Claire Chennault is certainly not the most recognizable name in the annals of World War II. And the American Volunteer Group (or AVG) he headed in Burma in 1941 probably doesn’t cause instant recognition, either. But the photo on the left should give you a pretty good idea of where we’re headed. Indeed, Chennault’s relative obscurity makes him the perfect subject for Today’s History Lesson.
Born in Louisiana in the 1890’s, he joined the Army and learned to fly during WWI. Health issues and conflicts with commanding officers caused him to resign in 1937, but he was soon flying again in Southest Asia as an air advisor, training Chinese pilots.
In August of 1941, war was in full swing in Chennault’s backyard. As Japan ripped through China, Chennault formed the American Volunteer Group. Because he wasn’t part of the U.S. military, he threw out much of their training. But because he wasn’t part of the U.S. military (and we still weren’t at war), aircraft acquisition was also a problem. But a clandestine deal between the Roosevelt government and Chiang Kai-shek provided Chennault with Curtiss P-40 Warhawks, pretty much the best plane in the U.S. inventory at the time.
Thailand fell to the Japanese in early October 1941, and the Burma Road, China’s last main supply route, was now threatened. Chennault’s group stepped it up. The AVG knew the Warhawk couldn’t compete with the Mitsubishi Zero in a turning dogfight, so their training emphasized loose formations and slashing attacks that used the Warhawk’s superior speed in a dive and heavy armament to best advantage.
On December 20, 1941, Chennault’s men took to the skies for the first time. The Japanese bombed Kunming on the 18th, and came back expecting little resistance, so they sent no air cover for their bombers. The P-40’s, with bright red shark teeth painted on the radiator cowling, proceeded to chop the bomber group to pieces, with only one actually returning to base. The Chinese rejoiced, and newspaper headlines lauded Chennault’s pilots as “Flying Tigers”.
The name stuck, as did the reputation. Over the next 6 months, the Flying Tigers would engage Japanese airpower hundreds of times, knocking down 300 of their planes while losing just 32 of their own. Fewer than 20 Tiger pilots would be lost…half of those in accidents.
In July of 1942, the Flying Tigers would be absorbed into the USAAF, and Chennault was rejoined with his military cohorts, this time as a Colonel. But in that short half-a-year, the Flying Tigers became synonymous with the P-40 Warhawk and helped create the mystique that surrounded the World War II fighter pilot.
Recommended Reading: Best Little War Stories From World War II