Flying Tigers
How did the Flying Tigers get their name?
How can I find out about a Flying Tiger named xxxxx?
What about that "secret executive order" to create the AVG?
Where did those Allison engines come from?
What warpaint did the Tomahawks wear?
Were they P-40Bs, P-40Cs, or what?
What are those planes in the John Wayne movie?
Were the Flying Tigers mercenaries?
Did Chennault fly as a combat pilot in China?
Why isn't Colonel Scott on the AVG roster?
Were 14th Air Force men Flying Tigers, too?
How many Flying Tigers still with us?

The Flying Tiger FAQ

How did the Flying Tigers get their name?

Among the myths surrounding the American Volunteer Group is that their fighting name was bestowed on them by grateful Chinese civilians or by fearful Japanese airmen, or that it had something to do with the "tiger shark" warpaint on their Curtiss P-40s. Not really! Here's the story: When the AVG was organized in the winter of 1940-1941, a lobbyist and presidential advisor named Tommy Corcoran set up a front group to launder the money. This would shield the Roosevelt White House from a project that violated the spirit if not the letter of the Neutrality Acts previously passed by Congress. The new company was located in the Chinese embassy but staffed by Americans, including Corcoran's younger brother, David.

Among more serious matters, China Defense Supplies asked the Walt Disney Studios to design a shoulder patch for the group, which obliged them to come up with something more exciting than "American Volunteer Group." The first notion of course was a dragon, evocative of China, and that quickly evolved into a flying dragon. Then David Corcoran came up with an even better idea: a flying tiger. This was quickly agreed upon, and two Disney artists -- Roy Williams and Henry Porter -- worked up a painting of a Bengal cat leaping out of a V-for-victory sign. Blouse pins and airplane decals were duly ordered and shipped to China, where they arrived early in 1942.

Meanwhile, the Flying Tiger name was introduced to the American public just after the AVG's first combat on December 20, 1941, in a Time magazine article entitled " Blood for the Tigers." The date on the cover was December 29, but the magazine actually went on sale the week before. The author was Theodore White of the Time staff, later famous for his "The Making of the President" series.

Looking for a Tiger?

The American Volunteer Group served in China and Southeast Asia from December 1941 to July 1942. A complete roster of the AVG is available at this site--and it really is complete. If you are trying to find more about one of these individuals, you might try the AVG veterans group website at

After the Flying Tigers went home, they were replaced by the U.S. Army 23rd Fighter Group, which took over the AVG fighters and some AVG veterans who accepted induction in China. For reasons of morale and propaganda, Chennault retained the name Flying Tigers for the army pilots, and generally anyone who served in the U.S. Army Air Forces in China in WWII can claim that title (much to the annoyance of the AVG). If you're looking for a Tiger, and he's not on the AVG roster, the chances are high that he was one of these men. Two good books on the subject:

  • Carl Molesworth, Sharks Over China: The 23rd Fighter Group in World War II (Brassey's 1994)

  • Martha Byrd, Chennault: Giving Wings to the Tiger (Univ of Alabama Press 1987).

    For books specifically about the AVG, see my Flying Tiger bibliography at a related website.

    A serviceman or his heirs can get a copy of his military records from the National Personnel Records Center, (Military Personnel Records), 9700 Page Avenue, St Louis MO 63132-5100. Sadly, many of its records were destroyed in a fire. You may be able to reconstruct your veteran's records if you provide details about his service. All this will be explained in the reply you get from St. Louis.

    For military records generally, write the Military Reference Branch, National Archives, Washington DC 20408. Expect to wait for a reply, but one will come. You must do the actual research yourself, in the Washington area, or hire someone to do it for you. Here's a book on the subject:

  • Richard Johnson and Debra Johnson Knox, How to Locate Anyone Who Is or Has Been in the Military: Armed Forces Locator Guide

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    Flying Tigers

    How many Tigers still with us?

    None. The last known survivor, former AVG crew chief Frank Losonsky, died on February 6, 2020, in his 100th year.

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    Were they mercenaries or U.S. military pilots?

    Were they mercenaries? Absolutely. To join the American Volunteer Group, the pilots resigned their commissions (or took a discharge, in the case of one enlisted pilot) to serve in a foreign air force for high pay: $600 a month at a time when that sum bought a factory-new Ford V-8, plus the promise of $500 for every Japanese plane they shot down. This was a very different situation from, say, Americans who joined the Canadian air force--often as enlisted men, and always at a financial sacrifice--to fly for Britain.

    Were they on a covert mission? Yes. Roosevelt knew about and approved the formation of the 1st American Volunteer Group, with two more to follow, and it was more or less run out of the White House by a Roosevelt aide named Lauchlin Currie, in the style of Oliver North in the Reagan administration. Some AVGs were promised that their time in China would count toward pensions, but that was by recruiters working by China; when the AVG went out of business in 1942 the Army refused to recognize them as veterans. That position remained essentially unchanged for half a century. (The "honorably discharged" Tigers are now officially WWII veterans on the basis of their AVG service.)

    Were they secretly members of the U.S. armed forces while in the AVG? No. When the AVG was disbanded, the vast majority of pilots went home or took high-paying civilian jobs in China; only five accepted induction in China. General Marshall himself advised General Stilwell that he had no authority to conscript the AVGs, as Stilwell wanted to do. Indeed, a few pilots had joined the AVG, gone to SE Asia, and resigned (this was before Pearl Harbor) in order to go home and take civilian flying jobs--an option that certainly wouldn't have been accorded to covert members of the armed forces.

    The passion arises I think from the bad name that mercenaries have. Perhaps it would help to consider the Americans who flew for the Spanish Republic--they were truly mercenaries, no ambiguity there, but the cause is generally regarded as noble. (One of those merks tried to join the AVG but was denied a passport because of his Spanish adventure. He later caught up with the AVG as an Army captain and flew on one of their last missions.) As A.E. Housman wrote in another connection: "What God abandoned, these defended, / And saved the sum of things for pay." There is nothing inherently objectionable about being a mercenary, and certainly there is nothing inherently wrong about fighting for glory or adventure, which were the factors that motivated most of the AVGs.

    It all depends on motive, conduct, outcome, and how you got into the situation in the first place. I admire the Flying Tigers much more than, say, the duly uniformed members of the German air force who bombed Warsaw and Rotterdam in a war of unprovoked aggression.

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    What about that "secret executive order"?

    Many Flying Tiger histories claim that in April 1941 President Roosevelt issued a "secret executive order" to create the American Volunteer Group. I spent two days at the Roosevelt Library searching for such a document; there wasn't any. I talked to historians of the era; they all suggested that such an order wouldn't have been Roosevelt's style. The president had a group of devoted followers who handled the details of organizing and equipping the AVG-- Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, lobbyist Tommy Corcoran, and White House economist
    Lauchlin Currie--so what need was there for a secret order? When the army and navy wouldn't release pilots to serve in China, Currie took Chennault over to meet their respective heads of aviation, Hap Arnold and William Towers. When they dug in their heels, Corcoran went over their heads to Henry Stimson, Secretary of War, and Frank Knox, Secretary of the Navy. The president wanted it, Corcoran explained, and the secretaries wrote the necessary letters to allow CAMCO to recruit on army and navy bases. The arrangement was never more formal than that.

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    What warpaint did the P-40s wear?

    The following was posted to the Warbird's message board by Tirrell Clements, who wrote American Volunteer Group Colours and Markings for Osprey: "About those colors....The bottoms were NOT blue. This according to RT Smith, in reply to my queries some years ago. The various color photos and films ARE NOT at all consistent with light blue. I've probably seen as much color material on the AVG as anyone, including the various 'home movies' and still photos, including some unpublished ones.... The color is almost certainly something like Aircraft Gray. [See the AVG photo plane for an example of a color picture showing the underside of a wing, along with "lips" that are blue, proving that the colors are fairly accurate.]

    "Topside colors were Curtiss's 'almost-RAF' colors, probably based on prewar US Rust Brown and Dark Green. Some may have used the sandy earth brown color instead of the darker brown, as this lighter brown seems to also be seen on RAF Tomahawks.... Note that the desert RAF Tomahawks appear to have been in these same schemes, not necessarily the official MAP desert colors. The Brits added Middlestone over the Green later, at least on some planes. All Curtiss factory paint jobs can be distinguished in photos be hard demarcations and mismatches at the front of the wing roots due to painting while unassembled."

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    Tales of the Flying Tigers

    Were they P-40Bs or P-40Cs?

    They were Royal Air Force Tomahawk IIBs, perhaps with some elements of the older IIA model thrown in. Here's how the Curtiss fighter developed:

    In 1938, Curtiss sold 200 radial-engined P-36 fighters to the U.S. Army. The company model number was H-75, and many were sold abroad as Hawk 75s. The plane was obsolescent compared to fighters coming on line in Europe, so Curtiss redesigned it for the liquid-cooled Allison engine. The result was its model H-81, arguably the most handsome American fighter of all time. The U.S. Army bought 200 and put them in service as the plain-vanilla P-40. France ordered 140, which Curtiss built under the company built under the designation H-81A. After France fell, Britain took over the order and put the planes into service under the fighting name of Tomahawk (Mark I). Because they lacked protection for the pilot and fuel tanks, the British used them only as trainers.

    The RAF then ordered an improved version with armor plate, "armourglass" in the windshield, and self-sealing fuel tanks. This model was known to Curtiss as H-81A2 and to the British as Tomahawk Mark II. However, the rubber fuel-tank membrane was external and therefore not entirely adequate to stop a leak; that, plus the Tomahawk's lack of high-altitude capability, caused the RAF to assign it only to Commonwealth squadrons in North Africa. Only 110 were built, of which 23 went to Russia and one to Canada. With U.S. equipment, the Army Air Corps bought 131 and put them into service as the P-40B, known to Curtiss as H-81B.

    The British next asked Curtiss to install an interior fuel-tank membrance, and in the winter of 1940-1941 the last and most numerous of the small-mouthed fighters began to move down the assembly line in Buffalo. Curtiss didn't regard the change as significant enough to warrant a new designation, which remained H-81A2 for the British Purchasing Commission and H-81B for the War Department. The RAF took the plane into service as the IIB, while the U.S. Army called it P-40C. (The "C" model had other improvements, including shackles on the underside of the fuselage for a droppable fuel tank.) Britain bought 930 Tomahawk IIBs, and the U.S. Army bought 193 of the more-or-less equivalent P-40Cs. Most Tomahawk IIBs likewise went to North Africa; some went to Russia after the Germans invaded in July 1941, and 100 were diverted to China to equip the American Volunteer Group.

    China Defense Supplies paid Curtiss directly for its planes, and the company gave them the designation H-81A3. I originally assumed that the AVG Tomahawks were identical to the British IIB model, but it now seems more likely that the new Curtiss model number wasn't just a bookkeeping convenience: the company apparently used up some of its stock of IIA (i.e., P-40B) parts in these aircraft. Among other things, this would explain why Flying Tiger veterans recall that the AVG Tommis had exterior fuel-tank membranes instead of the interior membranes fitted to the IIB model. (For more, see "100 Hawks for China", Joe Baugher's files, and Erik Shilling's commentary on the Tomahawk manual.)

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    What were those airplanes in the John Wayne movie?

    Most of the "P-40s" seen on the ground were studio mockups, and I'm told that not long ago one of them was sold on eBay. (A tip of the virtual hat to Colly Colquette, son of the AVG crew chief, for that information.) Others were U.S. Army P-40D or E models with faked-up cowling guns attached--and these protrusions disappeared when we see the planes in flight. No doubt some of the aerial footage was taken from U.S. Army film clips. And the Nakajima Ki-27 fighters, which the Duke so memorably refers to as "Nak-ah-jeem-ahs", were real Ki-27s, the footage lifted from a Toho movie about the Japanese Army Air Force in Manchuria. (A tip of the virtual hat to Ray Duke for that information.)

    Then there was the weird transport plane that makes a brief appearance as a jury-rigged bomber. CNAC flew DC-2s and DC-3s. So what's this contraption? According to my informant, it's a Capelis XC-12, built in the early 1930s and declared unairworthy just before WWII. For a view of it, go to Aerofiles. According to a thread on the message board, the Capelis was owned by RKO Stuios, which rented it out for $100 a day or $500 a week. Evidently it was scrapped postwar.

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    Did Chennault fly as a combat pilot in China?

    To his sorrow, Claire Chennault didn't get overseas in WWI. He retired from the Army in 1937 and went to China as an instructor, becoming air adviser to Chiang Kai-shek when the Japanese attacked Shanghai. Madame Chiang gave him a Hawk 75 (export version of the Curtiss P-36) and he flew it as an observer and air director that fall. The legend grew that he had used the H-75 in combat. Chennault had a sense of humor and did nothing to quell the rumors, and in fact seemed to encourage them. His aide the journalist Joseph Alsop assured me in 1985 that Chennault was the leading American ace of WWII with 50 Japanese aircraft to his credit. Supposedly he was paid $500 and later $1,000 a pop. (The Chiangs did indeed pay him $10,000 on August 30, 1937, but that was before any likely air combat, unless it was a failed attempt to bomb the Japanese flagship Idzumo.)

    Chennault's biographer Martha Byrd talked to the American instructors who worked with him in China and concluded that he had indeed been in combat, with unassessable results. But in 1985 I went to Taipei and talked to the Chinese he had worked for and with in 1937-38: General Wang Shu-wing ("Tiger Wang"), General Fu Jui-yuan, and especially Chennault's radioman Lee Cheng Yuan (Henry Lee). These were men with great affection for Chennault, and they all scoffed at the idea that he'd flown combat missions. Henry Lee was with him almost every day that fall and winter, and would surely have known about these missions if they'd taken place.

    Possibly Chennault did meet one or more Japanese a/c during his scouting flights in the H-75. If you read his autobiography closely, he as much as says so. (His diary doesn't mention any such encounters.) Maybe he fired at one or two, and maybe he even shot one down--but if he did, why did he deny it to the end of his life in 1958, long after there could have been any repercussions? I'm inclined to think he was pulling his friends' legs. He was 44 in September 1937, at a time when most fighter pilots were in their early 20s, and he was in poor health--a very unlikely candidate for a mercenary ace.

    After the summer of 1938, Chennault ran the flight school in Kunming and had no further opportunity for air-to-air combat.

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    Remains - A Story of the Flying Tigers

    Where did those Allisons come from?

    As with the Tomahawk IIB itself, a lot of wrongheaded information has been published about the engines sold to China for the fighters that were being diverted from a British order. American warplanes were purchased "less GFE" (government-furnished equipment including engines, guns, radios, and gunsights). For service in North Africa, the British wanted engines and fifty-caliber nose guns, but no wing guns, radios, or optical sights. (These would be supplied from stocks in North Africa or cannibalized from war-weary aircraft.) So Curtiss-Wright installed engines and nose guns as part of the assembly process and shipped them in the same crate as the fuselage assembly. However, the British (and the Chinese, in the case of the Tomahawks diverted to them) paid for these items as a separate transaction. In the case of the AVG Allisons, 31 engines came from French contract F-223 (an order that had been taken over by the British) and 69 from British contract A-196. These were the same V-1710-C15 engines installed in the Tomahawk IIBs bound for North Africa. (In U.S. Army service, this engine was designated V-1710-33.)

    The Chinese also bought 50 spares, and this is where the story gets complex. Allison apparently hand-assembled the engines from rejected parts, setting up a separate assembly line in Indianapolis so the off-specification parts wouldn't contaminate engines intended for the U.S. Army or Royal Air Force. According to Daniel Whitney, the rejected parts were hand-machined, with the result that the Chinese spares actually exceeded specifications. He goes on from there to speculate that the AVG's success in part stemmed from the fact that its engines were better than those installed in British and American warplanes. (Allison designated these engines V-1710-15A.)

    There are two things wrong with this argument. First, Whitney says that the AVG got no more than 38 such engines, and that not all of them may have been installed. (Greg Boyington spent his last weeks in the AVG flying "slow time" on newly installed engines in Kunming in April 1942, so most of the spares didn't see service until after the P-40E Kittyhawks had begun to reach China and to bear the brunt of the AVG's combats.) Second, Whitney contradicts himself on the question of how many engines were "hand-built." For lack of better evidence, I conclude that the lot of engines designated dash-15A was limited to the 50 spares, or perhaps as few as 35.

    This conclusion is supported by the fact that the 100 engines installed by Curtiss came from identifiable French and British contracts, and therefore couldn't have been jury-rigged from rejected parts. Furthermore, these engines were on hand in Buffalo when the Tomahawks were crated and shipped to New Jersey. Like the airframes, they bore random serial numbers, fairly low in sequence--three known AVG Allison serial numbers are 899, 963, and 964. By contrast, the hand-built spares bore serials from 2998 to 3032 and perhaps above. (Or else there were only 35 engines in this lot, which would go far to explain the AVG's inability to account for all the spares.)

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    Why isn't Colonel Scott on the AVG roster?

    Robert Lee Scott Jr. was an U.S. Army colonel and bomber pilot when he reached India in the spring of 1942, though like most military pilots his first love had been fighters. He first met the Flying Tigers at Loiwing, China, as co-pilot on a C-47 cargo plane carrying supplies for the AVG and two Ryan trainers for the Chinese Air Force. He arrived in the middle of a Japanese fighter sweep, and Chennault told him to clear the field. "I'd have given anything," Scott wrote long after, "to trade my colonel's eagles and that 'delivery wagon' that I flew for the gold bars of a second Lieutenant and one of those shark-nosed pieces of dynamite!"

    He got half his wish when Chennault loaned him one of the Curtiss P-40E "Kittyhawks" being ferried in from Africa. This he used for free-lance missions over Burma, and for the escort duty for which it had been diverted. In time, Chennault began to consider him for the command of the 23rd Fighter Group that would replace the AVG when it was disbanded in July 1942, and Scott actually went on a mission with the AVG into Vietnam--a U.S. Army colonel flying as wingman to Lew Bishop, who depending on how you defined his status was either a civilian or an officer in the Chinese Air Force!

    On July 4, Colonel Scott took command of the 23rd FG headquarters and the remnants of the AVG 3rd Squadron (now the U.S. Army 74th Fighter Squadron) at Kunming, while Robert Neale commanded a mixed band of AVG holdovers and U.S. Army pilots at Guilin. Not until July 17 was the transition complete: Neale set out for home, like most of the AVG pilots and ground crews before him, and Scott flew down to Guilin and took working command of the 23rd Fighter Group.

    The Army pilots who replaced the AVG in China continued to call themselves Flying Tigers, and by virtue of living long and writing prolifically, Scott eventually succeeded in making himself as famous as Chennault. But he was never a member of the American Volunteer Group.

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    Poland's Daughter

    Were 14th Air Force men Flying Tigers, too?

    14th AF tunic with Flying Tigers patchCertainly. Chennault always referred to the China Air Task Force and the 14th Air Force as his "Flying Tigers." The men called themselves Tigers, and so did journalists like Teddy White who covered their activities. (See, for example, the USAAF film China Crisis, released in 1945.) The Library of Congress has a subject-heading for 14th Air Force Association (U.S.). Flying Tigers. The Walt Disney studio turned out Flying Tiger shoulder patches for the CATF and the 14th AF, as it did for the American Volunteer Group. And here's the tunic worn by a 14th AF enlisted man, N.H. Lumna, as shown on the WWII Internet Museum (now defunct). Similar patches can be seen at the National Archives and 14th Air Force sites.

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