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Flying Tiger? The AVG's Missing 100th Pilot

Ajax Baumler & pals
John Alison, Tex Hill, Albert Baumler, and Mack Mitchell at Kunming. The photo is dated July 1942, though the Disney logo suggests that it was taken later.

By Kirk E. Setzer © 2005

In the summer of 1941, the recruitment plan for the flight echelon of the First American Volunteer Group was mathematically simple: 100 pilots for 100 planes. But just like the 100th P-40 that was damaged in transit, Ajax Baumler never quite made it into service with the AVG. This is his story.

Albert John Baumler was born on April 17, 1914, in Bayonne, New Jersey. Called A.J. (although this nickname was eventually transformed into "Ajax" after the well-known foaming cleanser), he was raised in Lawrence Township, a suburb of Trenton. He enlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, on September 19, 1933. Assigned to the Signal Corps, he was trained as a radio operator and, after completion of his training in 1934, worked as a radio code interceptor. In June of 1935, he was accepted for transfer to the Air Corps as an aviation cadet and assigned to Randolph Field, Texas, as a member of Class 36B. He completed his basic and primary flight training at Randolph and progressed to advanced flight training at nearby Kelly Field. On June 17, 1936, two weeks before graduation, he took off in a twin-engine trainer that had near-empty fuel tanks. In spite of the fact that he was able to make an emergency dead-stick landing with minimal damage to the aircraft, he was washed out of the program for "failure to demonstrate proper flying proficiency". His military flying career seemingly at an end, he secured a position as a pilot-trainee for United Air Lines, earning his CAA Commercial Transport rating on October 15, 1936.

Baumler in Spain Left: Baumler as a mercenary pilot in Spain

With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Baumler was presented with a renewed opportunity for a military flying career and sailed for Spain aboard the Queen Mary to offer his services to the Rebublican side. As fate would have it, another passenger on this ship was Hidalgo de Cisneros, Chief of the Spanish Air Force, through whom Baumler was able to secure a contract to fly for Loyalist Spain, the terms of which called for compensation of $1,500 a month plus $1,000 for each aircraft shot down. Arriving in Spain on December 24, 1936, he passed his flight check and completed refresher training and was accepted for service in the Spanish Air Force on December 27, 1936.

In February 1937, he was assigned to the Escuadrilla Kosakov under Russian command, flying the Polikarpov I-15. On March 16, he was credited with his first victory, over an Italian Fiat CR.32 fighter, as a share with another pilot. On March 20, he was credited with his first individual kill, on another CR.32. On April 17, he claimed a German Heinkel He.51 fighter and a second He.51 as a probable.

A Vision So Noble

In May 1937, Baumler was assigned to the 1st Escuadrilla de Moscas unit, again under Russian command, flying the Polikarpov I-16. On June 2, he claimed a CR.32 and then another on June 14. On July 8, he shot down his last CR.32, which was claimed only as a probable. He flew his last mission on July 15, before an abscessed salivary gland forced his evacuation to a Valencia infirmary for surgery and hospitalization. In total, he was credited with shooting down four enemy planes individually and a fifth as a shared victory (sometimes counted as 0.5), and with two probables.

He departed Spain on August 15, 1937, aboard a Canadian-Pacific Steamship bound for Canada, since he had violated the State Department ban on travel to Spain. Upon arrival in Canada, he was able to hop a ride in a commercial transport flight back home. He enrolled at New York University and attended for one year, but returned to the Army Air Corps and, having proven his capability as a military flier, was commissioned a second lieutenant and rated a pilot on September 30, 1938. Around this same time, Baumler was recruited along with his former squadron-mates from Spain, Frank Tinker and Jim Allison, for the 14th Volunteer Squadron being formed by the Chinese Air Force. Although he visited Tinker in Arkansas to discuss the opportunity, Baumler ultimately decided to pursue his renewed Air Force career instead. He was initially posted back to Kelly Field as a flight instructor, but soon put his combat experience to practical use when he was assigned as a combat tactics instructor at the Advanced Flying Training School at Craig Field, Alabama. He subsequently served at Maxwell Field, Alabama, and on detached duty at Eglin Field, Florida.

In the summer of 1941, while on temporary duty at Eglin, he was once again targeted for recruitment for the Chinese Air Force, this time for the First American Volunteer Group. When he learned that recruiter Skip Adair had turned up at Maxwell Field looking for him, Baumler commandeered a P-35 and flew directly to Washington, returning with a signed contract with the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO) the company through which the U.S. and Chinese governments would administer the AVG. Baumler resigned his commission in anticipation of deployment to China, but he was refused a passport by the State Department based on his previous violation of the travel restriction to Spain. He returned to the Army Air Force, and was assigned to the American Military Mission in China (AMMISCA) with the expectation that he would serve as the liaison to the AVG, which was in need of experienced staff officers. He departed on December 3 on the Pan Am Philippine Clipper flying boat in charge of a cargo of 200 tires and spare parts for the AVG fighter planes. The Clipper made it as far west as Wake Island, where it was moored on the morning of December 8, when the Japanese attacked the installation. After the first wave of the attack, during which the Clipper was strafed, his cargo was dumped to make room for evacuees, with whom Baumler flew back to Hawaii.

Upon arrival in Honolulu, Baumler was pressed into duty with the 45th Pursuit Squadron of the 15th Pursuit Group, based at Wheeler Field, flying combat patrols guarding against further attacks or a possible invasion, serving in this capacity until February 1942, when was recalled to Washington, D.C. Resuming his previous assignment to China, he took the trans-Atlantic route (via Rio de Janeiro) to British West Africa. From Takoradi on the Gold Coast, he led a flight of eight P-40E Kittyhawks earmarked for the AVG on the ferry route across Africa and India, arriving in China on April 20. By this time, the Headquarters of the Army Air Forces, CBI had absorbed most of the staff of AMMISCA, so Baumler was attached to the AVG as a member of the nascent Tenth Air Force. As a liaison between the AVG and the Army Air Force, Baumler performed a myriad of duties, including administrative paperwork, ferrying fighters from Karachi to China, and flying combat missions. In the combat he flew attached to the AVG, Baumler was credited by the Air Force with two aerial victories, on June 3 and June 22, thus becoming the first American pilot credited with destroying aircraft of all three Axis powers.

[If the AVG was in combat on June 3, the War Diary fails to mention the fact. Frank Olynyk, in his very good breakdown of CBI aerial victories, suggests that Baumler's June 3 credit is a typographical error, duplicating a victory credited to him three months later. -- Dan Ford]

On July 4, 1942, when the AVG was disbanded and the 23rd Fighter Group was activated in its place, Baumler was made squadron adjutant of the 75th Fighter Squadron. While several Flying Tigers agreed to extend their contracts to carry the load until the newly-arrived Army pilots could gain seasoning, Baumler, as one the few Army pilots with combat experience, was flying right alongside them from the start. On July 10, he was flying wing to John Petach when the Flying Tiger volunteer was killed by groundfire. On July 30, along with John Alison (and without the benefit of radar) Baumler flew the first night interception mission and was credited with shooting down 3 planes. His last claim came on September 3 and was shared with Tex Hill, although the Air Force gave each pilot full credit.

Capt Baumler USAAF Right: Capt. Baumler wearing his AVG pin and posing in front of a shark-faced P-40

When Frank Schiel was killed on a reconnaissance flight in bad weather, Baumler was made commanding officer of the 74th Fighter Squadron, serving in this capacity from December 11, 1942 until February 18, 1943. During this period, Baumler was one of a select group of 23rd Fighter Group aces, known as the Zero Club, who served as test pilots for a Japanese Mitsubishi A6M the Chinese had captured. Baumler was sent back to the U.S. with a diagnosis of malignant malaria and under doctors orders that he not return to the CBI theater for two years, although it is equally likely that this was precipitated by a drinking problem resulting in his crashing a plane into a row of parked fighters.

Upon his return to the United States, he participated in a national tour of speaking engagements at War Bond rallies, culminating in his meeting President Roosevelt. When this duty was completed, he initially approached Tex Hill, who was then commanding the Air Proving Ground at Eglin Field, requesting assignment to this hotbed of flight test. When Hill refused his request, Baumler was assigned to the flight test division of the Air Materiel Command at Wright Field in Ohio, where he flew the latest model Lockheed, Republic, and North American fighters and helped perfect the High Velocity Aircraft Rocket (HVAR) as a wing-mounted weapon.

This expertise with the HVAR resulted in his recruitment by his former squadron-mate John Alison as one of the initial cadre of pilots for Project 9, which was the name of the 1st Air Commando Group prior to its overseas deployment. Unfortunately, his drinking problem surfaced once again and resulted in his removal from a choice assignment. He wound up at Eglin (Tex Hill having returned to China) and finished out the war there.

The end of the war resulted in the rapid demobilization of the Air Force and Baumler, lacking a college degree and with a history of drinking problems and former association with the Soviets, was turned down for a regular commission, and accepted a permanent rank of Master Sergeant in order to remain in the service. In the immediate postwar period, he served at Gander Air Force Base in Newfoundland. During the Korean War, he served as a Ground Controlled Approach (GCA) operator and was selected as the controller to direct the landing of General (and President-Elect) Dwight D. Eisenhower's plane when he made his famous visit to Korea. His final duty station was Perrin Air Force Base in Texas, from which he separated from the Air Force in September 1965 and was placed on the retired list at his reserve rank of Major based on his combat decorations.

[This from Robert Day: "I served with him at Goose Bay, Labrador, in 1947 or 1948. We were in the 135th AACS Squadron (765th AACS Group) and he was in charge of the GCA unit on the base.... We had several aircraft assigned to us, including a B-17, and all the pilots used to let Ajax fly the aircraft, even though he was an enlisted man. It seems that they were in awe of him." Mr. Day confirms that Baumler was then a M/Sgt, though he apparently later served at a lower grade: "when I (later) met 'Sergeant Baumler' at Perrin A.F.B. ... he was a Staff Sergeant (E-5) - assigned to/working in Base Operations.... And, he never bragged about his flying career, although one could clearly see the pilot wings on his uniform. Something rarely seen (on) a Staff Sergeant.]

During his thirty-plus years of military service, Baumler was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (with oak leaf cluster), Air Medal, Bronze Star, Army Commendation Medal, American Defense Service Medal (with foreign service star), American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal (with 3 campaign stars), World War II Victory Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Korean Service Medal (with 2 campaign stars), Air Force Longevity Service Award (with 6 oak leaf clusters), Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation, and United Nations Korean Service Medal, and was rated a Senior Pilot.

In retirement, Baumler and his wife Erma (the former Erma Loraine Northern of Telephone, Texas, whom he had met and married while stationed at Perrin) settled in Denison. He died on August 2, 1973, at the VA Hospital in Waco, Texas and was buried in Georgetown Cemetery, outside of Pottsboro, Texas.

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