Stories of American Heroes - Brought to you from the "Home of Heroes" - Pueblo, Colorado
World War II
Major Truman Landon squinted his tired eyes against the early morning brilliance. Through the cockpit window of his B-17 he scanned the southern horizon; at last making out the distinctive shape of Diamond Head in the distance. It was nearly 8:00 a.m. and he and his crew were finally approaching Honolulu's Hickam Field.
Major Landon commanded the 38th Reconnaissance Squadron, a dozen B-17s recently assigned duty in the Philippine Islands. His planes had departed Hamilton Field near San Francisco in 15-minute intervals beginning around 8:00 p.m. on Saturday night. To conserve fuel for the long 14-hour flight to Hawaii, the first leg of the trip, the planes navigated separately rather than flying in formation. To further conserve fuel all unnecessary items were stripped from the aircraft. Though the B-17s were equipped with the normal compliment of big machineguns, they carried no ammunition. America was at peace, despite the potential for a looming conflict with Japan in the South Pacific. Major Landon's men planned to pick up ammunition when they landed at Oahu, and before continuing to the Philippine Islands.
Ahead of Landon was the B-17 piloted by Captain R.T. Swenson. It had been the second plane to take off from Hamilton Field the previous evening, was now rounding Diamond Head and preparing to land at Hickam. Second Lieutenant Ernest Reid, the co-pilot, was anxious to be on the ground. The whole crew was badly in need of a brief rest after the long flight, and all were looking forward to an afternoon on the sunny beaches of Waikiki. First Lieutenant William Schick, the flight surgeon, watched the big island spread out below him from his passenger seat in the aircraft. Second Lieutenant H. R. Taylor, the navigator, was snapping photographs, though he was somewhat mystified by the early morning fireworks he saw in the distance.
Gazing across the large Hawaiian coast line from his own high-altitude perspective behind Captain Swenson, Major Landon noticed a group of nine airplanes flying north. At first he thought it was a reception committee, airborne to greet his Flying Fortresses and escort them to Hickam Field. His pleasant thoughts were shattered in a sudden burst of machinegun fire as the nine planes flashed past him on their way back to their distant aircraft carrier. The red circles of the Empire of Japan glowed brilliantly under the morning sun. Quickly Landon pulled up into the clouds to escape pursuit.
In the lead plane, Lieutenant Taylor saw the fireworks loom closer and closer in the aperture of his camera. Henderson field was now in view and shrouded in smoke. Captain Swenson assumed the locals were burning sugarcane. He was still unaware of the battle that raged below. The landing gear was lowered and his B-17 dropped to 600 feet for final approach before the crew got a good look at the airfield, now fully under attack. Japanese Zeroes zoomed in to rake the inbound Flying Fortress with a stream of tracers. It was too late to pull up and abort, so the pilot steeled himself against the looming inferno and stayed on course.
To the rear Lieutenant Schick cried out, "Damn it! Those are real bullets they're shooting. I'm hit in the leg." Smoke filled the cockpit as the B-17b dropped earthward, and then hit hard on what was left of the runway. The big bomber broke completely in half. In that moment Captain Swenson's B-17 gained the dubious distinction of being the first American airplane to be shot down in World War II; and Lieutenant Schick became the first American airman killed in the air in an American airplane.
From his position in the clouds above Oahu, Major Landon had few options left. His own B-17 was running low on fuel and there was no place to run. Speaking into his radio he requested landing information from the tower below. Almost calmly the voice at the other end provided instructions: wind direction, velocity, direction of approach and the runway on which to land. "Be advised," the radio operator continued, "we are under attack by unidentified air planes."
With no other options remaining, Major Landon nosed forward towards the pall of smoke and the rain of fire below him, while enemy dive bombers and torpedo planes continued to flash across the skies. Years later actor Norman Alden would portray Landon in that moment of horror in the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! The cinematic version of events may well have captured the true thoughts of Major Landon as he headed earthward in a desperate gamble to save his airplane....
"Damn it! What a way to fly into a war--
unarmed and out of gas!"
Born For Battle
The United States Air Force was born in August 1907, less than four years after the Wright brothers' historic flight at Kitty Hawk, though it would be four decades before it would achieve that name or mature to full autonomy. Indeed, in 1907 it was known simply as the Aeronautical Division of the Army Signal Corps, an adjunct to the military specialty charged with communications and observation. It was in fact, two years from that moment of birth before the Aeronautical Division even obtained its first airplane, delivered on August 2, 1909. On July 18, 1914, the loosely-organized element received its first definite status when it was named the Signal Corps Aviation Section with one flying unit, the 1st Aero Squadron (12 officers, 54 enlisted men, and 6 airplanes).
In August 1917 General John J. Pershing created an independent U.S. Army Air Service to compliment the combat efforts of his American Expeditionary Force in France. The term Service in the title illustrates the prevailing opinion of military aviation at the beginning of World War I; that airplanes best served in roles of observation and communication, not necessarily combat.
With the organization of pursuit squadrons (fighter pilots) early in 1918, the Army's new support service began demonstrating vividly that it could accomplish far more than observation and communication. On April 24 of that first year of combat the Aviation Section was separated from its parent Signal Corps and renamed the American Air Service.
If the two decades of turbulent Air Service growth following World War I are reminiscent of an adolescent youth in search of identity, it is no wonder. The fledgling youngster's own parent organizations, whether Army or Navy, had already shown their own confusion about this new offspring by its own inability to ascribe either a name or a role.
The exploits of American Air Service aviators in World War I did not go unnoticed following the Armistice. Through the National Defense Act of 1920 the Army Air Service became a full combatant arm, though still restrained by the guardianship of its parent, the U.S. Army. The two decades of maturing that followed were marked by two distinct efforts.
The first of these was typical of adolescence, testing of the limits of authority in the quest for freedom and autonomy. The Army vigorously tried to restrain its upstart child, demanding obedience and conformity to the traditional modus operandi. Airmen were generally quick to decry the oppressive authority, even to the point of near rebellion. Men like Henry Arnold and Benjamin Foulois in the Army, or Admirals William Sims and William Moffett for the Navy, skirted the borders of parental authority in their efforts to gain the attention they believe air power deserved. Others, like General Billy Mitchell, crossed that border and received stern and swift retribution.
The second major element of the maturing process centered on the internal search for identity--a definition of the role of the Air Service in the greater scheme of the military establishment. It led to much soul-searching, inner turmoil, and even some self-destructive behavior. Much of that came out of the Air Service's own training grounds.
On February 10, 1921 the Air Service School at Langley Field in Virginia was renamed the Air Service Field Officers' School, dedicated to "preparing senior officers for higher Air Service command duty." The following year the school was opened to ALL Air Service officers. It was here that theories of aerial tactics were taught--and debated.
When the Air Service was renamed the U.S. Army Air Corps under a 1926 Act of Congress, it gained a limited freedom that some hoped would mute the cries for an air arm independent of, and co-equal with, the U.S. Army. The name change was made to strengthen "the conception of military aviation as an offensive, striking arm rather than an auxiliary service." The act further provided for a new Assistant Secretary of War for Air, subservient to the Secretary of War (at that time the role was equivalent to that of the current Secretary of the Army.)
It was hoped that this would be a suitable compromise. The Air Corps was still under the Army but had a high-level commander nearly equal to that of the Army's top commander. The air school at Langley Field was renamed the Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS), and became the proving ground for the future of the Air Corps. Here the maturing process entered its next phase--an internal struggle.
Bombs vs. Bullets
Contrary to common belief, the first offensive combat actions engaged by airmen in the skies were not dogfights pitting two pilots against each other. On November 1, 1911 Italian pilots flying observation missions in the Italo-Turkish War dropped bombs over North Africa. Not until three years later when British and French airmen took to the skies against German pilots in World War I, did the concept of aerial combat emerge. Bombing campaigns continued throughout the Great War, greatly heightened and highly effective especially in the closing months of 1918. But the more flamboyant activities of the pursuit (fighter) pilots captured more attention, and they became the darlings of the public.
At ACTS however, concepts of strategic bombing quickly emerged as a primary role for the men of the Air Corps. The well-known and respected (at least among airmen) General Mitchell had demonstrated the power of aerial bombardment in numerous tests, including his famous sinking of the Ostfriesland. Many of the school's early instructors were advocates of strategic bombing as the means to defeat an enemy, among them William Sherman who wrote one of the earliest manuals titled Air Warfare, published in 1926.
The Bomber-Mafia controlled much of the ACTS curricula, provided the bulk of its lecture and learning, and set the tone for air operations in future wars. As air theory emerged at ACTS, some of the most important years in its development was the period from 1929 to 1935. During five of those six years Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Walker was a key instructor and a powerful advocate for strategic bombing. "The well-organized, well-planned, and well-flown air force (bombing) attack will constitute an offensive that cannot be stopped," he proclaimed again and again. During those important years in Air Corps development, Walker may well have been one of the most influential men in the maturing process.
That is not to say that the thinking at ACTS was clearly aligned with the bomber-mafia. The concept of pursuit attack had its own share of advocates, some of them quite vocal to the point of creating a rift severe enough to cause Walker to pen a letter in 1933 to Hap Arnold. In it he suggested allowing every officer to fly any type of plane they wanted (bomber or pursuit) in order to learn the minor tactics of each. "Where," he asked, "is the place for this fetish of overspecialization...any step that we may take to eliminate internal prejudice is worthwhile and practical."
Ultimately, almost every concept of victory through strategic bombing can be traced back to World War I and the concepts of Italian General Giulio Douhet. Walker built upon those, refined them, and might certainly be considered the father of strategic bombing for the American Air Corps. He was without doubt, one of strategic bombings greatest advocates. For the most part however, at ACTS, he was preaching to the choir.
If Lieutenant Colonel Walker was indeed preaching to the choir, the ACTS student who arrived at Langley in 1930 was no choirboy! Claire L. Chennault was a pursuit pilot with a reputation for being among the very best. He was also a fighter. He may, in fact, have almost become the antidote to Kenneth Walker, had not the bomber-mafia held such a firm grip on ACTS.
From 1930 until Kenneth Walker lefts ACTS for the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the two men clashed again and again in their opposing doctrines for air power. Each was dedicated in his beliefs, blunt and vehement in verbal defense, and determined to prove his point. ACTS students of the period later admitted that both students and staff may have provoked the two from time to time for the sheer entertainment of their battles.
By 1937 Captain Chennault realized that the predominant thinking in the Air Corps was aligned against him and his emphasis on pursuit as opposed to strategic bombing. He resigned his Air Corps commission and soon thereafter, departed for China.
The official status of Claire Chennault in China from 1937 until he returned to duty with the United States Army Air Force in 1942 has never been satisfactorily explained. He went to China at the request of Madame Chang Kai-shek who was charged with the Aeronautical Commission of China for organizing its own air force. The Japanese opened the floodgates to what would become World War II when they invaded China's northernmost province of Manchuria in 1931, establishing the vassal state of Manchuko. In 1937 they launched an all-out attack on China itself. To civilian advisor Claire Chennault fell the task of building a Chinese air force to defend the mainland.
During this period, and even in the years that followed as he built and commanded the American Volunteer Group (AVG), Chennault had no rank other than "Captain, U.S. Army Air Corps (Retired)". His official title was "Adviser to the Central Bank of China." The combative street-fighter's passport listed his occupation as "farmer".
By 1938 the Japanese controlled most of China's coastline and Chennault's efforts and expertise became critical to the defense of China. The Japanese invaders followed their early victories with an intense series of bombing raids, all the while denying their nation was was at war. (Ironically, this denial excused President Roosevelt from invoking the Neutrality Acts that would have prohibited the United States from providing arms to China--including aircraft for Claire Chennault.)
In many ways, World War II was not a sequel to the earlier war...but a repeat. It began in much the same manner, only this time on two continents.
While the Japanese were launching their attack on China, Germany and Italy were unleashing their own wars of expansion in Europe. On March 13, 1938 German soldiers invaded Austria. In September, prospects of a second world war were temporarily averted when France and Britain met with representatives of Germany and Italy and agreed to the partition of Czechoslovakia. The following year on September 1, Germany launched its blitzkrieg against Poland. Two days later Britain and France declared war.
In April 1940 Germany launched an all-out attack, taking Denmark in a 24-hour bloodless occupation and simultaneously invading Norway. The blitzkrieg continued with the May 10 invasions of Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg, trapping thousands of British and French troops who rushed to the defense of Belgium. On June 10 Italy's Benito Mussolini declared war on the already battered British and French forces, and four days later German troops marched into and occupied Paris. The battle for France ended on June 22 when the government under Marshal Henri Philippe Petain signed an armistice that granted Germany control over three-fifths of their nation.
Through out the period the people of the United States, weary of war and struggling to rebuild after the devastating depression of the early 30s, sought to remain neutral. In 1939, nine out of ten Americans opposed U.S. intervention in the wars that were being fought in Europe and Asia. Indeed, due its large number of German immigrants, a large segment of American society even wondered which of the two sides at war in Europe to cheer for. The cries for non-intervention, the protestations for peace, and the attitude of isolationism were almost identical to the early years of the first world war. But the similarities did not end there.
In the first three years of World War I, while the United States proclaimed its neutrality, a dedicated group of Americans rose to the defense of England and France. Many were young pilots who flew with the British Royal Air Force. Others flew with the French, creating the legendary Lafayette Escadrille.
By the fall of 1940 Hitler controlled most of the European continent--opposed now only by a small French resistance under General Charles de Gaulle, and the determined people of Great Britain. Free China had nearly succumbed to the Japanese onslaught, and what defense remained was under constant and deadly bombardment. In that dark moment, while Hitler was unleashing his wrath on the only nation still standing against him in the historic and valiant Battle of Britain, Claire Chennault returned to the United States with a preposterous proposal. If the United States would not enter the war, would it at least provide him with planes and pilots to halt the aggression in China.
In the tradition of the Lafayette Escadrille of World War I, a new group of airmen was born...an all volunteer group, willing to risk their lives in the defense of foreign nations.
Some were officially called the American Volunteer Group....
They ALL became legendary as:
EAGLES & TIGERS!
When Chennault came to the United States seeking aircraft and volunteer American airmen to turn back the tide of Japanese bombers over China, he met with stiff opposition. After the fall of Paris in June 1940, the United States moved from a position of neutrality to one of non-belligerency and President Roosevelt told the nation:
"We are convinced that military and naval victory for the gods of force and hate (Axis) would endanger the institutions of democracy in the Western world, and that equally, therefore, the whole of our sympathies lie with those nations that are giving their life blood in combat against those forces."
Even with that proclamation the United States, while indirectly taking sides in the war, avoided any direct involvement. The exceptions were young Americans with flying experience who left the U.S. to join the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) or the British RAF.
In August Hitler unleashed the Battle of Britain, bombarding the Island with wave after wave of nearly 3,000 first-line aircraft. The RAF struggled to repulse the bombing attacks with fewer than 1,500 airplanes. Though British pilots in Spitfires and Hurricanes downed 53 German planes in the first day of the Battle of Britain, Field Marshal Hermann Goering's juggernaut seemed unstoppable, if only for the sheer advantage of numbers.
As British civilians refused to bow, the RAF pilots flew constantly and suffered great losses. Prime Minister Winston Churchill paid tribute to these pilots in an August 20 speech to the House of Commons where he proclaimed:
"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
Four days before that now-famous speech, Pilot Officer William Billy Fiske's airplane was badly damaged in aerial combat in defense of Britain. Nursing his crippled craft back to the airstrip he made an emergency landing as enemy machinegun fire continued to rake his plane. While the pilot was trying desperately to escape, it burst into flames. The following day, August 17, 1940, Billy Fiske died of his wounds. He was one of those "few" to whom Churchill referred. He was also an American.
In fact, seven Americans flew with the RAF during the Battle of Britain. They were young men who left behind the nation of their birth and, without authority, assumed the uniform and flag of a foreign friend. Six of the seven died, but they left behind a legacy soon to be adopted by a new group of American pilots.
The Eagle Squadrons are often erroneously lumped together with the AVG (American Volunteer Group.) In truth they predated the formation of the AVG by six months and served without authority. When at last Claire Chennault obtained presidential authority to recruit for his AVG in the spring of 1941, Eagle Squadrons were already serving in Europe and building an enviable combat record. Their service predated any presidential approval, hence their service was wholly unsanctioned. Some volunteers were even tracked and arrested by the F.B.I. when they made their way to Canada or England, to offer their services in the defense of Britain.
They came for a variety of reasons, not all of them patriotic or exemplary. Some were men with civilian flight experience who could not meet the physical or educational requirements to join the U.S. Army Air Corps. They wanted to fly and joined for adventure and opportunity; which the RAF was quick to supply. Some came to escape problems at home, or to see the world, or to prove something to themselves. Whatever their motivation for joining, ultimately they all fell in love with the people of Britain and rose to their defense with a patriotic fervor.
The admiration was mutual. These were men who risked their American citizenship to fly for Britain during some of its darkest hours. The Brits welcomed them in a fashion never again matched during the war. Members of the Eagle Squadrons could not buy a drink in any pub, the place where they spent the majority of their non-flying hours...the drinks were "on the house". Young ladies flocked to the dashing young American pilots who seemed more to be knights from the past, returned to defend the crown. But for the ever present threat of sudden death in the clouds, it was certainly a life of fun, frolic and adventure.
The pilots themselves wore RAF uniforms with the wings of the Royal Air Force. Initially, each of what would eventually constitute three Eagle Squadrons, was commanded by an RAF officer. The one link to their American heritage was the patch each man wore bearing the American Eagle with the letters "E.S." embroidered at the top.
The first Eagle Squadron was formed on September 19, 1940, as part of the RAF's Fighter Command. The squadron traced its lineage back to World War I when it had been formed from a draft of Australian pilots, subsequently designated No. 4 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps until it was disbanded in 1918. The rebirth of the squadron with a small group of American pilots in 1940 gave the United States some of its most colorful heroes.
The men of the squadron trained throughout the fall and early winter. In January 1941 the squadron received Hurricanes to replace the hated Brewster Buffalos, and these American pilots began flying operational escort patrols in the North Sea.
Meanwhile back in the United States, an unauthorized recruitment drive was under way to gain additional pilots for the RAF. The program was launched by the great World War I Canadian Ace Billy Bishop, and coordinated through American aviation artist Clayton Knight. Thousands of young American men volunteered and many went on to serve in the RCAF or RAF. In all, however, only 244 Americans were privileged to join the ranks of the Eagle Squadrons. On May 14, 1941, the 121 Squadron was formed at Kirton-in-Linsey and began training.
On July 2 the combat-ready 71 Squadron flew its first major combat mission, escoring Blenheim bombers over Lille, France. More than two dozen ME-109s jumped the formation and a pitched battle ensued. Bill Hall became the first casualty, bailing out of his airplane to be subsequently captured on the ground. He spent the remainder of the war as a P.O.W.
That same day however, 71 Squadron scored its first victories...a "hat trick" by three different airmen, Bill Dunn, Gus Daymond and squadron leader Paddy Woodhouse. Four days later Daymond got his second confirmed kill and Bill Dunn got a probable (a victory later credited as 1/2 for Dunn who had teamed with a Polish pilot for the shoot down.)
Dunn got his second confirmed victory on July 21 but Daymond pulled ahead with a victory on August 3. For the remainder of the month there was fierce competition between the two pilots to see who would become the first American Ace. Dunn got number three on August 9.
On August 27 Bill Dunn flew escort again for a bombing mission to Lille, France. On that day he shot down two more ME 109s before his luck ran out:
"Just as I started to press the gun button again (after shooting down two enemy planes), my plane lurched sharply. I heard explosions. A ball of fire streamed through the cockpit, smashing into the instrument panel. There were two heavy blows against my right leg, and as my head snapped forward, I began to lose consciousness. My mind cleared again, and I realized that the earth was spinning up toward me. I tugged back on the control column and pulled into a gradual dive toward the English Channel, 50 miles away. I checked the plane for damage. The tip of the right wing was gone. The rudder had been badly damaged. The instruments on the right side of the panel were shattered. There was blood on the cockpit floor.
"When I looked at my right leg I saw that the toe of the boot had been shot off. My trouser leg was drenched with blood; I could feel the warm sticky fluid seeping from under my helmet to my neck and cheek. I gulped oxygen to fight off nausea. Releasing my shoulder harness, I started to climb out of the cockpit. For some reason I paused. The engine was still running all right, and the plane seemed to be flyable. I slick back into my seat; I would try to make it home."
Bill Dunn did indeed make it back to the landing strip, but it was his last mission as an Eagle. After recuperation he returned to the United States to train other pilots, but returned to Europe in 1944 to fly with the U.S. Army Air Force's 406th Fighter Group and claim three more enemy airplanes.
On September 4 Gus Daymond claimed his fourth victory. He became an ACE fifteen days later. For years American history books proclaimed Daymond to be the "First American Ace of World War II". Not until nearly three decades later, following a review of squadron records, did that title finally go to Bill Dunn.
In August 1941 while Dunn and Daymond were competing for the title "First Ace", 71 Squadron established a record as the leading squadron in the RAF. Meanwhile 121 Squadron began combat duty, mostly flying their older Huricane IIb's in sweep or escort duty. Aerial combat remained sparse throughout the fall and winter, though the squadron did claim a few victories. It was not until the summer and fall of 1942 that the 121 Squadron would see steady combat action. Still, by the time the unit was transferred to the United States Army Air Force on September 29, 1942, the pilots of 121 Squadron claimed a total of 18 confirmed victories.
Among the aces of the Eagle Squadrons was the 121 Squadron's Jackson Barrett Barry Mahon, a 20-year old Bakersfield, California volunteer who flew 98 combat missions and was credited with nine aerial victories. On August 19, 1942, all three Eagle Squadrons participated in Operation Jubilee, the invasion at Dieppe. It was the only mission in the history of the Eagle Squadrons in which all three units participated, combing to destroy 9 enemy airplanes with 4 more as probables, and 14 German airplanes damaged. Barry got two of them before he was shot down himself and taken prisoner.
Officially listed as "missing", the British Air Ministry awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross, noting in his citation that he was "an extremely skillful and confident pilot, whose courage, especially when attacking superior numbers of hostile aircraft, had been unsurpassed."
As a German prisoner, Barry was sent to Stalag Luft III, a special prison camp the Germans reserved for airmen. Barry's first escape was nearly successful, and he reached the Czech border before he was recaptured and placed in solitary confinement. When returned to the prison camp population, he escaped again, this time in 1943. Recaptured, he was back in the "cooler" when 76 of his comrades slipped out through tunnels in what would later be called "The Great Escape". But for his confinement at the time of the escape, Barry would have been among them. It was a stroke of fortune for the man who would later serve as a technical advisor during creation of a 1963 movie in which Steve McQueen would portray Barry's character. Of the 76 British airmen who escaped Stalag Luft III, only three reached Britain. Fifty of them were executed on orders from Adolph Hitler himself.
The last of the trio of Eagle Squadrons was formed at Coltishall on August 1, 1941. The squadron's one-year tour of service to the RAF was marked by both incredible valor and extreme tragedy. On October 8 the squadron moved to Eglinton, Ireland, to continue training and to fly routine convoy patrols over the North Atlantic. Bad weather marked the move and, while en route, four pilots were killed when their airplanes crashed into a mountain side. Within two weeks two more pilots were killed in accidents.
December 7, 1941
One of the great legends of the Eagle Squadrons was Chesley Pete Peterson, who became the first American commander of an RAF squadron. Years later upon recalling the service of the Yanks in the RAF he stated: "Six or seven of us volunteered together (for the Eagle Squadron) out of a sense of adventure, primarily. But everyone I knew in the group had a fairly deep innate sense of patriotism. We felt strongly that the United States was going to get into this war sooner or later, and we knew which side America would be on."
That moment came on December 7, 1941, with the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor and a Congressional declaration of war on the Empire of Japan the following day. Two days later the United States declared war on Italy and Germany as well. Now the conflict became even more personal for the men of the Eagle Squadrons.
Following the attack at Pearl Harbor, the Eagle Squadron pilots sent representatives to the American Embassy in London to offer the services of the most combat-experienced American pilots alive. Negotiations began between the U.S. Army Air Forces (re-named the U.S.A.A.F. on June 20, 1941) and the RAF, which was hesitant to loose the pilots in which it had invested so much time, training, and money.
That the process of reintegration of these American pilots into their own nation's air force would take ten months is understandable. It was several months after the declaration of war before an effective air force could be deployed for war service. There were additional complications to address as well. Eagle Squadron pilots wore RAF wings and many had never held any rank or served in the American military. It was finally decided that upon absorbing the three squadrons, the USAAF would grant each man a rank equal to his RAF rank, and award him the wings of a United States Army aviator.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1942 the Eagle Squadrons continued to operate under the RAF, flying constant missions, shooting down more and more enemy planes, and loosing more and more of their comrades. The August 19 mission at Dieppe was the last major action for both the 71 and 121 Squadrons. On September 26 the twelve pilots of 133 Squadron flew their last mission, an ill-fated escort near Morlaix. Returning home in a solid overcast, the Spitfires of the 133 Squadron ran out of fuel, eleven of them crashing along the shores of Brittany. The only pilot of the twelve to reach England crash-landed at Bolt Head. The squadron was totally wiped out.
On September 29, 1942, the three Eagle Squadrons were disbanded, and re-formed as the 334th, 335th, and 336th Fighter Squadrons of the Fourth Fighter Group, U.S. Eighth Air Force. In two years of service to the Royal Air Force the three squadrons were credited with a combined total of 73 enemy aircraft destroyed. Nearly 40% of the 244 American Eagles were either killed or captured while serving under the flag of Great Britain. After September 29 most of the survivors went on to continue their legacy of service and valor under the Stars and Strips of their own nation.
While the first Eagle Squadron was setting the pace for the two additional squadrons that would follow, back in the United States Claire Chennault was doing his best to obtain both aircraft and pilots to defend China against the Japanese invasion. It was a nearly impossible task, perhaps made even more difficult by the fact that the irascible Chennault had managed to make himself unpopular among most of the Air Corps leadership in earlier years.
Chennault did manage to finagle a deal for airplanes, thanks to one of his few friends Burdette Wright. The Vice-President of the Curtiss-Wright plant that had already made ample profit through its dealings with China, was busily turning out 100 P-40B fighters for the RAF. Six assembly lines were busily turning out the airplanes, originally ordered by France and then requisitioned by Britain after the fall of Paris. Wright offered to establish a seventh assembly line to turn out a newer version of the P-40 for the RAF, if they would trade off the older B-models for sale to China. The Brits jumped at the chance to get newer and more advanced fighters, leaving Chennault free to claim the older models.
Getting pilots to fly these airplanes was not so easy. Early in 1941 Chennault approached General Henry Hap Arnold with his idea for an all-volunteer American fighter group to help the Chinese. General Arnold was vehemently opposed, as was the Navy's Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, Rear Admiral Jack Towers.
Undeterred, Chennault went over both commanders' heads, taking his idea directly to the President. There, at last, he found an ally. On April 15, 1941, President Roosevelt issued an unpublished executive order authorizing airmen of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps to resign their commissions to join the new American Volunteer Group...the one and only AVG.
Recruitment began immediately at Army, Navy and Marine Corps air fields throughout the nation. Unlike the Knight Committee that recruited for the RAF from young fliers who were Air Corps cast-offs or rejects, the President's authorization allowed Chennault to pursue some of American military aviation's best and most experienced pilots. Nonetheless, in personality and character, those who opted to resign their commission to serve in China were generally much like the men of the Eagle Squadrons: young, independent, adventurous, and occasionally misfits in the structure of military life. One large difference was the pay.
Men of the Eagle Squadrons earned the same low pay as their RAF counterparts.
China offered AVG volunteers salaries ranging upwards of $500 per month, with bonuses of $500 for each Japanese airplane shot down.
Some Eagle Squadron pilots would later refer to Chennault's AVG as "mercenaries", and indeed many fliers joined simply for the pay. Recruiters touted patriotism and service when they scoured the bases, emboldened by letters signed by Hap Arnold (against his better judgment) and Secretary of War Knox. But for many, it was the pay and especially the $500 bonus for victories, that motivated those who joined. Referring to his own recruitment, Greg Boyington who went on to become one of the top Marine Corps aces of World War II, described his own recruitment by noting: "I didn't tell him (the recruiter) that he was hiring an officer who had a fatal gap between his income and accounts payable."
The "fight-for-pay" view of the AVG is really an unfair assessment of the men who racked up one of the greatest scores of aerial victories of World War II. While the pay was high for an airman in 1940, so to was the chance that he would never live to spend it. The risks were further heightened by the older airplanes the men were expected to fly--the P40B wasn't even equipped with a gun sight. Pilots were relegated to aiming their guns through crude, home-made ring-and-post gun sights. Though each volunteer signed volumes of paperwork, some of which included the promise of reinstatement in the Air Corps with no loss of rank in the event the United States entered the war, most of the men were unconvinced that the military would keep that promise. Indeed, most of the paperwork was designed not to protect the future of the volunteers, but to absolve the United States of any violation of neutrality because of the acts of these Americans.
The first group of airmen, all pilots, departed San Francisco under a shroud of secrecy on July 10, 1941. Additional recruits were scheduled to leave in the coming months, three groups in all that would bring the Group's strength to 100 pilots and about 200 ground personnel. Greg Boyington shipped out with the last group in the fall of 1941 and was greatly amused by the nature of his status--the AVG generally were identified on their passports as MISSIONARIES.
The first group began training in China in August, and was soon joined by other arrivals. Throughout the fall and winter of 1941 there were no combat missions--only training. Chennault drilled his theories of pursuit combat into his men, ideas that had met so much resistance years before at ACTS. The groups that arrived prior to September 15 received 72 hours of lecture in addition to sixty hours of flight training on their P-40s.
Chennault also established an intricate air craft early warning system among the people of China to quickly pass the word whenever Japanese bombers took off. This involved a village-by-village relay of such details as enemy flight direction, the type of aircraft involved, and their numbers. With this intelligence Chennault prepared his pilots to meet them and overwhelm their force with superior firepower. In the battles that came later, almost never did his planes outnumber the opposing force. From the standpoint of overwhelming firepower, however, AVG aerial tactics became quite effective.
American Volunteer Group
First Pursuit Squadron
Adam and Eve
Second Pursuit Squadron
Third Pursuit Squadron
Chennault divided his 100 pilots (at no time during the AVGs seven months of combat did they have more than 100 airplanes) into three groups, each of which adopted their own name and logo. He assigned squadron leaders from among his more experienced pilots.
Sharks or Tigers?
China's national animal was the tiger, and the Chinese media soon began referring to the men of Chennault's air force as "Fei Hui"...tigers. At one point during those early days of training and boredom, one of the pilots (generally believed to have been Eric Shilling) found a picture of a German Messerschmitt assigned to the Haifischgruppe "Shark Group" in North Africa. He was struck by the foreign pilot's decoration, repainting the nose of his ME-110 with a bright red nose above the menacing white teeth of a shark.
The nose of the P40s in the AVG were contoured in such a way that a similar design would fit quite well. When Chennault saw the distinctive rows of teeth appear on the first AVG fighter-plane, he instructed all of his pilots to do likewise and made it the symbol of the entire group.
Soon the men of Chennault's force were being called "Flying Tigers". It is unknown whether this developed from the "Fei Hui" nickname ascribed by the Chinese media, from the distinctive shark's teeth that were later ascribed to the Tiger Shark, or from even some other source. Some historians have even postulated that the tiger was borrowed by Chennault from his old alma matter back home, the L.S.U. Fighting Tigers. Chennault himself later wrote:
"Before I left the United States in the summer of 1941, I asked a few friends in Louisiana to watch the newspapers and send me any clippings about the A.V.G. Now I was being swamped with clippings from stateside newspapers, and my men were astonished to find themselves world famous as the Flying Tigers.
"The insignia we made famous was by no means original with the A.V.G. Our pilots copied the shark-tooth design on their P-40's noses from a colored illustration in the India Illustrated Weekly depicting an R.A.F. squadron in the Libyan Desert with shark-nose P-40s. Even before that the German Air Force painted shark's teeth on some of its Messerschmitt 210 fighters. With the pointed nose of a liquid cooled engine it was an apt and fearsome design.
"How the term Flying Tigers was derived from the shark-nosed P-40s I never will know. At any rate we were somewhat surprised to find ourselves billed under that name.
"It was not until just before the A.V.G. was disbanded that we had any kind of group insignia. At the request of the China Defense Supplies in Washington, the Walt Disney organization in Hollywood designed our insignia consisting of a winged tiger flying through a large 'V' for victory."
War In Pacific
The devastation laid upon Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, is best remembered for the loss of the Navy's six big battleships that gave the Empire of Japan nearly unrestricted control of the Pacific. In that same deadly assault, Japanese pilots destroyed sixty-four of the 223 airplanes in Hawaii and damaged an additional 82. Ten hours later the Japanese virtually wiped out what remained of America's Air Force in the Pacific theater by bombing Clark Field in the Philippine Islands. Not only did the enemy rule the seas in the early days of 1941, they also ruled the air. Only in China did enough pilots and planes remain to turn back the onslaught.
Four days after the declaration of war on Japan, at the request of the R.A.F., Chennault dispatched his Third Squadron to assist in the defense of Rangoon. On December 18 his First and Second Squadrons flew from Toungoo to Kunming, near where they tasted first blood two days later. It was the first combat for Chennault's Flying Tigers and they did well, shooting down nine of ten enemy bombers with the loss of only one P-40. Three days later it was the Hell's Angels turn when they joined the R.A.F. in knocking down six enemy bombers and four fighters over Rangoon. The Tigers lost four planes and two pilots.
On Christmas Day the Japanese sent a massive wave of 80 bombers escorted by 43 fighter planes to hit Rangoon again. The Flying Tigers destroyed an unprecedented 23 planes in a single day of battle, without the loss of a single Tiger. And the trend continued.
On December 28 the Japanese sent 20 bombers and 25 fighters to destroy the resistance. A.V.G. pilots destroyed ten without suffering a single loss of their own. The following day brought another 40 bombers with 20 fighters. Chennault's men shot down 18 of them, with only one casualty. By New Year's Day the Flying Tigers had 75 confirmed kills (and more than a dozen probables) at the loss of only two pilots and six aircraft. It was an enviable record that would make them famous. As the only organized force that was beating back the Japanese early in 1941, America was desperate for heroes and good news. The Flying Tigers provided both.
The unbelievable success of the Flying Tigers in their first three weeks of combat forced the Japanese to abandon their raids on Kunming, and concentrate instead on battering the Burmese capitol of Rangoon into submission. For two months the enemy flew daily assaults. They were met again and again in the air by the Tigers. Though the ratio of kills to losses remained high, for an air force with only 100 out-dated fighter planes, each loss became more and more devastating. New airplanes and replacement parts for the old and combat worn P40s never materialized, and by February Rangoon fell.
Exhausted and frustrated, the Tigers pulled back to defend the Burma Road, perhaps the most remembered of their important efforts in the early days of the war. During the same period, with America building for war, pressure was directed towards Chennault to have his Flying Tigers absorbed by the United States Army Air Force. For months he resisted, arguing instead that his Tigers should remain an independent force reporting only to Chiang Kai Chek. When summer came the A.V.G. was forced backward in defense of Western and then Eastern China.
Chennault's battle with the American Air Force was far less successful that his battle with the Japanese. In the last days of July the A.V.G. pilots were offered the opportunity to join the Army Air Forces. Only five of the pilots and 25 of the ground crew took the offer. They became part of the 23rd Fighter Group, while most of the remainder were sent back to their homes in the United States.
Among those five was a 28-year old pilot and who had served with the Tigers as a vice-squadron leader. James Howell Howard was the son of an American physician, and had been born in China. The work of the Flying Tigers gave him an opportunity to return.
Following his work with the Tigers, Army Air Force Major James Howard went on to fly P-51s in Europe with the 9th Air Force. He would become one of only two fighter pilots in the European theater to earn the Medal of Honor.
One other Flying Tiger went on to earn the Medal of Honor. Gregory Pappy Boyington spurned the Army Air Force's offer, in order to return to the Marine Corps. He left the Tigers angry and at odds with Chennault, upset that his victory total was recorded at 3 1/2. He always believed it was six. Leading his Black Sheep Squadron out of Henderson Field at Guadalcanal, Boyington added to his official tally, one that ultimately reached 26 confirmed kills.
Chennault returned to the Army Air Force and, in March 1943, was made a U.S. Army Air Force general and placed in command of the newly activated 14th Air Force. Already he had been decorated highly by China, as were most of the Tigers, and was featured on the cover of Life magazine in the August 10, 1942, edition. Later, he would be portrayed in a movie about the Flying Tigers by John Wayne.
During their seven months of combat operations in the early dark days of World War II, the 311 members of the A.V.G. provided the people of the United States with a reason for hope and optimism. They demonstrated over Burma and China that the enemy air force was not invincible. The 100 American pilots destroyed 296 Japanese planes at the loss of only 24 of their own. They also set a standard for young, untested American pilots who were even then preparing for war. It was an enviable record of accomplishment to try to live up to.