Tales of the Flying Tigers
Chennault and McDonald with the Hawk

One of the most interesting bits in The Shadow Tiger is Billy McDonald's comments on the Hawk 75 and Claire Chennault's supposed combat victories in China. The photo above is from the book and shows the two men with the export fighter in the background. (The Hawk 75 was a fixed-gear version of the Curtiss P-36 that later evolved into the legendary P-40 flown by the Flying Tigers.) What follows is from the book by William McDonald III, son of Chennault's wingman, friend, and comrade in arms, reprinted with Billy III's kind permission. — Daniel Ford

Billy McDonald and the Hawk 75

On August 12, 1937, just before the outbreak of [the Sino-Japanese War], Pete Brewster, a test pilot for the Curtiss Wright Company, was demonstrating the Hawk 75 Special to Nanking. Delivered in a crate, it was assembled and tested before being turned over to the Chinese. The plane was solid green with a large "75" painted on the side.

Modifications made at Chennault's request included stripping out everything unnecessary and adding guns. The ship flew faster than anything in China.

A film available on the internet shows Chennault taking off in the Hawk, smiling. With his head sticking above the [canopy]. He looked tall in the cockpit.

Mac was the first person Chennault trained to fly the plane, and at 5 foot 3", Mac fit easily into the cockpit. Mac flew the plane for speed and fuel consumption tests several times, then took it on numerous tactical missions. Mac said in his journal entry of August 17: "Hawk very fast — fastest ship I have ever flown."

Unarmed Observation Flights

The Hawk's speed and altitude were used in observation missions around Shanghai. Mac had a great deal of training in high altitude flying due to his time at Selfridge Field and Maxwell Field early in his career, and his flight book documents early observation flights.

Chennault explained, "As the Jap armies surged toward Nanking, the Hawk Special was the principal source of information on their progress, making daily patrols along the railroad that guided the enemy advance." The anti-aircraft shells always blew up behind the Hawk as it flew over Japanese lines.

As noted in his air journal, many of Mac's flights involved attempts to locate the Japanese fleet in the Yellow Sea. According to Chennault, on one occasion, Mac located the Japanese carrier Ryūjō off the Yangtze estuary. Mac may have led the Chinese dive bombers which then attacked the carrier.

Armed 'Observation' Flights

Mac was first to fly the Hawk after the weapons update. Mac and Smith both report that he returned from that first flight with bullet holes littering the tail. [Sebie Smith was an Air Corps mechanic hired by China in 1937.] Mac complained that only one gun fired.

After his flight, Mac told the ground crew, "I suggest you fix those other three guns before the Skipper takes it up." They all worked very hard to make sure the guns fired before Chennault flew again. While several pilots flew the aircraft, Smith indicates that Mac flew the bulk of the flights.

Madame Chiang, Mac and Chennault appear to have promised never speak of their direct combat. Everyone had a great deal to lose if such information became public. China could be criticized. Even after the war, Chennault and Mac could face criminal charges and penalties, including the loss of military pension or even citizenship.

Chennault's Kills

Many stories exist regarding the number of planes Chennault shot down. Like a good fish story, the more times the story was told, the larger the fish got. The largest number of planes Mac read in print was 72 kills. However, his position remained unchanged over the years. Even when asked in 1983, he shook his head and simply refused to utter a word.

In a letter to the historian of the 14th Air Force in 1976, Mac wrote that "to my knowledge Chennault never shot down a single plane, but I wish he had."

Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

Flying Tigers
3rd edition

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Posted November 2016. This page © 2016 by William McDonald III and Daniel Ford; all rights reserved.