“The final outcome of a war is often determined by the degree of initiative shown on each side. ”
— Chiang Kai-shek
War between Japan and the United States had been a possibility of which each nation had been aware of since the 1920s although tensions did not seriously increase until Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria. In 1937, two years before the outbreak of World War II in Europe, Japan began a full-scale invasion of China. Even with the financial support of Germany, the Soviet Union and the United States at the time, China’s armed forces were lacking and her air force was plagued by internal problems. Nearly unopposed, Japan carried out repeat terror bombings of every major city in an effort to break the back of Chinese resistance.
To end the Japanese bombings, China’s highest military rank, the Generalissimo, instructed its air-force advisor Claire Lee Chennault, a self-exiled former US military aviator, to accompany a Chinese delegation on a special mission to Washington for the purpose of obtaining American aircraft and pilots. In October 1939, Chennault arrived in the US with Chinese officials, but returned to China empty-handed shortly thereafter.
Many historians consider U.S. Army airman Claire Lee Chennault the “father” of the Flying Tigers. His teachings of air-combat pursuit theory and “hit and run” tactics enabled American P-40s to successfully deter the Japanese in air-battles over China and Burma.
The following year, in November 1940, the Generalissimo again sent Chennault to the United States to meet with Washington, this time with the direct instruction “to get as many fighter planes, bombers, and transports as possible, plus all the supplies needed to maintain them and the pilots to fly the aircraft”. Following escalating deception and intrigue between the Japanese and American governments, by late 1940 Washington was willing to intently back China, and Chennault’s second visit to Washington bore fruit; the idea of creating an American Volunteer Group of pilots and mechanics to serve in China was born.
In December 1940, following approval by the War Department, State Department and the President of the United States, an agreement was made to provide China with 100 P-40 Tomahawk fighter aircraft. Chennault immediately returned to China to inform the Generalissimo that several shipments of fighters were forthcoming along with pilots, mechanics, and aviation supplies.
In April 1941, Washington provided China with financial aid by signing a formal $50 million stabilization agreement under the pretense the money would support the Chinese currency. In fact, the funds were earmarked to finance the US P-40 aircraft, equipment, and the American Volunteer Group under a so-called lend-lease arrangement (the lend-lease was an American foreign policy enacted in 1941 which permitted Washington to “sell, transfer title to, exchange, lease, lend, or otherwise dispose of, to any such government whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States any defense article”.)
The Flying Tigers first saw combat on 20 December, 1941 when they intercepted 10 Japanese Ki-48 “Lily” bombers enroute to attack Kunming, a city in Southwestern China.
President Roosevelt personally made sure that about 300 American military pilots, mechanics and technicians were authorized to resign from the US armed forces and immediately accept positions for “training and instruction” by a private military contractor, the US-led Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO), which effectively resulted in the organization of the 1st American Volunteer Group, also known as the “Flying Tigers”. CAMCO had operated out of China since the early 1930s and therefore had deep ties to the Chinese air-force and government.
During the summer and fall of 1941, the 300-some members of the American Volunteer Group boarded ships destined for Burma. At about the same time, American intelligence learned that Japan planned to invade Thailand, Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies, and as a preemptive tactic, the United States froze all Japanese assets in America and imposed a total trade embargo against Japan. Japan, on the other hand, decided to go on the offensive and activated its plan to carry out a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor to prevent the US from interfering with Japan’s military actions in Southeast Asia.
The American Volunteer Group became official members of the Chinese Air Force once they arrived in the Far East (although Washington still considered them a Far East clandestine “Special Air Unit” since they equipped US aircraft).
The group first saw combat on 20 December 1941 when they intercepted 10 Japanese bombers enroute to attack Kunming in Southwest China. A US journalist wrote of the battle in his column, “they flew like tigers…” and from that day on, they became known as the “Flying Tigers” (recent discoveries indicate they were given the name by its Washington support group, the China Defense Supplies, for reasons of propaganda).
The Flying Tigers demonstrated innovative tactical victories when the news in the US was filled with little more than stories of defeat at the hands of the Japanese forces, they achieved notable success during the early period of World War II for both the US and the Allied Forces thus giving hope to America that it might eventually defeat the Empire of Japan.
The shark-faced nose art of their P-40s remains among the most recognizable image of any individual combat aircraft or combat unit of World War II.