When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the sole modern United States Army Air Force fighter stationed in Hawaii was the Curtiss P-40. An all-metal, 300-mph (if the pilot was lucky) 1934 design that had been modernized by an inline Allison engine jammed in its snout. The P-40 was quickly surpassed by considerably more proficient fighters. But on December 7, 1941, the warplane claimed two distinguishing features: it was the fastest airplane in the world in a dive, and it was accessible.
By 9 a.m. that day, over 2,400 Americans had been killed. Most of the Navy fleet had been destroyed, and more than half of the 200 Army aircraft on Oahu had been damaged beyond repair. Individual pilots like George Welch raced for any airplane they could locate, rather than an organized operation by air wings stationed in Hawaii. Welch’s efforts in the P-40 that day, in which he shot down four Japanese planes, were portrayed in the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora!. This earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Two weeks later, 100 trainees, led by one of the war’s most skilled and divisive commanders, began flying P-40s to defend China from Japan. Claire Chennault’s American Volunteer Groups Flying Tigers annihilated Japanese bombers in seven months, their big-jawed planes flashing shark’s fangs.
The Tigers of China
The Chinese had tried and failed to develop an air force, relying on incompetent foreign experts and mercenaries. The Italian dictator provided the pilot training cadre. This would automatically grant wings to the sons of Chinese leaders regardless of credentials. With the Japanese occupation and advancement aviation was crucial in changing the course of the war.
Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Nationalist Chinese, chose his wife, Madame Chiang, to head China’s Aeronautical Commission. Madame Chiang was then tasked with reorganizing the air force. She hired Claire Chennault of Waterproof, Louisiana, on the advice of one of her knowledgeable counselors. His job was to perform a three-month reconnaissance of the Chinese Air Force.
Chennault was a fervent supporter of fighter aircraft, and he was never on good terms with his Air Corps colleagues, who believed the future belonged to bombers.
In May 1937, Chennault arrived in China. He would assume one post or another until 1945, when he retired as a major general, still at odds with the Army. He got along well with the Generalissimo as well as Madame Chiang, who had received education in Georgia and Massachusetts and spoke English with a Southern accent. “I reckon you and I will get along all right in building up your air force,” Chennault drawled. “I reckon so, Colonel,” she answered with the same accent.
The Japanese began a massive onslaught in July 1937, shortly after Chennault’s arrival. The attackers took over Peking, Shanghai, and Nanking. Chennault continued on to assist with training and air defense as the Nationalists retreated to their wartime stronghold of Chungking. The Chinese Air Force’s issues were severe, and the continuous use of international mercenaries was not a viable option.
In 1940, the Chinese decided to employ 100 American pilots and purchase 100 of the best American planes available. The generalissimo dispatched his Harvard-educated brother-in-law, Soong, to Washington, D.C., to make the necessary arrangements. Chennault was sent to assist him a few months later.
They advocated recruiting pilots from the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. That plan was firmly rejected by Hap Arnold, then a major general and Chief of the Air Corps, as well as by his Navy counterpart, who felt they had no spare pilots. The request to purchase planes was also denied. The “China Lobby,” which had great clout in Washington, appealed the decision to President Roosevelt, who ordered that the planes be freed and the pilots be discharged from the services.
Curtiss-Wright aircraft company diverted manufacture of 100 Tomahawk II fighters, export variants of the P-40 initially meant for the British, to China. Although the P-40 was used by front-line Air Corps squadrons, it was considered obsolete. It was designed for low-altitude warfare and lacked the agility and ascending speed of the day’s top fighters, the British Spitfire and the Japanese Zero. The P-40, on the other hand, possessed unique characteristics such as diving speed and firepower.
It had two.50-caliber machine guns on the nose that fired through the propeller arc and four.30-caliber guns, two on each wing’s leading edge. The Tomahawks received for the AVG were effectively P-40Bs from the Air Corps. In the summer of 1941, the AVG recruited 109 pilots and 186 support personnel to sail for China. Few AVG pilots were thrilled to be accepted into the Chinese Army Air Forces. They would rather fly out their contracts and return home.
Chennault lectured on techniques he created to decrease the advantages of Japanese fighters and emphasize the P-40’s strengths every day at Toungoo.
“You can count on a higher top speed, faster dive, and superior firepower,” he said. “The Japanese have a faster rate of climb, higher ceiling, and better maneuverability. They can turn on a dime and climb almost straight up. If they can get you into a turning combat, they are deadly… Use your speed and diving power to make a pass, shoot, and break away. You have the edge in that type of combat. All your advantages are brought to bear on the Japanese deficiencies. Close your range, fire, and dive away. … Make every bullet count. Never try to get all the Japanese in one pass. Hit hard, break clean, and get in position for another pass.”
Blood for the Tigers!
Back in Washington, the AVG’s Stateside administrative and support arm at the Chinese Embassy came up with the nickname “Flying Tigers” for the AVG. Contrary to popular belief, the name had nothing to do with the teeth nose art on the aircraft, which were in fact shark’s teeth. Time magazine used the moniker for the first time on December 29, 1941, in an article headlined “Blood for the Tigers.”
The AVG pilots were taken aback by press reports that they were the “Flying Tigers,” but they warmed to the moniker and stuck with it. A Flying Tiger symbol was created by Walt Disney Studios. A Bengal tiger with wings leaping through a V-for-Victory device was shown.
The Battle of Rangoon
The Battle of Rangoon began three days after the AVG chased the bombers out of Kunming, and it was a significant moment in the war. “Although the AVG was blooded over China, it was the air battles over Rangoon that stamped the hallmark on its fame as the Flying Tigers,” Chennault said.
The P-40 was an ideal plane for the Battle of Rangoon, which was fought primarily at altitudes below 20,000 feet. The P-40 was the best airplane in the fight at that height, and it was the best armed. “The victories of these Americans over the rice paddies of Burma are comparable in character if not in scope with those won by the RAF over the hop fields of Kent in the Battle of Britain,” said British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Despite their best attempt the Tigers were destroy the overwhelming Japanese forces and fell on March 8. The invaders advanced north, taking Lashio and pushed the Chinese force back along the Burma Road. In Burma, China, and Thailand, the Japanese possessed 14 aviation regiments with 400 to 500 aircraft.
By early May, the Japanese had crossed into China and were on the western bank of the Salween River gorge. Even though some of their own men had not yet crossed, the withdrawing Chinese Army had blown up the bridge. “There were no obstacles between the Japanese and Kunming but a broken bridge and the AVG,” Chennault said. “If the Japanese got to Kunming, it meant the end of the war for China.”
Fortunately replacement planes, were sent to the Flying Tigers in March. They were P-40Es with bomb racks, giving the AVG its first bombing capability. Chennault launched everything the AVG had at the Japanese for four days, fighting them from the Salween River all the way back to the Burma border. This time the Japanese were forced to retreat. “By May 11, the only military traffic along the Burma Road was moving south toward Burma,” Chennault said.
The most famous WWII planes to feature shark teeth were the American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force, better known as the “Flying Tigers”. Perhaps they were going for tiger teeth, but with the shape of the nose of the aircraft, it ended up looking more like a shark. It is widely believed that the shark teeth on the A-10 may be a nudge to the Flying tigers.