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Who Were the Flying Tigers?

Who Were the Flying Tigers and How Did They Contribute During WWII?

Shortly after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, a small unit of American fighter pilots, formally known as the American Volunteer Group (AVG), but nicknamed the “Flying Tigers,” banded together with the Chinese Air Force, and took to the skies over Western China. Their goal? To defend the Chinese mainland and harass the Japanese and their surrounding occupied territories, not an enviable task.

Despite facing near impossible odds, the unit would continually defy expectations and inspire a nation still reeling from a war that had suddenly come home. And although eventually unsuccessful and forced to disband, the Flying Tigers exacted a disproportionate toll upon their aggressors in six short months.

Founded primarily by retired U.S. Army Air Corps Officer Claire L. Chennault, the Flying Tigers were composed of some 100 volunteer pilots, 200-person ground crew and a fleet of 100 Curtiss P-40B Warhawks. This unit was so successful that the Japanese forces discontinued their raids into the region.

With Eastern China under Japanese occupation, the Flying Tigers focused their efforts on defending Burma, a vital communications and supply route crucial to keeping China in the war. Though they faced a superior force of fighters and bombers that would eventually drive them further and further inland, according to official records, in just six and a half months, the Tigers destroyed some 297 enemy aircraft, while suffering only four aerial losses.

Flying the P40B Warhawks

Some of their aerial success is credited to how they organized and adapted in flying the P-40B Warhawk. This aircraft was a well-armed, sturdy, air-superiority fighter with excellent dive capabilities, though it was no match in a dogfight with the more maneuverable Japanese counterparts. This led to a shift in fighter doctrine, as pilots were instructed to attack in teams, engage in dive-in, dive-out attacks and disengage from any dogfighting. While at first unpopular amongst the more experienced crews, early successes proved the tactic’s merit.

Where Did Flying Tigers Come From?

At some point in the war, AVG pilots noted that Royal Air Force squadrons in North Africa had painted a shark’s face on the nose of their Warhawks, in imitation of some German fighters. Impressed, the AVG did the same, which eventually led to their nickname, the “Flying Tigers.” Chennault, the unit’s founder, is humorously quoted in his memoirs as saying, “How the term Flying Tigers was derived from the shark-nosed P-40s I never will know. At any rate we were somewhat surprised to find ourselves billed under that name.”

The unit’s insignia, depicting a winged tiger flying out of a V for victory, was designed by none other than the Walt Disney Company.

Returning Home Heroes

Despite their best efforts, the Flying Tigers were fighting a war of attrition. For every fighter they destroyed in the air, an enemy bomber successfully destroyed runways or irreplaceable grounded aircraft. They were also starved for parts and standard equipment, like aircraft radios, bomb racks or external fuel tanks—vital for extending an aircraft’s range. Combined with the lack of a supply chain and overwhelming enemy numbers, the Flying Tigers were continuously forced to give up ground.

By June of 1942, with the Burma campaign lost, and replacement personnel trickling in, the Flying Tigers were nearing their end. After six months of near constant fighting and retreat, the AVG pilots had earned their rest. On July 4, 1942, after having successfully downed four enemy aircraft for zero losses on that day, the Fighting Tigers were officially disbanded. In their time with the Chinese air force, twenty-three pilots made ace, while a further six earned the famed double ace.

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