The Living Legacy of the Flying Tigers

August 1, 2021 marks the 80th anniversary of the establishment of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) of the Republic of China Air Force, more commonly known as the Flying Tigers. Under the leadership of Claire Lee Chennault, a retired captain of the United States Army Air Corps, the Flying Tigers shot down 229 Japanese aircraft in the air and destroyed an additional 68 on the ground during the group’s existence between August 1941 and July 1942. During the same time, only 14 AVG pilots were killed, captured, or missing in air combat against the Japanese Army Air Force. In addition, another six of them were killed in accidents and a pilot and a ground crewman were killed on the ground when Japanese bombers attacked their bases.

The Original Flying Tigers

The United States had not yet entered World War II when the Flying Tigers were founded. All 359 members of the AVG were recruited by the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO) based in Loiwing in China’s Yunnan province. That made all members of the AVG mercenaries who flew for the ROC Air Force. The White Sun and Blue Sky markings, the national emblem of the ROC, could be seen clearly on the wings of their Curtiss P-40 fighters.

The success they achieved boosted the morale of Free China and its Allies during the first six months of the war in Asia and the Pacific. At that time, the American, British, and Dutch forces were losing everywhere in Southeast Asia and the Central Pacific. The shark mouth markings along with the ROC emblem on the P-40s symbolized the final victory of Allies, which would arrive four years later.

I was lucky enough to attend one of the AVG reunions held in San Diego in 2003, when many of these heroes were still alive. As an aviation enthusiast, the experience of meeting and speaking to legendary WWII pilots like Tex Hill, Dick Rossi, and Peter Wright was incredible.

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I will never forget the day when Hill talked to me about his personal relationship with Chennault and Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek, as well as his post-war visits to Taiwan. He said he liked the P-51 Mustang, which he flew later as the commander of 23rd Fighter Group, better than the P-40 Tomahawk he flew when he was with the AVG. When I asked why, he answered that the P-51 outperformed the P-40. Hill also said that he went to Cihu Mausoleum every time when he visited Taiwan to show his respect to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the wartime leader of the Republic of China. He was a true friend of Taiwan who believed that one day all Chinese people can live under a democratic system.

Both Hill and Wright passed away in 2007, and Rossi in 2008. The death of Frank Losonsky, a crew chief in the AVG’s 3rd Squadron, on February 6, 2020, marked the passing of the last of the original members of the Flying Tigers. However, the influence of the Flying Tigers did not end with the induction of the American Volunteer Group into the United States Army Air Force in the summer of 1942. It did not end with the death of the last surviving Flying Tiger in 2020, either.

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The Americans and Early Chinese Aviation

The involvement of American aviators in Chinese aviation history began in the early 20th century. Fung Joe Guey (also known as Feng Ru), the first Chinese pilot and aircraft designer, was able to complete his first flight in Oakland, California in 1909 with financial support from the American public. In 1911, many Chinese American aviators, including Fung, returned to China to join Dr. Sun Yet-sen’s revolution. Young Sen-yat, one of those Chinese American pilots, became the director of the Aviation Bureau in 1923. It was considered the true beginning of the ROC Air Force.

After the Northern Expedition, Chiang Kai-shek began to expand his air force through purchasing U.S. aircraft and recruiting U.S. advisers. On February 22, 1932, Robert M. Short, a demonstration pilot from Tacoma, became the first American aviator to give up his life defending the sky of China from the Japanese invasion. During a ferry flight from Nanking to Hangzhou, Short witnessed the Mitsubishi B1M carrier-based bombers of the Imperial Japanese Navy dropping bombs on innocent Chinese civilians in the city of Soochow. He attacked one of the B1M bombers and killed its navigator in his Boeing 218 biplane. Short was then shot down and killed by the Japanese A1N2 carrier-based fighters deployed to escort the B1Ms. The ROC government awarded Short the honorary rank of colonel in the Chinese Air Force. A monument of Short was also erected at the entrance to the Hungjao aerodrome in Shanghai to commemorate this American hero.

More American advisors were recruited by Chiang Kai-shek after the establishment of the Chinese Aviation School at Hangzhou. Under the leadership of retired Major John H. Jouett, 17 American instructor pilots were hired to turn the Chinese Aviation School into a replica of the United States’ Randolph Field. They spent two years in the war-torn nation completing the training of 335 Chinese cadets using an American system similar to the one used at Randolph Field in Texas. With those 335 Chinese pilots and U.S. aircraft such as Curtiss Hawk II and Hawk III fighters, Northrop Grumman light bombers, and Martin 139WC bombers, the ROC Air Force was able to resist for three months after Japan launched its full invasion against China in the summer of 1937.

Chennault was the second American chief advisor Chiang Kai-shek hired to supervise the training of next-generation Chinese pilots. In his memoir, “Way of a Fighter,” Chennault said that he believed that sending Chinese Air Force cadets to the United States for training would not only improve their fighting skills in the air, but also spread the values of American democracy in China. A democratic China would not only be a friendly market for U.S. goods, but also a determined partner of the United States in protecting the Free World.

The ROC Air Force Becomes Fully Americanized

Chennault’s dream finally came to its realization when President Franklin D. Roosevelt added the ROC to the lend-lease program on May 6, 1941. Brigadier General Henry B. Clagett, the commander of the United States Army Air Corps in the Philippines, visited Chungking (known today as Chongqing, and the wartime capital of China during World War II) to survey the ROC Air Force. He suggested launching a training program for the ROC Air Force pilots in the United States. The program began on November, one month before the Pearl Harbor attack. The training program demonstrated that the Flying Tigers was only part of a larger U.S. plan to modernize the ROC Air Force.

With Chennault’s support, the United States trained the Chinese cadets to become both fighter and bomber pilots. It also marked the beginning of the training of Chinese fighter pilots at Luke Field in Maricopa County, Arizona. Senator Barry M. Goldwater, a lifelong friend of Free China, once served as the director of ground training at Luke Field. He was responsible for the training of the ROC Air Force cadets there. General Kuo Ju-lin, who later became the commander in chief of the ROC Air Force in Taiwan, was among the cadets whom then-Captain Goldwater worked with.

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After the AVG was taken over by the United States Army Air Forces in 1942 and became the 23rd Fighter Group, Chennault personally selected 12 cadets from the first batch of Luke Field’s Chinese graduates to join. Four Chinese pilots were sent to each of his fighter squadrons, the 74th, 75th, and 76th, to learn American combat tactics. Lt. Col. Chen Pin-chin, currently living in Hong Kong, is the last survivor of those 12 Chinese pilots who joined the 23rd FG in the summer of 1943. He can be considered one of the last Chinese Flying Tigers, since the 23rd FG is the direct successor of the Flying Tigers.

The Chinese pilots fought well enough with their American counterparts that Chennault decided to expand this effort into the Chinese American Composite Wing. By incorporating the ROCAF’s 1st Bomb Group, 3rd Fighter Group, and 5th Fighter Group into Claire Chennault’s 14th Air Force, more Chinese airmen could fight side by side with their American comrades. Major General Fred W. O. Chiao, who served as deputy commander of the 29th Squadron, 5th Fighter Group, explained that the CACW was a unique arrangement Chennault created to help familiarize the Chinese pilots and ground crews with the American system and equipment.

There had already been similar examples of Polish, Czech, and other pilots fighting under British command in the Royal Air Force. However, there was no example of the “dual-command” system in use in any air force before the creation of the CACW. Under this “dual-command” system, there would an American wing commander working together with a Chinese wing commander. This was repeated at the group and squadron level. This allowed the American commanders to lead Chinese pilots and Chinese commanders to lead American pilots in combat.

General Chiao, as deputy commander of the 29th Squadron, had an opportunity to lead both Chinese and American airmen escorting B-24 Liberators from the 308th Bomb Group against Japanese targets in occupied China. His unit had earned the Presidential Unit Citation for not losing a single bomber to the Japanese during those missions. Chiao later said that the best memory of his time with the CACW was not how many Japanese Ki-43 Oscars or Ki-44 Tojos were shot down by him or his airmen, but flying with the American pilots from both his 29th Squadron and the 75th Squadron of the 23rd FG as brothers-in-arms over the sky of central China.

After World War II, the ROC was defeated on the mainland by the Communist Party of China and forced to retreat to the island of Taiwan. With the lessons they learned from their American brothers and more advanced fighter jets such as F-86 Sabres, F-100 Super Sabres, and F-104 Starfighters provided by the United States, the ROC Air Force was able to control the sky over the Taiwan Straits for more than 50 years. As General Kuo said in his interview with Carl Molesworth, “Today, all the CAF units… glorify their tradition, spirit of loyalty, and bravery and the adventurous morale shown in the period of the CACW, and they stick firmly to the democracy camp to curb the expansion of Communism.”

Kuo was right. All three units incorporated into the CACW during WWII still exist today in Taiwan. They are the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing, equipped with the indigenous AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-kuo fighters, based in Tainan; the 3rd Tactical Fighter Wing, equipped with the F-CK-1s, based in Ching Chuan Kang Air Base, Taichung; and the 5th Tactical Composite Wing, equipped with the U.S.-built F-16 fighters, based in Hualian. Taiwan began to send its F-16 pilots to be trained at Luke Air Force Base again beginning in 1996, continuing the legacy of the wartime cooperation between the two air forces.

In a future conflict with the PLA Air Force from mainland China, it may not be necessary for U.S. pilots to come to Taiwan to fly for the ROC Air Force again as the Flying Tigers did 80 years ago. However, it is still very important for ROC Air Force pilots to acquire knowledge and training from the United States like their CACW predecessors. As more ROC F-16 pilots from Luke Air Force Base fly over Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, the brotherhood and comradeship of the aviators from both nations should be remembered by future generations in Taiwan and the United States as well.