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 Nation­alist Chin­ese 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 10 Japa­nese Kawa­saki Ki‑48s based in Hanoi, French Indo­china, shooting down four and probably more of the twin-engine light “Lily” bombers 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. By the end of the war Chen­nault’s pilots in the Four­teenth Air Force had attained air supe­ri­ority over China’s skies and estab­lished a ratio of 7.7 enemy air­craft destroyed for every U.S. plane lost in com­bat. The Four­teenth Air Force is offi­cially credited with the destruc­tion of 2,315 enemy planes, 1,225 loco­motives, 712 railroad cars, and 356 bridges.

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

Left: The American Volunteer Group initially trained at a remote RAF base at Taungoo in Central Burma (today’s Myan­mar) 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 sharks­mouth war­paint, copying simi­lar markings on the noses of some Luft­waffe Messer­schmitt Bf 110 twin-engine fighters.

Gen. Claire Lee Chennault (hands at back) and Flying Tigers pilots, China 1942Flying Tigers Gen. Claire Lee Chennault in Kunming, China office, 1942

Left: In this 1942 photo Chennault (hands behind his back) con­verses with pilots of the 23rd Fighter Group. In the back­ground is a P‑40 War­hawk, the group’s work­horse, bearing the dis­tinc­tive sharks­mouth nose art from AVG days. Inci­den­tally, one of Chen­nault’s ace air­men, James H. Howard (six Japa­nese kills), was the only fighter pilot over Europe to be awarded the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest decoration.

Right: Claire Chennault was a 44-year-old retired U.S. Army Air Corps offi­cer and former Army stunt pilot when he arrived in China in 1937 looking to start life over. 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. On March 10, 1943, Chennault was promoted to major general.

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

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