The Royal Air Force (RAF) and the ‘Flying Tigers’ (American Volunteer Group: AVG)


The AVG, or the ‘Flying Tigers’ as they became known, started operations out of Rangoon and Kunming in the summer of 1941 and brought much-needed expertise to Chiang’s air operations. Having arrived in Burma with the expectation of fighting as mercenaries for the Chinese, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the American pilots found that, money apart, they had another reason to fight. As one flier noted in his diary, “We are stunned … we realized that we are in the middle of one hell of a big war! … I wonder when we’ll get a chance at them.” After pilot Eric Shilling painted his engine cowlings as an open-mouthed shark, Chennault adopted this for all his fighter planes, which soon became a familiar and much-loved sight in northeastern China. Within weeks of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the exploits of the ‘Flying Tigers’ became headline news in America. In Chongqing, Graham Peck, working for the US Office of War Information, noted the arrival of the P-40s with their “thick powerful roar, smooth as the tearing of heavy silk.” For Americans, the exploits of the ‘Flying Tigers’ were a welcome propaganda fillip in the depressing weeks after Pearl Harbor.

The Kittyhawks (a variant of the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk) arrived via Burma in the spring of 1940 but the whole operation took more than six months to set up. In their first sortie over Rangoon on 20 December 1941 (some two weeks after Pearl Harbor), Chennault’s P-40s surprised a Japanese raid by Mitsubishi Ki-21 ‘Sally’ bombers. Six Japanese bombers and four fighters were shot down, though they lost pilots Neil Martin and Henry Gilbert—the first ‘Flying Tigers’ to lose their lives.

By Christmas 1941 ‘Duke’ Hedman had become the AVG’s first ace with five kills. Remarkably he achieved the rare feat of becoming an ace in a single day—in fact within 15 minutes. Hedman was an “unassuming farm boy from South Dakota” reported the Chicago Daily News. A delighted Chennault wrote to his banker father in rural South Dakota saying, “He is a first rate combat pilot and the reckless bravery of his attacks, both on strafing and bombing missions, and in aerial combat with the Japanese, are something you can well be proud of.” Indeed the ‘Flying Tigers’ became renowned for their exceptionally aggressive tactics, often flying, as Hedman had done, straight into the middle of formations of Japanese bombers, where Japanese fighters were afraid to shoot at them for fear of hitting their own aircraft. Many more aces followed. Charles ‘Chuck’ Older, leader of the ‘Flying Tigers’ 3rd Squadron, the Hell’s Angels, scored eighteen kills. After the war, the squadron gave its name to a San Bernadino motorcycle club, which later became the well-known global Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club, on the suggestion of another ‘Flying Tiger’ pilot, Arvid Olsen. As for ‘Chuck’ Older, he became a Superior Court Judge in California and achieved greater fame as the presiding judge in the Charles Manson murder case involving the drug and sex-crazed cult killing of Sharon Tate, the actress wife of movie director Roman Polanski.

The success and aura that surrounded Chennault and his ‘Flying Tigers’ created a groundswell of support for his recall to service in the US Army Air Force. Subsequently, this able leader won the promotions denied to him in the 1930s and was rapidly promoted to brigadier-general. Strangely he would now report to General ‘Hap’ Arnold with whom he had formerly been in conflict over fighter-bomber tactics in the 1930s. From the end of December 1941 the ‘Flying Tigers’ were absorbed back into the regular US Army Air Force and they became the nucleus of the China-based US Fourteenth Air Force in March 1942. Chennault loomed into American public consciousness as a great American hero when his picture was displayed on the front cover of Life magazine on 10 August 1942. Time magazine would also carry his portrait on the front cover of their 6 December 1943 issue. Hollywood was quickly into the act, releasing Flying Tigers [1942] starring John Wayne; the movie even used real footage from the war in China. It was on the set of this movie that Wayne picked up the nickname ‘Duke.’

As in Malaya a key aspect of this early British failure was heavy defeat in the air. Just as in Malaya, as well as by the Americans in the Philippines, the potential threat of Japanese air power had been treated prior to the war with stereotypical arrogance. Sub-Lieutenant Russell Spurr’s father wrote to tell him that: “Their eyesight is so bad they can’t fly fighter planes. That’s assuming the little bastards could even build them.”

In reality the Royal Air Force (RAF) was quickly overwhelmed. On Christmas Day 1941 twenty-seven Ki-21 ‘Sally’ heavy bombers from the 12th Sentai and a further thirty-six from the 60th Sentai raided Rangoon Airfield. They were escorted by twenty-five Ki-43 ‘Oscar’ fighters from the 64th Sentai. A follow-up attack involved 8 Ki-21 ‘Sally’ heavy bombers, 27 Ki-30 ‘Anne’ light bombers and 32 Ki-27s. In a pattern similar to the invasion of Malaya, British radar was found wanting. Sergeant Beable complained, “Once again because of the inadequate warning system we found ourselves in the unenviable and vulnerable position of having to climb at very low airspeed into the Japanese formation some 5,000 feet or more above us.” Highly optimistic claims were made of Japanese bombers shot down. British fighters took heavy losses, airfield buildings were badly damaged and anti-aircraft batteries destroyed with the bodies of gunners “scattered in a bloody broken mess for hundreds of yards around.” Civilian casualties in Rangoon were also severe with an estimated 5,000 killed. Flight-Lieutenant Brandt reported that “Chaos reigned in Rangoon. The jails were opened, the lepers were let out and a lot of fifth column activity carried out.”

Even the arrival of the first Hurricanes did little to dent Japan’s overwhelming air superiority. Three Hurricane IIB Trops (Tropicalized) were flown in by Squadron Leader ‘Jimmy’ Elsdon. Within minutes of arriving at Mingaladon Airfield warning of a Japanese raid sounded off. Squadron Leader ‘Bunny’ Stone wrote that the Hurricanes were attacked before they reached altitude: “We were promptly jumped by about ten of them [Japanese Army fighters]. Couldn’t do a damned thing with the tanks on, never got a shot while the little buggers queued up on my tail and filled me full of holes … Decided I had had enough and dived down to the estuary, among the shipping.” Given the importance of attacking from altitude, the failure to give timely warnings of approaching enemy aircraft was a very significant factor in the failure of the Allies to stem the tide of Japanese air supremacy. Navigator Sergeant Don Purdon gave a graphic account of the peculiarities of the warning system on which they had to rely:

For warning we had to rely on an outpost in the hills manned by Burma Frontier Force soldiers who spoke little English—communications was by heliograph. I don’t think any of us could read it so we had to rely on a Burma Frontier counterpart first to read and then translate from Burmese! One never knew if the flashes in the hills meant an air raid under way or whether it was a call for rations or other mundane needs.

On 3 February the Allied air forces were struck by an unforeseen disaster. Eighteen fighters that left Calcutta’s Dum Dum Airfield bound for Lashio in eastern Burma, lost their way over the Shan Highlands and crashed one by one. It was a reminder that the hazards of flying in the Pacific War were not all about combat. Interwoven with fierce dogfights were quiet days without bombing raids; pilots on the eastern front played golf at the Rangoon Country Club and swam at the Kokine Swimming Club and generally “acted like rich kids.” For men facing death every other day carousing was almost obligatory. Brawls were frequent. When the owner of the Silver Grills whorehouse in Rangoon tried to eject the American pilots they pulled out their pistols and shot out his chandelier causing panic among the prostitutes. As more of Rangoon’s white population departed taking with them their daughters, the American pilots who had hitherto almost exclusively chased girls in this social strata, began to turn their eyes toward the Anglo-Burman girls who had previously been the preserve of the flight technicians. A disapproving British officer told them, “We don’t mind you sleeping with them but don’t for God’s sake drag them around in our hotels and restaurants.”

The bar at the famous Strand Hotel was the scene of much heavy drinking. After one heavy night, seven pilots missed morning roll call and one of them, Robert Smith, was still too drunk to fly. It was not just the pilots who misbehaved. Rangoon crew chief, George Reynolds, crashed an American Volunteer Group (AVG) car and, fearing attack by two approaching Burman, shot one and wounded the other. Reynolds was jailed but released the next morning with the whole affair quietly hushed up. Houses, abandoned by owners who were fleeing Rangoon, were occupied by pilots and crew who proceeded to loot the properties. Pilot George Burgard purloined a truck and with crew chief Ed McClure filled it with stolen goods. Burgard wrote in his diary that he had acquired “so much stuff it would not be believed if I listed it.” He was clearly an optimist about his chances of survival. On 21 February the AVG met a mission by the whole 77th Sentai (squadron): “There were … Jap planes all over the sky. I tried to shoot them all down myself, but got only two in a full hour of fighting. It was a wild scramble … I got one [bullet] thru my wing that shot out my right tire. Some fun.” Thieving was not just personal. At the ports, the AVG commandeered crates and stole whatever was useful at the base: spare parts, tools, guns and ammunition. Normal logistics had simply broken down. The entrepreneurial Burgard survived the war and eventually became a supplier of parts for NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Agency).

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