Chennault overcame great hurdles to implement his plan, but China had powerful friends within the U.S. government, including Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. On 15 April 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an unpublished executive order authorizing reserve officers and enlisted men to resign from the U.S. military for the purpose of joining the AVG. In another deal, the British government agreed to waive its rights to a production run of 100 almost obsolete P-40B fighters in exchange for guaranteed priority on another order of a later model. The tiger-shark jaws that AVG pilots painted on the noses of their P-40s contributed to their nickname, which was bestowed on them by Time magazine in its 27 December 1941 issue.
Members of the AVG signed a one-year contract with the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company, a U.S. firm that had the contract with the Chinese government to provide pilots, planes, and crews. Pilots' salaries ranged from $250 to $750 per month. Not part of the written contract was an agreement that pilots were also to receive $500 for each Japanese plane shot down.
The first contingent of AVG pilots departed for China by ship in July 1941. The next month, they commenced training at the British air base in Toungoo, Burma. Training focused on air-combat theories, then somewhat unconventional, that Chennault had developed during his years in the U.S. Army Air Corps and tested in China after 1937. Chennault's tactics were built on the two-plane element and a careful analysis of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the opposing aircraft. Chennault stressed, for example, that his pilots should never try to turn with the more maneuverable Japanese aircraft. Instead, they should take advantage of the P-40's heavier weight to attack from above and then dive to break contact with the enemy. Chennault insisted that his pilots learn their enemy's fighter tactics better than the Japanese pilots knew the tactics themselves.
When the entire contingent arrived in Asia, the AVG was organized into three squadrons: the 1st ("Adam and Eves"), the 2nd ("Panda Bears"), and the 3rd ("Hell's Angels"). The AVG first went into combat over Yunnan Province in China on 20 December 1941, almost two weeks after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The AVG then had 82 pilots and 79 operational P-40s.
As soon as the United States entered World War II, plans were immediately developed to bring the AVG personnel back into the U.S. military. Chennault himself returned to active duty in the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) on 7 April 1942 as a colonel. The AVG was to be reintegrated by 4 July 1942 to become the 23rd Fighter Group, which would be commanded by Colonel Robert L. Scott, who was newly arrived from India. The 23rd would be part of the larger China Air Task Force (CATF), which would be commanded by Chennault as a brigadier general and subordinate to the U.S. Tenth Air Force in India. The CATF later grew to become the Fourteenth Air Force, commanded by Chennault as a major general.
The pilots and ground crew of the AVG were offered assignments in the USAAF and were strongly encouraged to accept them or face the draft board back home. Many, however, objected to the strong-arm tactics. In the end, only 5 AVG pilots agreed to rejoin the U.S. military and fly for the CATF. Another 19 stayed in China and continued to fly for China National Airways. To help Chennault with the transition, however, 20 pilots and 24 ground crew agreed to serve two weeks beyond 4 July. Two of those volunteer pilots were killed during that period. Other AVG pilots who did not stay in China later made significant contributions in other theaters of war. They included James Howard, who flew with the 354th Fighter Group in Europe, and Gregory Boyington, who flew with the Marines in the Pacific. Both subsequently earned the Medal of Honor.
Although some military experts predicted at the time that the AVG would not last three weeks, it achieved one of the more impressive records in air warfare. In less than seven months in combat, the unit destroyed 299 Japanese aircraft and probably destroyed another 153. The AVG lost only 12 P-40s and 4 pilots killed in air-to-air combat. It lost another 6 pilots to ground fire: 3 were captured and 3 were killed on the ground by enemy bombs. Another 10 pilots died in flying accidents.
Despite the fact that most members of the AVG came from the U.S. military (and many returned to the military to serve in World War II), they were branded as mercenaries for many years following the war. In 1991, a U.S. Air Force panel concluded that all members of the AVG had been fighting for the United States at the time and were eligible for veterans' benefits on the basis of that service. On 8 December 1996, the air force further recognized the AVG by awarding the Distinguished Flying Cross to the pilots and the Bronze Star Medal to the ground crews. David T. Zabecki
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.; Scott, Robert Lee. God Is My Co-Pilot. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1943.
David T. Zabecki