This Day in History: The Flying Tigers of World War II

On this day in 1942, the Flying Tigers begin their last official mission. The unit formally known as the First American Volunteer Group had been flying for mere months, but its reputation was already one for the ages: In roughly 50 aerial battles, it was never defeated.

Perhaps more importantly to some Americans, the Flying Tigers struck the first blow at the Japanese in the wake of Pearl Harbor.

“Years before American soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy,” author Sam Kleiner writes, “or raised the flag on Iwo Jima, it was Chennault’s Flying Tigers who rallied the country with victories . . . .”

The Flying Tigers were the brain child of former U.S. Army pilot Claire Lee Chennault. He’d been working as a consultant to the Chinese Air Force during the late 1930s, and he saw what the Japanese war machine was doing to the Chinese people: It was ravaging the countryside with bombing campaigns, killing innocents, and capturing major cities.

What if a “foreign legion” were created to protect against such attacks? The United States was officially neutral at this juncture, but Chennault sold Franklin D. Roosevelt on the plan anyway. FDR allowed American military pilots to resign their commissions without penalty. They would be free to join the covert effort.

Roosevelt was skirting the edges of neutrality laws, of course, so he never signed an official Executive Order authorizing the creation of the Flying Tigers. “The order was more of a wink and a nod,” historian Bill Yenne concludes.

Chennault trained the pilots at a British airfield in Southeast Asia. They would be flying Curtiss P-40B fighters, which most had never flown before. The American volunteers would be paid a salary by the Chinese government, and they were promised a bonus for each Japanese warplane that they destroyed.

Our boys left American soil with civilian passports—and false occupations—in their pockets. Indeed, in one humorous twist, future Medal of Honor recipient Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, a hard-drinking pilot, carried a passport claiming that he was a member of the clergy.

The Flying Tigers made their presence felt, right from the beginning. They’d finished training and were the only Americans ready to deploy when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Within days, the Japanese attacked Kunming, China, too.

The Flying Tigers were dispatched. The Chinese city would not be caught flat-footed again. When Japanese bombers returned on December 20, they were met with a surprise: American fighter pilots.

Let’s just say that it didn’t go well for the Japanese.

Americans soon heard about the heroics of the Flying Tigers. “Last week,” Time magazine soon reported, “ten Japanese bombers came winging their carefree way into Yunnan, heading directly for Kunming . . . . the Flying Tigers swooped, let the Japanese have it. Of the ten bombers, said [Chinese] reports, four plummeted to earth in flames. The rest turned tail and fled. Tiger casualties: none.”

The Flying Tigers would spend a total of seven months in combat before their contracts ran out on July 4, 1942. When the unit was disbanded, it was replaced by the 23rd Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces.

The Flying Tigers never wore an American uniform, but they revived flagging American morale. And, as many of you know, the grinning shark that graced their aircraft would become an iconic symbol of World War II.

Happy Independence Day tomorrow!