Chungking, China · October 31, 1944

The war against the Japanese in China was desultory at best, and ser­vice in that thea­ter was viewed as a grave­yard by U.S. mili­tary and diplo­matic offi­cials. On this date in 1944 Maj. Gen. Albert Wede­meyer arrived to replace dis­missed Gen. Joseph Stil­well as com­mander of the China Theater and to serve as Chief-of-Staff to Nation­al­ist Chi­nese leader Generalis­simo Chiang Kai-shek. Wede­meyer’s instruc­tions were to advise Chiang on issues of training, equip­ping, and sup­porting Chi­nese forces in the war against the Japa­nese, which had been going full-throttle since 1937. Chiang, how­ever, was dis­tracted by rival Com­munist Chi­nese forces operating in north­ern China and tended to hold his best units back in this domes­tic con­test. To his credit, Wede­meyer did his best to moti­vate Chiang to take a more ag­gres­sive role against the Japa­nese in the war. Wede­meyer had more suc­cess in arranging logis­tical support for Amer­i­can air forces in China. These in­cluded support for the P‑51 Mus­tangs and the newly arrived B‑24 Libera­tors of the Four­teenth Air Force under Gen. Claire Chen­nault. Chen­nault was a long-time China hand, having created the Amer­i­can Volun­teer Group (AVG) of “Flying Tigers” fame for Chiang Kai-shek prior to the entry of the U.S. into World War II. Twelve days after Pearl Har­bor, on Decem­ber 20, 1941, Chen­nault’s pilots engaged a fleet of ten Japa­nese Kawa­saki bombers, shooting down three or four of them at the cost of one U.S. plane. It was the first Allied victory of the Pacific War. Wede­meyer also moved to sup­port basing long-range B‑29 Super­fort­resses of the XX Bomber Com­mand under Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay in China. Indeed placing Super­forts on Chi­nese soil had been pushed by Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt, who wished to bol­ster the Chi­nese war effort and was im­pa­tient to bomb Japan. However, basing B‑29s in China was a tempo­rary mea­sure until bases became avail­able in the Mari­ana Islands, much closer to the Japa­nese home islands. Once the Mari­anas bases became oper­a­tional (Novem­ber 24, 1944), the cam­paign to incin­er­ate Japan’s cities (most famously Opera­tion Meeting­house on March 9–10, 1945, the single most destruc­tive bombing raid in history), coupled with starving its popu­la­tion by aerial mining its coastal waters (Operation Starvation), began in earnest.

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

Flying Tiger personnelP-40 maintenance crew

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 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. A squad­ron of the RAF was the first Allied mili­tary avia­tion unit to fea­ture the “shark mouth” logo, copying simi­lar markings on 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 Claire Chennault converses with pilots of the 23rd Fighter Group. In the back­ground is a P‑40 War­hawk bearing the dis­tinc­tive shark-mouth nose art from AVG days. The shark-mouth fighters remain among the most recog­niz­able of any indivi­dual com­bat air­craft and combat unit of World War II.

Right: Chennault (1893–1958) was 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, 1942AVG squadron flight leader Robert "R. T." Smith

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.

U.S. Army Air Forces Retreat and Advance in China and the Asia Pacific Region, June 1944 to March 1945

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