"Slashing, twisting, turning, Tiger flyers of the American Volunteer Group hurled themselves recklessly against the enemy. Applying every unorthodox method of aerial combat, these wild men of the skies completely bewildered and put to flight Nippon's best airmen."
Bunk! That's what the American public has been lead to believe about the Flying Tigers of Burma. It makes good reading, sounds nice in headlines, stimulates the imagination but upon investigation it falls flatter than a pancake on a hot griddle.
Now that Uncle Sam has stepped into the war and diplomacy is no longer necessary, the true story of these "madmen of the skies" can be told and it proves conclusively that these defenders of Burma were neither madmen nor reckless fighters.
I have talked to these flyers over a cool glass of beer in a quiet restaurant far from the battlefield, I have visited them in their hotel rooms, watched them at work on their new jobs Back in this country and can report that there was nothing fantastic in the story of the Flying Tigers who, like the men on Bataan, simply out-flew, out-fought and out-maneuvered the Japanese. It would make a swell story if I were to follow in the footsteps of the press and dish out a wild yarn about the devil-may-care flying of these American heroes, but I'm going to tell it to you just the way it was told to me.
"We whipped the Japanese in nearly every encounter because we out-thought them, not because we out-fought them."
In that simple statement we find a tribute to their leader quiet, efficient, Col Claire L Chennault. now Brigadier General Chennault. It is also a tribute to the men who designed and engineered the Curtiss P-40Cs that. were used in the Burma fighting. In it is a tribute to the extensive and thorough combat training of the United States Army and Navy and Marine Corps. Above all it is a tribute to America because here, for the first time in action, were American pilots, in American planes, fighting under American command. If there's any doubt in your mind as to the outcome of our present war with Japan let these Flying Tigers, now home from Burma, tell the story.
"In that first savage Japanese raid on Kunming, hoping to catch us on the ground, only one out of 27 attacking bombers escaped to tell the story." That's what Larry Moore, blond, 22-year-old staff secretary to General Chennault, told me the other day when I visited him on the set at Republic studios where he is working as technical advisor on The Flying Tigers.
But better still, let's get the story from Walter Pentecost, who had complete charge of the engineering section of the AVG. He was the man who inspected every airplane, saw to it that they were fit and ready to fly, supervised the repair, overhaul and maintenance of the warbirds.
Walter is 30 years old, but he looks older. He was the first man of the AVG to set foot on Burmese soil when he landed at Rangoon early in 1940 to supervise the unloading and assembling of the first P-40s.
"Don't let me hear you folks say anything against the P-40s," was his quiet warning, "There are a lot of things that can be improved about them, sure, but stacked up alongside the Jap "0s", (the famed Japanese Zero fighters) they're head and shoulders above them."
"Take leakproof tanks, for instance. How the Japanese ever thought they could fight a major war without them, I'll never know. A couple of bursts in the Jap tanks and they go up in flames. Thank God our boys had bulletproof, self-sealing tanks that swallowed the Jap bullets.
"Then the matter of armor plating. I've looked at dozens of wrecked Jap planes, both fighters and bombers, and I have yet to see a piece of bulletproof steel. The armor plating on our P-40s is about as perfect as could be expected. Time after time the boys bring them back full of holes but thanks to this protection, they have nary a scratch on themselves."
Of course leakproof tanks and armor plate are heavy. So is the sturdy dural with which the ships are built, It's this added weight, plus the low horsepower of the early Allisons (about 1,050 hp for takeoff) which gave the Japs superiority in maneuverability and climb. When the Tigers were able to open them up and leave them open for awhile the Curtiss ships were faster than the Zeros and the P-40 in a dive is a thing to behold.
The AVG boys would hide in wait behind the clouds until the Japs showed up on schedule (as they always did), then, poking the nose at the ground and opening wide the throttle, they'd come tearing down. With pointed shark teeth gleaming in the sunlight they'd be on the Jap bombers before they had time to man the guns.
Most of the Tigers told me that in this dive they'd aim for the Jap motors. A hit in the powerhouse with even the lightest ammunition seemed to explode the Jap engines in midair. Then the AVG boys would haul back on the stick to climb again for precious altitude.
The superman stories about the AVG, fortunately, are all a myth. These men were using standard US combat training planes with special adaptations worked out for them by General Chennault. There isn't an AVG man to whom I've talked who wasn't utterly devoted to this slim, greying general of the Burma front. Chennault knows flying, knows Burma and he knows the Japanese. He had been US military advisor to China's Chiang Kai-shek, had seen the Chinese coolies move the factories of China on their backs and had later witnessed the bombing of these reconstructed defenseless factories by Japanese planes.
It was Chennault who planned the bases, commanded the operations and instructed the pilots in the art of shooting down the Japanese bombers and fighters. It was a job that had to be done slowly, carefully and with fine regard for international law.
While a defenseless China was being bombed, the Curtiss planes were shipped to Rangoon, assembled and flown to training fields in northern Burma. England, at that time, was not at war with Japan though war clouds were smoldering on the horizon. Strict neutrality had to be observed. No flights from Burma could be made over Japanese-held territory. After weeks of planning and training, the AVG squadrons were moved to Kunming, in Yunnan province, to begin operations.
How many P-40s were there? Not enough. But let Walter Pentecost answer that more fully.
"The original order was for 100 planes. A lot of these were diverted from original British orders and arrived in Rangoon with the British insignia on them. One slipped off a loading crane and fell in the harbor. The salt water didn't do it any good so it was dismantled and used for replacements on other planes. Ninety-nine planes finally went to the front."
Walter believes that when the complete history of the war is written, it will be shown that these 99 planes saved China during the dark days of 1940 before the United States and Britain entered the war. Thanks to these few American planes less than three complete squadrons the Burma road was kept clear of Japanese bombers and the Chinese industrial cities of Kunming and Chungking were protected. In the all-out Jap assault on Burma, the heroic rear-guard fighting of the few planes and pilots left slowed up the Jap advance long enough to permit the forming of the defense of India.
Walter showed me a photograph of the 99th plane being assembled in the open air at Rangoon. A camera addict, Pentecost brought more than 400 pictures of Flying Tiger activities back with him from Burma. I used my best salesmanship to get some of them to illustrate this article, but Walter has them all under option to Universal Pictures, for whom he is now working.
The P-40s arrived in Rangoon packed in two huge boxes; fuselage with engine mounted in one and wings and tail assembly together with retractable landing gear in the other. The ships were set up under makeshift sunshades of bamboo and thatch and were speedily assembled by the small crew of technicians who had been arriving in twos and threes, disguised as students, tourists and sailors.
The word "tiger" does not have reference to the carnivorous beasts of the jungle. The name comes from the flashing tiger shark whose faces have been painted around the air intake on the Curtiss planes. Did the AVG boys design the wicked, flashing teeth and evil eyes of these jungle sharks? "No," says 23-year-old Ken Sanger of the AVG group. The British Tommies on the Libyan desert must be given credit for the design. These "shark faces" had pounded General Rommel's tanks with cannon and machine gun fire long before the first P-40 was unloaded on the dock at Rangoon. The AVG boys saw a picture of one of the Libyan P-40s in an English aviation magazine while in Rangoon and adapted it to their own ships. "We took a few liberties with the design," Ken told me as we were having lunch in Hollywood. "We made the teeth a bit larger because we had heard that the Japs had poor eyesight."
Don't let a quip like this make you think that the AVG boys look down on the Japanese flyers. They treat them with a healthy respect both in the air and on the ground. Nearly every fatality in the Flying Tiger group can be traced to a momentary disregard of instructions or to a hot-headed attack by a single flyer.
According to Pentecost the AVG attacks, again contrary to newspaper reports, were always made in pairs. One ship would make the attack, with the other pilot covering the attacking plane. In this way the leading flyer could concentrate on his target freely, knowing that his tail was being covered by a fellow pilot. In the event of a miss by the leading plane the other pilot could get in a burst before the target swept by.
Ask Paul Green about this. Paul dived in at 10,000 feet without waiting for his team mate to provide cover. He got his bomber but a Navy Model 97 fighter shot his tail off. Paul threw back the greenhouse and climbed into the blue at 9,000 feet. He yanked the rip cord on his chute and floated lazily with the Jap machine gunning him all the way. His shroud lines were cut, his parachute looked like a sieve, but Paul didn't have a hole in him. For 8,000 feet he climbed the shroud lines and swung like a monkey to evade the murderous Jap passes.
AVG Flyer Cressman wasn't so lucky. The Japs murdered him in his chute. After that, General Chennault issued new orders and henceforth when a Flying Tiger bailed out he was followed down by his teammate who, by circling the descending chute, saw to it that his buddy was not harmed. Bill McGarry was seen to land this way in enemy territory, gather his chute in his arms and run for the brush. He didn't get back to Allied territory and it can only be assumed that he became a prisoner of war.
One of the questions most frequently asked these returning heroes is their reaction to this murderous Japanese practice of machine-gunning defenseless pilots who had been forced to bail out of their planes.
"Did you men retaliate by shooting parachuting Jap pilots?"
The answer is "No." The AVG flyers seemed to feel that their job was to prevent the planes from reaching their objectives. The destruction of the plane was what counted most. Besides, most of the Japs who bailed out near the Chinese and Burmese bases were taken prisoners.
There is a strange psychology about these Tigers. They went to Burma to fight for the Chinese whom they believed to be in the right. But most of the boys will admit it was the $600 per month and $500 per plane bonus they were paid that caused their intense resistance. After Pearl Harbor was bombed it was different. America, their own country, had been attacked. Their own friends and relatives were in danger. On December 8, the AVG fought Japanese over Toungoo with renewed fury. They got 21 planes that day. On December 10, the salary and bonus was withdrawn and the Flying Tigers became merely American pursuit pilots assigned to a deadly serious business. The next day they got every plane of a 12-plane flight.
Strangely enough, the AVG first got word of the Pearl Harbor bombing from the Japanese-controlled radios operating in occupied China. Shanghai broadcast that Pearl Harbor had been attacked but the men were inclined to disbelieve the report. That night the powerful General Electric station, KGEI in San Francisco, confirmed the news. The next morning the Shanghai and Tokyo radios broadcast that San Francisco and Los Angeles had been bombed. Many of the AVG boys who had relatives living in those cities were very disturbed. It was all General Chennault could do to prevent them from flying their few remaining P-40s with murderous intent into Japanese territory.
As has been the history of the war in the air in other zones, by far the greater number of AVG planes were lost through operational accidents and through lack of replacements than through enemy action. When tires wore out or were damaged in combat, for instance, the whole plane became a loss as far as active service was concerned. It had to be pushed off into the trees and used as a salvage ship.
At the time Walter Pentecost left Burma (shortly after the fall of Rangoon) only 13 ships had been lost due to enemy action, yet not one full squadron of P-40s remained. The loss was due to lack of supply and lack of parts replacements.
How are the Japanese ships? Well, we've already written that the Army Model "O" (the AVG boys still haven't learned to call them Zeros) is more maneuverable and climbs better. We know also that the ships have more horsepower than our P-40s. They aren't as well constructed and they have no defensive armament. The Jap bombers (Mitsubishi 96s and 97s of both Army and Navy design) are faster than the Zeros, but still lack armor plate and bulletproof tanks. The Jap engines are all air-cooled and are not, to the best knowledge, supercharged.
The Japs have one wicked little weapon that the Tigers learned to stay clear of: a tail stinger which the boys called a "dust gun." The Mitsubishi 96s and 97s were originally designed without thought of a tail gun position (you don't need one to bomb defenseless Chinese) with the result that the AVG boys flew right up on the Japs and blew their tails off.
One morning four of the boys sneaked upstairs to intercept a squadron of bombers headed for Toungoo. They came in at 9,000 feet and made the attack in the usual manner. But one of the Tigers noticed a row of holes appear on the front windshield. Luckily, no one was hit and one of the Jap bombers was shot down. Later in the day a searching party brought in the wreckage and the men found an ingenious rear gun mounting which sprayed bullets in a 30° arc. The gun, mounted in a space too small to accommodate a man, was fired by remote control by the top turret gunner who was in a position to see the attack.
Several of the AVG boys have said that the Japs apparently are not instrument men. Even when closely pursued they have been known to fly around clouds instead of through them. The shot-down Jap bombers prove to be full of blind flying instruments and whether the Japanese pilots lack instrument training or hesitate to trust their instruments, the Americans don't know.
Larry Moore, who went through some of the heaviest raids on the air field at Kunming, says that one squadron of Japs would bomb with unerring accuracy while the next day another squadron, under the same conditions, would miss their objective entirely. These were the ones Larry said you had to be careful of if you were caught on the ground. As soon as the Chinese cry of "Jin Bao!" would be heard, the ground forces would rush away from military objectives and throw themselves into specially prepared slit trenches. The bombs that missed the air field often fell too close to these shelter trenches for comfort.
Larry tells of being caught on the ground. in that first raid on Kunming by unescorted Jap Army 97 bombers. The Kunming communications had not been thoroughly tested, with the result that Larry only had time to pull on his shoes and dash across the Burma Road into some holes on the side of a nearby hill which had been constructed, he thought, as raid shelters.
After the first run across the target which resulted in no little damage, Larry was hauled out of his place of hiding by a fellow employee.
"You're lucky those boys were good shots," he was told, "they usually miss the target completely and plaster this hillside. These holes aren't raid shelters, they're bomb craters."
Where do the Flying Tigers come from? About 75 per cent came direct from fighter squadrons of the US Navy. These men had all had at least five years of standard Navy training and are, for the most part, graduates of Pensacola. About 10 per cent came from the Marine Corps and the other 15 per cent from the US Army Air Forces. It is untrue that any of them were released convicts or renegade commercial flyers, as has often been reported.
They are nearly all, with few exceptions, between 25 and 29 years old and are cool-headed, crafty and determined. They had been well trained and found it easy to adapt themselves to actual fighting. The stories of single-handed missions and slashing, twisting, upside-down attacks are not true. An AVG flyer wouldn't have lasted three minutes in that kind of combat.
General Chennault gave them their plans for attack and insisted that they stick to the plan. They were assigned a certain radius of action and a certain method of attack, and while these plans varied from time to time, it was always by General Chennault's order. The AVG flew like a perfectly coordinated football team. Every man knew what every other man was going to do and acted accordingly. It was the serious, calm and deliberate thinking and planning on the ground that lead to subsequent victory in the air.
Walter Pentecost reports that, oddly enough, the US Navy flyers came off with a greater percentage of victories and, while it may have been due to several unaccountable factors, it may also be the result of a better peacetime discipline and training.
From 300 carefully distributed questionnaires to ordinary followers of the war, the three questions asked most frequently were:
"How do the American planes stack up alongside the Japanese?"
"Are the Japs good flyers?"
"How did the AVG feel about America's entry into the war."
These questions I have tried to answer already. Here are some others that provoke interesting observations.
"Did the AVG have any Lockheed P-38s?"
No. Only P-40s found their way to the AVG. I saw a photograph of a Stinson "105" which was used for liaison travel, and a Lockheed "12". The "12", I was told, was the very first one made and had a colorful history. It flew Chiang Kai-shek all over China and made 20 dangerous trips back and forth across the Burma Road before the protecting P-40s were brought in.
"Do the Japs really use suicide tactics?"
The answer to this question is, "Yes, if they believe such tactics will secure a victory." Flaming Japs have been known to dive their airplanes into ground objectives. These tactics, while requiring special measures to meet, do not give the Japs an advantage.
"What was the AVG's greatest problem?"
Supply and replacements.
"Does General Chennault ever fly in combat'?"
No. He's one of America's ablest combat flyers, but realizes that his place is on the ground. Does the AVG have a battle cry like the British "Tally Ho?"
No. During combat the American radio is full of burning American invectives but no standard attack phrase was ever used, Time Magazine notwithstanding. (Time reported that the Tigers peeled off with the words "Certified Check!" as they spotted the enemy.)
"What about repairs in the Burma jungles?"
Walter Pentecost showed me pictures that were hard to believe. One P-40, with a cannon hole in the rudder you could stick your head through, had been repaired with yards and yards of surgical tape. The tape stayed on through numerous combats and was still in service when the plane was finally pushed into the trees and stripped. Machine gun holes in propeller blades merely had the burrs scraped off of them, and were not filled in. Yet no ship was sent aloft, I was assured, that was not in a position to take care of itself.
The Chinese have a marvelous filter system in operation for reporting enemy aircraft and very seldom was the AVG caught napping. Again because of the Japs' apparent desire not to indulge in instrument flying, the Americans seldom had their sleep disturbed at night or were called out on days when the weather was bad.
Many of the veterans of America's first war with Japan have returned to this country under orders. They are at present working where it will do our country the most good: in aircraft plants telling designers what they need most, at material centers conducting tests and on training fields teaching teachers in the fine art of "blowing the Japs to hell." To that end let us hope they are successful and that, when the war is over, America will hold a special place in her heart for the "wild men of Burma," who gave the Japs their first taste of Yankee fighting: the Flying Tigers.
This article was originally published in the August, 1942, issue of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 31, no 2, pp 22-24, 86, 88.
The original article includes 6 photos.
Photos are not credited.