While the Royal Air Force (RAF) Brewster Buffalos of 67 Squadron were solely responsible for the defense of Rangoon (the commercial and political hub of British Burma) following their arrival three months before the outbreak of war, they were joined a few days before the Japanese attack by a strange aerial unit that had been training throughout the fall at Kyedaw Airdrome in the Burmese up-country. The unit was officially known as the 3rd Squadron of the American Volunteer Group (AVG or Flying Tigers) of the Republic of China Air Force. Unofficially, the American pilots called themselves “The Hell’s Angels.”
As told by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver in his book I will Run Wild, once accepted, the pilots found their leader was former Army Air Corps Major Claire A. Chennault, a fighter pilot’s fighter pilot who had been the leading advocate of fighter aviation in the Air Corps. He had resigned his commission in the late 1930s and taken a position as air advisor to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, leader of the Republic of China, who had been at war with Japan since 1932. In early 1941, Chennault convinced Chiang, who in turn convinced Roosevelt, that a volunteer group of American pilots trained by Chennault in what he considered “proper tactics” could help change the nature of the war in China. In April, President Roosevelt signed an unpublicized executive order authorizing recruitment of enlisted men and reserve officers on duty with the US armed forces; the British released 100 Lend-Lease Curtiss H-87-A2 “Tomahawks” for transfer to China.
With US–Japanese relations in a delicate position, the recruiting officers had to offer contracts that were “legally consistent” with official US policy. While the operation had the unofficial blessing of the government, it was officially organized by the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO), run by Edward D. Pawley; he was later described by Life magazine as “always able to be at the right place a few minutes before the right time.” The contracts the men signed made no mention of the true nature of their service, stating that the signatories were hired to “manufacture, repair and operate aircraft.”
The original plan included three groups: two fighter groups and one bomber group. The first group was equipped with Curtiss P-40s, while the next would be equipped with Seversky P-43s; the third was to be equipped with Lockheed Hudsons as a bomber group. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor forced the cancelation of the second and third groups.
Along with 100 other pilots and 150 ground personnel, former Army Air Corps pilot Erik Shilling boarded the Dutch passenger liner Jagersfontein on Jul. 7, 1941, for the trip to the Far East. Shilling, recalled that he realized shortly after the ship was at sea that there was more going on than they had been told.
‘In fact, we were an official undercover operation of the American government. We were not mercenaries, though that cover story was so good everyone believed it afterwards. We were escorted to the vicinity of Australia by two US Navy heavy cruisers, the USS Salt Lake City and the Northampton, because there was a real fear the Japanese had heard about the operation and would attempt to intercept us.’
Once arrived at Kyedaw, the training base the British provided for the AVG north of Rangoon, Shilling, and the others were introduced to the P-40 and Claire Chennault’s ideas of how to fight the Japanese. Older liked the tactics Chennault taught. ‘The P-40 was a heavier fighter than the others, and it could dive faster than anything else around at the time. Staying in the vertical plane, using dive and zoom tactics against an enemy whose best performance was in the horizontal plane, made perfect sense to me.’
During training that fall, three squadrons were organized: the “Adam and Eves” (the 1st Pursuit Squadron), the “Pandas,” and the “Hell’s Angels.” There were no ranks, though “squadron leaders” and “flight leaders” were named from the more experienced pilots and a military-style organization was followed. Erik Shilling ended up creating the insignia that would forever be linked with the AVG. Forty years later, he recalled:
‘It’s always been said that the tiger mouth came about after we saw a picture of a P-40 being flown by 112 Squadron of the RAF in North Africa. That’s not true. I was looking through a British magazine one day and saw a photo of a Me 110 with a shark face on it. They were the Haifisch Gruppe. I thought it looked perfect for our squadron insignia.’
Shilling chalked a sharkmouth on his P-40 and thought it looked right for the airplane’s sharp-nosed shape. When he asked Chennault for permission to use it as a squadron marking, the commander saw it as the group marking. Shilling ended up chalking the sharkmouth on all of the P-40s at Kyedaw before they were painted. ‘That’s why there were no two of them with the same mouth.’ When Chennault was informed of the possibility of pending war, only the “Hell’s Angels” airplanes had their machine guns boresighted. The “Adam and Eves” and the “Pandas” flew to Kunming, China, to complete equipping. The “Hell’s Angels” took their airplanes to Mingaladon Airdrome, north of Rangoon, on Dec. 3, 1941. Flying Tigers’ first combat took place a few days later on Dec. 20, 1941.
I will Run Wild is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Pinterest
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