This summer is the 76th Anniversary of a very special group of people who endured tremendous hardships and risked their lives to help keep the people of China free from Japanese occupation during World War II. One of these special people was from Tacoma, WA.
The story begins in the Summer of 1941 with much of the world at war. At the time, the United States was a neutral nation, but China had been on the losing end of a war with Japan for many years. With defeat rapidly approaching, President Franklin Roosevelt, under a provision of the “Neutrality Act of 1939”, stepped in and authorized the sale of fighter aircraft and supplies to China. The purchases were championed by a retired U. S. Army Air Corps officer named Claire L. Chennault who was serving as the military aviation advisor to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, President of the Nationalist China.
With aircraft and supplies coming his way, Chennault then set out to recruit pilots and maintenance folks for what became known as the AVG or American Volunteer Group. To help Chennault, U. S. military personnel were allowed to resign from their respective services and join the AVG. By summer of 1941, 100 pilots and 300 maintenance personnel plus 2 female nurses had signed on with the AVG and departed to British controlled Burma for advance training. 40 of the pilots came from U.S. Army Air Corps, but they were outnumbered by the 60 pilots who came from the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.
One of the Marine pilots was a man named Gregory “Pappy” Boyington who was a 1930 graduate of Tacoma’s Lincoln High School and a 1934 graduate of the University of Washington. Boyington later went on to become the third highest scoring Marine fighter ace of World War II, a Medal of Honor winner and a Japanese prisoner of war. The 1976 hit TV series “Baa Baa Black Sheep” was loosely based on Boyington’s World War II flying exploits.
The fighter aircraft supplied to the AVG were the Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk. When the aircraft and pilots arrived in Burma they were organized into three fighter squadrons with the 1st Squadron being called the “Adam and Eves”, the 2nd Squadron was called the “Panda Bears” and the 3rd Squadron was know as “Hell’s Angels”. Their mission was to protect the main Burma supply route to China by attacking Japanese bombers sent to disrupt the road. And protect it they did with an official record of 296 Japanese aircraft destroyed versus the aerial loss of only 14 pilots. Equally important was the image they created. When the P-40 aircraft first arrived in Burma their forward nose was painted with a large, tooth filled shark face. This colorful nose art coupled with the extraordinary flying skills of the pilots soon caused the AVG to become internationally known as “The Flying Tigers”.
Their fame soon found its way to Hollywood where several popular movies helped promote their dog fighting image. I will always remember my fascination of watching Hollywood legend John Wayne star in the hit movie “The Flying Tigers”. Tiger Pilot Erik Shilling later said his time with the Tigers “was the beginning of the greatest adventure he would ever experience”.
With America’s entry into World War II, the renown Flying Tigers reverted to American military control on July 4th, 1942 and were re-designated as the 23rd Fighter Group.
Today, only two Tigers still remain with us. One of the two and the only surviving pilot is 100 year old Dr. Carl Brown of Corcoran, CA. The other surviving Tiger served as a ground support crewman.
Overseas several memorials to the “Flying Tigers” are still being maintained. There is one in Chiang Mai, Thailand and a museum to the Tigers is located in Kunming, China plus one at Zhijiang in Hunan Province and one in Chengdu, China. The Memorial Cemetery to World War II martyrs in Nanjing also has a tribute to the Tigers.
In the U.S. almost every major air museum features a P-40 aircraft with the colorful shark nose and a history of the Tigers to include the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field and the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright – Patterson, AFB, Dayton, Ohio.
More importantly, 76 years after their birth, the aerial fame and heroism of the “Flying Tigers” still burns bright in the eyes of those familiar with their valor and sacrifice.