The Flying Tigers, officially known as the First American Volunteer Group, were American pilots who fought in the Chinese Air Force during World War II between 1941 and 1942. They are best known for popularizing the shark’s-mouth design frequently painted American military aircraft. In addition, their now-famous unit insignia of a winged Bengal tiger was designed by the Walt Disney Company.
The commanding officer of the Flying Tigers, Claire L. Chennault, was a retired captain from the Army Air Corps who was working in China as an advisor to the Chinese Air Force when the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937. The Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek quickly hired Chennault to lead the training of Chinese fighter pilots.
Chennault was able to resist Japanese attacks for two years with planes donated from the Soviet Union, but at last in 1939 Japanese forces overwhelmed Chinese defenses and destroyed most of the Chinese Air Force. In 1940 Chennault traveled to Washington, D.C. to buy aircraft and recruit pilots to fight for the Chinese. Realizing the potential dangers of China being defeated by the Japanese, President Roosevelt agreed to allow American pilots to resign from the military in order to go serve in the Chinese Air Force—at this point the United States had not officially entered the war against the Japanese and wanted to maintain an appearance of neutrality.
Lured by the promise of better pay, ninety-nine pilots and one hundred eighty four support troops sailed to Burma, where they arrived in the middle of the monsoon season and were forced assemble their own aircraft before beginning training. Imitating a British Royal Air Force design, the volunteers painted shark’s mouths on their aircraft to make them more threatening. This was not known to their supporters in Washington, who gave them the nickname the Flying Tigers in the spring of 1941.
Over the next few months, Chennault put his men through highly realistic combat training, which resulted in multiple accidents and fatalities, but ultimately prepared the pilots for the stress of combat. Chennault trained his men to avoid one-on-one dogfights and plan their attacks in pairs, and also prepared them to face Japanese maneuvers, which he had learned between 1937 and 1939.
The Flying Tigers were divided into three squadrons and a headquarters unit composed of support staff. The squadron’s were the Adam and Eve squadron, led by Robert Sandell, the Panda Bears, led by Jack Newkirk, and the Hell’s Angels, led by Arvid Olson. In addition, they received extensive help from the native Chinese who helped house the men, construct and store the planes, rescue downed pilots, and provide early warning against Japanese attacks.
On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and simultaneously destroyed most of the United States’ forces in the Philippines. In an attempt to seize control of the only land route for goods traveling to China, Japan invaded Burma, and raided the city of Rangoon. The Hell’s Angels squadron of the Flying Tigers fought alongside the British Royal Air Force for months in defense of the city, and was eventually relieved by the Panda Bears squadron. The Hell’s Angels and Adam and Eve squadrons retreated into China, where they continued to launch attacks throughout 1942 against Japanese ground forces and airfields as the invading forces took control of Burma and prepared an attack on Southeast China.
The famous Flying Tiger unit insignia was designed around this time as well. In the spring of 1942, Roy Williams, an artist for Walt Disney Studios, created the image of a cartoon winged Bengal tiger flying in a blue ‘V’ for the Flying Tigers. The design was used by the group after they were incorporated into the United States Army, and similar designs are still in use today in the Air Force.
Thanks to the Flying Tigers’ defense, the Japanese were unable to successfully invade China, and over the next two years the United States was able to defeat the Japanese army and liberate the region. The Flying Tigers continued to fight until July 4th, 1942 they were absorbed into the American Army Air Forces and renamed the 23rd Fighter Group. In theory, most pilots were to continue fighting, but in reality most left China and returned to the United States. Those who did remain in China, such as Tex Hill continued their missions against the Japanese, while many who returned home eventually returned to combat as pilots in other services, most notably Jim Howard and Greg Boyington, who were awarded Medals of Honor. Chennault himself remained in China, first as the commanding officer of the China Air Task Force, then as a major general in charge of the Fourteenth Air Force. He eventually retired in 1945.
During their short existence, the Flying Tigers only lost twelve planes and ten pilots in battle, while destroying almost three hundred Japanese aircraft. Even though they were always outnumbered, the Tigers were able to put up a strong resistance to the attacking Japanese, inflicting heavy casualties and slowing down the invasion. Without the resistance of the Flying Tigers and the British Royal Air Force, the Japanese Imperial Army would have swept through Burma and possibly been able to successfully establish a foothold in China. Despite their eventual defeat in and withdrawal from Burma, the Flying Tigers’ delay of the advancing Japanese was crucial to the Allied war effort.