America’s Outlaw Heroes of World War II - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
America’s Outlaw Heroes of World War II

When-Tigers-Ruled-Sky-American/dp/0425274195">When Tigers Ruled the Sky: The Flying Tigers: American Outlaw Pilots over China in World War II
By Bill Yenne
(Berkley Caliber, 360 pages, $27)

Bill Yenne’s latest nonfiction work on World War II tells the dramatic and inspiring story of the Flying Tigers, the swash-buckling group of American fighter pilots, known officially and more mundanely as the American Volunteer Group, who took it to air and ground forces of Japan in China during the early days of World War II (early days for America at least — the Japanese had been messing with China since 1931). No less than Winston Churchill compared the Tigers to the RAF fighter pilots who saved the United Kingdom during the Battle of Britain, which took place just a year or so before the Tigers went into action and pounded lumps on much larger and better supplied Japanese air forces.

These civilian warriors, trained in the U.S. Army, Navy, or Marines before resigning their commissions to go to China, were members neither of the American nor Chinese air force, making them outlaw pilots. Outlaw or no, they seriously slowed the ongoing annexation of China by military forces of Japan, and provided some of the few things Americans could cheer about in the early days of the Pacific war. They also produced some aces (five or more air combat victories) and heroes, not least being top Tiger Claire Chennault, who carried the honorary title of “Colonel” while creating and leading the AVG (the Tigers didn’t use military ranks) and who became a real general after the AVG was folded into the U.S. Army Air Forces in the summer of 1942.

The story of the Tigers — by the way, no one seems to know where the name came from, and those were shark’s teeth, not tiger teeth, painted on the front of the AVG’s P-40s — was even more dramatic than the 1942 John Wayne movie of the same name (not one of the Duke’s best). In roughly 50 major aerial battles, the Tigers accounted for more than 200 confirmed Japanese planes shot down. With likely victories, the number could have been twice this. They also destroyed countless Japanese aircraft on the ground in strafing missions. This remarkable total was attained while the Tigers lost only ten planes in combat, even though outnumbered by four to one or more in most engagements.

Yenne accounts for the lopsided score by Chennault’s strict training in the fighter tactics he developed and his insistence on strict discipline in the air. Chennault also devised a sophisticated early warning system, combing radar and human spotters, so his pilots almost always knew when the Japanese were on their way.

The P-40 was faster straight and level and when diving than the Japanese fighters they were up against, but much less nimble than the lighter Japanese planes. So the Tigers never engaged in dog fights, which would have been suicide as the Japanese fighters could outturn them. The Tigers attacked from above, and dove away when the Japanese fighters tried to engage. They would then climb out and attack the Japanese again from above. The P-40 also had self-sealing gas tanks and armor plating around the pilot and critical engine parts, so it could take lots of hits and keep on flying. The Japanese fighters, by comparison, usually burst into flames when the first .50-caliber slugs hit them.

The Tigers, with the help of President Roosevelt and those around him, got into business in 1941 when Chennault, through a series of interlocking Chinese shell companies set up for the purpose, was able to purchase 100 American P-40 fighters, and hire the pilots and ground crews to fly them and keep them in the air. Thus a kind foreign legion of American fighter pilots was born. Bounty hunters, if you will, as they were paid a monthly salary (well above what they were used to in the American military) and a bonus for each Japanese plane destroyed.

Roosevelt did not wish to see Japan take over more of China’s cities, or for the Imperial Japanese Army to visit further cruelty on the Chinese population, as it had done in Nanking in 1937, where an estimated quarter of a million Chinese civilians were murdered by rampaging Japanese troops. Japan by 1941 had become a clear threat not just to China and most of the rest of Asia, but to the United States as well, though there was yet no public desire in America to take them on. Roosevelt, the leader of a neutral country, did what leaders of nations do when international law runs crosswise to their nation’s vital security interests. He ignored international law.

Once in business, Chennault’s soldiers of fortune did not have it easy. Conditions were crude at the bases they operated from in places like Kunming, as well as others that won’t ring a bell even with folks who know a good deal about WWII. And with Japanese forces to the south of them and the Himalayas to the north and west, it was difficult to supply the AVG with basics like food, fuel, ammunition, and much needed parts for the P-40s that were constantly subjected to the roughest kind of combat flying. For this reason, the AVG was rarely able to put more than a dozen P-40s into the air at one time. It’s a testimony to the AVG’s fierceness and combat success that the Japanese estimated their number at about 300.

Once America was in the war at the end of 1941, it was only a matter of time before the AVG and its warriors would be brought into the Army Air Forces. This was accomplished in the summer of 1942, satisfactorily if not smoothly or to the satisfaction of everyone involved. Yenne tells this story, and that of the complex politics, military and civilian, that surrounded the entire enterprise. Readers will encounter players such as Chiang Kai-shek, and the likely brains behind his operation, Madame Chiang. And, always lurking just out of sight, Mao Zedong, whose communist insurgents would win the power struggle to control China in 1949. There was the scratchy general in charge of the China Theater, Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, as well as other American officers and Chinese officials, competent, trustworthy, and otherwise.

When Tigers Ruled the Sky is a well-told story at all levels — military, personal, and political — of probably the least known of the WWII theaters, of a group of American flyers who it would be a slight to refer to as anything less than heroes, and of an inspirational leader named Claire Chennault.

Larry Thornberry
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Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.
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