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Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941-1942

Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941-1942

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Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941-1942

455 pages
7 hours
May 29, 2016


Early in the Second World War, in the skies over Rangoon, a handful of American pilots met and bloodied the Japanese Army Air Force, winning immortality as the "Flying Tigers." Arguably America's most famous combat unit, they were hired to defend beleaguered China for $600 a month, plus $500 for each Japanese plane shot down--fantastic money in 1941, when a Manhattan hotel room cost three dollars a night.


To bring his prize-winning history of the American Volunteer Group up to date, Daniel Ford has drawn on the most recent U.S., British, and Japanese scholarship, providing new information about the Tigers, their Royal Air Force colleagues, and their Japanese opponents. "Admirable," wrote Chennault biographer Martha Byrd. "A readable book based on sound sources. Expect some surprises."

May 29, 2016

About the author

Daniel Ford has spent a lifetime chronicling the wars of the twentieth century. He lives in Durham, New Hampshire, where he is a recreational pilot and writes for the Wall Street Journal.

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Flying Tigers - Daniel Ford

Flying Tigers title page


1 - ‘May I Present Colonel Chennault?’

2 - ‘We Are Not Choosers’

3 - ‘Tex, This Is Too Good To Be True’

4 - ‘Looks Mean As Hell’

5 - ‘Flaming Till Hell Won’t Have It’

6 - ‘Such a Bright Red!’

7 - ‘He Just Went Spinning Away’

8 - ‘I Commenced To Lean Forward’

9 - ‘They All Fell in a Straight Line’

10 - ‘Hoffman Shot Down and Dead’

11 - ‘Let’s Get the Heck Out of Here’

12 - ‘Did You Have Any Warning?’

13 - ‘There Is Always a Way’

14 - ‘Terminate Our Contracts’

15 - ‘This May Screw Us Completely’

16 - ‘Piss on Bissell’

17 - ‘Far Worse Than You Know’

18 - ‘The AVG Passed into History’

Campaign maps, Burma and China

Further Reading

Copyright - Author

1 - ‘May I Present Colonel Chennault?’

THE MAN BEHIND THE FLYING TIGERS was born in Commerce, Texas, on September 6, 1893 — or was he? The place is probably right, though there’s no documentary proof of Claire Lee Chennault’s birth in Commerce or anywhere else. As the story is told, his father left Louisiana after a horse trader tried to sell him an unbroken mustang as good farm stock. Mr. Chennault shot a hole through the man’s hat, and a sojourn in Texas was thought advisable while the matter cooled.

Ah, but the date! For most of his life, Claire Chennault gave his birth year as 1890, and not until he died did his widow correct it to 1893. As a young man, he needed to seem older than his chronological age. So, at a time and in a place that had scant use for vital statistics, he made the change and was stuck with it. And he always did look older than his years. Not for nothing would his associates call him Old Leatherface.

It’s a small matter, this business of Claire Chennault’s birth year, but suggestive of the ambiguities that marked his career. He was a great man and a flawed one. It can be argued that the American Volunteer Group wasn’t his idea, that another man did as much as Chennault to create it, that he didn’t invent its tactics (or at least not exclusively), and that when it was fighting most desperately, he was generally elsewhere. However that may be, it’s also true that the AVG would never have succeeded without his passion and his remarkable ability to inspire devotion in young men — and women.

According to family legend, the first Chennault came from France in 1778 to fight for American independence under the Marquis de Lafayette. He stayed to plant tobacco in Virginia, and his descendants moved westward with the country. In the fourth generation, John Chennault grew up in Louisiana and married Jessie Lee. They settled in her home town of Gilbert — bayou country, woven with swampy tributaries of the Mississippi and forever threatening to return to wilderness. Mr. Chennault farmed cotton, served as sheriff and, after the family returned from the Texas sojourn, fathered a second son, William. Mrs. Chennault died of tuberculosis in 1901, and the boys were thereafter reared by her sister, Louise Chase. Claire formed an instant, strong attachment for his young aunt, and her sons became like brothers to him.

In some ways, his was an idyllic boyhood — Tom Sawyerish, indeed — though by his own account he was a loner, happiest by himself or with younger boys willing to follow his lead. He quickly made his way through the one-room Gilbert school, and in January 1909 he matriculated at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, in a class of 146 men and 8 women. The university required incoming students to be sixteen at nearest birthday, so Chennault tweaked his birth month back to June, which is how it still appears on LSU records. At the same time (as he claimed) he applied to West Point and Annapolis, and during spring break took the train east to sit for the entrance exam for the Naval Academy. This may have been Chennault’s occasion for falsifying the year of his birth, since a fifteen-year-old couldn’t have applied to the military academies. (Annapolis has no record of this application.) Chennault submitted a blank paper, he said, after considering what life would be like inside those grim walls. But why would he have been dismayed by the regimentation of Annapolis? He was no stranger to drill: like all men living in barracks at LSU, he belonged to the Reserve Officer Training Corps and wore his ROTC garrison cap, high-buttoned tunic, and striped uniform trousers to class.

Of his own volition, he joined the Graham Literary Society, and he apparently showed some talent in that direction. I remember his writing perfectly, recalled his English teacher, Mercedes Garig. It had character and slanted to the right. It impressed you as though he knew what he wanted to say and how to say it. Not that he spoke very often: "He would just sit and look and I never knew whether it was reserve or shyness. It seemed to me that it may have been just belief in himself — that he didn’t have to go outside himself.

He was slender, Garig went on, with dark hair and an olive complexion. But the most noticeable thing about him was his silence. I never got close to Chennault, mainly because his work was usually so good that I never had to have many conferences with him.

He was an aggie, taking eighteen classroom hours each week in English, algebra, botany, comparative physiology, farm accounting, and elementary agriculture. LSU also encouraged students to sign up for sports, and Chennault recalled that he competed at track, basketball, and baseball.

That summer, he farmed a cotton patch to earn money for his sophomore year, but he didn’t return to LSU in favor. Instead, he enrolled in a teacher preparation course at the State Normal School at Natchitoches. In September 1910 — just barely seventeen years old — he went to work as teacher-principal of a school in Athens, not far from Shreveport. When the school year was over, he attended commencement exercises at Winnsboro High, where the valedictorian (and only graduate) was Nellie Thompson, plump and pretty. They were married on Christmas Day, 1911. As a family man, Chennault required more lucrative employment than presiding over an ungraded country school: by the time the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, he was working in a Goodyear tire factory.

Chennault resettled his family near the home place in Gilbert, joined the U.S. Army, and earned the silver bars of a first lieutenant. He was assigned to the 90th Infantry Division at Fort Travis, Texas. On the other side of San Antonio was Kelly Field, a former cotton plantation where the Signal Corps was teaching cadets to fly. Kelly asked Travis for the loan of an infantry officer, and Lieutenant Chennault joyfully accepted what he assumed was a billet in aviation, only to be told to lead the cadets in parade-ground drill. No matter. If it wasn’t flying, it was close, and he could take flying lessons on the sly. And he dressed the part: a 1917 photograph shows him togged out in puttees, riding breeches, shirt, tie, leather helmet, and round-lensed goggles like those worn on the Western Front. The man in the photo is strikingly handsome, though with narrowed eyes and an uncompromising mouth. His companion, by contrast, smiles affably at the camera.

THE WAR ENDED without Chennault’s taking part in it, but peace brought the orders he had longed for, sending him back to Kelly Field as a flying cadet. Alas, his bootleg lessons had left him with habits that, combined with a rebellious temperament, caused him to be washed out by his civilian flight instructor. Chennault went up in the washing machine for the traditional second opinion by a military pilot. This was Lieutenant Ernest Allison, who gave him a second chance: This man can be taught to fly.

Chennault earned his wings on April 9, 1919. His only flying assignment was a stint on the Mexican border, and he was routinely discharged at the end of his tour. He went home to Gilbert, planted a field to cotton, and pined for the wings he’d lost: I have tasted of the air, he wrote to his father, and I cannot get it out of my craw. Happily for him, the National Defense Act of 1920 made the Army Air Service a specialty like the infantry or artillery. Before his crops were in, Chennault applied for one of the newly opened slots for flying officers. On September 14, 1920, he again received pilot’s wings and lieutenant’s bars — a reservist no longer, but an officer in the regular army. Again he spent most of his time in non-flying assignments. By 1922, when he joined the 1st Pursuit Group at Ellington Field, Texas, he’d logged a paltry sixty-three hours in the air.

Chennault was assigned to the 94th Squadron, whose planes bore the hat-in-the-ring insignia made famous by Eddie Rickenbacker, America’s ace of aces in the war against Germany. In this congenial environment, Chennault became the superlative pilot nature had intended him to be, and in time he went to Hawaii as commander of the 19th Squadron. It was a happy billet for Chennault, now thirty and the father of six sons and a daughter. He sported a waxed-tip mustache, luxuriant and black. His station was Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor, America’s mightiest naval base. During a war scare in 1925, Chennault ordered aerial patrols off the coast of Hawaii, and he improvised an early-warning system by posting men with binoculars on top of a water tower. By now he was becoming deaf, an affliction common among pilots of the time, seated in an open cockpit amid the airstream and the roar of an unmuffled engine. He was obliged to fly on a medical waiver, but fly he did, logging 1,353 hours by the time he left Hawaii.

In 1929 the army promoted him to captain, and a year later sent him to the Air Corps Tactical School, where future generals were trained. Among his instructors was Captain Clayton Bissell, three years his junior but credited with shooting down five German aircraft on the Western Front, and therefore an ace. As Chennault told the story, Bissell taught that the only way to destroy the fast, heavily-armed bombers of the 1930s was for interceptors to fly overhead and dangle a ball-and-chain device to snare their engines.

When the Tactical School got a permanent campus at Maxwell Field, Alabama, Chennault joined the faculty. The school was more than an in-service academy: its sixteen-man faculty also served as an incubator for air force doctrine. Chennault tried to devise something more effective than dangling chains to defend against enemy bombers. This he did in the air over the town of Waterproof, Louisiana. His cousin Ben Chase had settled there, and Chennault would fly in for the weekend to fish, hunt, and practice aerobatics. Ben had served in the Naval Air Service, and sometimes his friends flew in from Pensacola, where the navy had a stunt-flying team called the Helldivers.

In 1929, the United States had adopted a pursuit plane to replace its war-vintage machines. Built by Boeing, this darling biplane was known to the army as the P-12. Its cowling bulged like the head of a clothespin, and its landing gear and upper wing were so far forward they almost met the engine, a 525-horsepower Wasp that drove the Boeing through the air at 190 miles per hour — the fastest and most maneuverable fighter in the world.

When the Tactical School’s commander saw the Helldivers perform in 1932, he asked Chennault to create a similar team for the army. For wingmen, Chennault picked Lieutenant Haywood (Possum) Hansell and Sergeant John (Luke) Williamson. After their first performance, letting off steam in a Mississippi tavern, they sang the rollicking verse: He floats through the air with the greatest of ease / That daring young man on a flying trapeze. Forthwith, they became the Three Men on a Flying Trapeze. Their stunts included a collision that brought the aircraft within eight feet of one another, and at times they flew tied together with twenty-foot lengths of control cable — taking off, stunting, and landing again with the tethers intact. Chennault’s ‘Men on a Flying Trapeze’ performed feats heretofore considered impossible, wrote a correspondent for the Air Corps News Letter. Wingovers, slow and snap rolls, Immelmanns, and finally a turn and a half spin were executed with such precision and perfection that it seemed as if the three planes were activated by a single mind.

The Three Men were indeed activated by a single mind: Chennault’s, mimicked to perfection by Luke Williamson and Possum Hansell. When Hansell left the act, he was replaced by Sergeant Billy McDonald. Photographed leaning against the lower wing of a Boeing P-12, they are three remarkably handsome men — all of a height, all of an age, all dressed in leather helmets, flight jackets, and fleece-lined pants held up by suspenders — and all happy. Even Chennault is grinning, although his smile is guarded, as if ready for an unfriendly move on the photographer’s part.

But the day of the fighter seemed to be ending. In Italy, Giulio Douhet argued that no city was safe from aerial bombardment, because no means existed by which a bomber could be stopped before reaching its target. Even if intercepted, Douhet argued, a heavily-armed battleplane could outgun the puny fighters of the day. At the Tactical School, Douhet’s books were translated, mimeographed, and used as a text. In the war games of 1931, the 1st Pursuit Group failed to catch a single bomber, prompting General Walter Frank to declare that it is impossible for fighters to intercept bombers.

The Boeing company had already designed the monster that would become the B-17 Flying Fortress. It weighed twenty-two tons; its four engines developed 3,720 horsepower and drove it through the air at 256 mph; and it was defended by machine guns at the nose, back, belly, and flanks. (The best American fighter, the new Boeing P-26 monoplane, had one-sixth the horsepower, a top speed of 230 mph, and two machine guns.) With the advent of the B-17 and sophisticated bombsights, air force doctrine became fixated on daylight precision bombing. American Army or Navy planes, went the mantra, can drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from 18,000 feet up. Altitude would protect them from anti-aircraft fire, and speed, close-formation flying, and mutually supporting gunners would fend off any enemy fighters that managed to find them in the vastness of the sky.

Chennault wasn’t convinced. Applying the lessons of the Flying Trapeze, he argued that the fighter’s deficiencies could be overcome through teamwork, esprit, concentration of firepower, and the speed built up in a dive. If a pilot took the high perch, he could make a screaming pass through an enemy formation, climb back to altitude, and do it again. Chennault also believed that a fighter pilot shouldn’t have to keep track of more than one friendly aircraft at a time, and that a sensible commander would keep fighters in reserve, to be dispatched as the situation changed. Above all, fighter defense required a continuous flow of information: observers should be strung around the target and linked by telephone to a command post where enemy bombers could be plotted on a map, enabling the commander to know where and when to intercept. Drawing upon his service in Hawaii, Chennault even suggested how to protect an island from attack: put the observers on picket boats or submarines.

Chennault served on the Pursuit Development Board that drew up specifications for the nation’s first 300-mph fighter. Modeled upon the sports racers of the day, it would be a low-wing monoplane with an air-cooled radial engine, retractable landing gear, and a stressed-aluminum skin that provided much of its strength. Chennault flew the competing designs in August 1935, and he agreed with the other members of the board that the army should adopt the Seversky P-35 as its next-generation fighter.

They were wrong. A competing design from the Curtiss-Wright company would prove to be faster, more reliable, easier to fly, and easier to maintain. Curtiss had a tradition of naming its warplanes Hawk, and this entry was the Hawk 75. The U.S. Army would eventually adopt it as the P-36. To recoup its investment, Curtiss worked up a cheaper version, with a smaller engine and non-retractable landing gear, which it hoped to sell to foreign countries.

Meanwhile, the Three Men gave their last performance at the All-American Air Races in Miami in December 1935. Among the spectators was Mao Pang-chu of the Chinese Air Force (CAF). He was a dashing figure, his face chubby and handsome beneath a wavy shock of hair, his uniform splendidly tailored and beribboned. Also in attendance was William Pawley, a salesman for Curtiss-Wright in China. Pawley was in Miami to recruit flight instructors for the CAF and to inspect the Hawk 75 export fighter. He threw a party on a yacht in Miami harbor, to which he invited Colonel Mao and the Three Men. Mao offered them lucrative jobs at a flight school in Hangzhou, and the two sergeant pilots bought up the time remaining on their enlistments and sailed for China in July 1936.

Even as Empress of Russia took his friends to Asia, Chennault understood that his argument was lost, his career in the air force effectively finished. Now wearing the gold oak leaves of a major, he was the executive officer — second in command — of the 20th Pursuit Group at Barksdale Field, Louisiana. He was forty-two. His face was pocked; crow’s feet radiated from the corners of his glittering black eyes; his nose was almost perfectly aquiline; razor-cut seams dropped from the corners of his mouth. Altogether, Chennault had the look of a weary eagle. He was an uncomfortable presence — demanding and passionate — kind to subordinates but impatient and sharp-tongued with his superiors.

It is well to avoid a reputation for eccentricity, wrote Henry (Hap) Arnold in a manual intended to guide a young aviator from lieutenant’s bars to general’s stars. He may have been thinking of Chennault. When he had read the latter’s critique of the West Coast games, he supposedly snapped: Who is this damned fellow Chennault? General Arnold believed in bombers — winged, long-range artillery, he called them. They can no more be completely stopped once they have taken the air than the big shell can be stopped once it has left the muzzle. A major doesn’t advance his career by arguing with the commanding general.

Then there was Chennault’s health. He was tremendously active, tremendously eager, always ready for a roughhouse or a pickup baseball game with his sons or subordinates. But he was regularly laid low by bronchitis, the penalty for his addiction to Camel cigarettes. (He smoked up to three packs in twenty-four hours, chain-smoking through the day and sometimes the night.) For years he’d been flying on a waiver for deafness; now, at Barksdale, flight surgeons declared him unfit to fly. They sent him to the Army-Navy General Hospital to be treated for what appears to have been a physical and mental breakdown. In February 1937, the army suggested that he retire at his permanent rank of captain.

The Chennaults had bought a farm near Waterproof. The house was a one-story bungalow, shaded by pines. There was an RFD mailbox, a white board fence, a black cook, and a pier reaching out into Lake St. John. Nellie took to rural life. She was now a portly woman with a perm, metal-rimmed glasses, black dress, and sensible shoes, wearing the benevolent but formidable expression of a Sunday School teacher ... which she was, as well as president of the Waterproof Methodist Women’s Society.

But Chennault had no intention of rusticating in Louisiana. Since meeting Colonel Mao on Bill Pawley’s yacht, he’d been bargaining with the Chinese. His assignment, as it finally evolved, was a three-month survey of the CAF at a salary of $1,000 a month, three times what he’d earned as a major on active duty. On April 30, 1937, he retired from the U.S. Army. Next day he boarded the train to San Francisco, and from there set out across the Pacific on President Garfield. He started a diary when he embarked upon the Great Adventure, but except for that revealing phrase it contained only a recital of the day’s events, with few personal reflections and no comment on world events. So we don’t know what he thought of the news that German and Italian bombers had destroyed the city of Guernica, Spain, killing a thousand or more civilians in history’s first terror bombing — the Douhet doctrine come to terrible reality.

Chennault’s first stop in Asia was Kobe, on the Japanese main island of Honshu, where Billy McDonald met him for a day and a night of amateur espionage. (Chennault took note of the damage incendiary bombs could inflict upon Japanese houses, built — as they seemed to him — of matchsticks and paper.) Garfield then took them to Shanghai, a treaty port governed and garrisoned by Britain, the United States, Japan, France, and Italy. The foreigners had their own police, courts, and prisons in Shanghai and every other city in reach of their gunboats — even Nanjing, 200 miles inland, where Chiang Kai-shek supposedly ruled China. In fact, his domain was limited mostly to the valley of the Yangtze River. Japan occupied Manchuria; Soviet Russia controlled Mongolia and Xinjiang; a Communist government held sway in Shanxi; and foreigners ran the treaty ports. Much of the rest was given over to warlords who levied their own taxes and fielded their own armies. In this fractured empire, Chiang was merely Generalissimo — the ultimate warlord.

THAT THURSDAY — June 3, 1937 — may have been the most important day in Chennault’s life, for it began his lifelong association with the first family of China. One sultry afternoon, as he told the story in his 1949 autobiography, Roy Holbrook appeared and drove me to the high-walled compound in the French Concession to meet my new employer — Madame Chiang Kai-shek. We were told she was out and ushered into a dim cool interior to wait. Suddenly a vivacious young girl clad in a modish Paris frock tripped into the room, bubbling with energy and enthusiasm. I assumed it was some young friend of Roy’s and remained seated.... Roy poked me and said, ‘Madame Chiang, may I present Colonel Chennault?’

Madame enchanted Americans from many backgrounds. They were impressed by her power, awed by her beauty, reassured by her Wellesley diploma, and charmed by her Southern drawl (as Chennault and others have characterized her voice, though in recordings I find it clipped, authoritative, and unaccented). She was a chameleon, who could charm even a soldier of fortune. Among the American pilots hiring out to Chinese warlords in the 1930s was Royal Leonard, who flew the Chiangs to safety after a kidnapping that ended with the Generalissimo promising to lead Communists, warlords, and his Nationalist army in a united front against the Japanese. Madame Chiang impressed Leonard as the most beautiful Chinese woman I had ever seen, and he threw in his lot with the Chiangs. The Generalissimo was a medieval man, who never felt entirely comfortable in his flying palace. But Madame was a modernist. She acquired a plane of her own, and had herself named secretary-general of China’s Aeronautical Commission, in which capacity she was interviewing Chennault.

His account of their meeting is notable in another respect. He was a retired captain who’d never held a rank higher than major. If Holbrook introduced him as colonel, the title either came from the Chinese or was cooked up by the two Americans. The latter seems to have been the case. Chinese officers who worked with Chennault in the 1930s assured me that he had never been commissioned in the CAF.

His next interview was in Nanjing, where he met General Chou Chih-jou, a somber-faced infantry leader who’d been sacked by the Generalissimo for losing a battle with the Communists, then given command of the air force. Chou’s Italian adviser, General Silvio Scaroni, was there to brief the newcomer. Chennault next went to Hangzhou, where the CAF primary flight school was staffed by Americans, including Luke Williamson and Billy McDonald. After a wallah-wallah with his old comrades, he set off on a tour of airfields at Nanchang, Canton (Guangzhou), Hankou, and finally Luoyang — Scaroni’s domain, where Italian airmen ran an intermediate flight school, assembled kit-built warplanes, and kept the Communists from breaking out of their base in Shanxi.

At Luoyang, Chennault learned that Japanese and Chinese troops were fighting at the Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing. The cause was obscure: Japanese troops on maneuvers, shells exploding in their bivouac area, and Private Shimura Kikujiro vanishing on piss-call. The supposed casualty returned to duty next day, but the Japanese commander was determined to eject Chinese troops from the area. The offensive came as a surprise to the government in Tokyo. However, as they’d done with the army’s earlier occupation of Manchuria, the politicians bowed to the wisdom of the generals, giving Chiang Kai-shek the choice of surrendering Beijing or going to war.

Chennault fired off a telegram to the Aeronautical Commission, offering his services, and was told to go to Nanchang and take charge of final combat training for the Chinese Air Force. The base was commanded by Mao Pang-chu, the curly-haired officer who’d recruited the Three Men in Miami. Now a brigadier (one-star) general, he tactfully removed himself to the capital when Chennault arrived, leaving the leading squadrons of the CAF in the control of a man who’d been in the country for six weeks, and who didn’t (and never would) speak the language.

Nanchang was a dusty city in the interior, where the Chinese pilots proved so inept that many couldn’t be trusted in a biplane trainer, never mind a Boeing P-26. (As the story is told, they were the sons of Chiang’s bankers, generals, and legislators, and Scaroni hadn’t thought it politic to deny them wings.) Chennault vented his dismay in a letter to Billy McDonald: What should I do, Mac, solo them on the Boeing and see if they break their necks or have them think I’m holding out on them? If the Commission is going to keep up sending greenhorns like these, it’s no wonder the planes are all wrecks.

On July 23, he went to Nanjing to brief Chiang Kai-shek on the war readiness of the CAF. His report wasn’t reassuring: China had ten Boeing P-26 fighters and twenty-one bombers of German, Italian, and American manufacture. The backbone of the CAF was an obsolete U.S. Navy biplane, the first of the Curtiss Hawks. Bill Pawley had sold the design to China and built the planes at his factory in Hangzhou. Grandly called Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO), this plant had been assembling the tubby biplanes since 1933, and one hundred were in service with the CAF, both as fighters and as bombers.

On July 31, Chiang made his decision. He would fight — but not at Beijing, where the Japanese could call upon their reserves in Manchuria. Instead he sent his German-trained 87th and 88th divisions into action at Shanghai, against Japanese marines dependent on the navy for supply, reinforcement, heavy guns, and air support. It was a clever move, except that it pitted the fledgling CAF against the Japanese Navy Air Force. The Japanese army regarded Soviet Russia as its most likely foe, so it acquired planes that could fight in the cold and barren reaches of Manchuria. The navy, by contrast, expected to fight the United States. It therefore developed planes that could fly great distances, over water, in a tropical climate — the very qualities needed at Shanghai.

Chennault’s first job was to silence the guns shelling Chiang’s divisions. The order came on Friday the thirteenth. As he told the story, he and Billy McDonald stayed up until 4 a.m. to plan a raid that would send CAF bombers against the flagship Idzumo, anchored in the river off the Japanese consulate.

The sky on August 14 was filled with rags of low-lying clouds, forerunners of a typhoon. Scattered by the storm, the CAF bombers reached Shanghai in flights of two or three. (Japanese warplanes, scheduled to raid Chinese airfields, were kept on their aircraft carriers that morning by raging winds.) Idzumo’s anti-aircraft guns began to fire, alerting foreign newsmen in the Cathay and Palace hotels. They saw three aircraft, which "dived and loosed one bomb each, the explosions reverberating through the city and engulfing [Idzumo] in smoke."

The bombs missed. As Chennault explained the disaster, his pilots came in at low altitude because of the clouds, but failed to adjust their sights for the new altitude. As a result, their bombs landed in the city, wounding and killing some three thousand civilians. Oh, it was the most bloody catastrophe, recalled Tom Trumble, a young American seaman on USS Augusta. There were arms, legs, torsos. The streets were running with blood.

Nor did Japanese airmen cover themselves with glory on that day. Eighteen Mitsubishi G3M navy bombers took off from Taiwan to bomb the Chinese airfields. (Called Formosa in the west, the offshore island had been a Japanese colony since 1895.) The round-trip distance was 1,250 miles, most of it over open ocean — a raid that wouldn’t have been attempted by any other air force in the world. At Hangzhou, the formation was ambushed by the squadrons Chennault had trained. Without loss to themselves, the Hawk biplanes shot down two of the fast, twin-engine bombers and damaged a third so badly that it crashed on the way home.

On Sunday, sixteen G3Ms appeared in the sky over Nanjing. Without fighter escort, they were easy meat for the defenders, as Chennault exultantly noted. CAF Boeings and Hawks tore into them over Nanjing, shooting down four and damaging six more. A Japanese airman confessed to his diary: We have lost 30 men.... I wish to jump out and die with them, but how? My life is not mine. What can I do? The only thing I can do is hold the plane tight and pray God silently. In three days of trans-ocean raids, nine G3Ms were shot down and eleven badly damaged, leaving only eighteen in service. Worse losses were suffered by carrier-based attack planes: a squadron of twelve biplane B2Ms attacked Hangzhou, with only one getting back to the aircraft carrier Kaga. So much for the theories of Clayton Bissell, Guilio Douhet, and Hap Arnold: the bomber didn’t always get through.

By the end of August, however, the first Japanese escort fighters appeared over Nanjing. Jap pursuit reported superior in performance to Hawks, Chennault wrote. Chinese pilots are most properly afraid of them. Like most westerners, he didn’t believe that the Japanese could have built anything so formidable, and he identified the new fighters as French Dewoitines. (Similarly, the New York Times had identified the G3Ms over Nanjing as German-built Heinkels.) In fact, he was seeing the combat debut of the Mitsubishi A5M, an open-cockpit fighter with fixed landing gear and two rifle-caliber machine guns firing through the propeller arc — rather like the Boeing P-26, though faster and more agile.

On September 1, Chiang Kai-shek put Chennault in charge of Nanjing’s air defense. He set up shop at the athletic stadium with five Chinese officers including Lieutenant Lee Cheng-yuan. They put a radio in the flight leader’s aircraft, and linked the stadium to a network of a few army field radios and many hand-cranked telephones. Lee called the system the spider in the web, with each radioman the center of a circle of eight or ten observers who reported to him by telephone. The radioman forwarded the information to the athletic stadium, where it was plotted on a map, with flags to indicate the type, quantity, and direction of the enemy planes. The details were simple-minded to begin with: much noise / little noise; one engine / two engines. In time the observers became more sophisticated, and the system was expanded to Shanghai and Hangzhou.

With the Japanese ruling the daylight sky, Chennault switched to attacks at dusk and dawn. He mocked up Idzumo with lanterns on the Nanjing runway and drilled his pilots against this winking target from 3,500 feet. Then the CAF tried it live. Sure enough, the Japanese outlined their ships with searchlights and muzzle-flashes, enabling the Chinese bombardiers to damage some of them, though not the charmed Idzumo. The sudden increase in accuracy aroused the suspicions of the American consul. Recent Chinese night air raids over Shanghai are reported to have been carried out by pilots obviously more skilled than Chinese, the consul cabled Washington. One raider flew very low over foreign area to escape Japanese anti-aircraft fire and when passing over American Country Club dipped his plane and flashed on and off his lights. There is strong suspicion this plane was piloted by one of the American aviators [here].

Aboard Augusta, Tom Trumble saw dispatches identifying Chennault as a CAF adviser. The name stuck, Trumble said, "and for a long time I thought that Chennault was the mysterious ‘Mr. Wu’ that used to fly by the Augusta at dusk every evening and try to bomb the Idzumo." Trumble later had a chance to question Billy McDonald on this point. No, McDonald assured him; Chennault was never the bomber pilot, only an observer. For this duty, he flew a fixed-gear but otherwise sleek Hawk 75, brought to China by Bill Pawley in hopes of selling a new generation of fighters to Chiang Kai-shek.

Chennault never mentioned these flights in his diary, but he hinted at them in a September 14 letter to Possum Hansell, now a full-fledged member of the bomber mafia at the Air Corps Tactical School. "While there is no war going on at present, Chennault told his former wingman, some 2,000 Japanese airplanes are doing their annual bombing maneuvers all over China.... In view of this Jap activity, Chinese pursuit is conducting its annual gunnery practice. In their first interception over Nanjing, CAF fighters tore into the Japanese bombers and had six of them burning in just 2 minutes, all six being visible from one spot in the sky." Was he saying that he was the airborne observer — or one of the fighter pilots? The former may have been true, but the latter probably wasn’t. Chennault has often been depicted as a mercenary warrior in China, credited with as many as fifty Japanese planes shot down. But CAF veterans denied that he performed any more hazardous duty than scouting enemy positions, and his age and health would have made him an extremely unlikely fighter pilot.

His letter to Possum Hansell ended with a boast that in time became an obsession: Boy, if the Chinese only had 100 good pursuit planes and 100 fair pilots, they’d exterminate the Jap air force! In that sentence, he had sketched the outline of the American Volunteer Group he’d recruit in 1941.

THE CHINESE FOUGHT with suicidal gallantry at Shanghai, losing 270,000 men before retreating along the railroad to Nanjing. By the time they captured the capital, Japanese losses were nearly as great. The victors then embarked upon an orgy of looting, raping, drinking, and murder, in the words of an American diplomat. As many as 300,000 civilians and prisoners of war were murdered, making the Rape of Nanjing one of the bloodiest events of the Second World War — and for nothing, because Chiang simply moved his government upriver. Bureaucrats and soldiers, bankers and industrialists, teachers and students, peasants and workers: they moved up the mile-wide Yangtze, scuttling boats behind them to slow the Japanese advance. The Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company was part of this immense hegira. At Hankou, CAMCO reconstituted itself in the shadow of the Japanese Concession, and from this haven repaired warplanes for the CAF, delivering them to the airfield in the morning and dragging them back at sundown, to make good the damage sustained during the day.

Bill Pawley’s order book was brimming: sixty Hawk biplanes, thirty Hawk 75 monoplanes like the one flown by Chennault, thirty Vultee light bombers. With Shanghai lost, the aircraft came in through the British colony of Hong Kong, then by rail to the dusty city of Hengyang, where Pawley built a satellite factory to assemble them. Also operating out of Hengyang in the winter of 1937-1938 was Harvey Greenlaw, a former flight instructor at Hangzhou who was assembling training planes for a Pawley competitor, A.L. (Pat) Patterson. The factories became the target of Japanese raids, and Olga Greenlaw recalled how Chennault and her husband would sit on her garden wall, oblivious of shrapnel falling near them, and discuss the Japanese methods.

Mercenary pilots flocked to China with claims of combat experience

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