A Brief History
On December 20, 1941, the American Volunteer Group (AVG), better known by its nickname, the Flying Tigers, engaged in its first round of air-to-air combat when its fighters encountered Japanese “Sally” bombers. Just in case you do not know, the AVG was a group of American flyers under the command of Claire Chennault that flew for China against the Japanese.
As you can tell by the date above, by the time the AVG got into combat, the U.S. was already at war with Japan, which kind of defeated the purpose of using “volunteers” from supposedly uninvolved countries. A similar situation occurred when Chinese “volunteers” fought against the U.S. in Korea. Another thing about these volunteers is that they were not necessarily patriots or even altruistic; they were merely mercenaries who were in it for the money. Pilots were to receive $500 for each Japanese plane shot down, a princely sum for that time.
Another fact that is commonly misportrayed in many sources and in war lore, is that the Tigers were flying obsolete U.S. fighters against cutting edge Japanese planes and were thus at a great disadvantage. In reality, the P-40 Tomahawk and Kittyhawk fighters flown by the AVG were brand new and had been shipped to China directly from the factory.
The P-40 was faster, better armed, better armored and could even dive faster than the Japanese fighters it faced. While the A6M Zero was a worthy opponent, the other Japanese fighters encountered by the AVG were lesser planes. The Ki-27 Nate, for example, only had a top speed 275 mph and was only armed with 2 x .30 caliber machine guns. Another Japanese plane, the Ki-43 Oscar with its 329 mph speed and 2 x .50 caliber machine guns was not much better. The P-40, on the other hand, could tool along at over 360 mph and had 6 x .50 caliber machine guns. All the Japanese planes were basically unarmored to make them lightweight, and although maneuverable, they could not take the same amount of combat punishment that the P-40 could. At lower altitudes and higher speeds, the P-40 could actually out turn a Zero! Another major advantage of the P-40 was that it had self-sealing fuel tanks, while the Japanese planes did not, which made them highly combustible. The main drawback to the P-40 was its poor high altitude performance, a factor not often in play in the China theater.
Another misconception is that the AVG was a tiny force of just fighter planes that had teeth and eyes painted on the noses. The AVG actually consisted of 200 fighter planes and 66 light bombers. Oh, and about the nose art, the “tiger” in “Flying Tigers” referred to the tiger shark, a fish the Japanese were believed to greatly fear. This real association, however, soon became misconstrued when Walt Disney Studios created of a cartoon logo for the AVG, using the feline type of tiger.
The Flying Tigers were disbanded in July of 1942, with the Chinese government being behind on payments to the pilots and ground crews. It eventually paid up however. Not all of the pilots were eager to rejoin the U.S. military, with some being threatened that they would be drafted into the infantry and handed a rifle if they did not fly. Many were bitter about that coercion.
You might be familiar with Gregory “Pappy” Boyington of the television series Baa Baa Black Sheep fame. He was a highly decorated U.S. Marine Corps fighter ace who had flown F4U Corsairs against the Japanese in World War II. What you might not know is that he was one of the original Flying Tigers. With 28 air-to-air kills, he was also the first American World War II ace to tie and beat Eddie Rickenbacker’s World War I record of 26 air-to-air kills. He was also a Medal of Honor recipient and served time as a prisoner of war (POW) of the Japanese.
Another interesting fact you might not know is that there were 2 more editions of the AVG, called the 2nd AVG and the 3rd AVG. The second was formed in late 1941 and consisted of light bombers, and the third never actually came into being. Yet another bit of Flying Tigers trivia, is that John Wayne starred in the 1942 film, Flying Tigers, in his first war movie (other than cowboy films). Typical of the World War II films, this movie was clearly designed as a patriotic propaganda type film. Another wartime movie about the Flying Tigers was 1945’s God is My Co-Pilot, based on the book by pilot Colonel Robert Scott.
One thing that history did get right about the AVG was that the men in the air and on the ground performed heroically against greater numbers of enemy airplanes. These include the Chinese who supported the AVG with endless hard labor as they built and repaired airstrips, manned observation posts since radar was not available and did whatever else was needed to keep the Americans happy and able to fight. It would also be appropriate to point out the contribution of the nurses who volunteered to assist the AVG in China, a potentially deadly assignment and certainly one under harsh conditions.
One last H&H Fact: Not all the tiger shark paint jobs on the fighters’ noses were alike. The different artists had their own unique styles.
AVG, we salute you!
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For more information, please see…
Ford, Daniel. Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941-1942. Warbird Books, 2016.
Kleiner, Sam. The Flying Tigers: The Untold Story of the American Pilots Who Waged a Secret War Against Japan. Penguin Books, 2018.
Scott, Robert. God Is My Copilot. Ballantine Books, 1964.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by a US government employee of Flying Tigers personnel, is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain in the United States.
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