THE FLYING TIGERS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE AMERICAN PILOTS WHO WAGED A SECRET WAR AGAINST JAPAN
By Sam Kleiner
Viking, $28, 294 pages
Several years before its 1941 sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan launched an atrocity-laden invasion of China, a nation weakened by internal strife.
The rest of the world, including the United States, watched in helpless horror. President Franklin Roosevelt was sympathetic but neutrality laws bound his hands.
Matters changed dramatically in 1935 at the unlikely venue of the Miami Air Show. A stunt team known as Three Men on the Flying Trapeze, led by an Army Air Corps fighter pilot named Claire Chennault, caught the attention of aviation wheeler-dealer William Pawley, the air show’s sponsor, who was selling planes to the Chinese air force.
Pawley’s question: Would the pilots go to China to train foreign pilots who agreed to fight the Japanese?
The offer appealed to Chennault, son of a Louisiana cotton farmer who entered the military during World War I. But his career stalled because superiors considered fighter planes to be useless against bombers.
Chennault declined to sign on as a pilot but agreed to go to China to assess air needs. There he met China’s ruler, Chiang Kai-shek, and his American-educated wife, Madame Chiang, head of the Chinese Aeronautical Affairs Commission.
The strikingly-beautiful Madame Chiang made a pitch that Chennault considered plausible: Planes could counter Japanese ground strength and stitch together feuding fiefdoms.
A turning point came when Chennault witnessed the terror bombing of Nanking, one of many attacks on civilian targets.
Acting on his own he pieced together about a dozen expatriate pilots — Americans, French and German — into the “International Squadron.”
Their clashes with Japanese planes were few but effective — so much so that in due course Chennault found himself to be a central figure in a much-expanded aviation venture.
Key figures were T.V. Soon, Chiang’s “personal representative” in Washington (and brother of Madame Chiang); FDR intimate Henry Morgenthau, the Treasury secretary; and lawyer/fixer Thomas “The Cork” Corcoran.
FDR wanted a means of “hurting Japan without provoking war,” neutrality laws not withstanding. Author Sam Kleiner provides an incisive account of how Roosevelt succeeded, signing no documents, telling Morgenthau to “work out a program.”
Such was done: A “covert action” to provide up to 100 planes to defend the Burma Road, China’s life line for supplies via India. The fiction was that the venture was private.
Mr. Kleiner shows a keen understanding of the risks FDR took. A Yale law graduate, he is a New York associate of super lawyer David Boies.
The Army objected to providing the pilots but was pressured into permitting volunteers to join “advance training teams” to China, with Chennault as commander.
The choice was wise. As Mr. Kleiner writes, pilots found him illusive — a man who spoke “in a low voice that almost made it sound like he was speaking in a foreign language.” But he made clear that “we have no place for slackers.”
Using false identities, pilots in the “American Volunteer Group” crossed the Pacific and set up a base in Burma’s jungles. Their high-speed fighter planes, the P-40, were too heavy and slow-climbing to duel Japanese fighters.
So they targeted bombers, climbing “into the sun” and swooping down on the enemy. “The more Japs you get with your first burst, the fewer there are to jump you later,” Chennault counseled.
Planes were decorated with a nose that looked like a shark’s snout, with a beady eye above the mouth. The intake “was like the gaping maw that a shark’s prey would disappear into.”
Oddly, despite the shark motif, in an early article on the AVG, Time used the term “Flying Tigers” to describe the planes, Why? Mr. Kleiner suspects a “marketing ploy” by someone in Washington. The name stuck.
Life was decidedly non-military. There were no uniforms (but ample booze) and men let their hair grow and sported mustaches. The base was “something like a circus troupe mixed with a fraternity party.”
But highly deadly. Their first coup came soon after Pearl Harbor, with an attack on a squadron of Japanese bombers caught on the ground. Many were destroyed.
Within weeks the pilots bagged 15 Japanese fighters and nine bombers. The Boston Globe hailed the “first walloping and crushing defeat the Japanese air force had suffered in 4 years of war.”
Such was just a beginning of aerial combat that ended Japanese terror attacks — and caught the fancy of a victory-hungry public.
Mr. Kleiner is the first historian to utilize wartime reports from Chennault, which he found “moldering in the basement of an unremarkable brick building in Georgetown.”
Along with interviews with a handful of survivors, and letters pilots wrote home, he tells an exciting story of bravery in the skies — and a picture of America at its best at a time of peril. A five-star read.
• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military matters.
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