December 20, 1941: The Flying Tigers first see combat. The 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG) was largely the creation of Claire Lee Channault. He had retired from the US Army Air Corps and had worked in China since August 1937. He worked with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek as military aviation advisor and then directed a Chinese Air Force flight school. The Chinese asked for US support when the Soviet Union pulled its support. President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the request but it had to remain covert since the US was not at war at the time the request was made. The 1st American Volunteer Group was formed. Of the pilots sent over to assist China, 60 were from the Navy and Marine Corps and 40 were from the Army Air Corps. Only 99 could obtain passports since one pilot had flown as a mercenary for Spain.
The volunteers were paid salaries ranging from $750 per month for a squadron commander down to $250 for a mechanic, about three times greater and what the men had earned in the US forces. They flew their first mission on this day, just days after Pearl Harbor. The US forces were at a low during this initial contact and the Flying Tigers were able to pull off many victorious flights. They had what remains to this day, one of the most recognizable combat aircraft designs. Their shark-faced planes were successful across the Pacific front. They were officially credited with 296 enemy aircraft destroyed and later research supports the wartime numbers. The pilots were paid bonuses for destroying the aircraft and were able to do so while losing only 14 pilots on combat missions.
The Flying Tigers were disbanded on July 4, 1942 and the pilots moved to the 23rd Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Forces. That was later absorbed into the Fourteenth Air Force who kept General Chennault as commander. They went on to many similar combat successes and kept the nose art on the remaining P-40 aircraft. While considered to be a mercenary group, the AVG was comprised of 300 men carrying civilian passports who entered China at Burma. The first order of duty was training pilots. Many had lied on their resumes. Chennault’s basic premise was that of pursuit rather than simple bombing runs, which was standard operating procedure at the time. “The Old Man” had his own ideas about how to win the war.
Chennault was born in Texas in 1893 and had served with the United States Army Air Corps from 1917 to 1937 when he was officially part of the Republic of China Air Force. After AVG was disbanded, Chennault was once again serving with the US Army Air Forces which was his placement until the end of the war. He was the recipient of several awards, some more than once. He fought in three different wars, World War I, the Sino-Japanese War, and World War II. He died in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1958 at the age of 64.
It’s coming in on one wing and a prayer.
I didn’t promise you La Guardia airport.
Don’t try to win this war all by yourself.
Oh, these aren’t laundry tickets. This is in case you get shot down over Chinese territory, so they’ll know you’re an American volunteer. – all from the movie, Flying Tigers (1942)
Also on this day: Secret Police – In 1917, Lenin forms the first of a series of secret police, used to terrorize the citizens of Mother Russia.
Cardiff, Wales – In 1955, Cardiff became the capital of Wales.
Petrol on Fire – In 1984, the Summit Tunnel fire began.
Just Wonderful – In 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life was released in New York City.