The Only War We've Got

Did the RAF "sell" victories to the Flying Tigers?

In Bloody Shambles: Volume Two: The Defence of Sumatra to the Fall of Singapore, Christopher Shores finds himself compelled to explain how it was that both the RAF and the AVG claimed to have raided Japanese-held Moulmein on Thursday, Feb. 26, 1942, with substantially identical results. This is how the conflicting stories went:

* Seven Hurricanes led by Wing Commander Frank Carey were involved in the British attack. As they approached Moulmein, they saw a squadron of Ki-27 "Nate" fighters returning to their airfield. Carey claimed three shot down; Pilot Officer G.W. Understood claimed another, shot off his leader's tail; and Flight Leader "Bush" Cotton claimed a fifth--all air-to-air victories, with possibly some others destroyed on the ground. Underwood was shot down and taken prisoner, and Cotton and Carey were then chased out over the Gulf of Martaban with substantial damage to Carey's Hurricane.

* About the same time, seven Tomahawks of the AVG 1st Squadron attacked Moulmein's satellite field at Mudon. They claimed two Nates destroyed on the ground, then flew on to the main airfield, where they saw three Japanese fighters in the act of taking off, with others jockeying for position on the runway. In the ensuing scrap, George Burgard claimed two Nates shot down, and Dick Rossi and Joe Rosbert were each credited with one. (There were other claims for the day, but Shores appears to be wrong in attributing them all to the scrap at Moulmein.) And Bob Neale was chased out over the Gulf of Martaban, with substantial damage to his Tomahawk!

Scratching his head over this seeming duplication, Shores wrote: "There was subsequently much rumour about AVG pilots 'buying' RAF claims due to their system of payment by the Chinese authorities for aircraft confirmed shot down. Had both Allied formations attacked [Moulmein], or had the Americans 'acquired' this attack from the RAF? Certainly, Japanese records note only the one strafe, and identify the attackers as Hurricanes. Or had Carey's formation struck the main airfield and the AVG the satellite strip at Mudon? Much here remains unanswered."

I immediately called Mr. Shores, who said I should talk to Hedley Everard in Canada, Vic Bargh in New Zealand, and a British pilot now living in Australia. I wrote all three. The man in Australia replied that he had no personal knowlege of this question, though he'd heard the rumors. Vic Bargh said I could telephone him on this and other matters; you can read what he said by going to the transcript of that interview. Suffice it to say that Vic didn't claim that he was involved in a cash transaction--and on the day when he recalled "giving" victories to the AVG, the British record shows that the Buffalo pilots did in fact receive credit for shooting down the Japanese planes.

Hedley Everard's tale

That left Hedley Everard, then a Hurricane pilot for RAF 17 Squadron, later a a bush pilot in Canada, and the author of A Mouse in My Pocket: Memoirs of a Fighter Pilot (Valley Floatplane Services, PO Box 444, Picton, Ontario, Canada KOK 270). He didn't answer my letter, but I found a copy of his book. It cites three instances where Everard supposedly sold a victory or part of one:

The first was a Ki-43 Hayabusa at Magwe: "That night [Jack Gibson] slipped me two hundred American dollars, which was my share of a three way split with some unknown AVG pilot who had claimed the 01 victory." (page 170). Yet the Japanese lost only one Hayabusa in the Magwe battle. It was shot down or at least damaged by Parker Dupouy, and it crashed many miles from the scene. No other Tiger claimed a "Type One" that day; Everard couldn't possibly have visited the crash site of the Hayabusa; and there was no body in it, for the pilot made his way back to Japanese lines.

Everard's second "sale" took place at Loiwing and involved a Hayabusa he attacked in a brawl that also included some AVG Tomahawks. Afterward, "Chuck Sawyer quietly put a paperback in my hand and said I would enjoy the contents. In it was two hundred and fifty U.S. dollars and a scrawled note that said the balance had been contributed to Doc Gentry's Hospital Fund" (page 183). Not long after, Everard fired at a "Zero" that was being overtaken by a Tomahawk. He was later approached by R.T. Smith, who "peeled five hundred green-backs from a hefty roll and stuffed them into my bush-jacket pocket," explaining: "That bastard was a goner after you hit him" (page 190). I sent R.T. a copy of the story, but never heard back.

These things are wrong with Everard's tale: his Magwe claim doesn't check out; the Tigers didn't get their combat bonuses on the spot, or in cash; R.T. would have been unlikely to carry a roll from which he could peel $500 (the equivalent of $10,000 in today's much-depreciated greenbacks); and Everard's only hard evidence of the transactions--the money--he conveniently left behind in Loiwing.

Tales of the Flying Tigers

Boris's tale

In 2004, Brad Smith sent me a page from Tiger for Breakfast: The Story of Boris of Kathmandu by Michel Peissel (Dutton, 1966). Boris ran the 300 Club in Calcutta. "The most colorful of the pilots who frequented the 300," Peissel wrote, "were those of the AVG, the famous Flying Tigers.... One of their great sports was swapping planes shot down with the pilots of the RAF and the Tenth Air Force, who could thus benefit by a percentage of the bonuses given the AVG men." This is a second-hand account, and I can't think of a bonus paid to a Flying Tiger that could possibly have been "bought" from a 10th Air Force pilot, but the casual mention does show that the rumor was current in India at the time.

John Fischer's tale

And in February 2007, Brad sent me two paragraphs from the article, "War as Theater of the Absurd" by John Fischer, which appeared originally in Harper's Magazine for March 1970. The article was reprinted in the February 2007 issue of Ex-CBI Roundup, a veterans' publication; Roundup had previously published it in December 1970. According to the editor's note, John Fischer served as an economic intelligence officer on General Stilwell's staff in 1943-44. I can't validate that information, but I do find that he was a Rhodes Scholar, newspaperman, and bureaucrat in the Board of Economic Warfare before joining Harper's in 1944.

"Occasionally, the official historians stumble into error, because they don't understand the larcenous nature of American soldiery. For example, they solemnly record the miraculous success of the Flying Tigers, a group of volunteer fighter pilots under Claire Chennault who fought in Burma during late 1941 and early 1942. During a little more than six months they were credited with shooting down at least 286 Japanese planes, or roughly 15 for every loss of their own. At the same time, British squadrons fighting alongside them barely broke even in their combat score. To anyone except a historian, with his touching faith in the written record, these figures could sound a mite suspicious. Especially since the British pilots were no less brave and well-trained and were flying Hurricanes, a plane at least as good as the American P-40s.

"The explanation--at least the way I heard it--is a credit to the free-enterprise system. The Chinese government, which had hired the Flying Tigers, paid them a bonus of $500 for every Japanese plane shot down. But, the RAF pilots merely got their regular pay, regardless of their scores. Inevitably the allied flyers made a deal. Suppose a squadron of Tigers and an RAF squadron jointly tackled a flight of Japanese bombers and shot down, say, ten of them. When they were debriefed back at their airstrips, the British might claim one victory, while the Americans would claim the other nine -- and collect bonuses totaling $4,500.00. Next morning, of course, they would split the loot with their British friends. A happy arrangement, but not the sort of thing likely to find its way into official documents."

Citing Fischer, William Boyd Sinclair repeats the story on page 4 of Volume 2 of his 10-volumne series about the China-Burma-India Theater, Confusion Beyond Imagination (1987).

Well, of course, the RAF and the AVG put in their claims separately, and the two outfits had very little to do with one another. (The Tigers' victory credits were later vetted by the British air commander for Rangoon.) And, as above, they couldn't have "split the loot" next morning, because there was no loot to be had: the bonus system wasn't confirmed until March, and even then the payoffs were handled by CAMCO in New York.

I take up this question in more detail in the revision of Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941-1942.

Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! — Daniel Ford

Flying Tigers
revised and updated

On this website: Front page | Flying Tigers | Chinese Air Force | Japan at War | Brewster Buffalo | Glen Edwards & the Flying Wing | Vietnam | War in the Modern World | The Spadguys Speak | Bluie West One | Poland 1939-1948 | Book Club | Book reviews | Question? | Google us | Website & webmaster | Site map

Other sites: Flying Tigers: the book | Daniel Ford's blog | Daniel Ford's books | Facebook | Piper Cub Forum | Raintree County | Reading Proust | Expedition Yacht Seal

Posted May 2019. Websites © 1997-2019 Daniel Ford; all rights reserved.