The First American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force, nicknamed “The Flying Tigers,” flew combat missions in the Chinese-Burma-India theater of World War II against the invading military forces of Imperial Japan from December 20, 1941 until July 4, 1942. The Flying Tigers were composed of American pilots and technicians volunteering from the United States Army Air Corps, Navy, and Marine Corps and received financial support from the Republic of China. Claire Lee Chennault, a native of Commerce, Texas,, organized and commanded the First American Volunteer Group. The Flying Tigers volunteers earned international acclaim for their impressive combat record and contribution to the Chinese victory in the Second Sino-Japanese War. Texans serving in the Flying Tigers include Claire Lee Chennault, Charles Rankin Bond, Jr., David Lee [Tex] Hill, Paul J. Green, Mathew W. Kuykendall, Neil Martin, and Robert W. Prescott.
In May 1937, the Republic of China hired Claire Lee Chennault, a retired Captain of the U.S. Army Air Corps, pilot instructor, and author of the fighter-plane tactical manual The Role of Defensive Pursuit as a consultant for the Chinese Air Force. After fighting erupted between Chinese and Japanese troops near the Marco Polo Bridge near Peking, China, on July 7, 1937, Chennault took on a new role for the Republic of China as the de facto commander of the Chinese Air Force while retaining the official position of a consultant. Finding the existing equipment, pilots, and infrastructure of the Chinese Air Force inadequate to defeat the invading Japanese forces, Chennault returned to the United States with General Chiang Kai-shek’s approval to acquire planes, pilots, technicians, and materials in October 1940. Chennault received permission from the United States military to recruit and purchase the necessary personnel and materials, which began arriving in China in June 1941. Chennault spent the next six months training the volunteers and by December 7, 1941, the American Volunteer Group had nearly eighty pilots and sixty-two combat ready Curtiss P-40 fighters.
The Flying Tigers flew combat missions from December 20, 1941, until July 4, 1942, delaying the advance of Japanese forces throughout Southeast China and Burma. On May 7, 1942, the Flying Tigers launched a four-day assault against Japanese forces attempting to cross the Salween River Gorge. Their efforts were instrumental in preventing the Japanese from invading China from the west and India from the east. The Flying Tigers used innovative fighter tactics that emphasized the superior armament and speed of the Curtiss P-40 and improvised early warning systems, which included ground operatives radioing plane sightings to Chennault that alerted the Flying Tigers to inbound Japanese air attacks. Outnumbered in nearly every engagement, the Flying Tigers earned an extraordinary combat record of destroying an estimated 115 Japanese aircraft in combat and another estimated 300 destroyed on the ground while losing only 12 planes in combat and 61 planes on the ground. On July 4, 1942, the First American Volunteer Group was absorbed into the United States Army Air Forces as the 23rd Fighter Group. Many of the volunteers transferred back to their former assignments in different branches of the military. Claire Chennault rejoined the United States Army as a general and commanded the former Flying Tigers who joined the 23rd Fighter Group until his retirement on July 8, 1945.
The achievements of the Flying Tigers raised the morale of Allied Forces in the Pacific Theater of World War. The Flying Tigers have been remembered and often celebrated in popular culture in films such as John Wayne’s Flying Tigers, monographs, museums and memorials both in the United States and internationally. Most recently, the Flying Tigers have been honored in Commerce, Texas, the native city of their commander, by the christening of State Highway 24 as the “Flying Tiger Memorial Highway” and by the installation of a historical marker, translating one placed in 1968, written in two forms of Mandarin at the birthplace of Claire Chennault.