From Five Down and GloryBy Capt. Gene GurneyEdited By Mark P. Friedlander, Jr.Copyright 1958 by Gene Gurney and Mark P. Friedlander, Jr.
Claire Chennault left his job as principal of a small Texas high school to enlist in the Army air Service in 1917. After the war he stayed in the service and served for twenty years in many exciting and useful capacities. He was a daring acrobatic stunt pilot and a recognized leader in the field of precision air-to-air and air-to-ground pursuit maneuvers. Even in the sluggish pace of the peacetime military his thoughts were constantly on the improvement and development of new fighter strategy. During his tour as an instructor with the Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field, Ala., He wrote a textbook on the subject, The Role of Defensive Pursuit, which the school published in 1935. Also while at Maxwell he became the leader of an aerobatic act called “Three Men on a Flying Trapeze.” In this act, with Lts. Haywood S. Hansell and John H. Williamson and later with Lt. William C. McDonald replacing Hansell, Chennault performed at Cleveland’s National Air Races in 1934 and 1935.
With thoughts of more leisurely occupations and of comfortable settling down, Chennault had taken his wife and eight children to Louisiana when he received the amazing offer of full command of the Chinese air Force.
As early as 1932 Col. John H. Jovett, A West Point graduate and famous balloon commander in World War I, had begun the work of organizing the Chinese Air Force along a US design, but development had been slow. In 1936 McDonald and Williamson, Chennault’s old friends of the “Three Men on a Flying Trapeze,” had gone to China at the invitation of Madame Chiang Kaishek, the National Secretary of Aviation, to organize a flying school. But now the Japanese serpent was coiled to strike, and there was still no Chinese Air Force to meet pending onslaught. Under the urgings of McDonald and Williamson, plus another old Air Corps friend, Roy Holbrook, Captain Chennault accepted the Chinese offer and went to the Orient with the Chinese rank of colonel.
Madame Chiang Kai-shek purchased for Chennault’s personal use a $50,000 Curtiss-Wright P-36 which he used extensively to observe from the air the training of his men and the development of their dogfight tactics.
Among the American people there was a great deal of sympathy for the sufferings of the Chinese people as the victorious Japanese army overran and ravaged their country. Early I n 1941 this sympathy had concrete expression in the granting of a hundred Curtiss-Wright P-40B Tomahawks to China. (Later models used by the United States were the P-40E Kittyhawk and the P-40F Warhawk.) However, the grant made no provision for parts or replacements, so whenever one of the crates containing a wing was dropped into the water during the loading process, it was carefully salvaged for what used could still be made of it. Later a hundred liquid-cooled Allison engines, which had been rejected by the Air Corps because of minor faults, were acquired by the Chinese. Dr. T. V. Soong, head of the Bank of China and brother of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, was in the United States making the arrangements and putting up the financial backing (although the payment eventually came from United States lend-lease funds).
The United States was still maintaining diplomatic relations with Japan; so special arrangements were made to give the pilots recruited by Chennault a release from their respective services. Hundreds of supporting personnel were obtained in the United States to help the fighter pilots perform their mission which technically was “to protect the air over the Burma Road lifeline to the Chinese Army.” The first contingent of 150 support personnel included a flight surgeon’s unit with two nurses. Chennault stubbornly insisted that his pilots be in top physical condition at all times, so when they weren’t flying he usually saw to it that they had a boisterous baseball game going in which Chennault ceremoniously reserved for himself the position of pitcher.
When the men sailed on July 11, 1941, from San Francisco on the crack Dutch liner Jaeggersfontaine the newspapers picked up the story in spite of the cloud of secrecy under which she sailed. They predicted that Japan would never allow her to reach China—the Jaeggersfontaine sailed westward while the world waited and watched. West of Honolulu, in dangerous waters, two cruisers suddenly appeared alongside the Jaeggersfontaine—American escorts. The ex-carrier boys among the AVGs identified the cruisers as the Salt Lake City and the Northampton: President Roosevelt had not forgotten the young Americans.
Training of the new units took place according to the concepts of fighter tactics for which Chennault became world famous. Especially revolutionary was his two-plane element as opposed to the commonly used air Force three-plane element. In his two-plane element tactics, Chennault had a third plane fly over top cover. Advantage was concentrated on double firepower, which accounted for so many 1/2, 1/3, and 1/4 victories being credited to the Flying Tigers. Chennault studied the Japanese first-line fighter, the Zero, and analyzed its superior performance in three categories. During training he stressed to his men the necessity of fighting the Zero on the P-40’s most favorable points. He pointed out that if his men had the Zeros they could just as easily fight against the weaknesses of the P-40.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and their activity against the Chinese Air Force was stepped up. On December 18 they bombed Kunming t a much higher level than had been used during the raids of the previous spring. The next day their formations struck again, but by this time Colonel Chennault was ready for them and the Flying Tigers came prepared to fight.
“I attacked the outside bomber in the V. Diving down below him, I came up underneath, guns ready for the minute I could get in range. At 500 yards I let go with a quick burst from all my guns. I could see my bullets rip into the rear gunner. My plane bore in closer. At 100 yards I let go with a long burst that tore into the bomber’s gas tanks and engine. A wing folded and the motor tore loose. Then the bomber exploded. I yanked back on the stick to get out of the way and went upstairs. … There I went after the inside man [of the Japanese bomber formation]. I came out of a dive and pulled up level with the bomber just behind his tail. I cold see the rear gunner blazing away at me, but none of his bullets were hitting my plane. At fifty yards I let go with a long burst, concentrating on one motor. The same thing happened and I got No. 2. The bomber burned and then blew up.”
Rangoon was the Burma port, which served as the pouring end of the funnel for the supplies flowing up the Burma Road into China. Millions of Dollars’ worth of goods were centered and stored around this thriving port city. It was an important target, and the Japanese were determined to destroy it. On Christmas Day 1941, Chennault’s early-warning system reported that a large force of over one hundred Japanese planes was headed toward Rangoon.
The Hell’s Angels switched locations with the Panda Bears, and on December 28, the 2nd Pursuit Squadron met the next massive Japanese air assault on Rangoon, exchanging one Flying Tiger for eighteen Japanese planes.
In April 1942, Claire Chennault was recalled to active duty in the United States Army Air Corps and given the rank of temporary colonel, with permission to remain in his position with the Chinese government. A few weeks later he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. In that same month col. Robert L. Scott arrived in China to observe and later to take command of the 23rd US Pursuit Group which was to be formed from the Flying Tiger unit—which formal transfer took place on July 4, 1942, when the American Volunteer Group was officially disbanded and replaced with the 23rd. The official score of the AVG at the time was 299 Japanese planes destroyed in seven months and an equal number of probables (not confirmed victories).
Clair Chennault assumed command of the China Air Task Force, which included the 23rd Pursuit Group, the 16th Pursuit Group, and the 11th Bombardment Squadron (Medium). In March 1943, as a major general, Chennault was made the commander of the 14th Air Force, which was formed out of the China Air Task Force.
General Chennault continued his work with fighters and developed the most valuable tactical concept to come out of the war – low –level fighter bombing. He continued, as commander of the 14th Air Force, to perfect to a high degree his ideas of fighter-plan versatility. He conceived the plan for a fragmentation bomb, timed to go off at any altitude, to be carried by fighters to enable them to get above an enemy bomber formation and bomb them with a sort of upside-down flak. This technique was never developed to a precision point, although late in World War II it was feared that the Germans had nearly perfected a similar type weapon. Chennault was also able to watch an idea he had propounded early in 1932 become a useful realization: the paratrooper and the paradropping of artillery and other heavy equipment.
This man, who was known as the Old Man to the men who flew for him, and Old Leather Face to the Chinese people who loved him, was also dubbed Father of Ace for his brilliant leadership of the Flying Tigers, whose remarkable performances left a proud entry on the selective pages of aviation history.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag