The Only War We've Got

A pilot of the 2nd AVG

Lt Robert Klemann The young man on the left--somewhat pixilated, I'm afraid, but I had to enlarge the image from a group photo--is 1st Lt Robert Klemann, posing in front of his B-25 bomber on July 1943. His story is a remarkable one. For twenty-odd years I've been collecting information about the 2nd American Volunteer Group, a bomber force recruited in the fall of 1941. (Here's more about the 2nd AVG, and here's a roster of its personnel, or such of them as I've been able to dig up.) At long last, out of the blue, and just as I was giving up hope of actually corresponding with one of them, Bob Klemann emailed me. For the first time, I could ask questions of a veteran of this short-lived bomber group.

Like the Flying Tigers of the 1st AVG, Bob Klemann was an early volunteer for World War II, graduating from Army flight training in March 1941. He was sent to McChord Field near Tacoma, Washington, where the available aircraft were a Stearman PT-17 biplane trainer, a DC-3 transport, and a Martin B-10 bomber "which could barely get off the ground when empty". He was assigned as the engineering officer and test pilot of the 19th Reconnaissance Squadron.

"About September of 1941," he writes, "a representative of the American Volunteer Group, representing Colonel Chennault, visited the airfield and talked to anyone who attended his presentation about a volunteer group to go to the Far East to aid in the Chinese defensive war against the Japanese. They were organizing a bomber group and three fighter (then called pursuit) groups. The offer to the pilots was for $500 a month plus 10 cents per mile on bombing missions. A number of us signed up and went through the process of getting visas and preparing to go overseas to work for CAMCO engineering firm. We were to fly Lockheed Hudson bombers."

Bob of course is working from memory here. When he went back to his logbook and contemporary correspondence, he found that the salary was for $600, which agrees with the cables exchanged between Chennault and TV Soong in the fall of 1941. The ten-cent-a-mile bonus had been worked out by the two men as an equivalent of the fighter pilots' promised $500 combat bonus for each Japanese plane destroyed. Note also that the total force of the "Special Air Unit" was planned to be two fighter squadrons and the bomber group; the 3rd AVG was to have consisted entirely of Navy pilots, recruited in the early months of 1942. Of course it never got off the ground.

Flying Tigers
revised and updated

Meanwhile, the lads at McChord had been equipped with three Douglas B-23 "Dragon" bombers, a cross between the company's DC-3 and its earlier B-18. Then came a more serious warplane, the North American B-25 "Mitchell" that Lt. Klemann would eventually take to war.

The plan, as I understand it, was for the pilots to pick up the planes at the Lockheed factory at Burbank, California. They were equipped with long-range fuel tanks (recall that this was essentially the same plane as the Electra in which Amelia Earhart had gone missing) so that they could fly the Clipper route, island-hopping from Hawaii to the Philippines, thence presumably to Burma. Likely they would fly out with a double crew, with the extra pilots later assigned to the Douglas DB-7 "Boston" bombers that were going the other way around the world on as freighter cargo. One or two boatloads of ground crew and gunners sailed from California ports in November.

By the end of November, Lt Klemann was flying submarine patrols from Tacoma. It was apparently at this time that he got orders to report for duty with the 2nd AVG. On December 2, "I signed a contract to patrol Burma Road, China. Sent resignation to Washington to be effective Jan 15, 1942. To get $600 a month and quarters (one year contract)." Events were moving faster than that, however: the scheduled flight date for the Hudsons was December 10 by most accounts, though I've found one that put it for the following day. In any event, Bob has a receipt for a passport photo that was taken in Tacoma on December 4, so something changed in the two days after he signed that more leisurely contract. The diary or logbook continues:

12/6/41, "Sat. Left McChord for Sacramento. Arrived about 5 pm."

12/7/41, "Japan pulls surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Manila and all Pacific allied posts. Direct hits on Hickham Field Barracks."

Lockheed Hudson light bomberSo he never saw the Hudson that he was to have flown across the Pacific, against targets in China, and perhaps eventually to the Japanese home islands. Considering the pasting that the far more robust B-29s suffered on their maiden flights to the Empire, I suspect he was very lucky that the war turned out that way for him. The Hudson was little more than a Lockheed Super Electra, designed to carry twelve passengers. (The Japanese Army adopted this for dropping parachute troops; as the Type LO, it was license-built by Tachikawa.) It had forward-firing and dorsal turret machine guns and could carry a bomb load of 750 pounds--not much more than a P-40E. I assume it had an interior bomb-bay, but I'm not sure of this. The Royal Air Force used the Hudson extensively, including in Burma, but most were used as trainers and on anti-submarine patrol.

Either in Sacramento or San Francisco, Bob Klemann's 2nd AVG odyssey came to an end. He returned to Tacoma and the U.S. Army, eventually to fly out the other way as the first installment of Chennault's promised B-25 bomb group.... He was lucky to have survived that trip as well!

John Boyd's Aerial Attack Study

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