|P40s of the Flying Tigers with a Chinese |
soldier on guard duty, 1942. Photo from the
US National Archives and Wikimedia Commons
By Adrian McGrath
Historians usually say that World War 2 began in September, 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. That certainly started the war in Europe, but there were other regional conflicts around the globe which later became a part of the world war. For people in those regions, the war had already begun.
|Japanese troops entering Mukden (Shenyang)|
in Manchuria in 1931 following an invasion.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
One of the major conflicts happened in China when Japan, then an aggressive warlike state heavily influenced by the military, invaded that ancient land in search of territory and natural resources.
A border incident occurred in Manchuria, northeast China, in 1931 which the Japanese used as an excuse to invade and overrun that territory -- a Japanese army officer secretly set off a small bomb near a Japanese-owned railway in Mukden, Manchuria. It did little or no harm, but the Japanese falsely accused Chinese rebels of setting the bomb. The Japanese used this "Mukden Incident" as a pretext to occupy Manchuria by force.
|Mukden, Manchuria in China, 1931|
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
Manchuria was near to Korea which had been overrun by Japanese military aggression and coercion since 1910. The Japanese seized Korean lands, made forced laborers or slaves of many of the Korean people, and attempted to eliminate the Korean culture by outlawing the teaching of Korean history and the Korean language in schools.
|Map showing China, India, and Japan|
From Wikimedia Commons
Later during World War 2, the Japanese military would kidnap and use many Korean women as sex slaves, known perversely as "comfort women." Thousands of Korean women and even girls were horribly abused in this way.
The Japanese intended the same fate Korea had endured for Manchuria and eventually for all of China in the 1930s.
A few years after the Mukden Incident, the militarists in Japan created another "incident" known as the "Marco Polo Bridge Incident." In July of 1937 near Peking (now Beijing), the Japanese claimed one of their soldiers was missing, the implication being that he had possibly been abducted. The Japanese demanded to enter Peking and "search." The Chinese refused.
In fact the missing Japanese soldier re-appeared in the Japanese camp later, but the Japanese nevertheless issued an ultimatum for the Chinese to give in or there would be war. The Chinese refused, and the result was the Second Sino-Japanese War.
|The Japanese enter Nanking, the ancient|
capital of China, and commit a warcrime
known as "The Rape of Nanking," 1937
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
The Japanese wanted to take China to exploit its people and steal its natural resources. The Japanese navy had almost complete control of the seas around China's coast, and its army air force had almost complete control of the air. On land the Japanese army mainly attempted to seize the port cities on the Chinese coastline, the hinterland being too mountainous and vast to capture easily.
|Murder in Nanking, China, 1937|
The Japanese commit an atrocity of
mass murder, rape, and devastation. Dead Chinese bodies
appear on the river shoreline in the photo as a Japanese soldier
walks by. Photo from Wikimedia Common
In one of the worst incidents of the war, after the Japanese air bombed and then captured the great port city of Shanghai, they marched on the ancient Chinese capital of Nanking. A horrendous atrocity occurred there called "The Rape of Nanking" or "Nanking Massacre." For about six weeks, starting on December 13, 1937, the Japanese soldiers, with permission from Japanese higher-ups, committed sexual assaults, rapes, mutilations, tortures, and mass murder of the defenseless Chinese people in Nanking.
Though the exact number of murders of civilians remains uncertain, the likely number was probably in the tens of thousands, if not more. The barbarity of the atrocity shocked the world.
|A Chinese baby cries out in terror in|
the destroyed city of Shanghai, China
after the Japanese air bombing, 1937
Photo from National Archives and Records Admin.
NARA and Wikimedia Commons
and widespread air bombing of cities. Great Chinese cities like Shanghai, Nanking, Canton, and Chunking and Burmese cities like Mandalay and Rangoon were easy targets for the Japanese air bombers.
|Japanese bomber planes|
attacking defenseless Chunking city
in China. Photo from WikimediaCommons
It is generally reported that about 10 million Chinese died in World War 2 at the hands of the Japanese, the vast majority were defenseless civilians. The Japanese even used horrendous weapons like poison gas and biological warfare against some Chinese civilians.
|Japanese bomber planes|
Photo Wikimedia Commons
The Japanese air force (then a part of the army known as the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service) was almost unchallenged and could roam at will bombing, destroying, and killing. The Soviet Union did offer China some limited assistance and helped the weak Chinese air force, but it was in the end inadequate. China had obsolete aircraft and only a few trained pilots. Japan, with its skilled pilots, modern air planes, and well-equipped ground support, controlled the air over all of China and Southeast Asia.
Claire Lee Chennault
|China's leader Chiang Kai-shek (right), Madam Chiang |
(who spoke perfect English and was China's liaison to the West),
and Claire Lee Chennault (at left), the leader of the American
Volunteer Group (AVG) also known as the Flying Tigers.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
The leader of China was then named Chiang Kai-shek. China was a divided land between the Chinese Nationalists or Kuomintang under Chiang, which held most of China, and the Communists under Mao Tse Tung, which held only parts of the hinterland. The Nationalists and the Communists, though bitter enemies, nevertheless formed a temporary alliance to fight against the Japanese.
|The American Volunteer Group (AVG),|
better known to history as
The Flying Tigers, 1942
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
Chiang knew he was fighting for the very survival of his country. In order to deal with the mass slaughter of Chinese civilians by Japanese air bombings, Chiang reached out to an American aviator and daredevil who made a reputation for himself by challenging military authority and military doctrine whenever he felt he was right and they were wrong.
Although he was born in Texas, Chennault is more associated with Louisiana where he grew up and went to school. He attended the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) at Louisiana State University (LSU).
He served in the army during World War I and learned to fly airplanes in the Army Signal Corps. He later excelled in the US Army's Air Corps Tactical School. While standard army doctrine emphasized the importance of the larger bomber air plane, Chennault focused on the importance of the smaller tactical fighter or "pursuit" plane.
|Leader of the Flying Tigers,|
"Old Leatherface," shown in
the photo as a two star
general later in the war
Photo Wikimedia Commons
Chennault -- later nicknamed "Old Leatherface" because of his rough, outdoors appearance -- felt that the fighter planes should work in pairs or teams rather than as solo dogfight pilots as usually seen in the First World War. In Chennault's mind, the same way that infantry men do not fight solo battles but as teams of men, so too fighter pilots need to work together to mass their firepower.
In April of 1937, Captain Claire Lee Chennault resigned from the US Army Air Corps for a number of reasons. He had bad health (a hearing problem and bronchitis). He also often disagreed with his superiors on military philosophy especially on the value and proper use of the fighter plane. And he was overlooked for promotion.
In June of 1937, Chennault accepted an invitation by Chiang Kai-shek to be his military advisor and to conduct an analysis of the Chinese air force. Chennault discovered that the Chinese air force was in very bad shape with obsolete aircraft and had very few, and poorly trained, pilots. In Kunming, in western China, Chennault was assigned to build a new Chinese air force based on American standards.
He trained pilots and even flew on a few reconnaissance missions. He studied everything he could on how to deal with the Japanese air force. He encouraged tactics which had benefited the Soviet pilots, especially using fighter planes to work in teams and avoiding dogfights. Instead Chennault advised using hit-and-run tactics by diving down on the enemy planes from above, climbing again, then diving down again for another attack.
|The Tigers scramble for the attack, 1942.|
Photo from the National Museum for the US
Air Force and Wikimedia Commons
Chiang Kai-shek -- who was greatly aided by his wife, Madame Chiang, Soong May Ling, who spoke excellent English and was educated in the United States -- realized that the Chinese air force, despite Chennault's help, was in a nearly hopeless situation. So, he sent Chennault and other Chinese officials on a distant mission to the USA, to Washington DC, to see if they could get some help.
After some negotiations with Chinese officials, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau was impressed with the idea of creating a group of American air volunteers to help China. Eventually the idea made its way to President Franklin Rooselvelt who liked the idea and made it a reality.
In December of 1940, 100 P-40B Tomahawk fighter planes were authorized for the newly created American Volunteer Group (AVG). These planes were originally supposed to go to Great Britain, but the British felt they were inadequate to fight the German fighters like the ME109 or Bf109. So, it was agreed that Chennault could have them, and the British would get newer air planes later.
|Madame Chiang, Soong May Ling, who |
helped coordinate operations between
the Chinese and the Americans, and
Chennault Photo from Wikimedia Commons
The 100 Tomahawks were shipped by sea to Rangoon, Burma for the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO) which the US government created as a "cover story" or "dummy corporation" to deal with the airplanes, as the United States was not legally at war then with Japan.
With the secret permission of President Roosevelt, Chennault was allowed to assemble a team of about 100 pilots and 200 ground crewmen to form the American Volunteer Group (AVG). The pilots would resign their commissions as officers in the US Army, US Navy, and the US Marine Corps. They would then join the AVG as paid mercenaries getting $600 per month (then a large sum equal to about three times a normal salary). There was a secret bonus from the Chinese government of $500 for every Japanese air plane an AVG man destroyed.
The Flying Tigers were divided mainly in three squadrons: 1st was called the Adam and Eves, 2nd was called the Panda Bears, and 3rd were the Hell's Angels. The name "Flying Tigers" came about from newspaper accounts of their famous battles. The P40s had tiger shark designs painted on the front parts of the planes. This idea came about when the pilots saw photographs of British who also flew P40s in North Africa and also Germans who painted sharks' teeth on some of their airplanes. The Flying Tigers improved upon these designs and made the image legendary. Eventually, the US government got involved and included Walt Disney and developed an official symbol for the Flying Tigers of a mammal tiger inside a "V for Victory" circle.
In August of 1941, the AVG began training in the new tactics taught by Chennault. There were two main bases -- Rangoon, Burma and Kunming, Yunnan Province, China. (Rangoon was eventually lost to the Japanese land invasion of Burma.)
|Looking very much like a pack of|
Tiger Sharks, planes from the Squadron called
The Hell's Angels fly over China, 1942
Photo from Wikimedia Commons and R. T. Smith
Chennault relied on a key battle tactic, partly based on the Soviet tactic mentioned above, which the American military did not know about or understand. Chennault knew the P40, though a powerful and well armed aircraft, could not maneuver or turn as well as the swift and nimble Japanese fighters. So, he had the P40s always work in pairs, side by side. They would climb high, above the enemy fighters and bombers, then using their weight and powerful engines, dive down on the enemy, blasting away with their machine guns. The P40s were instructed by Chennault never to turn, try to out maneuver, or dogfight with the enemy fighters. Just get above them, dive on them, blast away, then climb back up above, and repeat -- all the while working in pairs with another P40. In this way Chennault was able to establish an incredible kill ratio over the enemy Japanese. Some say the ratio was as high as 12 - 1, one Tiger lost for every 12 Japanese planes lost.
To help Chennault get the jump on the Japanese, he developed a primitive, yet extremely effective air warning system or network which told him where and when the Japanese were coming. Chinese civilians throughout the country were told to report any sign of Japanese aircraft taking off or flying to the Chinese authorities. Then the message was relayed by balloons, hand signals, word-of-mouth, radio, or any means up the line to the American bases where the Flying Tigers were. Usually, Chennault knew well in advance where the Japanese planes were. He would then send out a squadron of Tigers to climb above the enemy and attack them, typically with devastating effects.
|US ships under attack at Pearl Harbor,|
December 7th, 1941
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
On December 20, 1941, just a few days after the terrible Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, when America was being beaten in the Philippines and the only news about the war was bad, with American defeat after American defeat, the Flying Tigers stunned the world by destroying an attacking force of Japanese planes and bombers sent to attack the AVG base at Kunming. The Flying Tigers destroyed 60 percent of the attacking Japanese force and sent the rest fleeing back to their base in Hanoi.
|Victorious Japanese troops at Corregidor in the|
Philippines make a Banzai salute after defeating
the American and Philippine troops, 1942
Photo Wikimedia Commons
By the time the Flying Tigers were disbanded and reformed into the US 14th Air Force on July 4, 1942, the Tigers had officially destroyed 296 Japanese air planes (and probably they destroyed many more unofficially) while losing only 14 American pilots. In just over six months, the Flying Tigers turned the air war around in China. They demolished the Japanese air force and paved the way for the Americans to control the air.
One of the main accomplishments of the Flying Tigers was to boost the morale of America. Not only were they fighting hard, they were winning and winning, destroying enemy aircraft in record numbers.
The Tigers became beloved by the Chinese people by protecting them from savage Japanese aerial bombardments. Chinese civilians volunteered en masse to help the Tigers in any way, especially by building runways and bases for the AVG. They also acted as scouts and lookouts and helped to rescue any AVG pilots in need.
The Tigers performed a great and humanitarian service by protecting the Chinese civilians from air bombings. They supported the Chinese army on the ground who worked with their American allies.
Although the Flying Tigers fought many battles, one battle in particular stands out for a special distinction. This one battle actually saved the very life of China. The Japanese were attempting to outflank the Chinese and cut off their only supply route by land to the Burma Road which connected Kunming, China to Allied bases (British and American) in India.
The battle of the Salween Gorge
In May of 1942 the Japanese army, spearheaded by the infamous Red Dragon Armored Division, was headed to western China. The Japanese had already driven the Allies out of most of Burma and were now planning to cut off the only viable source of supply for the Chinese government -- the Burma Road.
|Japanese tanks during the war,|
in the Philippines in photo, 1942
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
The Japanese planned to take the "back door" route to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province in China, a major supply center, and the Tigers' base. If they accomplished this, all of China could fall. Without a supply route from America and the Allies, Kunming and China would be doomed.
Civilians were in a panic as the Japanese army came in. The Chinese army seemed incapable of stopping them, and some of the Chinese soldiers were fleeing too.
Chennault and the Flying Tigers were now China's only hope. Chennault had a certain type of P40 called a Kittyhawk (while most of the earlier Tigers were called Tomahawks). The Kittyhawks had bomb racks. So, Chennault had four Kittyhawks bomb the Japanese armor on the road to Kunming near the narrow Salween River Gorge while the Tomahawks provided air cover or strafed the enemy.
|Map of the Salween River,|
leading into the "back door" .
of China. Photo from
Chennault knew this was probably the single most important moment in the war in China against Japan. He asked for volunteers and got them. If the Japanese broke through to Kunming, most probably China would have to surrender. Not only would this take China out of the war, but many of the Japanese troops who fought there could now be relocated to do further aggression or to boost their defenses in the Pacific and Asia, making the Allied cause much more difficult.
But then the Flying Tigers attacked at the Salween as the Japanese army engineers on the ground were trying to build a pontoon bridge over the Salween River. Behind the Japanese engineers was a long, long column down the narrow road through the rough terrain of Japanese tanks, trucks, and troops. The Japanese enemy was boxed in with a mountain to one side of the narrow road and a steep cliff to the other, and in front the Salween Gorge.
The Kittyhawks bombed the back of the Japanese column, causing a small avalanche of rocks and boulders which now blocked and isolated the Japanese column. It was trapped between the avalanche at the rear and the Salween at the front, mountains and cliffs to the sides.
Now the Kittyhawks attacked again directing their machine gun fire and remaining bombs on the trapped Japanese column. The attack caused the enemy supply of ammunition and petrol to blow up, resulting in fires and craters in the primitive road.
Then came the Tomahawks. They swept down strafing the enemy vehicles and doing serious damage to the trapped enemy troops. The Tigers then flew back to their base and reloaded. Then flew back to the Salween Gorge. The Japanese were still recovering from the first attack when the Tigers hit them again.
Now the Japanese began to run about in a panic, but there was no where really to run to except to try to escape backwards past the avalanche area.
Chinese troops who had hitherto been in retreat on the west side of the river (where the Japanese were) regrouped seeing the devastation brought to their enemy by the Fling Tigers. They now began to attack and destroy the Japanese army. Additionally, Chinese troops on the east side of the gorge, nearer to Kunming, opened fire with machine guns and longer range weapons.
The Tigers then flew back to their base. For several days after this incredible battle, the Tigers returned to mop up, destroying any of the enemy who remained. Although the Japanese tried again to approach the Salween, the Tigers again stopped their attempts. In the end the Japanese gave up and withdrew by May 11.
Kunming was saved. As the war progressed the Japanese would eventually cut the Burma Road, but the Allies would overcome this by building an incredible road called the Ledo Road (or Stillwell Road) leading to India and also flying supplies over "The Hump" or the Himalaya Mountains from Allied bases in India to China.
But in that brief period of time in early May of 1942, only the Flying Tigers saved the Chinese from probable defeat.
The Flying Tigers Remembered
The Flying Tigers are one of the most memorable and colorful flying units in all of history. Like their maverick leader, Claire Lee Chennault, they cast an image as daredevils and even swashbucklers. In reality they were well-trained and highly disciplined military men from the US armed services -- Army, Navy, and Marine Corps who became world famous "daredevils" in the public eye, fighting against incredible odds, and winning great victories, again and again. They fought in China and in east Asia for China and America while elsewhere the cause of freedom appeared very bleak indeed.
After July 4, 1942, the Flying Tigers were absorbed into the 14th US Army Air Force and Chennault returned to his former status as an officer, a colonel, in the US Army Air Force. He went on to fight the Japanese and engage in verbal and philosophical arguments with officials in the US military including General "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell who led the US forces in Asia.
Chennault rose to the rank of brigadier general and even commanded the 14th Air Force, but he will always be remembered for those few seven months between December, 1941 and July, 1942 when Old Leatherface led the Flying Tigers to incredible victories against tremendous odds and everlasting glory.
A museum to Claire Chennault is in Monroe, Louisiana. (He eventually returned to America and his home state of Louisiana after the war and died in New Orleans in 1958.) The Monroe museum is called the Chennault Aviation and Military Museum .
There is also a museum in honor of the Flying Tigers in China today. It is in Chunking (Chongqing), China and is called the Fling Tigers Museum.
Sources and further reading: Korea and Japan https://www.history.com/news/japan-colonization-korea; Chennault Military and Aviation Museum in Monroe, Louisiana https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRcUGNIxKAE ; Newsreel from youtube.com about the Flying Tigers https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7XNA_CBiENk; The Flying Tigers by John Toland, Random House, 1963. (In John Toland's excellent book he gives a stirring account of the Battle at Salween Gorge. See pages 104 and following. Also see several articles at Wikipedia.com on Chennault, the Flying Tigers, and the Mukden Incident and the Nanking Massacre.