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1941 - Flying Tigers

China Service By 1936 it was not the policy of the US Government to encourage the export trade in arms, ammunition and implements of war, including aircraft. Such trade, however, when carried on in conformity with existing law and regulations, was entirely legitimate. Thus the State Department did not wish to acquiesce in any situation wherein goods of American manufacture, including aircraft and aircraft accessories, would be subject to discriminatory treatment.

German manufacturers had been exporting large quantities of arms and implements of war—particularly military planes—to Belgium whence they have been shipped on through bills of lading to Canton via Hong Kong, and that they have entered China without a huchao from the Central Government. French manufacturers have shipped to Canton or are proposing to ship to that city arms, ammunition and implements of war—including tanks and field guns—without securing a huchao from the Central Government.

Cantonese authorities entered into contracts with the German and French manufacturers referred to above rather than with British or American manufacturers, for the specific reason that the former would be able to make delivery of the articles contracted for without obliging the Cantonese authorities to obtain huchaos from the Central Government.

Under the new US regulations which became effective on 10 October 1939, no distinction was made on the basis of presumptive use in respect to aircraft engines and accessories, and that export licenses were now required to cover proposed shipments of all aircraft and aircraft engines and of certain specified parts. In respect to proposed shipments to China, licenses were not granted until the Department had been informed by him that the Chinese Government desired that the shipment be authorized; that this procedure would appear to conform entirely to the interests of the Chinese Government; and that it enabled the Chinese Government to exercise control over all importations of aircraft into China from this country.

Claire Chennault was a charismatic airpower theorist and a controversial leader who at times disagreed with official doctrine and his superiors. Chennault learned to fly in the Army after World War I, and became the U.S. Army Air Corps' chief of pursuit training in the 1930s. He believed strongly in the value of fighter aircraft, and his theory of "defensive pursuit" argued that fighters could destroy attacking bombers. Chennault openly disagreed with his superiors, who believed bombers would be unstoppable in future wars. By 1937 poor health and disputes with top commanders led Chennault to retire from the Army on 30 April 1937.

The next morning he sailed for China on a three-month contract to make a confidential survey of the Chinese Air Force (CAF). Chennault went to China shortly after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War to train pursuit units of the Chinese Air Force. He joined a small group of American civilians training Chinese airmen in their battle against Japan. At the beginning of September 1937, Chiang gave him responsibility for all operations of the Chinese Air Force.

By the autumn of 1940 Japanese advances had made the situation in China desperate. Chiang Kai-shek summoned Chennault and presented a plan to buy American airplanes and hire American pilots to fly them. Chiang’s brother-in-law, T.V.Soong, was already in Washington lobbying China’s friends.

Chennault put forward a plan to the War Department that called for 200 bombers and 300 fighters that would use China as a platform to bomb Japan. After Roosevelt’s reelection in November 1940, passage of the Lend-Lease Act in March 1941 made it possible for the US government to help China. Chennault helped persuade President Franklin Roosevelt to send American aircraft and volunteer pilots to assist China a few months before the United States was at war. In the summer of 1941 Chennault was made a brigadier general in the Chinese Air Force and put in charge of recruiting pursuit pilots for the American Volunteer Group.

The U.S. support was enabled by Madame Chiang’s brother, T. V. Soong, who approached Secretary of the U.S. Treasury Henry Morgenthau, and who in turn obtained President Franklin Roosevelt’s personal approval for funding the covert operation. To avoid violating U.S. neutrality at the time, volunteers from the Army, the Navy, and the Marine Corps were allowed to resign their commissions and fly as “employees” of the Chinese air force.

The 1st American Volunteer Group, commanded by Claire Chennault, began organizing and training pilots for the Chinese Air Force, shortly after the Japanese attacked the US at Pearl Harbor. During World War II, in the skies over Rangoon, Burma, a handful of American pilots met and bloodied the “Imperial Wild Eagles” of Japan and in turn won immortality as the Flying Tigers. One of America’s most famous combat forces, the Tigers were recruited to defend beleaguered China for $600 a month and a bounty of $500 for each Japanese plane they shot down—fantastic money in an era when a Manhattan hotel room cost three dollars a night.

While the US initially abstained from battle in the Twentieth Century's two greatest conflicts, the Lafayette Escadrille, Royal Air Force (RAF) Eagle Squadrons, and Flying Tigers served as all-American volunteer fighter units in foreign air forces. During World War I the Escadrille flew with the French and in World War II the Eagles signed on with the British while the Tigers fought alongside the Chinese. Their similarities, however, were only superficial, demonstrated particularly during their formation periods. Foreign need, bureaucratic resistance, and unit support highlighted the groups' efforts to gain foreign or American approval. The recruiting process differed in support, method, and volunteers' motivations and qualifications.

Publicity informed men of the Escadrille, and volunteers crossed the Atlantic predominately motivated by romantic idealism. Word of mouth carried the RAF recruiting drive and pilots desiring to fly Spitfire and Hurricane fighters flocked to the call. Hired Government recruiters enlisted the Tigers, and the trip to China was an opportunistic adventure to fulfill a military career, fly fighters, earn money, or see an enchanted land. In July 1941, having signed one-year contracts, 99 pilots and 186 ground support personnel sailed for China. Shortages of planes and pilots meant that Chiang only received 99 planes before December, 7, 1941. This postponed the allies plans to bomb Japan from late 1941 until the spring of 1942.

When the AVG was disbanded after the contracts ended on 4 July 1942, it had been in combat for less than seven months. In that time the AVG was credited with destroying 297 enemy aircraft in aerial combat and another 153 probably destroyed. On the ground, AVG pilots destroyed 200 enemy aircraft and great quantities of Japanese supplies and equipment. The pilots attributed their victories to the tactics that Chennault taught them. On July 4, 1942, the China Air Task Force (CATF) superceded the AVG. On March 10, 1943, the Fourteenth Air Force superceded the CATF.

Chennault's plan was to attack the Japanese with a small air force based in China. He vigorously advocated the use of incendiaries against Japanese cities -- not in tacit approval of Douhet's theory, but rather in a real appreciation gained from incendiaries' offensive destructive power observed first-hand as the Japanese burned the Chinese "paper" cities.

Chennault later wrote "My plan proposed to throw a small but well-equipped air force into China. Japan, like England, floated her lifeblood on the sea and could be defeated more easily by slashing her salty arteries than by stabbing for her heart. Air bases in Free China could put all of the vital Japanese supply lines and advanced staging areas under attack .... The first phase... [was] pounding the airfields, ports, staging areas, and shipping lanes where the Japanese were accumulating their military strength .... The second phase was... against the Japanese home islands, to burn out the industrial heart of the Empire with fire-bomb attacks on the teeming bamboo ant heaps of Honshu and Kyushu."

In the spring of 1944 when Chennault's offensive was logistically supported, the success of his aerial campaign precipitated the results that Stilwell predicted. Stilwell predicted that if Chennault's campaign against the Japanese LOCs was effective that the Japanese Army would strike to destroy Chennault's bases. Soon after the beginning of the Japanese INCHIGO campaign in April of 1944, Japanese Army rolled over the Chinese Army. The Fourteenth Air Force. limited by its means and China's great distances, was never able to strike at the heart of Japanese industry and war potential.

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Page last modified: 17-03-2021 18:02:59 ZULU