Washington, D.C. · July 4, 1942

On this date in 1942 Gen. Claire Lee Chennault was appointed com­mander of China Air Task Force (CATF), replacing his origi­nal (offi­cially dis­banded) com­mand, the Amer­i­can Volun­teer Group (AVG) of “Flying Tigers” fame. The AVG volun­teer group of U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine flyers had been created by Chin­ese Nation­alist leader Generalis­simo Chiang Kai-shek and sanc­tioned by Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt prior to the entry of the U.S. into World War II. In 1942 the three AVG Flying Tigers squad­rons were absorbed into the U.S. Army 23rd Fighter Group (a com­po­nent of the CATF), which in turn was absorbed into the U.S. Four­teenth Air Force, with Gen. Chen­nault as com­mand­er and his fighter air­craft retaining the dis­tinc­tive shark’s mouth nose art of the initial volunteer unit.

The core group of 99 AVG volun­teers first saw com­bat in China on Decem­ber 20, 1941, twelve days after Pearl Harbor, when an AVG squad­ron engaged ten Japa­nese Kawa­saki bombers, shooting down three or four of them at the cost of one of theirs, which crash-landed when the plane ran out of fuel. It was the first Allied victory of the Paci­fic War. Chen­nault’s pilots went on to destroy nearly 300 enemy aircraft while losing only 14 pilots on combat missions.

Chen­nault’s inno­va­tive “dive-and-bomb” com­bat tactics, com­bined with the V12 single-engine Curtiss P‑40 War­hawk’s heavy arma­ment (six Browning machine guns and up to 2,000 lb of bombs), pilot armor, self-sealing fuel tanks, and sturdy all-metal con­struc­tion, con­tri­buted to the Flying Tigers’ dis­tin­guished service in Burma and China.

The P‑40 was the third most-pro­duced U.S. fighter (13,738 were built) after the North Amer­i­can P‑51 Mus­tang (15,000‑plus) and the Repub­lic P‑47 Thunder­bolt (15,660). The iconic shark’s mouth on the nose of Chen­nault’s P‑40s remains among the most recog­ni­zable of any indivi­dual com­bat air­craft of World War II. U.S. air­men and the media con­tinued to use the “Flying Tiger” name to refer to U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) units in China to the end of the war.

Gen. Claire Lee Chennault and His Flying Tigers, 1941–1945

Flying Tiger personnel with P-40 Warhawk, China, February 1943P-40 maintenance crew, China 1942

Left: The American Volunteer Group ini­tially trained at an RAF base in Burma with the mis­sion of defending belea­guered China against in­vading Japa­nese forces. AVG pilots like these shown in this February 1943 photo were recruited under presi­dential author­ity from the U.S. armed ser­vices. Ground crew and head­quarters staff were like­wise mostly recruited from the U.S. military, along with some civilians.

Right: A ground crew services a P‑40 War­hawk of the 23rd Fighter Group at an air­field in China, 1942. P‑40 War­hawks came off a Curtiss-Wright assem­bly line in Buf­falo, New York, which produced P‑40 Toma­hawk IIB models for British Com­mon­wealth squad­rons in North Africa and the Middle East. An RAF squad­ron was the first Allied mili­tary avia­tion unit to fea­ture the shark’s mouth war paint, copying simi­lar markings on the noses of some Luft­waffe Messer­schmitt Bf 110 twin-engine fighters.

Chennault (hands at back) and Flying Tiger pilots, China 1942Chennault in Kunming, China, office, 1942

Left: In this 1942 photo Chennault converses with pilots of the 23rd Fighter Group. In the back­ground is a P‑40 War­hawk bearing the dis­tinc­tive shark’s mouth nose art from AVG days.

Right: Claire Chennault was a 44-year old retired U.S. Army Air Corps offi­cer when he arrived in China in 1937. He even­tually became direc­tor of a Chin­ese Air Force flight school cen­tered in Kun­ming, South­west China, before being appointed com­mander of China Air Task Force. In this May 1942 photo, he wears a U.S. Army briga­dier gene­ral’s star on his left shoulder but Chinese insignia otherwise.

Flying Tigers over China, May 1942AVG squadron flight leader Robert "R. T." Smith, May 1942

Left: Flying Tigers’ Third Pursuit Squadron, called “Hell’s Angels,” photo­graphed near the Sal­ween River Gorge on the Chin­ese-Bur­mese border, May 28, 1942. Flight leader Robert “R. T.” Smith com­mented on the chal­lenge of taking this photo while flying in for­ma­tion and “scan­ning the sur­rounding sky every few seconds to make sure no Jap fighters were about to ambush us.”

Right: AVG squadron flight leader Robert “R. T.” Smith standing next to his P‑40 War­hawk fighter, Kun­ming, China, May 23, 1942. Note Smith’s Nation­alist Chin­ese em­blem on his cap and the “Flying Tigers” insig­nia on his aircraft. The insignia was created by the Walt Disney Company.

1943 Documentary: Gen. Claire Chennault and the Fourteenth Air Force