Monday, May 12, 2008

Last of the Tigers

A P-40 with the "shark" nose of the Flying Tigers and the 12-point sun of the Nationalist Chinese government (Wikipedia photo).

There was a military reunion last Friday at Lackland AFB in San Antonio. But it was anything but your typical gathering of veterans and their family members. In fact, the reunion may be the last of its kind, since it brought together the last surviving members of the American Volunteer Group (AVG), the famed "Flying Tigers" who fought in China during the early days of World War II.

Only eight members of the unit made it to the San Antonio event--roughly half of the 19 Flying Tigers who still survive. Time has already claimed most of the group's most famous members, including double ace David "Tex" Hill, who passed away in 2007, and Richard "Dick" Rossi, who died last month at the age of 92. Mr. Rossi, who was credited with six aerial victories in World War II, did much to preserve the heritage of his unit, serving as President of the Flying Tigers Association for 50 years.

The seven men and one woman honored at Lackland last Friday represent more than 300 who sailed for the Far East in the fall of 1941. While war clouds gathered in the Pacific, the U.S. had not entered combat. The future Tigers went as volunteers, fighting for Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Chinese government. They were promised salaries well above those of the U.S. military and for the pilots, a bonus for each Japanese plane they shot down.

"We're the last of the Mohicans," said Chuck Baisden, who joined the group as a 21-year-old armorer. Today, 67 years later, he is the second-youngest alumnus of the Flying Tigers. "That's the way it is," he told the San Antonio Express-News. You come and you go.

Mr. Baisden's job was loading ammunition into the machine-guns of the P-40 Warhawks flown by the group's pilots. Today, only four of the men who flew those warbirds are still living, and only one of them attended last week's reunion.

But, as their numbers dwindle, the Flying Tigers' wartime record provides an enduring legacy. At a time when the Japanese seemed unstoppable, AVG pilots decimated enemy bomber and fighter formations, racking up an impressive 15-1 kill ratio. By some accounts, the Flying Tigers shot down as many as 296 Japanese aircraft, though some historians believe the total may be considerably lower.

More remarkably, the Tigers earned their reputation in an aircraft--the venerable Warhawk--that was ill-suited for dog-fighting against more maneuverable Japanese aircraft. But the group's legendary commander, Claire Chennault, understood the P-40's limitations, and adopted tactics that emphasized its advantages in speed and armament.

Like his men, Chennault was also a volunteer. He resigned from the Army Air Corps in 1937, after battling superiors on the issue of pursuit, or fighter aviation. As an instructor at the Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS), Chennault was one of the few that challenged the "holy grail" of that era--an unshakable belief that bomber formations could always reach their target.

Chennault vehemently disagreed. He believed that well-coordinated air defenses, including fighter planes, could shoot down enough bombers to render their attacks ineffective, or unsustainable.

As an air adviser to Chiang Kai-shek, Chennault got a chance to prove his theory. But his initial attempts at organizing a Chinese air force met with mixed results and the withdrawal of Soviet mercenary units (in 1940) created an urgent need for skilled pilots and ground crews. Chennault returned to the United States and rounded up 300 volunteers, who formed the initial cadre of the AVG.

After a brief training period in Burma, the Flying Tigers entered combat just two weeks after Pearl Harbor, protecting the vital "Burma Road" from enemy air attack. Though badly out-numbered, Chennault's squadrons made the Japanese pay dearly for their advance into Burma and southern China, shooting down scores of enemy fighters and bombers. The volunteer unit remained in combat into the summer of 1942, when it was absorbed by the U.S. Army Air Force and designated the 23rd Fighter Group.

While many of the Tigers had previously served with the Army, Navy or Marine Corps, only five officers and 19 enlisted men elected to join the new group, disgusted by the "strong-arm" tactics of the Army general sent to recruit them. Chennault, who was promoted to Brigadier General, retained his position as commander. Tex Hill stayed on as well, serving as a squadron commander.

But most of the AVG pilots turned down a chance to join the 23rd. Some went to work as transport pilots, flying vital supplies "across The Hump" from India; others transitioned to civilian jobs back in the U.S., or rejoined the military and served with other units.

Along with its remaining aircraft and equipment, the newly-formed 23rd Fighter Group inherited something else from the Flying Tigers--the famous "shark mouth" painted on the nose of each aircraft. Today, the unit's A-10 attack jets (based at Moody AFB, Georgia), are the only Air Force aircraft authorized to carry that famous marking.

One of the 23rd's A-10s recently logged its 9,000th flying hour, becoming the most travelled fighter aircraft in Air Force history. It's part of the proud history of the group--a history that began with the AVG and the veterans recognized last Friday in San Antonio.


Corsair, The Mostly Harmless said...

I was saddened by the death of General Hill. While in Graduate School, I included as part og my Master's Theisis a section on one of the Tigers, Bert Christman. After corresponding briefly with Erik Schilling, he directed me to contact Gen Hill and Ed Rector for more information about Bert. Rector was quite ill at the time, and did not respond. Some time passed, and out of the blue I received the most beautiful hand written letter about Bert from Gen. Hill. It arrived too late for any inclusion in my research, but remains one of my most treasured items from the experience.

Unknown said...

Corsair--Tex Hill was a legend in the best sense of that word. I never had the privilege of meeting General Hill, but I know a few folks from Texas who knew him casually. They describe him in similar terms--a kind, generous man who was also a great leader.

BTW, I assume you've read Daniel Ford's book on the Flying Tigers. Easily one of the best accounts of the AVG and Gen Chennault.

Corsair, The Mostly Harmless said...


Nope, haven't read that one. On the way from Amazon at this time. Thanks for the tip!