilwell, commander of all American forces in India, Burma, and China. However, official U.S. Air Force history indicates that U.S. military control over the AVG actually began with the establishment of the American Military Mission to China (AMMISCA) in the fall of 1941. At this point, according to a recent report by the Office of Air Force History:

"... the influence of U.S. military authorities over the activities and operations of the unit was extensive. In fact, in October 1941, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek proposed that AMMISCA 'assume control and develop the AVG, even at the cost of separating it from the Chinese Air Force.'... Although the AVG's absorption by the U.S. did not occur until the summer of 1942, American direction was a major factor, especially when Colonel Chennault was returned to active duty.... That action solidified U.S. military authority over the AVG. Noting Chennault's return to active duty, the Air Force's official history states: 'The AVG for all practical purposes had long since become a part of the armed forces of the United States, and plans had been made for its incorporation into the AAF (Army Air Forces).'...

The Board selected July 18, 1942, as the cutoff date for the group despite the fact that, officially, the group ceased to exist on July 4, 1942. In reality, the planned U.S. transformation of the AVG to the 23rd Pursuit Group was behind schedule and Chennault, by then a brigadier general, asked for volunteers to serve an additional two weeks. The applicant identifies 20 pilots and 24 ground personnel who accepted General Chennault's request. Two volunteer pilots were killed during the period.

Unlike the circumstances of some applicant groups, there is no doubt the AVG's service was unique. This is an important consideration since civilian service during a period of armed conflict is not necessarily equivalent to active military service, even when performed in a combat zone. Service must be beyond that generally performed by civilian employees and must be occasioned by unique circumstances. The group must have either been created to fill a wartime need or, if it existed before that time, had its prewar character substantially altered by its wartime mission. If the application is based on service in a combat zone, the mission of the group in the combat zone must have been substantially different from the mission of similar groups not in a combat zone.

The Board concluded the AVG was created to fill a wartime need, albeit initially in direct support of the Chinese since the U.S. had not entered the war. However, military histories indicate that while "... the need for protection of the Burma Road gave validity to his [Chennault's] case ... the opportunity for gaining valuable combat experience against Japanese-type aircraft was an especially persuasive consideration." Furthermore, military records show that authorization to "induct" the AVG into the U.S. Armed Forces was given immediately after Pearl Harbor, indicating plans had existed early on in the AVG's conception to eventually transform the AVG into a U.S. military unit. In summary, such documentation tends to support the applicant's conclusion that "The AVG was specifically created to circumvent existing neutrality laws that prohibited the U.S. at that time from direct military involvement. President Roosevelt knew that war with Japan was inevitable. The AVG was specifically created by the President to establish air bases within bombing range of Japan on China's friendly soil."

The board then examined the military organizational authority over the AVG, since the concept of military control is reinforced if the military command authority determines such things as the structure of the organization, the location of the group, the mission and activities of the group, and the staffing requirements to include length of employment and pay grades of the group. After the outbreak of the war, records show that the American Military Mission to China's "... influence ... over the activities and operations of the unit was extensive." It seems reasonable to conclude that the structure of the group and its staffing requirements were driven by the number of aircraft provided to the AVG through the Lend-Lease and by U.S. intent to convert the AVG eventually into a U.S. military organization. Further, even without specific U.S. guidance, it would have been reasonable to assume that Chennault would organize the AVG according to U.S. military tradition. The contractual agreement (pay and tour of duty) between the AVG members and CAMCO may very well have been affected by the U.S. Armed Forces insofar as the President, the Secretary of the Navy, and the Secretary of the Treasury "... played important roles in establishing the unit prior to Pearl Harbor."

The Board examined next the extent of AVG integration into the U.S. military organization. Integrated civilian groups are subject to the regulations, standards, and control of the military command authority. The influence of the American Military Mission to China prior to Chennault's recall to active duty has already been discussed. Otherwise, the AVG gave the impression that members of the group were military except that they were paid and accounted for as civilians: they exchanged military courtesies (on a somewhat relaxed basis), and they wore military clothing, insignia, and devices. Finally, integration into the military may lead to an expectation by members of the group that the service of the group imminently would be recognized as active military service. Such integration acts in favor of recognition, and documents show that pilots recruited for the AVG were promised that time spent in the AVG would count toward promotion upon their guaranteed reentry into the U.S. armed forces.

Next, the Board considered whether the AVG was subject to military discipline.... The applicant's interviews with former members of the AVG indicate that after December 7, 1941, Chennault imposed a general curfew requiring all AVG personnel to be on base, required specific passes to travel from the base's proximity and put all three AVG squadrons on 24-hour alert. Chennault instituted special discipline boards which fined members for certain transgressions such as failure to stay in proper physical condition or absence without leave (AWOL). Further, the contract signed by AVG personnel explained that they could be fired for insubordination, revealing confidential information, habitual use of drugs, excessive use of alcohol, illness or disability incurred due to a ember's own conduct, and malingering. Finally, after Pearl Harbor, Chennault fired 10 pilots and 37 ground personnel for various misconduct by giving them 'dishonorable discharges.' This application is filed only on behalf of those AVG personnel discharged with honorable discharges.

The Board likewise considered whether AVG personnel were subject to military justice. While there is no record of U.S. military judicial proceedings involving AVG personnel, the lack of serious crimes combined with Chennault's system of dishonorable discharges may have precluded courts-martial action.

The Board also considered whether any prohibition existed to prohibit members of the group from joining the armed forces. That is, some organizations may be formed to overcome existing laws or treaties or because of a governmentally-established policy to retain individuals in the group as part of a civilian force. Such factors act in favor of recognition. The AVG, in fact, was apparently formed as a civilian force to overcome existing neutrality law. Thus, members of the AVG were prohibited from remaining with, as opposed to "not joining," the U.S. Armed Forces.

The Board then considered whether the AVG employed skills or resources that were enhanced as the result of military training or equipment designed or issued to achieve a military capability. In the case of the AVG, they were recruited because of military training they already possessed and they employed equipment provided to the Chinese through the Lend-Lease program. Thus, the Board felt that the AVG satisfied this criteria.

The Board was also compelled to consider whether the AVG satisfied certain criteria which do not favor recognition. First, the Board easily dismissed the possibility that the AVG submitted itself to the U.S. Armed Forces for protection. In this case, the AVG provided protection to U.S. and Allied forces. Since the ability of personnel to resign at will and without penalty, the Board examined this factor. Here the applicant submitted as evidence the diary records of a former AVG member who claimed that Chennault informed AVG personnel on April 19, 1942, that anyone "resigning voluntarily would be guilt of desertion." Records indicate that Chennault issued dishonorable discharges for desertion although evidence is not clear if the desertion was in the form of such "voluntary resignations." AVG personnel signed contracts of one year duration and the contracts did not address voluntary resignations during the one year period. However, a memorandum to Secretary Know shows that prior to May 20, 1942, Chennault requested the War Department to "prevent personnel deserting AVG and getting back to the United States via Army ferry planes from India." Thus, the lack of transportation may have been a practical obstacle to resignation....

In additional to other factors, the Board also considered the status of the AVG in international law. That is, were members of the group regarded and treated as civilians, or assimilated into the Armed Forces as reflected in treaties, customary international law, judicial decisions, and U.S. diplomatic practice? The Board concluded that members of the AVG were considered combatants and were entitled to, and accorded, prisoner of war status. Further, the Board concluded that AVG members were not merely "assimilated to the armed forces" but rather _were_ an armed force.

Therefore, all criteria considered, the Board recommends the Secretary signed the attached instrument determining that the service of the group, as defined by the Board, be considered active duty for the purposes of all laws administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

/s/ ELLWOOD P. HINMAN II
Brigadier General, USAF
President, DOD Civilian/Military Service Review Board