The 'Flying Tigers' of Burma / China and their relevance to Weihsien C.A.C.


In July 1937, the now legendary American Claire Lee Chennault, a retired Army Air Corps instructor, was invited to China as air advisor to Generalissimo Jiang Kai Shek. China's airforce had been decimated after four years of the Sino-Japanese war and needed rebuilding. Chennault not only founded a flying school in Kunming, S.W.China, to train Chinese pilots, but also pioneered clusters of strategically located airfields and an efficient air-raid warning system that covered Free China.


Because Japan during 1939 and 1940 carried out a sustained effort to break the back of Chinese resistance by sustained bombing of major population centres in Free China, Generalissimo Jiang Kai Shek sent  Chennault to America in the autumn of 1940 to seek American planes and pilots to end the Japanese bombing. This American Volunteer Group proposal was opposed by the military and navy, but thanks to powerful advocates in the White House and Cabinet, Presidential approval was gained for a cloak-and-dagger volunteer operation: a secret fighter pilot unit recruited from the ranks of the US Army, Navy and Marine Corps and sent to the British R.A.F.Keydan airfield at Toungoo,170 miles inland from Rangoon, Burma for intensive training in flying the P 40 Tomahawk fighter plane. The A.V.G.s mission: to defend the Burma Rd, China's vital lifeline to Indian Ocean ports.    


By late 1941, the newly promoted Brigadier General Chennault had whipped a highly trained gung-ho group together into the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Pursuit Squadrons. The exploits of the     A.V.G.was to become legendary. Pitted against a vastly greater number of Japanese planes, they significantly halted Japan's invasion of S.W.China. and became widely known, both by the U.S. Press and by the Republic of China as 'feihudui' - The 'Flying Tigers'.  When the A.V.G. was disbanded on 4 July, 1942 after only seven months in combat, it had officially destroyed 297 Japanese planes -  although Japanese records show the figure as approximately 115.


After disbandment, five A.V.G. pilots and 28 ground personnel joined the Army Air Corps and stayed on in China, where they formed the cadre of the 23 Fighter Group. Major General Chennault assumed command of the China Air Task Force (CATF) and the 23rd Fighter Group, which absorbed the aircraft and a few of the pilots of the A.V.G., as well as assuming the Flying Tigers' nom-de-plume. Their primary mission was to defend the southern and eastern approaches to the Hump and the transport terminals in Free China. On 10 March 1943, the 14th Air Force was activated under the command of Chennault, replacing the CATF. Chennault remained in command of the 14th Air Force until the end of July 1945, formally retiring in October, 1945.


Kunming was the base of the 14th Air Force operations. And it was in Kunming during mid 1945 that the seven 'Duck Mission' personnel who were to liberate C.A.C. Weihsien received their training. Thanks to the original 'Flying Tigers' sterling efforts over seven months in 1941/1942 and the subsequent conduct of effective fighter and bomber operations by the 14th Air Force 'Flying Tigers' under Chennault across a vast front of China during 1943-1945, the stage was much more effectively set for the release of  C.A.C. Weihsien on 17 August 1945.


Keeping Chongqing free meant that our two escapees Tipton and Hummel were able to maintain contact with Free China HQ, providing us with news of the war in the Pacific Theatre. Such contact also facilitated the remarkable delivery to Weihsien Internment Camp of four crates of much needed medicines - airlifted from W.China to the guerrilla forces, then taken to the Swiss Consul in Qingdao, who used sublime subterfuge to get all four crates intact to Weihsien Camp's Hospital.('Chinese Escapade' 1949, L. Tipton, pps 178-182); ('Shantung Compound' 1966, L.Gilkie, pps 60-82)


All ex-Weihsien internees have good reason to be grateful to Major General Chennault, to the original 'Flying Tigers' and to those who subsequently inherited the 'Flying Tiger' logo and fought so effectively to keep Free China FREE.


Let us salute their memory.


David G. Beard



References: [click here] --- [click here] --- [click here]

'Chinese Escapade'(1949) Laurance Tipton, pps 178-182

'Shantung Compound' (1966) Langdon Gilkey pps 60-82