A Look Back at the Rip-Roaring Adventures of the Flying Tigers

Adam Gravano


To describe it bereft of context is to create a picture that resembles a pattern quite often associated with modern political affairs. A coterie of recently resigned U.S. military personnel form a pipeline of support staff to a friendly nation. This group, through its host state's purchases, gains access to a supply of state-of-the art weaponry in the host state for the proclaimed purposes of training local soldiers — the group actually winds up fighting in a foreign conflict in which the United States has declared neutrality.


This might sound like something out of the business plans of Erik Prince. This is a great guess, but wrong. One might also think this falls into a less popularized CIA operation, something in the mold of Operation Condor or Iran-Contra. Such a guess, though not far from reality, would still be incorrect. The subject in question is the American Volunteer Group, eventually to be known as the Flying Tigers.


While Prince even made a comparison of the Tigers to his own writings, historical analysis shows that for a variety of reasons, most notably that the Tigers were absorbed by the Army Air Corps during the war, the analogy is not 100 percent apt. As for Iran-Contra, an attorney representing the Tigers to gain them official recognition for their work prior to being absorbed by the Air Corps, said the American Volunteer Group made Iran-Contra “look like a small-scale operation.”


From 1939 to 1941, the nascent Second World War appeared to be going the way of the Axis powers. The Rome-Berlin Axis steadily pushed its rivals off the European continent to create Festung Europa. On the other side of the globe, Japan pushed beyond its bounds through China and the Pacific, eventually accruing the ire of the Roosevelt administration and a bevy of economic sanctions (including a devastating oil embargo).


One might be forgiven for suspecting at this point, before both Operation Barbarossa and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, that there was a possibility of the Axis winning the war.  One might also be forgiven, during the height of the Great Depression when economic problems might have been more immediate, for being unaware of the gathering clouds for the coming storm; although, it is possible to see in the Color Plans, particularly War Plan Orange, that Japan's expansionism and potential rivalry with the West was not a complete surprise.


Times of conflict sometimes draw individuals of a certain adventurous or opportunistic frame of mind. The Second World War was no different, either from the First World War or the Spanish Civil War, in that such men were not to be excluded. When he first conceived of the idea of the American Volunteer Group, Claire Chennault was already on the payroll of Chiang Kai-shek's government training pilots for the Chinese Air Force. Chennault's time in China results from a dispute over the role of the fighter airplane stemming from the air power theories of the 1920s, namely that bombers would always get through and fighter aircraft were not so useful.



Chennault had, during his time in an acrobatics unit, earlier been offered $1,000 per month to teach the Chinese to fly, however, he did not take up the private sector as a career path until he had left the military — due in no small part to disagreements with superiors.


Looking into the past, it may appear clear that the Tigers had at best a limited degree of backing from the U.S. government. This perception could not be more incorrect. Their representatives canvassed United States military bases offering jobs to prospective fighter pilots and ground crews, at competitive rates. Administration approval was kept a secret, to avoid dragging the United States into the war early, although an intelligence analyst receiving news about several hundred mid-career pilots leaving the United States military to later turn up in China might suppose something was happening. Especially seeing large flows of state-of-the-art weaponry, even if embedded in commercial transactions.


While the project was approved by Franklin Roosevelt himself, it was only by a vocal order. So fearful was the United States government of provoking an international incident, as happened with a member of an earlier group of mercenary pilots in China led by Chennault, Elwyn Gibbons, who was arrested when his ship back to the United States stopped in Yokohama.


This fear also placed a veto on any plan for the United States to send bombers to China before entering into the conflict, although there was also the issue of the aircraft, namely the Boeing B-17, not being on hand. Even the trademark P-40s used by the Tigers came as a sort of steal: the initial shipment was originally bound for the British, but was allowed to be bought by the Chinese for the Tigers on the condition that the British would get a later model airplane.


It was in Asia that pilots became acquainted with the Chennault way of air war. Things that now seem like common sense, for example, fighter escorts for bomber aircraft formations, which had not been fashionable in the United States, were taught by Chennault. The training program for pilots was rigorous.


Chennault could not get only fighter pilots, so many of his recruits, like Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, of later Black Sheep Squadron fame, and Charles Bond, came from units flying other types of aircraft — bombers. Also to be discussed were descriptions of how the Tigers were supposed to fight in the air, using the P-40 to get its best results against the Japanese fighters. Generally, this involved using diving attacks to get a speed advantage and to avoid turning fights with the nimbler Zero. These tactics were even drilled in the skies over Burma. Chennault even used bootlegged Japanese manuals in the training program he instituted for incoming pilots, not to mention years of experience training Chinese pilots and watching the war from the ground.


Drawing on his pre-military experience as a school teacher, Chennault's “Kindergarten” as the pilots called it, sounds a lot like modern air combat schools, like the Navy's Top Gun. Chennault's was easily a better method than the racial superiority complex practiced by the Royal Navy, where sailors would occasionally joke of Japanese warships being top-heavy and capsizing during broadsides.



With a rigorous, intelligence-led training regime, it's no wonder the Tigers came to sport an impressive combat record — to say nothing of numerous media accolades. In all, the Tigers were credited with shooting down 299 enemy aircraft alongside being credited with the “possible destruction” of 153 more in air-to-air combat. Add to this the 200 airplanes destroyed on the ground. Compared to the Tigers losses: 12 P-40s destroyed in air-to-air combat, and 61 destroyed on the ground, although many were lost during training exercises as well. This places the Tigers ratio of enemy aircraft destroyed to friendly aircraft destroyed at a stratospheric 24 to 1, although this does not count the many P-40s lost in training accidents and operational losses, like botched landings.


To place this in comparison with a later conflict, the exchange rate for all United States aviators in Vietnam was 2.6 to 1, with the best rate held by F-8 pilots at 6 to 1. It's no wonder that when Charles Bond, Jr. interviewed to achieve a commission in the Air Corps after the American Volunteer Group was absorbed,  was asked a long string of questions by Hap Arnold about the P-40 and its use against the Japanese in air-to-air combat, with special attention on tactics and training.


An important question left is why do the Tigers matter today? One might say it's a remaining episode of good will between the United States and the Chinese — even though they flew for the Nationalists, the Chinese Communists still sport a hearty respect for the Tigers. That it's a rip-roaring, high-octane adventure story in a field of history that has long done a fairly well job of selling books is also not an insignificant factor. But chief among the reasons the Tigers matter is the trend of United States citizens poking their noses into foreign conflicts is not yet over, in terms of volunteers leaving to fight ISIS or in terms of private companies providing services to foreign governments, so it helps to have an understanding of the history behind the trend to better combat its more mendacious uses. 


Author Bio:


Adam Gravano is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.



For Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:


Office for Emergency Management (Wikimedia, Creative Commons)


PublicDomainFiles (Creative Commons)


U.S. Air Force (Wikimedia, Creative Commons)


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