1,539 planes shot down? High point of the legend[The following short history of the Flying Tigers was published in the group's 1989 reunion booklet. It represents the high point of the Flying Tiger myth, with the 297 (sometimes 299) victories shown in the CAMCO record inflated to more than 1,500 aircraft. After the first edition of Flying Tigers was published in 1991, AVG spokesmen went back to the more conservative official record. But by 1996, when the U.S. Air Force awarded medals to AVG veterans, the count was back up to 650, so I suspect we will live to see it climb to over a thousand yet again. -- Dan Ford]
'The American Volunteer Group--The Real Flying Tigers'In all the history of aerial combat, there had never been such a total air victory as this. For Chennault, it was a long-sought vindication of the tactics for aerial combat which he had sought to pioneer in America's aerial forces before the war. They were to be universally-accepted only after Chennault's Tigers had made living proof of his concepts.
In 1937, the Chinese asked Chennault to help them develop an airforce. Claire Lee Chennault went to China to do what he could to help a nation in distress.
In 1941, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek authorized Chennault to bring together a group of American airmen to help train the Chinese. With the consent of President Roosevelt, members of the American Armed Forces were permitted to volunteer for duty with the new service in China. The tour of duty was to be one year's service.
The group, drawn from the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps, straggled into China, 97 pilots and 185 ground personnel.
In Burma some 100 P-40 fighter planes, sidetracked from other military assignments, awaited them. Some of these aircraft had seen better days.
The new group of Americans joining the Chinese formed into three squadrons: Adam and Eve, the Panda Bears and Hell's Angels. With Chennault urging them on with the sense of haste born of desperation and necessity, they went into intensive training....
Chennault, recapping later the story of his group said that while the AVG was blooded over China, it was their aerial exploits above Rangoon that put the stamp of history, as Flying Tigers, upon them.
In those ten weeks in the skies over Burma that took on the elastic dimensions of centuries compressed, the untried catch-as catch-can American force not only survived the Japanese assault but repulsed the enemy, causing heavy losses.
The cold statistics for the ten weeks the AVG served at Rangoon, show its strength varied between twenty and five serviceable P-40's. This tiny force met a total of a thousand-odd Japanese aircraft over southern Burma and Thailand. In 31 encounters they destroyed 217 enemy planes and probably destroyed 43. Our losses in combat were four pilots killed in the air, one killed while strafing and one taken prisoner.
News of the Americans' achievement electrified the world and gave courage to the faltering Allied forces, thus far repeatedly defeated by the Axis powers....
In the seven months of combat that followed, the 85 surviving pilots and their tiger-toothed P-40s shot down, by official count, 299 enemy planes. They destroyed another known 240 Japanese aircraft. In addition, Tigers estimated a kill upwards of a thousand aircraft which could not be confirmed officially, but which pilots recounted having watched disappear into the mountains or sea.
Outnumbered by as much as eight to one, living under primitive conditions with shortages of food and military supplies, their planes held together by the determination and resourcefulness of their devoted ground crews, that handful of pilots checked the Japanese invasion of China.
[From a booklet titled 1989 AVG-CNAC REUNION and distributed to those attending the reunion at the Ojai Valley Inn, July 1989. CNAC is the China National Aviation Corporation, which hired many AVG veterans in July 1942, and which generally shares reunion activities with the Tigers.]