3rd Squadron Hell's Angels, Flying Tigers over China, photographed in 1942 by AVG pilot Robert T. Smith.

Most people think that the United States started fighting Japan only after it bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Actually, before Hawaii was bombed, American pilots were already training to shoot Japanese planes out of the sky.

Here’s what happened: Japan and China were at war with each other for many years—and sometimes Japan and China fought the Soviet Union, too. The Sino-Japanese wars, as they were called, boiled over in 1937 when Japan claimed China fired on its soldiers. Nobody knows for sure if that really happened, but Japan used it as an excuse to invade China.

It was a swift and brutal invasion. The Japanese Imperial Army captured China’s best port, Shanghai, and several major cities. The Japanese soldiers showed no mercy to the Chinese people. In fact, this invasion was so ugly that the capture of Nanking—China’s capitol at the time—became known as "The Rape of Nanking” because thousands of Chinese civilians were tortured, raped, and murdered. But the actual number of victims will never be known because the Japanese soldiers destroyed records, hoping to avoid war crime convictions.

China needed help. It had a military, headed by General Chiang Kai-Shek, but those soldiers were no match for the fierce Japanese forces.

China turned to America for help.

Specifically, it asked one American: Colonel Claire Lee Chenault.

Colonel Claire Chenault in his office at Kumming, China, 1942

Chenault had worked in China for several years with the American military. He was getting ready to retire just as the Japanese invaded. Although General Kai-Shek ran the military, his wife was powerful, too. It was Madame Chiang Kai-Shek who went to Chenault and begged him to build a Chinese air force.

Chenault liked this idea. He thought this war with Japan would eventually include America. So he presented a plan to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But since America wasn’t formally at war, the president couldn’t give his official approval.

Secretly, however, the president agreed. He gave Chenault permission to form the American Volunteer Group (AVG) to fight for China.

Chenault picked about eighty pilots from America’s navy, army, and marines. These men had to resign from active military duty and become mercenaries—or “hired guns”— in a covert operation that wasn’t openly recognized by their own government. But some of these pilots wanted to join the AVG so badly they lied about their flying experience. Others hoped for adventure.

But every one saw good money.

At that time, America was crippled by the Great Depression. People were fortunate to have any job. Pilots in Chenault’s AVG could earn $600 a month. In today’s figures, that’s about $10,000. If a pilot shot down a Japanese plane, he would get another $500—per plane.

But these were wild guys, a crazy bunch. And before they were ready for combat, Chenault had to teach them new tactics for fighting against the Japanese. So Chenault shipped everything—men, crew, and supplies—to Burma, a country that shares a border with China. Once there, Chenault set up a schoolhouse to teach the pilots.

AVG pilots and crew working on their planes in Burma

“I gave the pilots a lesson in the geography of Asia that they all needed badly . . . .” Chenault said. “I taught them all I knew about the Japanese. Day after day there were lectures from my notebooks, filled during the previous four years of combat. All of the bitter experience from Nanking to Chunking was poured out in those lectures. Captured Japanese flying and staff manuals, translated into English by the Chinese, served as textbooks. From these manuals the American pilots learned more about Japanese tactics than any single Japanese pilot ever knew."

The American P-40 planes were much slower than the Japanese Zero and Kate aircraft. So Chenault taught his pilots to "dive and zoom” on the enemy. This technique was really different from what these men were taught in the American military. Chenault also trained his men to fly head-on firing at the enemy. And even when the enemy flew away, the pilots were taught to follow and harass beyond the combat area.


The Kate and the Zero didn’t have armor plating, and their fuel tanks weren’t self-sealing. Chenault knew that one bullet could blow up the whole plane.

Chenault’s methods worked. Years later, when a British recovery team dredged the water that the Japanese pilots flew over returning to base, more than sixty Japanese planes were discovered, all shot down by the Flying Tigers.

Although Chenault only had about fifty operational planes, he fooled the Japanese by constantly changing the P-40’s paint and tail numbers. He did this so often that the Japanese believed there were about 500 American planes. To keep up this deception, Chenault ordered his fighter squadrons to attack in groups of three—one plane right, one center, and one left—so the enemy would feel overwhelmed.

The Chinese people, suffering under Japanese oppression, called these fierce American pilots “Tigers.” The nickname prompted one pilot to paint the nose of his P-40 with a Tiger shark. Other pilots did the same, and when an American reporter showed up to see these wild mercenaries fighting for China, he nicknamed them “Flying Tigers.”

The Flying Tigers didn’t have any radar systems. Back then, radar was a new invention. But they had an even better early warning system: the Chinese people.

Every time a Japanese plane took off, the Chinese people would run from their village to radio or telephone or send a telegraph wire to alert the Americans. These signals prevented Japan from having any element of surprise. Chenault called the unusual alarm system a “vast spider net.” And if any American pilot crashed or was forced to bail out of his plane, the Chinese people had provided each man with “blood chits.” Written in Chinese script, these emblems were sewn into the pilot’s uniforms and read: “This person has come to China to help in the war effort. Soldiers and civilians, one and all, should rescue and protect him.”

Blood chit for a Flying Tiger.

Later a reporter asked AVG pilot RT Smith about what it was like being a Flying Tiger. Eight pilots died. Living conditions were rough.

“Did you ever regret joining the AVG?” the reporter asked.

Smith replied, “Only on those occasions when I was being shot at.”

Although the Flying Tigers lost eight pilots, they did far more damage to the Japanese. The Tigers destroyed 299 Japanese planes and wounded or killed about 1,500 Japanese aviation personnel.

But after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the United States needed these daring pilots back in its own military.

The AVG was disbanded in 1942. The Tigers went on to fight in other units during the rest of WWII.


The Flying Tigers sounds like a real success story.

But it didn’t start out that way. Some of the pilots quit after being in Burma only twenty-four hours. Others lied on their resumes about being experienced pilots. And one pilot crashed three planes—in one week.

Finally, Chenault wrote a letter to the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company that was overseeing the AVG (since the American government wasn’t officially involved). He wrote:

“In telling the A.V.G. story to pilots who may think of volunteering, nothing should be omitted. . . . the A.V.G. will be called upon to combat Japanese pursuits; to fly at night; and to undertake offensive missions when planes suitable for this purpose are sent out to us. These points should be clearly explained.

“Then, after the timid have been weeded out, the incompetents should also be rejected. I am willing to give a certain amount of transition training to new pilots, but we are not equipped to give a complete refresh course. It is too much to expect that men familiar only with four-engine flying boats can be transformed into pursuit expert’s overnight. . . .

“Let me repeat, much money and much irreplaceable equipment has already been wasted, the A.V.G.'s combat efficient seriously lowered, by the employment policy that has been followed. I am aware that this policy makes it far easier to fill the employment quotas. But I prefer to have the employment quotas partly unfilled, than to receive pilots hired on the principle of ‘Come one, come all.’ ”

You can read all of Chenault’s letter at Dan Ford Books.



Flying Tigers by Paul Szuscikiewicz

Claire Chennault: Flying Tiger by Earle Rice


LIFE magazine featured the Flying Tigers in a 1942 issue. The following website link will take you directly to that story, which has many excellent photos of the Flying Tigers and their planes. However, be aware that at that time, Americans used disparaging language to describe its Japanese enemy


Flying Tigers

The Sky's the Limit

God is My Co-Pilot

Hers to Hold

China’s Little Devils



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