Who Were the Flying Tigers?

Volunteer American pilots flew against the Japanese over China in 1941 and 1942.
The Flying Tigers over China in 1942. Three Lions, Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Question: Who Were the Flying Tigers?


The Flying Tigers, or the First American Volunteer Group (AVG) of the Chinese Air Force, was an all-volunteer pilot corps recruited from the United States Army Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. It was secretly authorized by President Franklin Roosevelt in the spring of 1941, and was commanded by Lt. General Claire Lee Chennault. Since the United States had not yet entered World War II at the time, the pilots flew to a British airfield in Burma (now Myanmar) for training as an unofficial, mercenary corps.

Just twelve days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Flying Tigers flew their first missions. They flew combat sorties against the Japanese to ensure that the Burma Road would remain open to resupply China's Nationalist Army in its fight against Japan's Imperial Army. Throughout the Second Sino-Japanese War, Chiang Kai-shek's troops depended on foreign war material and aid that flowed in from British Burma and from French Indochina (Vietnam).

Interestingly, General Chennault did not speak Chinese, and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek did not speak English, so the two communicated almost exclusively through Chiang's wife, Madame Chiang or May-ling Soong. Madame Chiang was such a key component of the Flying Tigers' team that they named her the honorary commander of the corps.

In addition to keeping the supply lines open for the Chinese army, the Flying Tigers fought against Japan's bombers that were hitting Kunming, China and Rangoon, Burma.

When Burma fell to the Japanese in February of 1942, the Flying Tigers had to pull out of the area. The Flying Tigers flew as part of the Chinese Air Force until July of 1942, when they were absorbed into the US Army Air Force as the 23rd Fighter Group. In the seven months that they fought as mercenaries, they are credited with destroying 297 Japanese aircraft, with 229 of those shot down in flight.

Even after they officially joined the American Air Force, the Flying Tigers kept their signature shark-jaw nose cones.