The first “paper & stick” model airplane I ever made was a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. I painted it in the color scheme of the famed Flying Tigers, including the shark’s mouth on the cowl and air scoop. Mine was powered not by a 1040 horsepower V-12 Allison but by a rubber band that I wound by turning the prop dozens of times. Flight duration was only a matter of seconds, but in that short time I shot down Zeros aplenty. There was nothing more adventurous for a young kid in the early 50’s than daydreaming of the Flying Tigers dueling the Japanese in the skies over China and Burma. Although the Flying Tigers were among the most legendary of our American heroes—we kids knew the names of many of the pilots—they have disappeared from the history textbooks used in our schools today.
The Flying Tigers were the creation of Texas-born and Louisiana-reared Claire Chennault, a zealous and outspoken proponent of fighter aircraft, an innovator of air-combat tactics, and a daring pilot. In 1937, after serving nearly 20 years in the U.S. Army Air Corps, he retired and became an aviation advisor to Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Chinese government, and the director of the Chinese Air Force flight school in Kunming. Although Chennault worked wonders with the CAF, the Japanese had far superior forces, and by 1940 Chennault and Chiang Kai-shek asked the United States for pilots and planes. Since such direct aid was prohibited by the Neutrality Act of 1939, a clandestine operation was launched through the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company of New York.
For several years CAMCO had not only built aircraft in China but provided instructors for the CAF. Now CAMCO would hire U.S. military pilots to fly for what was called the American Volunteer Group. The U.S. government quietly allowed pilots to resign their commissions to join the AVG and then rejoin the U.S. military at a later date with no loss of rank or seniority. The incentive to do so was money: $600 per month for pilots, $675 for flight leaders, and $500 for every Japanese plane shot down—substantial sums in the early 1940’s and far more than any pilot could earn in the U.S. military. Recruitment began during the spring of 1941. By late September a hundred pilots, disguised as anything but what they were, boarded foreign merchant ships at San Francisco bound for the Orient. The alcoholic and brawling Marine aviator, Pappy Boyington, went aboard a Dutch ship as a missionary. But Japanese spies were everywhere, and Japan tracked the pilots as well as the planes, which were shipped disassembled in cargo containers, across the Pacific to their final destination, Rangoon.
The principal mission for the AVG was protecting the Burma Road, which twisted more than 700 miles through jungles and mountains from Lashio in Burma to Kunming. By 1941 it was the only landline connecting China to the outside world. Supplies would be unloaded at Rangoon and shipped by rail to Lashio. From there on it was the dirt of the Burma Road, or mud when the monsoon arrived, all the way to Kunming. The Japanese were determined to close the road and strangle an exhausted China.
For two months the AVG pilots trained at Toungoo, a remote airstrip north of Rangoon. The weather was miserable, and accidents were frequent. The pilots grumbled, and several quit; a few died in crashes. Spirits were lifted when Erik Shilling, a former Army test pilot, got the idea of painting a shark’s mouth on the P-40. A German squadron operating in the Mediterranean had first used the image on their Messerschmitts. When Shilling chalked out the mouth on the P-40, though, it looked far better than anything seen before, as if plane and design had been made for each other. Once paint was applied, the pilots were thrilled. “Looks mean as hell,” declared R.T. Smith, who would knock nine Japanese planes out of the sky. By the end of November the pilots were divided into three squadrons: the 1st, Adam & Eves; the 2nd, Panda Bears; and the 3rd, Hell’s Angels. They would be stationed at both Kunming and at Mingaladon airfield near Rangoon.
Although many have the impression that the Flying Tigers were fighting the Japanese before Pearl Harbor, the AVG’s first combat action didn’t come until December 20, when a handful of pilots from the 1st and 2nd squadrons intercepted ten enemy planes intent on bombing Kunming. The Flying Tigers immediately began to earn their moniker, aggressively diving on the Japanese and destroying four of their planes. A much bigger air battle would erupt over Rangoon on December 23 and continue through Christmas Day. No more than a dozen Tigers were in the air at any one time, but they pounced on wave after wave of Japanese formations with a vengeance, blowing 18 enemy planes out of the sky and damaging dozens more.
By the time the Flying Tigers were disbanded on July 4, 1942, they had destroyed nearly 300 Japanese planes, and men such as Bob Neale, Tex Hill, Chuck Older, Mac McGarry, Whitey Lawlor, and Charlie Bond were becoming legends. Although badly outnumbered in nearly every engagement, the Tigers lost only 16 of their pilots to enemy actions. When asked if he ever regretted joining the AVG, R.T. Smith replied wryly, “Only on those occasions when I was being shot at.”