“The Flying Tigers: The Untold Story of the American Pilots Who Waged a Secret War Against Japan” by Sam Kleiner

tigers

The Second World War actually began on 7 July 1937 at the Marco Polo Bridge southwest of Beijing, when Imperial Japanese troops clashed with Nationalist Chinese forces. Japan had annexed Manchuria in 1931, but Chinese forces did not fight back then; instead, China’s leaders appealed in vain to the League of Nations. Six years later, after another Japanese-manufactured “incident”, China would fight back.

To do so, however, China required a more effective air force and it turned to the United States for help. Two years before the Marco Polo Bridge clash, China had begun recruiting US pilots to train Chinese pilots to improve the effectiveness of its air arm. When the top American flight instructor in China died of a heart attack in late 1936, Chinese leaders recruited Claire Chennault to replace him.

Chennault arrived in China in late May 1937, and found that the Chinese Air Force was “terribly unprepared for war.” A little more than a month later, the war was on and Japanese ground forces and air forces attacked China’s armed forces and some of its cities along the east coast. Chennault was with Chiang Kai-shek and Madam Chiang when Japan shelled Nanking. “They are killing our people”, Madame Chiang lamented, but “[w]e will fight.” Chennault proposed an air strike on a nearby Japanese cruiser, and the Chiangs asked him to plan and organize the strike. The attack went awry and many innocent civilians were killed, but this was the birth pangs of the legendary Flying Tigers.

Kleiner tells the story better than it has been told before.

The Flying Tigers: The Untold Story of the American Pilots Who Waged a Secret War Against Japan , Sam Kleiner (Viking, May 2018)
The Flying Tigers: The Untold Story of the American Pilots Who Waged a Secret War Against Japan, Sam Kleiner (Viking, May 2018)

Sam Kleiner, an attorney whose writings have appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and the Los Angeles Times, has written a terrific book about the courageous and daring American pilots who helped China resist the Japanese onslaught and helped the US and its allies win the Second World War in East Asia. Contrary to the book’s subtitle, the Flying Tigers’ war did not remain secret for long (US newspapers regaled their readers with accounts of the Tigers’ heroics) and it has been told many times before.

That said, Kleiner tells the story better than it has been told before.

Many Americans’ knowledge of the Flying Tigers’ exploits derives from the popular Hollywood movie that starred John Wayne as Claire Chennault. Kleiner in this book brings the real Claire Chennault to life again, and relates the equally compelling stories of other individual pilots—their heroism, fears, loves, hates, friendships, and tragedies; all against the dramatic and horrific backdrop of World War II in East Asia.

After Nanking fell, Japanese soldiers subjected its citizens, especially women, to unspeakable and sadistic torture and rape. Chiang moved the capital to Hankow, where Chennault, a dozen American pilots, and a few German and French flyers organized the International Squadron in a futile effort to defend the city against Japanese air raids. The Chinese appreciated the effort, however. “Foreign pilots”, reported the China Weekly Review, “have become the backbone of the Chinese Air Force.” Hankow, too, fell to Japanese troops, and Chiang moved the capital to Chungking and Chennault’s budding air force to Kunming.

China needed more and better planes and pilots, so Chennault was sent home to the US to lobby the Roosevelt administration. Chennault joined Madame Chiang’s brother TV Soong, a Harvard- and Columbia-educated banker who frequently socialized with Washington’s elite. FDR approved a secret program to send pilots and planes to China through a “private” company, thereby circumventing the Neutrality Act. “[T]his wasn’t an administration”, Kleiner notes, “that felt constrained by the letter of the law.”

Chennault’s private air force would fly P-40s, also called Tomahawks, Army Air Corps planes, with

 

four .30-caliber guns in the wings and two .50 caliber guns mounted on top of the nose. The .50-caliber guns had to be synchronized to fire through the rotating propeller using an impulse generator.

 

The noses of the P-40s were painted with shark teeth and a “beady shark eye”. Chennault described the planes’ strengths as “higher top speed, faster dive and superior firepower.” He trained the pilots, writes Kleiner, to “climb up into the sun and then dive down on the Japanese planes.”

The pilots trained at a Royal Air Force base near Toungoo in the British colony of Burma. The air base, Kleiner writes, was “carved into the [Burmese] jungle.” The volunteer pilots slept in mosquito nets on wooden bunks with straw mattresses. There were no uniforms and very little discipline. The Tigers subsequently moved to better quarters in Kunming. Kleiner notes that for many of the “volunteers”, it was the great adventure of their lives. But, each pilot also “had to grapple with the knowledge of the suddenness, the randomness of mortality.” Some of the pilots died in training accidents. Others would die in combat.

 

Who were these pilots? John Newkirk, a 27-year-old navy pilot from Scarsdale, New York, who died in combat near Chiang Mai, Thailand. John Petach, a 23-year-old navy pilot from Perth Amboy, New Jersey, who died in a bombing run near Linchuan (Fuzhou) in July 1942. David “Tex” Hill, who was born to Christian missionaries in Korea, became a navy flyer, joined the Flying Tigers, fought again in the Korean War, and retired as a brigadier general in the US Air Force. Bert Christman, from Fort Collins, Colorado, who before joining the Tigers wrote a comic strip for the Associated Press. Christman died defending Rangoon against a Japanese air attack—he was strafed as he parachuted-out of his P-40 that had been shot up by Japanese fighters. Greg “Pappy” Boyington, a Marine pilot who repeatedly fouled-up with the Tigers, but went on to perform heroic service with the Black Sheep Squadron in the Pacific. And there were many, many others.

In seven months of combat (December 20, 1941 to July 4, 1942) over Burma, China, Thailand, and Indochina, the Flying Tigers shot down nearly 300 Japanese planes. Kleiner’s vivid descriptions of the air combat and his mini-biographies of the airmen keep you turning the pages of this wonderful book. The Flying Tigers didn’t win the war, but they helped China stay in the war and diverted scarce Japanese resources from the battles in the Pacific.

Kleiner notes that Chennault later worked with the US Office of Strategic Services to rescue downed airmen held captive by the Japanese. He also worked with the US Central Intelligence Agency in Korea and Vietnam in the early 1950s. Chennault died of lung cancer in July 1958. Madame Chiang Kai-shek attended the funeral. Chennault’s name on his gravestone is fittingly written in both English and Chinese.


Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.