Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Burma Air Campaign (1941–1942)

By the time the United States entered World War II at the end of 1941, China had been at war for four years. Virtually the only American force fighting the Axis powers anywhere in the world in December 1941 was the American Volunteer Group (AVG), popularly known as the Flying Tigers. Since August 1941, members of the AVG had been training at the British fighter base in Toungoo, Burma.

The Nationalist Chinese government headed by Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) was not only at war with the Japanese but also locked in an uneasy truce with Chinese Communist forces led by Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung). By late 1941, Jiang's troops had failed to block the Japanese move toward Burma, threatening the only land supply route into China that ran over the Himalayas, along the hairpin mountain curves of the Burma Road.

As the Japanese advance threatened Burma, the British requested one of the AVG's three squadrons to help defend Rangoon. On 12 December 1941, the AVG 3rd Squadron, commanded by Squadron Leader Arvid Olson, moved south to Rangoon to join units of the Royal Air Force (RAF), while the other two squadrons flew to Kunming in China to cover the terminus of the Burma Road.

The AVG's first combat occurred over Yunnan Province in China on 20 December. The 1st and 2nd Squadrons shot down 9 of 10 Japanese bombers, losing only 1 of their own P-40Bs. On 23 December, the 3rd Squadron and RAF aircraft shot down 6 Japanese bombers and 4 fighters over Rangoon. The RAF lost 5 aircraft in the battle, and the AVG lost 4. On Christmas Day, the Japanese sent 80 bombers over Rangoon in two waves, escorted by 48 fighters. The AVG knocked down 23 without suffering a single loss. The Japanese attacks continued through New Year's Eve. After 11 days of fighting, the AVG had shot down 75 Japanese aircraft, losing only 4 fighters and 2 pilots in the process.

In early January 1942, 8 aircraft from the AVG's 1st Squadron reinforced the 3rd in Rangoon. The rest of the 1st Squadron followed by midmonth. The AVG went on the offensive, attacking Japanese air bases in Thailand. During one raid alone, AVG pilots destroyed more than 60 Japanese aircraft on the ground. On 23 January, the Japanese again hit Rangoon with 72 aircraft. The AVG shot down 21, suffering only a single loss.

The air battles over the Burmese capital continued until 9 March 1942, when the city finally fell to Japanese ground attack. The Japanese captured the remainder of Burma in May, effectively cutting China off from ground access. For most of the rest of the war, the United States supplied China by air from India in the massive airlift that became known as flying "the Hump."

During the 10 weeks the AVG fought in the skies over Rangoon and the Burma Road, it only had between 5 and 20 operational fighters in Burma at any given time. Yet in 31 separate air battles, they destroyed a confirmed total of 217 Japanese aircraft and probably had 43 more kills (victories). In the process, they lost 6 pilots and 16 P-40s. Fighting alongside the AVG, the RAF had 74 confirmed kills and 33 probables, losing 22 Buffaloes and Hurricanes.

David T. Zabecki


Further Reading
Byrd, Martha. Chennault: Giving Wings to the Tiger. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1987.; Ford, Daniel. Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and the American Volunteer Group. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.; Greenlaw, Olga. The Lady and the Tigers: Remembering the Flying Tigers of World War II. Ed. Daniel Ford. San Jose, CA: Writers Club Press, 2002.
 

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