Today I want to talk about a man named Claire – General Claire Chennault to be exact – and his list of accomplishments. In addition to being an accomplished aviator, and tactician, Claire Chennault was the man in charge of the all volunteer group called the “Flying Tigers,” he started an airline in Taiwan called Civil Air Transport, and married a young Chinese woman who served as an emissary for the US, and China, during, and after, World War II.
One interesting thing to note is that the airline, Civil Air Transport, ultimately became a CIA proprietary which played a major role after World War II in Indochina, Tibet, and other countries.
Claire Lee Chennault, leader of the famed Flying Tigers in China, has long been recognized as one of top U.S. authorities on air tactics.
Born in Commerce, Texas in 1890, Chennault received his education in Louisiana colleges and even taught public school in that state before receiving a commission as a first lieutenant in the Infantry Reserve in 1917. After his commissioning, he transferred immediately to the aviation section of the Signal Reserve Corps and served in World War I. Not until after the war, however, did Chennault learn to fly, while stationed at Kelly Field in Texas. After earning his wings in 1919, he attended the Mechanical School at Kelly Field before receiving an honorable discharge from the Reserves in April of 1920.
But within three months he was back in uniform with a commission as a First Lieutenant in the Regular Army, where he served in various flying capacities until his retirement in 1937. While at Maxwell Field, Alabama, he formed the “Three Men on a Trapeze” acrobatics team to demonstrate his pursuit tactics, and they proved to be a sensation at the 1934 and 1935 National Air Races.
Shortly after his retirement, Madame and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek invited Chennault to become an advisor to the Chinese Air Force. He arrived in China following the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War and began to train pursuit units of the Chinese Air Force. Four years later he was made a brigadier general in that nation’s air force. With his new rank, he was put in charge of recruiting the American Volunteer Group–pursuit pilots and ground crewmen who became famous as the “Flying Tigers”. Recalled to active duty by the U.S. Army Air Force in 1942, Chennault became Commanding General of the China Air Task Force and later commanded the Fourteenth Air Force there as a Major General. Under Chennault’s leadership, his “Flying Tigers” received the herculean task of keeping the Burma Road supply line open. They accomplished this mission in exemplary fashion.
During the three years after the “Flying Tigers” disbanded in 1942, Chennault proved to be a tactical genius in both fighter and bomber procedures, winning air superiority over China. In July 1945, Chennault returned to the United States for a brief assignment at the Army Air Force Headquarters in Washington, D.C., before announcing his retirement in October of that year. The next year, he returned to China and stayed for four years as president of the Civil Air Transports.
A great pilot, Chennault had formed a precision acrobatic flying team, “Three Men on a Flying Trapeze,” while stationed as an instructor at Maxwell Field. Also during that same tour, he continued to improve the science of pursuit tactics and wrote a text book on “The Role of Defensive Pursuit.”
Among the general’s many honors were the Distinguished Service Medal with one oak leaf cluster, The Distinguished Flying Cross, the Chinese Order of the Celestial Banner and the Order of the British Empire. On July 18th, 1958, the President and Congress of the United States promoted Chennault to the rank of Lieutenant General. Nine days later, in New Orleans, Chennault died.
A legend in the Chinese community, Anna Chennault is famous for many reasons. She was the wife of “Flying Tigers” leader General Claire Chennault, the first female reporter for the Central News Agency, and the first person of Chinese ancestry who have had a successful political career in the U.S., where she became known as “the hostess of Washington.”
Often acting as a “secret ambassador,” she served as an emissary for interactions among the Chinese mainland, Taiwan and U.S. Over the past eight decades, she has devoted all her life to promoting dialogue and exchange between the two sides of the Pacific Ocean.
She has also published an autobiography and several collections of writings. Numerous TV serials based on her life have been produced and broadcast in Taiwan and the mainland.
1. Anna Chennault has been involved in many fields, such as politics, businesses and education. How would she define herself? A diplomat, businesswoman, educator or else?
2. How did Anna go from being a reporter to a diplomat? Which role comes more naturally to her? How did she balance the two?
3. What is her opinion on the potential deeper cooperation between China and the U.S.?
4. For more than 30years, Anna Chennault periodically traveled back and forth between China and the U.S. She has seen great changes that happen in China? So which of your trips back to China impressed you the most and why?
5. As an expert of both Chinese culture and American culture, does she have some suggestion on promoting the bilateral culture exchanges and how to introduce Chinese traditional culture like Confucianism?
6. What is her opinion on the Obama’s administration and on the current Sino-US relation?
7. What kinds of experience does she think that both China and U.S. should learn from each other?
Plane engines roaring, white clouds and landscapes receding underneath, Anna Chan Chennault sat quietly and stared through the window at the horizon. It was nearly impossible for her to remember how many times she had returned to the vast land of China.
Shrewd, rich, perceptive, one half of a world-famous love story, respected, at least in certain quarters, Anna, though more than 85 years old, still seemed full of energy. The plane flew north from Beijing, taking her to Erdos, the richest city in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. It was her first trip there.
“I have heard it is a very beautiful place and where Genghis Khan is buried,” she said. “China is changing so much and everyone should come to see.”
A legend in the Chinese community, Anna is famous for many reasons. She was the wife of “Flying Tigers” leader General Claire Chennault, the first female reporter for the Central News Agency, and the first person of Chinese ancestry who have had a successful political career in the United States, where she became known as “the hostess of Washington.”
Often acting as a “secret ambassador,” she served as an emissary for interactions among the Chinese mainland, Taiwan and U.S. Over the past eight decades, she has devoted all her life to promoting dialogue and exchange between the two sides of the Pacific Ocean. She has published an autobiography and several collections of writings. Numerous TV serials based on her life have been produced and broadcast in Taiwan and the mainland.
“I love both China and U.S. very much!” Anna told China.org.cn. “I member the toast made by President Nixon in 1972 when he came to Beijing,that ‘The Chinese people are a great people, the American people are a great people. If we can find common ground to work together, the chance for world peace is immeasurably increased.'”
Born into a well educated family in Beijing on Jun. 23, 1925, Anna was the most opinionated and stubborn of the siblings. In 1939, WWII broke out, the world was in chaos, and China was battling the Japanese Fascists. Anna’s father, a diplomat, wanted to send his children to study abroad, but Anna refused. Instead, she led a nomadic student life, attending middle school in Hong Kong and Lingnan University in Guangdong Province.
She recalled that life was extremely hard during the Anti-Japanese War. “There was no electric light for studying, no hot water for bathing. People couldn’t even get one meal with meat per week,” she said. But even under such harsh conditions she never quit studying.
In 1944, Anna graduated from Lingnan University with a degree in Chinese. She began her career as a journalist, serving as a war correspondent for the Central News Agency from 1944 to 1948 and a feature writer for the Hsin Ming Daily News in Shanghai from 1944 to 1949.
“At that time, I was so young and full of passion and enthusiasm. I wanted to be a journalist, to report the real China to the whole world,” she told China.org.cn. “It was a tough but amazing experience that I was able to interview common people and write about the war.”
In 1946, Anna met her future husband General Claire Chennault, who was a major war hero in China. The Flying Tigers squadron that Chennault trained made him immensely popular among Chinese servicemen and civilians alike. In 1947, Anna married Chennault, who was 32 years her senior. Their love story has moved generations of Chinese people.
But Chennault died of lung cancer in 1958. Although they only spent 11 years together, Anna cherishes that period as the most precious time in her life. She said she would never remarry again as there was no room in her heart for anyone but her husband.
“A person always needs love. The 11 years of the marriage with General Chennault was the most precious time in my life. Though he left us a long time ago, I still miss him,” she said.
Anna visits the Chennault’s grave to mourn him every Veteran’s Day with his friends and colleagues. She has planted a Jequirity tree at the tomb, a symbol of lovesickness in China.
No one will deny that the legend of Anna began with her marriage to Claire Chennault. In 1949, she left for Taiwan with her husband. But in July 1958 came the black day when Chennault died of lung cancer.
A strong woman, the death of her husband did not slow Anna’s career. After his death, Anna settled in the U.S. with their two children. She received an honorary Doctor of Literature Degree from Chungang in Seoul, Korea in 1967, and an honorary degree at Lincoln University in San Francisco.
Anna took a variety of jobs – becoming chief of the Chinese section of the machine translation research department at Georgetown University, a broadcaster for the Voice of America, a lecturer, a writer, a fashion designer, and one of the key executives of Flying Tiger Line for which she handled many contract negotiations.
She was very active in Republican Party affairs, with posts including co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee’s Finance Committee (1966-1983) and was twice chairwoman of the National Republican Heritage Groups Council.
Because she helped a number of Republican presidential candidates in elections, she gained the trust of the White House. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan all asked her to take on various informal tasks for them. In 1963, President Kennedy named her the chairman of the Chinese Refugees Relief Committee, making her the first person of Chinese ancestry to be appointed to the White House staff.
According to Nixon, A Life by Jonathan Aitken, after an unexpected encounter with Anna in Taipei, Nixon complained to accompanying congressman Patrick Hillings “She’s a chatterbox.”
Anna said: “I hope through my efforts, the two super powers (China and U.S.) can work closer. In fact, this is my only motivation. I deeply love these two counties.”
Her hard work has been recognized by the international community. In 1966, she won the Freedom Award of the Order of Lafayette and the Freedom Award from the Free China Association; in 1971 she received the Award of Honor from the Chinese-American Alliance.
As Anna became increasingly prominent in mainstream political activities and gradually built up her status in social circles, she came to be known in the U.S. capital as “the hostess of Washington.”
In the early 1980s, as the Chinese mainland began to implement its opening-up and reform policy, she naturally served as an envoy between the three points of the triangle – the mainland, Taiwan and the U.S. In 1980, shortly after Ronald Reagan’s presidential election victory, she was sent to Beijing as a special ambassador to meet with Deng Xiaoping.
Today Anna visits the mainland frequently and is an active player in promoting cultural exchanges between China and the U.S., as well as across the Strait.
In 1981, she established the Chen Hsiang-mei Education Prize in more than a dozen cities in the mainland in order to encourage outstanding teachers. The “Chen Hsiang-mei Scholarship,” which includes a stipend of $2000, is awarded each spring to persons majoring in Chinese. Each year she travels to various cities to present the award.
Besides creating these awards, she has also founded several “Hsiang-mei schools,” covering all costs out of her own pocket.
“I’m interested in education; I think it’s the foundation of a strong nation,” Anna explained. “I just want to do more for my motherland.”
She said she was greatly encouraged and helped by her teachers, and that she would never forget them. She was one of initiators of “Teachers’ Day” in China.
From northern China to the south, from Taiwan to the U.S., Anna has experienced both bitterness and sweetness. She sees herself as a wonderful combination of identities.
“During the past three decades, the mainland has changed dramatically. Now it’s undertaking the development of the northwestern region (including Tibet, Xinjiang, Gansu, Shaanxi, Sichuan and so forth),” she said. “It has made me determined to go to the northwest, which is backward and in need of help.”
The handful of American mercenaries who scorched earth and sky in defense of China were officially known as the American Volunteer Group (AVG), but, of course, are best remembered as the ‘Flying Tigers’-the English translation of Fei Hou. The nickname was bestowed by the grateful Chinese after the American pilots attacked a large number of Japanese fighters over Kunming on December 20, 1941. In just seven months of intense aerial combat, the AVG earned a lasting niche in aviation history, reportedly destroying nearly 300 Japanese aircraft for the loss of only 69 planes.
Equally famous is their brilliant and controversial commander, Claire L. Chennault, whose genius for leadership in the face of overwhelming odds made him a hero in the United States as well as in China. Chennault was a unique individual who could inspire great accomplishments from all those who served under him. In creating his legendary group of airmen-composed of former U.S. Navy, Marine and Army Air Corps pilots who quietly entered China posing as artists and missionaries. Chennault established his own version of an ideal mercenary band. To him it was clear that paid soldiers could play a vital role in aerial combat, and in his attempts to sell his sometimes radical ideas to military officials he frequently quoted lines from ‘Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries,’ his favorite A.E. Houseman poem:
These, in the day when heaven was falling, The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling, Took their wages and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended: They stood and earth’s foundations stay.
What God abandoned these defended And saved the sum of things for pay.
The battle for China officially began in 1931, when a resource-depleted Japan took advantage of an opportunity to invade Manchuria. Torn by many years of civil war and battles between warlords, the Chinese found it beyond their power to halt the Japanese aggression, which escalated in the following years. The world’s three great powers-the United States, Britain and France-tried to influence the Japanese through diplomatic dialogue, efforts that had little effect on Japan and largely failed to muster any interest from other nations. The carnage continued as the Japanese swept nearly unopposed across the fertile agricultural plains of eastern China. Peking and Shanghai quickly succumbed during ruthless attacks on strategic military targets and civilian population centers.
The story of the Flying Tigers also began in the early 1930s, when Captain Claire Lee Chennault formed and led the U.S. Army Air Corps’ precision flying team in performances across the United States. Chennault, who was born in 1890 and grew up in Louisiana, had tried unsuccessfully to become a pilot during World War I. The war ended before he had his wings, but he spent the postwar years honing his skills as an aerobatic flier and working on aerial maneuvers, especially the use of three-plane teams. Virtuoso teamwork was the highlight of the Army’s flying team. Calling themselves ‘Three Men on a Flying Trapeze,’ Chennault, joined by Staff Sgt Rilly McDonald and J.H. Williams, flew Boeing P-12 biplanes The peppy little aircraft were equipped with 450-hp engines and could achieve a top speed of 194 mph.
At each performance site, the three-man team would zoom in, land and taxi to a stop, then line up wingtip to wingtip before the waiting crowd. The two outside pilots, McDonald and Williams, would clamber out of their aircraft, each carrying a 20-foot length of rope. Displaying great dramatic flair, the two would proceed to tie one end of the rope to his own plane’s wing braces and the other end to Chennault’s left or right wing braces. Then they hopped back into their cockpits, waved to the crowd and took off once more.
The team members, literally linked together by the two thick ropes, performed a number of slow, lazy loops above the fascinated crowds. Their most spectacular stunt, however, was a complete 360-degree roll maneuver. Chennault’s plane performed a synchronized tight roll while the two outside craft had to gyrate and perform an up-and-around maneuver, being very careful not to tear off the wing braces of Chennault’s plane. It was an absolutely breathtaking display.
By 1937, Chennault had served 20 years in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Partially deaf from many years of open-cockpit flying, he retired and the aerobatics team was disbanded. But in the audience at their last. performance was a spectator who would have an important role in Chennault’s next career, Chinese air force General Mao Pang -tso China’s Nationalist leader Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, needed a talented, experienced aviator to lead and organize his country’s struggling air force, which was attempting to help Chinese ground troops stop the invading swarms of Imperial Japanese soldiers ravaging China by land, sea and air. Chennault accepted the challenge and the rank of colonel in the Chinese Nationalist air force.
In the following months, he worked hard to organize and educate the eager young Chinese pilots who wanted to join in the defense of their country. But due to political pressure and a lack of planes, he was forced to send many of the flight cadets back to the United States to complete their training.
Between 1937 and 1941 the Chinese military establishment was made up of many regional military elements, considered the personal armies of powerful and wealthy land barons. This situation led to bickering over leadership, disorganization in planning and ineffective distribution of scarce resources. In the midst of all this chaos, Chiang sent Chennault back to the United States in early 1941 to lobby President Franklin D. Roosevelt to support a clandestine foreign aid program to China.
As it happened, Roosevelt was already looking for a way to aid China in her struggle against the Japanese. With the president’s tacit approval and help from Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s brother, TV Soong, who lived in Washington, D.C., Chennault was authorized to return to China with 100 Curtiss P-40B fighters that had originally been intended for Britain.
Just as important to China’s future, President Roosevelt drafted and signed a secret executive order allowing for the recruitment of U.S. military aviators and ground personnel for the American Volunteer Group. The actual recruiting was done through a subsidiary of International Aviation, known as Central Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation (CAMCO). A band of recruiters, including some retired U.S. Navy commanders, combed Army, Navy and Marine bases looking for volunteers with a sense of adventure and some aviation experience. In exchange for signing a one-year contract, they were told that when their time was up they could go back to their old ranks.
In mid-1941, some six months prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, most military pilots were receiving $260 a month-not a bad paycheck for the time. The AVG pay scale for pilots was $750 a month for a qualified squadron leader, $675 for a flight leader and $600 a month for a wingman. Ground crewmen, depending on their specialty, received from $150 to $350 a month. There was also a $500 bonus promised for every confirmed Japanese aircraft that was shot down or destroyed. But according to some AVG pilots, Generalissimo Chiang was a bit slow in signing those bonus checks for the confirmed kills.
Most of the American volunteers who sailed for the Far East in the summer and fall of 1941 were young and relatively inexperienced. Altogether, 87 pilots and some 300 ground support personnel joined Chennault at a training base in Burma, where they familiarized themselves with the P-40B and began exhaustive tactical instruction.
When Chennault had accepted the 100 P-40s from the Curtiss Wright factory, the only place to load them on board a ship was at a New York City pier. As the first crated fuselage was being hoisted aboard the ship, the cable snapped and the fuselage complete with engine, radios and all cockpit gauges-fell into the Hudson River. The crate was recovered, but the engine and gauges were waterlogged and determined a loss. Now there were only 99 planes left. After the men, equipment and P-40s reached the assembly area, Chennault divided the aircraft into three AVG squadrons. The 1st Squadron was designated ‘Adam and Eve,’ with fuselage numbers from 1 to 33. The 2nd Squadron was named ‘Panda Bears’ and was assigned aircraft numbers 34 to 66. The 3rd Squadron, called ‘Hell’s Angels,’ received airplanes numbered 67 to 99.
The British Royal Air Force shared its meager facilities at the Kyedaw training field, near Toungoo, Burma, some 170 miles north of Rangoon, with the AVG men. Training continued apace, but due to Allison engine thrust bearing failures in the P-40s, as well as mishaps resulting from pilot error and many losses due to ‘Murphy’s Law,’ the number of operational aircraft ready for combat duty by December 1941 was down to some 55 airplanes.
By that time, three of the volunteers had died in training accidents. But those who were left were ready for action, inspired by the endless energy and creativity of their instructor as well as by the new paint jobs on their aircraft-a wide-open shark’s mouth, complemented by evil-looking eyes.
After the surprise Sunday morning attack by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the AVG men and their rugged P-40s swung into action in earnest. Beginning on December 8, Chennault’s men attacked ground targets and engaged enemy aircraft throughout the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater of Operations. Their mission was to protect the Burma Road, a vital 600-mile-long supply line that ran through rugged terrain between Lashio and Kunming. Putting their team tactics to the test day after day over cities and hamlets with tongue-twisting names such as Lungling, Poashan, Kunming, Kweilin, Yunanyi and Chanyi, they racked up impressive victories over Japanese forces.
Their deeds quickly assumed legendary proportions in the American press as well as in other nations. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, not a man for idle praise, cabled the governor of Burma in 1942: ‘The victories of these Americans over the rice paddies of Burma are comparable in character, if not in scope, with those won by the Royal Air Force over the hop fields of Kent in the Battle of Britain.’
Former AVG member John M. Williams, who was a friend of Chennault’s, later recalled his own experiences in the days when the Americans were developing an early warning system, known as the Jing Bow (or Bao), in China: ‘I helped Chennault organize a unique air raid warning network. No, not radar, but a communications matrix that stretched across the entire face of Yunan province [which is considerably larger than the state of Texas].
‘We had about 165 radios of all types and manufacture. They all worked fine. Some were even battery operated. The batteries, known as A, B1, B2 and C types, were hard to come by. They provided the necessary voltage/amperage rating for electronic vacuum tubes and circuit functions. Each battery was about the size of a man’s wallet. It took all three types of batteries to run one of those radios.
‘Anyway, we distributed all the radios to our most trusted friends. Most of our select radios were military type field phones. They were connected to our plotting center at the Kunming AVG Headquarters by miles and miles of two-strand military communications wire. These remote outposts were secret. Thus the aircraft identification net was formed.
‘However, that military two-strand communications wire was being cut and stolen almost every night. The net was ineffective. We caught 21 of these wire cutting thieves … over a period of time … and executed them all. Yet the wire was still being stolen.
‘Finally, I went to the governor of Yunan province and explained my problem. He said not to worry, he would take care of the matter. A few mornings later the governor called me, and I went with him and my interpreter, P.Y. Que, to a nearby hamlet. As we got closer to the village, I noticed that there was a man hung by the neck, swaying from a pole at the village entrance. The governor had this wire thief hanged in front of the entire population of the thief’s village.
‘I was told that this was a matter of `Chinese face.’ The thief’s family lost face for 100 years. The village lost face for 50 years. You know, from that day on … we never lost another inch of wire!’
Maintaining communications was just one of many problems encountered by the AVG members. Gasoline and spare parts were premium commodities and had to be flown in over ‘the Hump’-the airlift route over the Himalayas from Assam, India, to Kunming-for AVG use. The unwritten law was to make do with what you had on hand, or do without. The unpredictable Chinese weather was another factor that frequently halted AVG offensive missions.
Donald Whelpley, who served as the AVG’s chief meteorologist, helped John Williams to set up a weather forecasting system as well as the Jing Bow. ‘I joined the AVG in July 1941,’ he recalled ‘At that time my duty assignment was Navy meteorologist to Patrol Squadron 54, Naval Air Station, Norfolk, Va.
‘When the Navy finally realized that I was serious about resigning my commission to join Chennault in China, they released me for a one-year tour with the AVG. Little did any of us realize what we had gotten ourselves into!
‘John would send me around Yunan province to various secret AVG airfields to help our radiomen set up a crude radio network for our air raid warning system. I also helped construct other clandestine emergency airfields and installed our weather forecasting equipment.
‘Chinese operators didn’t need to identify aircraft. They just needed to relay the number of planes sighted, their location and their direction of flight. Back at headquarters in Kunming, John would plot the courses on a wall map. If we didn’t have airplanes up in that area of report, well, they had to be Japanese planes on patrol or a bombing mission.
‘But if they came toward any of our airfields, Chennault would wait until they got within 50 miles of a base. Then he would order the P-40s up to engage them. Because of our radio alert network, we saved many thousands of gallons of aviation fuel. We didn’t have to hunt the enemy; they came to us. The Japs just couldn’t figure out how we knew they were coming. It must have driven them crazy!’
Leo J. Schramm, of Cumberland, Pa., served as a crew chief on one particular P-40 with the fuselage number 92. His pilot was Robert ‘Duke’ Hedman. Looking back over his AVG experiences years later, Schramm recalled the events of one memorable mission on Christmas Day 1941. ‘Pearl Harbor happened about two weeks before,’ he said. ‘We were with the 3rd Squadron, stationed in Rangoon, Burma. We knew the Japanese were going to bomb the city and the roads would be choked with refugees trying to flee the onslaught.
‘When the bombers and fighters came, Duke went up and shot down five Japanese aircraft in one day. He was an ace… in just one day! My pilot! My airplane! You know, that plane was built like a semitruck. It could take a lot of punishment. Not much went wrong with it, either.’
J. Richard ‘Dick’ Rossi, of Fallbrook, Calif., a past president of the Flying Tigers Association, fondly remembers the day he was recruited into what would later be known as the Flying Tigers: ‘I was a young naval aviator stationed at Pensacola, Fla. I recall I cut off all the brass buttons from my uniforms to prevent any association with the U.S. military and turned in my flight gear.
‘A few weeks later, a group of us boarded a ship and sailed from San Francisco. We all had phony American passports…. Our occupations were [listed] as carpenter, sheet metal worker, musician, electrician, stonemason, etc. Heck, you name an occupation and I’m sure someone had it stamped on their passport.’
Rossi had an impressive career with the AVG. ‘My combat record showed that I shot down 6.35 confirmed `kills,’ and six more probables,’ he recalled many years later. ‘I stayed on with the AVG throughout the one-year contract time from July 4, 1941, to July 4, 1942, the day we were disbanded officially.’
The aircraft flown by the AVG members, though called P-40s, were primarily Curtiss Hawk 81-A3s, the export version of the P-40. It was slower than some of its peers, including the British Supermarine Spitfire, the German Messerschmitt Me-109 and the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M ‘Zero.’ It was also heavier and less maneuverable than the Japanese aircraft and could barely function as a fighter above 25,000 feet.
Robert Neale, the Tigers’ top ace with 15 1/2 confirmed enemy planes to his credit (and to whom fellow pilots credit at least 25 to 30 more that were declared unconfirmed), sized up his plane this way: ‘The P-40 was a wonderful firing platform. However, it had heavy armor plating to protect the pilot, and when fully armed and loaded with aviation gas, it took 20 minutes to climb to 20,000 feet. The P-40 had two .50-caliber machine guns mounted on top of the nose section and two.30-caliber machine guns mounted in each wing. So a pilot had to learn and play it smart-had to know when to dive, how fast, pick out a target, and when to pull the trigger to engage those six teeth rattling machine guns.’
Chennault had drilled his pilots relentlessly. He insisted upon two-plane teams at all times and made sure his men took advantage of the P-40’s redeeming qualities. It was rugged, and it would usually get you back home no matter how badly it was damaged. It also had superior diving ability.
David L. ‘Tex’ Hill, who was credited with 18 1/4 kills during the war, was one of five AVG pilots who stayed on after their contracts ended and helped train new U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) pilots coming into the 23rd Fighter Group, also known as the China Air Task Force, which replaced the AVG. More than 40 years after the war, Hill recalled his first combat victory:
‘It was my first mission over Thailand. We received our briefing, and four of us left Rangoon to strafe an airfield location called Tak. One P-40 developed some sort of engine problem and returned to Rangoon. Three of us went on.
‘I was really excited as we neared the target area. It was then that I noticed there were too many of us in formation. Somehow, a Jap Zero swooped in and got on the tail of the P-40 in front of me. I pulled the trigger, fired my machine guns and shot the Zero down.
‘Unknown to me, there was another Zero up there with us, but I didn’t see him in time. He put 33 bullet holes in my P-40 fuselage before I could break away. Later, during that same mission, another Jap came in straight at me … head-on! I held the machine-gun trigger down. We got closer and closer. I thought we were going to collide, but he just blew up in front of me! I never touched a piece of his wreckage, either.’
When the one-year AVG contract was completed on July 4, 1942, the USAAF took over the entire CBI operation. With the stroke of a pen, the AVG became the 23rd Fighter Group. Chennault was recommissioned a brigadier general and stayed on as the group’s first commander. The name Flying Tigers was later adopted by the 14th Air Force, but the original Flying Tigers had all served as mercenaries under Chennault.
Unfortunately, the Army brass subsequently used some strong language and tactics in an effort to downplay the AVG’s accomplishments in the first half of 1942. Many former AVG members were infuriated by rumors of their flamboyant behavior during their one-year tours. Despite pleading by Chennault, only five former AVG pilots and some 30 ground personnel stayed with him to train the inexperienced aviators who were now coming to Asia to join the fight. Most of the AVG pilots returned to America to rejoin their old military units. Others stayed on in the Far East and piloted Curtiss C-46 Commando and Douglas C-47 ‘Gooney Bird’ cargo planes from India to China over the Hump.
In nearly seven months of relentless combat (December 18, 1941, to July 4, 1942), the AVG men and machines had shot down 296 confirmed enemy planes and 300 more probables. Japan lost 1,500 pilots, bombardiers, navigators and gunners in air combat. The AVG also destroyed 573 bridges, 1,300 riverboats and innumerable road vehicles and killed thousands of Imperial Japanese army soldiers.
The total losses to the AVG were 69 planes and 25 pilots. Two crew chiefs, including mechanic John E. Fauth, were killed during Japanese bombing raids at various airfields. On the day the group was disbanded, there were just 30 well used P-40s left to fly.
While many former AVG personnel returned to the States and rejoined their former outfits, some went on to serve in the South Pacific or Europe. A few later returned to the CBI Theater as combat pilots. One former AVG crew chief, Don Rodewald, became a pilot and completed his CBI tour as a North American P-51 Mustang jockey.
Major General Chennault retired from the USAAF just a few weeks before the Japanese surrendered in 1945. He was not invited to the Japanese surrender ceremony aboard USS Missouri. Some have speculated that he was deliberately excluded because of his disputatious manner, which chaffed more than a few jealous superior officers. Of course, he was also not a West Point graduate and was not considered to be ‘one of the boys.’
After the war, Chennault helped organize the Chinese Nationalist’s civil airline, known as the CAT, which distributed relief supplies throughout the country. He died of lung cancer in July 1958, the same month in which he was promoted to lieutenant general by Congress.
But the legend of the American Volunteer Group lives on. Those who are knowledgeable about World War II-and many who are not-have heard stories of the group’s incredible victories over the Japanese in a time when it seemed that little else was going right for the Allies in the Pacific. In recent years, historians have questioned some of the AVG records, including numbers of planes shot down. Today, nearly 60 years after Claire Chennault’s improbable group of mercenaries made their mark halfway around the globe from their own country, it’s not always easy to distinguish fact from fiction. One thing, however, is certain:
Next week we will talk about CAT so join me then and as always……take care, fly safe, and be safe.
March 6, 2018