The Flying Tigers

by Daniel Russ on September 5, 2010

General Claire Lee Chennault

Claire Lee Chennault had pissed off one too many senior officers in the United States Army Air Force. In 1937 he was asked to resign and he did just that. He traveled to China and became an aide and liason officer to Chaing Kai Chek who was leading the nationalist Chinese against Mao. But this tough, experienced air combat squadron leader had organized three fighter squadrons of about 20 plans a piece and under the sanction of Roosevelt used this force to interdict the Imperial Japanese Army occupying southern China.  The planes they flew were P-40 Tomahawks and the three squadrons were trained specifically by Chennault in tactics to use against Japan’s lighter, more nimble and far more numerous aircraft.

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk

Cyrtiss P-40 Warhawk

The P-40E’s also called the Kittyhawks had six .50 caliber machine guns, a well armored cockpit and engine. While inferior to the German ME-109, and Focke Wulfe 190, it cold take a tremendous amount of punishment and that made all the difference when outnumbered ten to one by the Japanese. They faced Misubishi KI 21 “Sallys”, which were bombers that were lightly armored but bristling with guns forward and aft. The Mistiubishi KI 30 “Anns” also were light bombers that had good airspeed and multiple guns, and the Nakajima Ki-27 “Nates”, medium bombers with 12.7mm guns.

Nakajima KI-43 Oscar

Nakajima KI-27 Nate

All of the Japanese fighter/bombers were more agile than the P-40s. So Chennault trained his pilots never to engage in a turning battle with the Japanese. Instead, he taught them to attack in slash and run attacks from higher altitudes.

Nakajima KI-21 Sally

The Chinese were very grateful for the help and for the aggressive tactics that worked very well. Chinese called them flying tigers and so Walt Disney designed a logo for them. Also, each P-40 as painted with the characteristic tigers teeth over the engine nacelle. The pilots were mostly US Navy and Marine and AF fighter pilots who were attracted not just to the chance to see action, but $500 for each Japanese they shot down, far more than traditional military pay. When the AVG was formed the US was not yet at war. It didn’t take long before there was plenty of action. While they were training and firming up in Burma, the Japanese attacked the Pacific fleet.

Game on.

The Flying Tigers were known for their exploits on the ground, drinking, gambling, fighting, and ostentatious behavior. Critics considered them mercenaries, but when the mission as over less than a year after they formed, thirty of them decided to stay on, some retired and some joined other branches of the service including “Pappy” Boyington the leader of the Marine “Black Sheep” squadron. David Lee “Tex” Hill is said to have shot down 18 aircraft, making him one of the top aces of all times.

Mistubishi KI-30 Ann

The AVG successfully interrupted Japanese supply lines, sank dozens of Japanese transports and although they claim to have shot down 1000 planes, they probably more likely destroyed 600 planes many on the ground during bold raids against unprotected Japanese airfields. They lost less than twenty planes altogether, and after under Chennault they became the 23rd Fighter Group. The key importance to the war effort was after Pearl Harbor and Guam, the Allies needed some good news. The successes of these air commandoes reminded Americans and British that we could beat the Japanese, something few doubted anyway. The Flying Tigers were the first good news since Pearl Harbor.

Flying Toger Logo Designed By Walt Disney


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Kevin September 5, 2010 at 7:08 pm

Nice summary of the Flying Tigers. If you’re interested in more about Pappy Boyington, check out

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