They sailed across the Pacific on Dutch freighters, representing themselves as farmers, missionaries and mechanics. But this group of recently discharged military pilots had a special mission in 1941: to go to China and fight the Japanese.
After landing in Rangoon, they set up an ostensibly volunteer aviation force in China. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the fighting began. Ultimately, the 100 pilots amassed perhaps the greatest record in the history of air combat.
Historians have long asserted that this group, the famous Flying Tigers, was a covert operation, orchestrated by wheeler-dealers in the White House of Franklin D. Roosevelt and supported by the War Department.
But the Pentagon has denied that the Flying Tigers force was anything but voluntary, its members ineligible for veteran status or benefits.
Now, five decades later, the Pentagon is making amends--and thus tacitly admitting what really happened.
A special service review board has determined that the pilots and 200 or so crewmen of the Flying Tigers--formally known as the American Volunteers Group--served "active duty" during their battles in 1941. An announcement of the Defense Department finding, which was signed without ceremony on May 3, is scheduled to be made today.
Few people have had adventures as compelling as those of the Flying Tigers. Some were housed in royal splendor by the colonial British, a double Scotch awaiting their evening arrival from the airfield. Others slept in leech-infested rice paddies. There was romance. And there was plenty of booze, with some drinking until dawn in Rangoon nightclubs.
They served under Chinese leader Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the ardent anti-communist, and their aircraft bore the insignia of the Chinese army--circumstances that ordinarily would make them servants of a foreign power.
But nothing was ordinary about the operation.
Secret documents obtained by Robert Schriebman, the group's attorney in Torrance, leave little doubt about the origin of the unusual war effort. Creation of the Flying Tigers "has the approval of the president and the War Department," according to an August, 1941, memo for the chief of the Army Air Corps, Gen. Henry (Hap) Arnold.
The official U.S. involvement in the operation was clandestine at least in part because it violated the U.S. Neutrality Act, which forbade taking sides between "belligerent" nations such as China and Japan. No doubt there was concern that a U.S. military operation in China would be a provocation to the Japanese.
"To avoid a breach of international law, the entire project was organized as a commercial venture," according to a heretofore secret report prepared by an Army intelligence officer in 1942 and recently obtained by Schriebman.
The covert U.S. effort in China "makes the the Iran-Contra affair look like a small-scale operation," Schriebman said.
It remains unclear why secrets about the Flying Tigers were protected for so long. But historians say that much about World War II is still murky. British authorities, for example, are suppressing release of U.S. documents that shed light on espionage activities.
"Even with the passage of all this time, there are still matters in the history of World War II that are regarded as sensitive," said Richard Hallion, a prominent aerospace historian.
Destroyed 296 Planes
Unlike many special military operations that have proved ill-conceived, the Flying Tigers executed their bizarre plan with stunning results.
Over a six-month period, the aviators destroyed 296 Japanese fighters and bombers, while losing just four of their own pilots to enemy gunfire. During their brief operation, which ended July 4, 1942, the operation slowed Japan's advance on China and bought critical time for the United States.
"We have a record that is second to none," said David Lee (Tex) Hill, one of 26 surviving Flying Tiger pilots, who shot down 12 Japanese planes and shared credit for a 13th. "Nobody will ever match that again: 296 to 4."
At that moment in history, the victory was the lone American success in the war against Japan. After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese quickly captured Hong Kong, Manila, Bangkok, Singapore and eventually Rangoon.
It looked like nothing could stop the Japanese, least of all a group of ragtag volunteers from America, equipped with dated Curtiss-Wright P-40 aircraft. The fighters, powered by noisy 12-cylinder engines, could not turn or maneuver as well as their lighter Japanese adversaries, the infamous Mitsubishi Zero and the closely related Nakajima Oscar.
But the American aircraft were no clunkers. They sported twin .50-caliber nose guns and four .30-caliber wing guns, providing superior fire power. They could also take abuse--a cylinder head could punch a hole in a wing without catastrophic effect. And they had one tactic that proved to be the doom of the Japanese: by diving, they could pull away from their adversaries and maneuver into a position of advantage.
It was a simple concept originated by Claire Lee Chennault, the tough commander of the Flying Tigers, who came from Waterproof, La.
"He was a hard-bitten character who knew what he was there for and how to beat the Japanese," recalled Charles Older, who served under Chennault throughout the war. "I can't recall anybody who I would rather have had as our group leader than Chennault."
After falling out of favor in the War Department because of his outspoken views in the late 1930s, Chennault resigned his commission and became an adviser to Chiang Kai-shek. Chennault later was recommissioned and rose to lieutenant general before his retirement.
To this day, the Republic of China continues to honor Chennault, having erected a statue of him in downtown Taipei, the only monument to a foreigner in Taiwan. Each year, the Taiwanese mission in Washington, D.C., holds a reception to honor surviving members of the group.
"They are longtime friends to my country," said Albert Lin, spokesman for the mission.
The operation was financed by the Chinese government, but with a $100-million loan from the U.S. government arranged by Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau. The whole adventure was orchestrated by White House power broker Lauchlin Currie, an economic adviser to Roosevelt, according to David Ford, who has been researching the Flying Tigers for the past five years and will publish a book later this year.
Like other covert operations, the Flying Tigers group was organized through a front corporation, the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Co., according to the 1942 secret Army report. Phony travel documents were issued, which allowed the pilots and ground crew to pass themselves off as civilians.
To recruit the Flying Tigers, Chennault's agents visited military bases around the United States, sometimes plying pilots with offers of exotic adventure while serving up a round or two of cocktails. If that wasn't incentive enough, pilots were offered $600 per month and a bonus of $500 for every Japanese aircraft they could shoot down--big pay at a time when junior pilots were making just $125 per month.
Although the pilots and ground crews did not know much about what they were getting into, they jumped at the chance.
"I had read everything that (British author Rudyard) Kipling wrote twice over and that part of the world fascinated me," recalled Edward Rector, one of the volunteers. "I was one of those naive people who thought we would never go to war."
The recruits were given instructions to rendezvous in July, 1941, at the Belmont Hotel in San Francisco, where they boarded a passenger freighter operated by the Java Pacific Lines. After three weeks, they landed in Burma and traveled to a base 170 miles north of Rangoon.
By early December, the Flying Tigers were still in training, under close scrutiny by Japanese spies. But the attack on Pearl Harbor pushed them into early service. Within days they were battling Japanese fighters and bombers attacking positions in China and Rangoon.
The pilots can recall in vivid detail every enemy aircraft they shot down.
"I bore in on the sucker and opened up about 200 yards behind his tail," recalled R. T. Smith, a Van Nuys resident, of one of his nine kills. "Before I knew it, I was on top of him and a piece of his cylinder head went right through my wing. It tossed me up like a leaf, but I was so jubilant after seeing that bastard blow up that I didn't even notice." Like Smith, some Flying Tigers still harbor deep animosities toward the Japanese. "I never did like them and still don't."
Shortly after Pearl Harbor, a Flying Tiger squadron was deployed to defend Rangoon from Japanese attacks. While there, some pilots were put up in the posh compound of British colonialists who had been evacuated from the country shortly after hostilities began.
"I was staying at the home of a Scotsman, Bill Tweedy, and when he was evacuated he left all his clothes. I had quite a wardrobe for a while," said John Rossi. "We sort of took over the servants and just lived there until we left.
"Tweedy said that when we were ready to leave we should shoot his dog and burn the house, because he didn't want them to fall into Japanese hands. Well, we couldn't shoot that dog and we didn't burn down the house either," Rossi said.
Parties Until Dawn
Although Rangoon was primitive in those days, it offered a few good nightclubs, such as the Silver Grill. "Quite often, we would party all night until the lorry would come at dawn to take us back to our planes," recalled Rector.
It was in those days that Rector, a bachelor, met an 18-year-old student at a local convent school. She became a life-long friend and his companion at many of the Flying Tigers reunions that have been held over the years.
"There is a gathering together, because we know that we don't have too much time left together in this vale of tears," Rector said.
After World War II, 10 of the Flying Tigers formed the Flying Tigers Line, the cargo carrier based in Los Angeles that was later acquired by Federal Express. Some became weapons salesmen for major U.S. contractors. One became a radio show writer. Older eventually became a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles and presided over the trial of mass murderer Charles Manson.
The Flying Tigers are old men now, but their experiences during the six months in China have become a focus in their lives.
Smith has decorated his living room with giant photos of World War II air battles. In 1962, the group went to Taiwan to be honored by Chiang Kai-shek before his death. During the Gulf War, the Flying Tigers raised several thousand dollars to help dependents of the Air Force's 23rd Wing, which traces its lineage to the Flying Tigers.
The recognition as veterans is important to a number of the Flying Tigers, especially because it was denied them after the war.
In 1945, the Flying Tigers petitioned the government for veteran status, but were turned down, the result of petty jealousy toward Chennault among senior Pentagon officials, according to their attorney, Schriebman.
"Chennault put a fighting organization together that they couldn't duplicate with all their pomp and resources," Schriebman said.
Rossi, a Fallbrook resident who heads the Flying Tigers organization, decided to try again last year. Schriebman, an aviation buff, petitioned the Defense Department.
In his recommendation that the Flying Tigers be granted status as veterans, Air Force Brig. Gen. Ellwood P. Hinman III said that a military review board "determined that U.S. Armed Forces exerted control as if the group's members were military personnel from the outset of the United States entry into World War II, although this control was transitioning from covert to overt until April 1942."
Veteran status may help some of the Flying Tigers financially, though many of them qualify as veterans owing to later military service. But their primary motivation in seeking the Pentagon approval was a desire to be recognized as American servicemen and not soldiers of fortune.
"Some of our guys paid a hell of a price over there," said Tex Hill. "And they got no veterans benefits of any kind. That's a big deal."
The recognition was scheduled to be formally disclosed to the members this weekend at their 50th anniversary reunion in San Diego.
"All they want is a flag on their headstone," Schriebman said. "They want to be recognized as American fighting men and not a bunch of mercenaries who went to China for glory and money."