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, October 31, 1944, Maj. Gen. Albert Wede­meyer arrived to replace dis­missed Gen. Joseph (“Vinegar Joe”) 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. On Decem­ber 20, 1941, twelve days after the surprise Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, 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 in China under its newly appointed com­mander, 36-year-old Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay. LeMay had gained a repu­ta­tion developing highly effec­tive tech­niques and tactics (e.g., the 12 plane combat box formation of B 17 Flying Fortresses) for use by the U.S. Eighth Air Force in its stra­tegic bombing cam­paign over Nazi-occupied Europe. Placing B 29 “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 main­land Japan. How­ever, basing B 29s in China was a tempo­rary mea­sure until forward bases became avail­able in the Pacific Mari­ana Islands, much closer to the Japa­nese Home Islands. Once bases became oper­a­tional in the Mari­anas for LeMay’s newest command, the XXI Bomber Com­mand (late Novem­ber 1944), the brutal aerial cam­paign that incin­er­ated 67 Japanese cities (most famously Tokyo on the night of March 9/10, 1945, the single most destruc­tive bombing raid in history), coupled with a no-holds-barred cam­paign to starve the islands’ popu­la­tion by aerial mining Japan’s coastal waters (Operation Starvation), began in earnest.

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

Flying Tigers personnelFlying Tigers: P-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, 1942Flying Tigers: Chennault 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. 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: Chennault (1893–1958) 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, 1942Flying Tigers: AVG 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. Ace squadron 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: 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, while the Chinese came up with the nick­name for the pilots, who were said to be fighting like “flying tigers.” Smith was credited with downing 8.9 Japa­nese air­craft while fighting with the Flying Tigers. He was twice deco­rated by the Chinese govern­ment. After a brief State-side stint, Smith returned to the China-Burma-India Theater, flying 55 com­bat missions over Burma and earning three more service decorations.

Contemporary Documentary of the Flying Tigers, a Unit of the U.S. Fourteenth Air Force