Jiu-Hwa Lo Upshur
Review of Daniel Ford, Flying Tigers: Claire
Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941-1942. Rev. ed.
Washington, D.C.: HarperCollins/Smithsonian Books, 2007. Pp. xv,
384. ISBN 978-0-06-124655-5.
First published in 1991 under a
slightly different title,
the present, updated edition of Flying Tigers incorporates
new materials that became available since the book's first
publication. In his preface, Daniel Ford also mentions making
corrections to errors and "amends for earlier sins of omission and
commission." In addition, footnotes are eliminated in favor of a
list of published and unpublished sources, including interviews,
which each chapter is based on.
These changes make for smoother reading while providing the necessary precise information in a worthwhile addition to
the literature on World War II.
The American Volunteer Group
(AVG), popularly known as the Flying Tigers, was the creation of
Claire Lee Chennault (1893-1958). Both enjoyed a legendary
reputation in China for heroic deeds and contributions during
its war of resistance against Japan. World War II began in Asia
when Japan attacked China on 7 July 1937 in the Marco Polo Bridge or
Lukouchiao Incident. For four years, China fought alone, with only
the Soviet Union providing aid between 1937 and the end of 1939, in
the form of loans of $250 million (with which China purchased
equipment and supplies from the USSR), 1,000 planes, and 2,500
pilots and military advisors. Fearful of Japan's ambitions to
control the vast territories of Soviet Asia and its Axis partner
Adolf Hitler's imperial designs in Europe, Soviet leader Josef
Stalin offered China a non-aggression pact (August 1937) that
included an aid package. Stalin reasoned Japan's preoccupation with
Chinese resistance would make it less likely to attack the Soviet
Union. However, after the outbreak of war in Europe in September
1939, he reduced and then ended aid to China.
France's surrender to Germany
in 1940 gave Japan control of French Indochina and cut China's vital
railway link to Vietnam. Bases in Indochina facilitated air strikes
against Free China. Japan also gained control of the planes and
facilities of the French colonial air force in Indochina in its war
against China. The Chinese air force, woefully deficient in planes
and experienced personnel, could muster little opposition. Thus the
Japanese air force dominated the skies over China and bombed its
cities at will. Fearing to offend Japan, Great Britain shut down
China's remaining access to the outside world by closing the Burma
Ford chronicles the formation
and remarkable combat record of the AVG in
Burma and China during 1941-42. It was organized and led by Claire
Chennault of Louisiana, a noted aerobatic pilot and advocate of air
power in warfare. Chennault had joined the U.S. Army in 1917 and
trained as a pilot, though he saw no action in World War I. He
specialized in aerial combat tactics and opposed the officially
endorsed theories about the role of air power in modern warfare.
These differences with his superiors and medical problems (partial
deafness from flying-related injuries and chronic bronchitis from
heavy smoking) led to his early retirement from the Army Air Corps
in 1937 with the rank of major. He was immediately invited to advise
the Chinese government on improving its infant air force. On 3 June
1937, he was introduced to the wife of Chiang Kai-shek, China's
leader and head of its National Aviation Corps. This was the
beginning of a successful relationship that ended only with Chennault's
death. According to Madame Chiang's biographer: "Chennault was
circumspect and loyal to his Chinese employers, exercising patience
and tact … [while] Mayling [Madame Chiang] was his direct channel to
Chiang Kai-shek. She made certain his concerns were brought to the
Generalissimo and to the right people in Washington."
China's desperate straits in
1940 and the widening war waged by the Axis led to a secret
agreement with the then neutral United States for a covert
operation, which was finally acknowledged by the U.S. government in
1991. The agreement authorized Chennault to recruit pilots,
mechanics, and other support personnel, and to purchase combat
aircraft on behalf of the Chinese government. It was funded by a
U.S. government loan that China would repay with exports of tung oil
and other resources. All recruits were volunteers, mostly junior
officers and enlisted men of the U.S. military. Pilots were offered
a salary of $600 per month and the rank of first lieutenant;
specially qualified men were offered $675 per month and the rank of
captain in the Chinese air force. Five hundred dollar bonuses were
authorized for each enemy plane shot down. These were large sums at
the time, greatly exceeding salaries earned by comparable ranking
officers in the U.S. military services.
Most men who signed up were in
their twenties, drawn by the chance for adventure, money, or an
opportunity to serve in a war that then seemed inevitable. Since the
operation was clandestine, they traveled to Rangoon in British Burma
under the pretense of various assumed occupations. For example, the
main contingent of thirty-seven pilots, eighty-four ground crew and
clerks, and two nurses who set sail from San Francisco had passports
listing such occupations as "hardware clerk," "radio announcer,"
"acrobat," and "rancher." Chennault's job description "executive"
(57). The recruits' equipment, chiefly aircraft rejected by the
British, included the Brewster Buffalo, Curtiss H-75, Curtiss P-40B
(Tomahawk), Curtiss P-40E, and Douglas DC-3; these were dismantled,
crated, and shipped to Rangoon, where they were reassembled.
Chennault's "distinguishing characteristic was to grab what lay at
hand and work a miracle with it" (56).
Chennault shuttled between
Rangoon and Kunming in Yunnan, a Chinese province near the Burmese
border, where he trained the pilots in combat techniques and oversaw
the building of primitive air strips from crushed rocks, hostels,
and other facilities. He organized his pilots and airplanes into
three squadrons named Adam and Eves, Panda Bears, and Hell's Angels.
The AVG acquired its own trademark name: impressed with the
ferocious sharks painted on British squadrons' airplanes in North
Africa, Chennault's men began to experiment with similar insignias.
They first tried a flying dragon, then settled on a tiger. A request
was sent to Hollywood, and, in October 1941, "two Disney employees …
sketched a darling Bengal cat with wasp-like wings and extended
claws, leaping from a V-for-Victory sign" (107). Thus the most
famous insignia in World War II was born.
The Flying Tigers flew into
their first action from their unfinished base in Kunming and drew
blood repelling Japanese air attacks from Vietnam, shooting down
enemy planes to the great acclaim of the hitherto defenseless
Chinese citizens. On 7 December 1941, the Japanese Air Force
simultaneously attacked the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor,
Hawaii, and in the U.S.-controlled Philippines, as well as British
possessions in Asia--Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, and Burma. The
event that brought the United States into World War II caught some
of the men and equipment of the AVG en route to Burma in the
Pacific. Since there was now no need for pretense, the ship was
diverted to Australia and the men inducted into the U.S. Army. The
United States and Britain declared war against Japan; China and
Japan formally declared war against each other; and the United
States and China declared war against Germany and Italy.
The Allied powers established a
China-India-Burma theater of war and Chiang Kai-shek became supreme
commander of the China theater. Colonel Joseph Stilwell, of the
U.S. Army, was promoted to lieutenant general and sent to
the Chinese wartime capital Chongqing as commander of U.S. forces in
China and chief of staff to Chiang. Stilwell was the protégé of
Chief of Staff and later U.S. Secretary of War, General George
Marshall, a relationship that dated to the early 1920s when both men
served in China. (During that first stint in China, Stilwell had
picked up some "barracks Chinese.") His appointment was a colossal
mistake. Even people who admired Stilwell as an excellent soldier agreed
that he was lacking both in temperament and requisite diplomatic
skills. Marshall's unbending loyalty to his protégé severely damaged
U.S.-China relations. President Roosevelt finally recalled Stilwell
in October 1944, but irreparable harm had already been done.
Both Chennault and Stilwell had
strong opinions and stubborn personalities; they were nicknamed Old
Leatherneck and Vinegar Joe, respectively. Although Chennault knew
no Chinese, he got along well with Chinese leaders and his men were
heroes to the Chinese people. Madame Chiang called them "American
Knights of the Air." Stilwell, on the other hand, alienated and
disliked nearly everyone--Chinese, Britons, and most American
leaders, except Marshall. Moreover, Stilwell and Chennault advocated
different strategies in warfare: the former was a proponent of land
warfare, the latter of air war. Personality conflicts between U.S.
military leaders degenerated to pettiness. For example, Stilwell
recommended the promotion of Clayton Bissell, a junior and rival of
Chennault, to Brigadier General and theater air commander one day
ahead of Chennault's promotion to the same rank, so that Bissell
would always outrank Chennault.
Since the United States was at
war against Japan, there was no longer need to camouflage the role
of the AVG. It was disbanded in July 1942 and men who wished to
continue to serve in China were allowed to join the regular U.S.
armed forces, while those who wished to return home were allowed to
do so. The U.S. air unit operating in China became the Fourteenth
Air Force, with Chennault in command. Many who had served under
Chennault deeply resented U.S. government regulations and policies
regarding the terms and conditions for integrating AVG men into the
regular armed forces. They also faulted Bissell's implementation of
U.S. policies, teaching the Chinese laborers at their base in
Kunming to greet deplaning Americans with a bow while chanting:
"Piss on Bissell"-- the title of Chapter 16 of Ford's book.
Air battles were waged daily
after Pearl Harbor, as Japanese planes from bases in
occupied China, Indochina, and Thailand (nominally neutral but a subject
ally of Japan) attacked Allied held territory. Malaya, Singapore,
and Hong Kong fell quickly, with the Japanese air force suffering
few losses. Things were different in Burma, where the AVG, aided by
British and Commonwealth air units, put up a stiff fight, inflicting
severe losses and slowing the Japanese advance. For example, on 20
December a squadron of Japanese bombers heading for Kunming from
Indochina was met by the Tomahawks of the Flying Tigers. When the
battle was over, the Japanese had lost four Lilys (three were shot
down and one crashed); seven others were damaged, and fourteen
airmen were killed--their largest losses in a single air action
since the war began. The cost to the AVG was one Tomahawk lost, with
its pilot surviving and making his was back to base, hitching a ride
in a Chinese army truck.
Ford devotes many pages to
detailed descriptions of air battles, drawing on information
from official logbooks and diaries kept by both Japanese and Allied
fighters. The on-the-spot accounts are enhanced by memoirs and
oral histories. The author has done a remarkable job of closely
cross-checking the many sources to corroborate facts. Although the
details of the fighting will appeal to readers who are intensely
interested in aerial combat, others may find them somewhat
As Chennault recorded on 4 July
1942: "At midnight, the AVG passed into history" (330). During
almost a year of operations, it lost twenty-two pilots dead,
captured, or missing in action--almost one in four men. Eighty-six
planes were lost to combat, accident, and abandonment due to
Japanese capture of airfields in Burma. The Japanese lost about 400
men and 115 aircraft to the AVG in Burma, China, and Thailand. Ford
attributes these significantly higher figures for the Japanese to
"morale and élan," adding "it's an especially pleasing irony. Japan
went to war knowing that its enemies were larger and richer than it
was, but believing it would prevail … because a man's spirit was
more important than the quality of his weapons. Yet Japan's first
and most spectacular defeat was at the hands of a few dozen American
pilots who embodied that very same spirit" (334).
Ford tells the story of a
significant Allied operation at a perilous time during World War II.
He skillfully reconstructs vivid pictures of events from the statements
of participants recorded immediately after the actions. Many photos
and accounts of living conditions and significant events that
involved the AVG recreate places and scenes the men (and a few
women) experienced, including weddings. I am, however, mystified by
the author's omission of Chennault's second marriage, to a young
Chinese reporter (Anna Chennault), even though he lists her book,
A Thousand Springs,
among the sources for Chapter 1.
After World War II, Chennault
and several other AVG men formed the Civil Air Transport for the
Chinese Nationalist government, while other veterans from his group
launched a successful air freight carrier--Flying Tiger Lines.
Claire Chennault was promoted to lieutenant general shortly before
he died in 1958. Anna Chennault translated her husband's book Way
of a Fighter
into Chinese; it was published in Taiwan. She became a well-known
Washington hostess and Republican party fundraiser. In the 1970s,
she acted as an unofficial emissary between the United States, the
People's Republic of China, and the Republic of China on Taiwan.
Eastern Michigan University
 Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and the
American Volunteer Group; this edition went through seven
printings by 2001.
 Those interested in the precise sources of
quotations, a bibliography of references, and detailed chapter
notes may consult an available website
 Laura Li Tyson, Madame Chiang Kai-shek:
China's Eternal First Lady (NY: Atlantic Monthly Pr, 2006)
 Subtitle The Biography of a Marriage
(NY: Eriksson, 1962).
 Subtitle The Memoirs of Claire Lee
Chennault (NY: Putnam, 1949).