The story of Robert Lee Scott, the P-40 pilot who waged a one-man war against Imperial Japan and became AVG commander when the unit became the 23rd Fighter Group

The story of Robert Lee Scott, the P-40 pilot who waged a one-man war against Imperial Japan and became AVG commander when the unit became the 23rd Fighter Group

By William Cobb
Jul 6 2022
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Using a special gift by AVG leader Chennault, a P-40E, serial number 41-1456, otherwise known as “Old Exterminator,” Robert Lee Scott waged a one-man war against Imperial Japanese forces.

Flying Tigers: From AVG to 23rd Fighter Group.

On Jul. 4, 1942, the American Volunteer Group (AVG), which had achieved worldwide fame as the “Flying Tigers” officially ceased to be. Instead, the newest Fighter Group in the US Army Air Force (USAAF) was established, with a small cadre of AVG pilots providing a core for the unit while it stood up as a combat unit. The vast majority of AVG pilots had already left, including Greg Hallenbeck/Boyington. Others had stuck things out till their year long contracts had expired. A few agreed to remain to help the new unit gain the benefit of their hard-won experience. They had retreated from Burma, seeing that corner of the British Empire fall, yet remaining intact as a unit despite the inevitable losses they had taken.

The behind-the-scenes machinations of various commands to take over the AVG is beyond the scope of this account, suffice to say it was a strategic matter discussed at the highest levels of US Military command. In many ways the AVG was embarrassment to the Military. Ostensibly Civilian, yet with higher pay than the military, the AVG had managed to achieve some of the only combat Victories scored by US Flying forces. Now that the war was over 6 months old, they remained an anomaly, a unit of Civilians in a War fought by a nation mobilizing its resources and people to fight around the world. The sooner they were inducted as a regular unit, the better.

Unfortunately, this pragmatic command view from Washington failed to take into account realities on the ground, where Major General Clayton Bissell and Brigadier General Claire Chennault clashed over control over a unit which at peak strength prewar never numbered more than a single Pursuit Group. Regarded prewar as a Maverick who refused to toe the Air Force’s Party Line that Bombing was the wave of the future, the hierarchy of the Air Force was now able to impose its will and induct the AVG into its organization. Unfortunately, General Bissell managed to alienate the pilots in his new command to such an extent by threatening to draft them upon their return home, that the vast majority left in disgust.

The story of Robert Lee Scott, the P-40 pilot who waged a one-man war against Imperial Japan and became AVG commander when the unit became the 23rd Fighter Group
Famous En Echelon photo taken by AVG Pilot RT Smith, showing the 3rd Pursuit Squadron of the AVG, nicknamed the “Hells Angels” after the famous Howard Hughes film, something which inspired many of these future fighter pilots when they were kids fascinated by flight.

Finding a commander for the new unit posed a bit of a problem as well. Facing a worldwide War, Colonels with fighter and combat experience weren’t exactly common in the USAAF. Fortunately warrior ethos of the old Air Corps managed to solve the problem, thanks to an adventurous spirit who managed to finagle his way overseas by claiming 1100 hours of Flying Fortress flight time when reality the man had naught but some jump seat time while riding in one. Stuck in instructor duty overseeing the expansion of the vast USAAF training pipeline, West Pointer Robert Lee Scott had volunteered for a secret Mission, Project Aquila, covered in an earlier post back in April.

Stuck in India after the Doolittle raid had rendered the raid impossible due to the loss of its Chinese bases, Scott had flown a series of transport missions during the evacuation of Burma, and had been left a rather special gift by AVG leader Chennault, a P-40E, serial number 41-1456, otherwise known as “Old Exterminator” (featured in the Turntable by Hangar B below). Using that machine, he waged a one-man war against Imperial Japanese forces, flying multiple sorties per day, and even repainting its spinner different colors on each sortie to convince his adversary they were facing more aircraft than his single P-40.

There is some controversy as to the exact serial and side number of the aircraft as Scott was reputed to have switched data plates, and AVG aircraft had their tail numbers painted out. Scott apparently scored 4 victories in 41-1456, before taking the guns into the P-40E which would become known as White 7. Originally his side number was White 10, but as Scott himself related below to an individual on a message thread about the aircraft;

“According to Scott, none of the P-40s he flew in China had tail number on them. Chennault ordered them painted over in an attempt to deceive Japanese intelligence as to the number of aircraft the CATF/14th AF had on strength. The reason for the number change from 10 to 7 was more for self-preservation than anything else. According to Gen Scott the first couple of time he flew with number “10” on a mission, he would be returning and radio the tower “One Zero (10) approaching from the northwest ten miles out”. Next thing he knew there were two or three P-40s coming up at him. He decided pretty quick he needed to change his fuselage number.

By waging his one-man war against Imperial Japan, Scott gained invaluable combat experience, and was taught the Tactics Chennault instilled in his men by other AVG fliers such as RT. Smith and “Tex” Hill.

The story of Robert Lee Scott, the P-40 pilot who waged a one-man war against Imperial Japan and became AVG commander when the unit became the 23rd Fighter Group
From Scott himself in God is My Copilot,

For now the seriousness of war had gradually come to me. Unless men like myself-thousands and millions of them-left these wonderful luxuries in this great land of America we could lose it all forever. I loved these two with all my heart, but the only way in all the world to keep them living in the clean world they were accustomed to was to steel myself to the pain of parting with them for months or years-or even forever. The actuality of war, grim war, had come. I knew then that the theoretical word “Democracy” was not what we were to fight for. I knew it was for no party, no race, creed, or color. We were going to fight, and many of us were to die, for just what I had here-my wife and family. To me, they were all that was real, they were all that I could understand. To me, they were America.

This combat experience and the fact that he was a West Point graduate gave Scott the perfect pedigree to take over the AVG when it became the 23rd Fighter Group, USAAF. As he had seen combat action, he was one of “the boys,” while his status as a regular Army West Pointer made his command acceptable to the Army’s ever present “Ring Knocker” fraternity of West Point Alumni. Thus Robert Lee Scott would come to take over a legendary unit, and lead it through even more action in the months to come, at a time when Chennault and his China Air Task Force waged a kind of airborne guerilla war from its bases deep in the Chinese hinterland.

Robert Lee Scott would go on to score 13 victories while in command of the AVG, and though criticized by segments of the O-club set for his “arrogance” he would return to the fighting after dictating “God is My Copilot,” his best-selling memoirs of his experience. Postwar, he would be the first American to fly a jet across Africa, and eventually retired as a Brigadier General. The Air Force, for all its bureaucratic nature, does seem to have a way of promoting its most heroic Aviators to the rank of Brigadier General, as attested to by the careers of Scott, Robin Olds, Chuck Yeager, and Air Force Vietnam Ace Steve Ritchie, all of whom retired at One Star Rank.

Scott’s wanderlust wouldn’t cease after retirement, indeed in the early 80s he managed to be one of the few human beings to WALK much of the length of the Great Wall of China. He would also fly in an F-16 as a 76-year-old, and later in a B-1 in the 1990s. Living till 2006 and age 97, Scott remains an Air Force Legend, whose flying career spanned the Golden Age of flight into the Jet Era.

Be sure to check out William Cobb’s Facebook Page Pensacola Aerospace Museum for awesome aviation’s photos and stories.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

Turntable: Hangar B

A-10C Moody print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. A-10C Thunderbolt II 23d W, 74th FS Flying Tigers, FT/80-144. Moody AFB, GA – 2011

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William Cobb

William Cobb

Mr. William Cobb is a licensed Instrument Flight Instructor in Single and Multi Engine Airplanes who is the founder and director of the Pensacola Aerospace Museum. Mr. Cobb spent from 2008 to 2015 instructing for the U.S. Navy's Initial Flight Screening program. After 8 years of full time Flight Instruction, Mr. Cobb started his own Commercial Drone Business, obtaining the first FAA Part 107 certification in his FAA region. Subsequent Drone work led to his becoming involved in Film Production work, and his establishing the Pensacola Aerospace Museum, an entity dedicated to honoring the memory of all those who ever gave their lives to flight.

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