Thursday, March 12, 2020

The American Volunteer Group

Members of the 76th Squadron of the 23rd Fighter Group of the 14th U.S. Air Force. 

When I was a kid, the shark-toothed P-40s of the 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG) fascinated me. The Warhawk, with that big front scoop, looked awesome with a shark's mouth and glaring eyes painted on. (Note that the two birds in the photo above have different eyes, the one on the left looks more like an actual shark's eye. Maybe that's just me.)

As a kid I was under the impression that the Americans were over there in China fighting the Japanese long before Pearl Harbor. Imagine my surprise to discover (later in life) that the first mission flown by the AVG was on the 20th of December...


Nearly two weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Of course, the unit had been in the process of forming, recruiting pilots, getting aircraft, and the like long before the attack on the Hawaiian Islands. Aviation units aren't thrown together overnight. In reality the groundwork for the AVG was laid well before Pearl Harbor.

Claire L. Chennault in his Kunming office, May 1942.

Captain (as he was at the time) Chennault had led an aerial demonstration team near the end of his time in the Army Air Corps and which had been seen by a Chinese officer who was in the U.S. to purchase aircraft for the Chinese Air Force. (The Chinese at the time were fighting the Japanese, a war which started in 1937 and ended with the Japanese surrender in 1945.) Seems that this officer, Mao Bangchu, was impressed with Chennault's flying skills and invited him to come to China. As Chennault had been passed over for promotion he resigned from the Air Corps and went to China. (He may have retired rather than resigned, my sources weren't real clear on that. He had been on active duty from 1917 to 1937.)

He was back in the States in the winter of 1940-1941 supervising the purchase of aircraft and the recruiting of pilots and ground crew for what would become the AVG.
Of the pilots, 60 came from the Navy and Marine Corps and 40 from the Army Air Corps. (One army pilot was refused a passport because he had earlier flown as a mercenary in Spain, so only 99 actually sailed for Asia. Ten more army flight instructors were hired as check pilots for Chinese cadets, and several of these would ultimately join the AVG's combat squadrons.) The volunteers were discharged from the armed services, to be employed for "training and instruction" by a private military contractor, the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO), which paid them $600 a month for pilot officers, $675 a month for flight leaders, $750 for squadron leaders (no pilot was recruited at this level), and about $250 for skilled ground crewmen. Some of the pilots were also orally promised a bounty of $500 for each enemy aircraft shot down, but no one knew if that would actually happen until they returned home and found the funds deposited in their bank.
During the summer and fall 1941, some 300 men carrying civilian passports boarded ships destined for Burma. They were initially based at a British airfield in Toungoo for training while their aircraft were assembled and test flown by CAMCO personnel at Mingaladon Airport outside Rangoon. Chennault set up a schoolhouse that was made necessary because many pilots had "lied about their flying experience, claiming pursuit experience when they had flown only bombers and sometimes much less powerful aeroplanes." They called Chennault "the Old Man" due to his much older age and leathery exterior obtained from years flying open cockpit pursuit aircraft in the Army Air Corps. Most believed that he had flown as a fighter pilot in China, although stories that he was a combat ace are probably apocryphal.
Of the 300 original members of the CAMCO personnel, 9 were Chinese-Americans recruited from America's Chinatowns. All 9 were trained at Allison Engineworks in Indianapolis, Indiana: all were P-40 mechanics. Upon arrival in Kunming, 2 other Chinese-Americans were hired, a Ford Motor truck specialist and a doctor. Total original Chinese-Americans were 11. Prior to 4 July 1942, 3 of the P-40 mechanics resigned. The official AVG roster lists the original 8.
The AVG was created by an executive order of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. He did not speak English, however, and Chennault never learned to speak Chinese. As a result, all communications between the two men were routed through Soong Mei-ling, "Madame Chiang" as she was known to Americans, and she was designated the group's "honorary commander." (Source)
That's something else I didn't know as a kid, that the bulk of the original AVG pilots were from the Navy/Marine Corps. Those naval aviators, they're everywhere. (As for the "old man" comment above, I'd take that with a grain of salt, it's kinda common to refer to the commander of a unit as "the old man." But Chennault was kinda old and leathery looking, so it fits.)

The AVG's "Flying Tigers" nickname wasn't something they come up with, nope -
Among the myths surrounding the American Volunteer Group is that their fighting name was bestowed on them by grateful Chinese civilians or by fearful Japanese airmen, or that it had something to do with the "tiger shark" warpaint on their Curtiss P-40s. Not really! Here's the story: When the AVG was organized in the winter of 1940-1941, a lobbyist and presidential advisor named Tommy Corcoran set up a front group to launder the money. This would shield the Roosevelt White House from a project that violated the spirit if not the letter of the Neutrality Acts previously passed by Congress. The new company was located in the Chinese embassy but staffed by Americans, including Corcoran's younger brother, David.
Among more serious matters, China Defense Supplies asked the Walt Disney Studios to design a shoulder patch for the group, which obliged them to come up with something more exciting than "American Volunteer Group." The first notion of course was a dragon, evocative of China, and that quickly evolved into a flying dragon. Then David Corcoran came up with an even better idea: a flying tiger. This was quickly agreed upon, and two Disney artists -- Roy Williams and Henry Porter -- worked up a painting of a Bengal cat leaping out of a V-for-victory sign. Blouse pins and airplane decals were duly ordered and shipped to China, where they arrived early in 1942. (Source)
Flight leader and fighter ace Robert "R.T." Smith stands next to his P-40 fighter at Kunming, China.
The "Flying Tiger" insignia was created by the Walt Disney Company.

Now about those shark's mouths painted on their aircraft. As a kid, I thought the Flying Tigers started that practice. As it turns out, they copied that from a British outfit in North Africa flying P-40s who had copied it from a German outfit flying Bf-110s!

A Kittyhawk Mark III of 112 Squadron.
A Messerschmitt Bf-110 heavy fighter of Zerstörergeschwader 76
(Oddly enough they didn't paint eyes on their aircraft.)

When I was still on active duty (shortly after the last Ice Age) The Missus Herself had a younger sister whose husband was stationed at England AFB, Louisiana. He worked life support in the 23rd Tactical Fighter Wing there. Those guys flew A-10s. One of the first things I noticed about the 23rd's A-10s was the paint job -

At the time the 23rd's tail code was "EL," for England AFB. Since they shut that base down and moved the A-10s (and the wing itself) to Moody AFB in Georgia (a place juvat knows well) they changed the tail code on the 23rd's A-10s to "FT," which stands for "Flying Tigers."

Why does the 23rd carry on the traditions of the Flying Tigers?
On 4 July 1942 the AVG was disbanded and replaced by the 23rd Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Forces, which was later absorbed into the U.S. Fourteenth Air Force with General Chennault as commander. The 23rd FG went on to achieve similar combat success, while retaining the nose art on the left-over P-40s. (Source)
I guess my old service isn't totally devoid of people with a sense of history and tradition. No doubt the shoe clerks don't approve.

Suggested Reading:
  • Flying Tigers honored for support of China in WWII (Article)
  • The last Flying Tigers of World War II (Article)
  • Another side to Flying Tigers' Story (Article)
  • Flying Tigers (Wikipedia)
  • Arthur Chin (Wikipedia)
  • American Volunteer Group: Claire L. Chennault and the Flying Tigers (Article)
  • Quick History of the Shark Mouth (Article)
  • Airmen, Fly Girls and Shark teeth (Article) (Covers nose art as well!)
  • The Flying Tiger FAQ (Article)
  • The American Volunteer Group in China, 1942 (Article)
  • List of Flying Tigers pilots (Article) (Yes, "Pappy" Boyington is on that list.)


  1. Later in the war, Polish ace Witold Urbanowicz went with unofficial assignement to China, flying with 14thAF... He joked about being one man air corps. His previous job? Commanded 303 squadron during Battle of Britain...

    1. We are very familiar with Flying Officer Urbanowicz around here. But I didn't know that.

  2. When we moved to this small berg in 1999, our neighbor came over and introduced himself. He was a good guy and I guess a bit younger than me. He was a civilian, but he belonged to an Aces association. He helped put on the reunions they held here. My son went to a load of them. He's got autographs from Tex Hill, and as many of Tigers as showed up. He's got signed pictures and story books from the Doolittle raiders. Blue Angels, Thunderbirds, and aces from WW2 and Korea. He's got so many of those things, he could start a museum.

    While I was working, he was meeting my heroes. He knows how fortunate he was to be there, too. Those AVG men were fascinating to me. I read everything I could get about them. And I found out how the shoe clerks treated them when they were absorbed by the USAAF.

    God Is My Copilot details one man's trek to become a part of the AVG.

    Those men were a part of my dreams. And that P-40 is still a looker!

    1. Some of my early boyhood heroes those guys.

      Love the P-40.

    2. When my Little Juvat and LJW were buying their house, we were in their realtor's office. She had a signed lithograph of a AVG P-40. I took a closer look at it, it was signed by Tex Hill. I asked her about that and how she had gotten one signed by him to display in her office.

      "Oh, that's my Uncle!"

      Small town...large universe.

  3. A long sleeping part of my memories saw the P-40s in the first photo, woke up and shouted "Terry and the Pirates!"

    I recall reading about the AVG, and there's a John Wayne film about the Flying Tigers.

    I need to figure out which Kindle book to start with.

    Great post, and thank you.

  4. Excellent post Sarge, remember reading about the AVG when I was in junior high and MoviesTVNetwork channel shows the Flying Tigers movies a lot. Always nice to see a photo of an aircraft that goes.........BBBBRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRTTTT!!

  5. I dunno, I still think the sharkmouth is cool. I have one of these that I wear a lot:

    And I’ll probably wind up with one of these at some point, if I can find a first-gen one that doesn’t have the teeth cutouts that go all the way through:

  6. Well, if you want to get all funky with the whole eye thing, there is a history of painting intimidating eyes and other facial features going all the way back to the city-states of proto-Greece at the battle of Salamis...

    As to the 'flying tiger,' I wonder who in the Disney studios was Korean, as the tiger is big in Korean mythos, not so much in Chinese mythos. A subtle dig at the way China had been treating Korea for so many years, until Japan took over mistreating it? One wonders.

    I remember reading a lot about the AVG when I was a kid. What surprised me at the time was how bad the previous aircraft that people were using against the Japanese did. Especially since the Zero and other high-performance aircraft were not being used in China and Manchuria by the Japanese, instead it was biplanes and open cockpit monoplanes and pre-Zeroish closed-cockpit planes. And yet they were able to defeat the mighty Brewster Buffalo and other similar 'high performance' western aircraft. The P-40 was literally the P-51 of the time when it went against Japanese forces in China.

    Japan, of course, responded quickly by tossing their more front-line aircraft back against the AVG. Then the AVG got pulled out and absorbed by the AAF and there we go.

    And, yes, the shoe-clerks and pencil-pushers treated AVG members horribly, both before, during and after the formation, operation and absorption of the AVG. Much like the way shoe-clerks of today and especially under the previous administration declared open war against any person in the military, and especially the AF, who had any fight in them. Grrrrr...

    Good post.

    1. Why a tiger and not a dragon, the answer is a bit more prosaic than that, though I like your theory. The ninth source above (The Flying Tiger FAQ) semi-explains why a tiger and not a dragon. Well, it says who decided on using a tiger, but not why.

      The tiger is big in Korean lore, they say that tigers still live in the DMZ. Certainly people don't and not all of it is mined.

  7. Just for fun, the fed bank of minneapolis inflation calculator renders those monthly salaries thus in 2019: Wrench turner, $4,339.78; pilot office, $10,415.48; flight leader $11,717.41; squadron leader $13,019.35. Plus free beer.

    The volunteers were contractors and not service members of the CAF; some of them split after finding they didn't like the gig. One of those was Pappy Boyington back when he was just "Greg 'The @$$hole' Boyington." He claimed some number of kills (three?) from the fight in China which have ever been contested.

    When you stop and think about it, CAMCO/AVG was an incredible effort. It is telling how the USAAC shoe clerks managed to almost kill the whole thing and then crippled the effort far more than the Japanese ever did. Those that stayed and kept swinging did one hell of a fantastic job.

    I wish they were still hiring! ;-)

    Great post Sarge!

  8. I vaguely remember listening, as a little kid, to a radio show called The Flying Tigers.
    I’m pretty sure it was during the first half of the last century, which, I guess, makes me officially old, huh?

    1. To me old just means you're an experienced survivor. 😉

  9. Major Gregory "Pappy" Boyington was a flying tiger. Chenault was IIRC not the easiest leader to have. I'd say the P40 had a challenge with the Zero wouldn't you?

    1. According to Wikipedia:

      The AVG's kill ratio was superior to that of contemporary Allied air groups in Malaya, the Philippines, and elsewhere in the Pacific theater. The AVG's success is all the more remarkable since they were outnumbered by Japanese fighters in almost all their engagements. The AVG's P-40s were superior to the JAAF's Ki-27s, but the group's kill ratio against modern Ki-43s was still in its favor. In Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941–1942, Daniel Ford attributes the AVG's success to morale and group esprit de corps. He notes that its pilots were "triple volunteers" who had volunteered for service with the U.S. military, the AVG, and brutal fighting in Burma. The result was a corps of experienced and skilled volunteer pilots who wanted to fight.

      Even against a Zero the P-40 had a chance as long as they didn't get into a turning fight with them, the Zero was a nimble little bastid.

    2. The Sakae engine used by the A6M 'Zero' was copy of the Pratt & Whitney R-1820. How did that happen? Because before the war the U.S. had given transport aircraft to Japan.

      There are currently two Zeros flying with Sakae engines. One is at Planes of Fame in Chino, CA. It was on loan to Japan for one year to be taken around to show school kids some history. It was very well received. The other Zero was with the Confederate Air Force at Camarillo but no longer there. Probably sent to Midland, Tx. That CAF Zero did not have a Sake until just a few years ago.


    3. I didn't know that there were still two airworthy Zeroes. I knew of only one, that is good news.

      Were those transports DC-3s by any chance? The Japanese used license-built versions of that aircraft (they called it the Showa/Nakajima L2D) which was powered by two Mitsubishi MK8 Kinsei engines. (Which also powered one Zero variant, the Mitsubishi A6M8.)

      The Zero is a sweet bird.

    4. Yes, the DC-3 exactly.


  10. When one of the pilots asked Claire if he could paint nose art on his aircraft, Chennault replied that all aircraft should have the same. Chennault also had the numbers on the P-40s changed regularly so to fool the Japs in thinking there were more aircraft than actual. Chennault also had the Chinese at outlying villages construct dummy P-40s out of bamboo, again to fool the enemy. Chennault also had established a simple radio net of villages concentric to AVG bases. The villagers could radio in when type and number of enemy aircraft passed over head. This had the effect of early warning at great distances. AVG aircraft could then fly to greater altitude to dive on, and surprise the hell out of, the enemy aircraft. Channault was known for whipping his men into shape but he also was brilliant at strategy and tactics against a numerically superior force.


    1. The Chinese early warning system was superb.

      Didn't know about the bamboo dummy aircraft, pretty clever of Chennault.

  11. Of the dummy bamboo aircraft, the detail and craftsmanship was outstanding, much more detailed than one would think necessary when observed from altitude. In many cases, even when viewed from close range it would take a discerning eye to tell the difference.



  12. When I lived in San Antonio, my AME had a "Tex" Hill signed painting in his office. His family and the Hill family were friends and he grew up around them, later becoming one of Mr. Hill's physicians. I administered a type rating check ride (possibly an ATP certificate check at the same time but don't recall) to one of the granddaughters of General Chennault during that same period. She was an excellent student and did very well on her check ride. She was rightfully proud of her family's aviation legacy and intended for it to continue. regards, Alemaster

  13. The P40 was Australia's frontline fighter for the entire period 1941 to 1945, the Aussie name was the P40 Kittyhawk. I have always thought it was a fine looking aircraft and it's rugged construction was appreciated by it's pilots.

  14. (Don McCollor)...Besides Robert Scott's "God Is My Copilot", other Flying Tiger references are "The Flying Tigers" - Russell Whelan (first pub. 1942), another book by Robert Scott "Tiger In The Sky (1959), "Into The Teeth Of The Tiger - Donald Lopez (1986), "Roar Of The Tiger" - James Howard (1991), "China Through The Eyes Of A Tiger" - Roland Sperry (1990), and "The Ragged Rugged Warriers - Martin Caidin (1966)...

  15. (Don McCollor)...Before the AVG, there were American mercenaries in the 'International Squadron' that fought for the Chinese. In "The Ragged Rugged Warriers", one pilot was Howard 'Tommy' Walker (he had been a barnstormer and stunt parachute jumper since the 1930's). Once Walker was in a four plane formation flying Curtiss Hawk biplanes that were bounced by ten Mitsubishi Type 96 (Claude [monoplane]) fighters. The other three planes went down immediately, but Walker was very good (he had been barnstorming when the Japanese pilots were still young boys) and the Hawk was very agile. They slowly cut his plane to pieces and set it afire, but never could get a good clean shot. He made it over Chinese lines before baling out. The Japanese planes followed him down to gun him when his chute opened, but he fell so far they thought he was dead and turned away. He pulled the ripcord at 600 feet, and a few seconds later was on the ground and running for cover...

  16. At 14:45 of linked video a C-130 flies into view with tail code "FT". Is this C-130 based at Moody AFB? Just wondering.

    1. Actually that bird is out of Pope in NC according to this source:

      FT - Pope AFB (2nd AS of the 23rd AW) from 94-XX C-130E #70-1259
      FT - Pope AFB (41st AS) from XX-70
      FT - Ubon RTAFB (16th SOS) from 66-70


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