Before appeasement at Munich, before the invasion of Poland, before Dunkirk, and before the attack on Pearl Harbor, one American man was already fighting in World War II. That man’s name was Claire Chennault. His story, and that of his American Volunteer Group (AVG), is the subject of The Flying Tigers: The Untold Story of the American Pilots Who Waged a Secret War Against Japan, a fascinating new book by historian Sam Kleiner about the eponymous pilots.
The Flying Tigers, formally the AVG, recruited members mostly from the American Navy, Marines, and Army. Their covert actions began eight months before Pearl Harbor, and were authorized by President Franklin Roosevelt without the knowledge of the isolationist Congress. These men wanted to fight, to see the world, and to be paid well to do it.
So they resigned from the military, left their bases, and were contracted under the authority of the Chinese government to battle Imperial Japan. Readers unfamiliar with the group may recall the iconic images of their P-40 Tomahawk fighter planes, purchased by the Chinese through a third-party corporation, whose noses the airmen painted with shark teeth and eyes.
Sent halfway around the world, these roughly 100 pilots and their ground crew flagrantly violated their country’s official neutrality and trained in Burma during the second half of 1941. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, they were perfectly positioned to enter combat, to keep China in the fight against Japan, and to ensure that America’s enemy could not focus all of its might on a shaken and unready United States.
The group’s origins can be traced back to December 1936. At that time, China’s premier couple, Chiang Kai-Shek and Madame Chiang, sought an American to build and train the faltering Chinese Air Force. They found Claire Chennault, an army pilot from Louisiana with a stalled career who made a name for himself developing concepts for aerial acrobats. Upon receiving their invitation, Chennault resigned from the army and left his family behind for “a great adventure.”
That sense of adventure pervades Kleiner’s account of the years to come. He provides details of how Chennault attempted to train the Chinese Air Force and of Japanese brutality as they bombed and conquered Chinese city after Chinese city, pushing the Chennault and the Nationalist Chinese government deep into the interior of the country. After these defeats, Chiang and Chennault realized that they needed American planes and American pilots to keep Japan at bay. So Chennault joined Chiang’s brother-in-law, T.V. Soong, in Washington in 1940 to lobby the Roosevelt administration for secret relief.
T.V. Soong’s sister, Madame Chiang, emerges as one of the most fascinating figures from the period. She was the force behind Chennault’s early efforts. A Christian educated in Georgia, she spoke English fluently and with a southern accent. Indeed, Kleiner shows that Madame Chiang considered herself something of an American, recounting an amazing story of how, when asked by a teacher to explain Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s march to the sea during the Civil War, Madame Chiang replied, “Pardon me, I am a southerner, and that subject is very painful to me.” She even used colloquial phrases like “I reckon so” and described the United States as China’s “sister republic.”
She returns later in the book for a wild tale about a possible tryst with Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican candidate for president whom Roosevelt sent to the Far East on a nonpartisan mission to signal American engagement in international affairs.
The Flying Tigers is enriched by details taken from news articles, memoirs, interviews, and the letters and diaries of the Tigers themselves. Readers root for figures like pilots like David Lee “Tex” Hill, John “Scarsdale Jack” Newkirk, and Greg Boyington. When the romance between pilot John Petach and AVG nurse Emma Jane Foster ends in Petach’s death during a dive-bombing run, it’s impossible not to feel for two people who fell in love far from home fighting for a country that was not their own.
The Flying Tigers took to the skies against the Japanese Air Force for seven months, until July 1942. They played a crucial role in protecting the Burma Road, the Nationalist Chinese government’s only access to the outside world. They repelled the Japanese advance on the interior of China. The breathless bulletins of their exploits provided a much-needed morale boost back at home.
A Towering Figure
Chennault is the towering figure that holds the story together. Kleiner describes him as a “legend,” and the wartime American public agreed. When Republic Pictures made a movie about the AVG during the war in 1942, they cast John Wayne in the starring role. Chennault arrived in China in 1937 and stayed until just before the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri in 1945, only visiting the United States a few times. After the war, he founded Civil Air Transport to send aid to Chiang Kai-Shek in his struggle against the communists and later to do supply runs to French Indochina.
Chennault left his wife and family and adopted the Chinese cause against Japan as his own. He died in 1958 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. One side of his tombstone is inscribed in English. The other is in Chinese.
There are many differences, but parallels exist between what Chennault did for China in World War II and what T.E. Lawrence did for the Great Arab Revolt in World War I. Remnants of both men’s efforts live on to this day. Chiang’s Kuomintang governed for decades in Taiwan, and exists now as an opposition party in a multi-party democracy. The remaining Hashemites from Prince Faisal’s family rule over the Kingdom of Jordan, an island of stability in a turbulent region.
Each man’s story is a reminder of what was once possible for relations between the West and two of the world’s oldest civilizations.