“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.”
—Prime Minister Winston Churchill
The American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers, had captured the Allied nations’ imagination with its successful David-against-Goliath battles flying P-40 fighters under the Nationalist China flag against the Japanese, one of the few bright spots in the dark days of defeat and retreat in early 1942. With the United States now officially at war, the decision was made to integrate the Flying Tigers and its counterpart in England, the Eagle Squadrons, into the Army Air Forces. But repatriating the expatriates was not as straightforward as it first appeared.
With the Eagle Squadrons, all had been civilians prior to joining the RCAF and RAF, which was where they had qualified as fighter pilots. Several issues had to be resolved, including the transfer of comparable rank and pilot’s wings. In addition, the Eagle squadrons, whose members included Don Gentile and Donald Blakeslee, refused to be broken up in order to provide an experienced cadre to lead the green Army Air Force (AAF) squadrons arriving in England. And Britain, facing the prospect of losing three experienced squadrons, wanted compensation. These and other concerns were ironed out, and by the end of September 1942 the Eagle Squadron pilots became members of the U.S. Eighth Air Force. The situation with the Flying Tigers, however, did not end as harmoniously.
Unlike the Eagle Squadrons, the American Volunteer Group’s crews (air and ground) were mercenaries. President Franklin Roosevelt had signed a secret executive order in early 1941 authorizing retired Air Force Maj. Claire Chennault to recruit volunteer pilots and ground crews from Army, Navy and Marine squadrons. The incentive-laden one-year contract included a clause stating they could return to their unit at their old rank. The pay scale (secretly funded by the United States) was high. At a time when military pilots received an average of $260 a month, salaries in the AVG were $750 for squadron leaders, $675 for flight leaders, and $600 for wingmen, with a bonus of $500 for each confirmed aircraft kill. Ground crews, while receiving less ($150 to $350 per month) were also better compensated.
Chennault had trained his men hard and well and it paid off. The Flying Tigers ultimately achieved a kill ratio of about 10 to 1 against the better equipped and more numerous Japanese. Clearly it was in the interest of the AAF to keep the unit intact. But the service blew it.
On March 13, 1942, advance U.S. Army and Army Air Force elements arrived in the China-Burma-India Theater. Almost immediately rumors that downplayed the AVG’s accomplishments and cast aspersions on their character began to circulate. Inevitably the rumors reached the AVG personnel.
The atmosphere was charged with resentment when the pilots and ground crew met with AAF Brig. Gen. Clayton Bissell, dispatched to recruit them, the evening of May 21, 1942. In God is My Co-Pilot, an account of his China experience, Col. Robert L. Scott, Jr., recalled that the general “used very little tact.” His speech insulted their courage and denigrated their sacrifice. He asserted that the only reason the pilots had been fighting was to collect the bounty. Scott noted the general concluded with the threat that if they didn’t join the AAF “they would probably find their draft boards waiting for them when they stepped off the boat that carried them back to the United States. In that case, they would of course be inducted as privates rather than commissioned as officers.”
“Brig. Gen. Clayton Bissell of the U.S. Air Corps had all the charm of a cobra,” Flying Tiger R.T. Smith later wrote in his book Tale of a Tiger. “He advised us that if we had good sense we’d agree to being inducted into the Air Corps there in China, and that we’d all be drafted as buck privates the moment we reached the states if we refused.” At the conclusion of Bissell’s speech, almost all the AVG personnel walked out.
Only five pilots and about 30 ground personnel agreed to enlist after their contracts expired, though another 20 pilots agreed to remain until replacement pilots arrived. Everyone else returned to the States and, per their contract terms, rejoined their old units. One such pilot was Maj. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington who would go on to be one of the Marine Corps’ top aces in the war.
In July 1942, the AVG was renamed the 23rd Fighter Group, part of the U.S. 14th Air Force under Brig. Gen. Claire Chennault. The nickname Flying Tigers and the distinctive shark’s mouth design remained, but the real Flying Tigers unit was no more.
World War II newsreel footage of the Flying Tigers and of the unit’s induction into the Army Air Force can be seen at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=I36cglDOtJg&feature=related.