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Flying tigers bite back! Two weeks after Pearl Harbor, shark-faced Flying Tiger fighters break Japan's winning streak, devouring a raid over China in their first combat.

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WHEN JAPANESE PLANES LAID WASTE to Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, the United States had exactly one air combat unit on the continent of Asia. That was the 1st American Volunteer Group, sponsored by the White House, financed by a US loan, but officially part of the Chinese air force. That made its pilots mercenaries, if you take a harsh view of such operations. AVG veterans (the few still alive) prefer to think of themselves as members of America's first irregular military operation, the model for the secret US air campaign in Laos during the Vietnam War, or for the covert horse-mounted Green Beret campaign that helped topple the Taliban in November 2001.

In 1941, an American fighter group consisted of three squadrons of about 20 planes and pilots each--at least before losses from combat, accidents, and general wear and tear. Training at a British airfield in Burma, some 70 miles north of Rangoon--safe, presumably, from Japanese attack--the AVG was at its peak strength when the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. Apparently unknown to the Americans, however, was that there was a quid pro quo--a side agreement between the British and the Chinese. If the Japanese ever attacked Burma, it said, "a portion, or the whole" of the AVG would help the Royal Air Force defend Rangoon, whose port brought in war supplies for China and whose airfield was equally important to British forces in Malaya and Singapore.

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At Rangoon's airfield, Mingaladon Airport, the only combat force was the RAF's 67 Squadron, equipped with obsolescent Brewster Buffalo fighters and staffed mostly by half-trained sergeant-pilots from New Zealand. With Japanese forces on a rampage through Southeast Asia, it was just a matter of time until Burma was threatened. So the AVG was split, one squadron sent to reinforce the RAF at Rangoon, the other two flown to a new station at Kunming in China's Yunnan province, where they arrived piecemeal on Thursday, December 18. Some of the Kunming-bound ground crews had flown up on a DC-2 airliner belonging to the Chinese national airline. Others were strung out along the Burma Road, China's lifeline, 1,000 miles by truck, train, and riverboat--the paddlewheel steamers that still plied the Irrawaddy River in 1941.

Eddie Rector was one of the pilots who flew up to Kunming on December 18. Like other AVG pilots, he had volunteered under the influence of "Mandalay," the poem by Rudyard Kipling: "Can't you 'ear their paddles clunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?" A romantic notion doesn't long survive the sober reality of war, however, and Rector and the others were shocked upon arriving at Kunming. A Japanese bombing raid had left the city a shambles. "The streets were strewn with bodies," recalled pilot Fritz Wolf, writing not long afterward for a popular magazine. "The Chinese ... walked about the streets and picked up the bodies, placing them in neat piles."

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The two AVG squadrons at Kunming had 34 aircraft between them, 2 planes having been disabled while taking off in Burma. The craft were liquid-cooled Curtiss P-40 fighters that had been diverted from a British order. They were almost as out-of-date as the Buffaloes at Mingaladon Airport. The Tomahawk, as the P-40 was known to the RAF, boasted four .30-caliber guns in the wings and two .50-caliber (half-inch) machine guns over the cowling (the engine cover) that fired through the propeller arc. European air forces were already turning to more and larger guns, but Japan, especially its army air squadrons fighting on the Asian mainland, still trusted to lighter armament. In the battles to come, the doughty old P-40 would prove faster, more robust, and more heavily armed than anything the Empire of Japan threw against it.

The AVG's commander was Claire Chennault, who had been encouraged to retire from the US Army Air Corps in 1937, with the rank of captain. He was hard of hearing, afflicted with bronchitis, and immensely unpopular with the army brass because of his heretical notion that fighter pilots skilled in pursuit could intercept and shoot down attacking bombers, provided that the fighters had adequate warning, took a high perch to allow a broad view, and worked as a team. He spent the next three years in China, training its pilots, advising Nationalist Chinese leader Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, and perhaps flying the odd combat mission, though the latter has always been a matter of dispute. Chennault's American admirers accepted his combat sorties as fact; his Chinese colleagues denied they ever took place. In 1940 he returned to the States to oversee the recruitment of the American Volunteer Group.

NOW CHENNAULT WAS BACK IN CHINA. Nearly four years after he'd first tried to build squadrons to defend the country from Japanese attack, he finally had them under his command: 34 Tomahawks, pilots to fly them, and the warning net he had built to serve Kunming and other major cities. In 1986 I talked to Lee Cheng-yuan, who had served as Chennault's radioman in the early years. He characterized the warning net as "the spider in the web," a radioman linked by telephone to a dozen or so outlying watchers, who would call in reports of Japanese formations as they came over. Each spider then collated his set of reports and radioed it to the airport defending the city, where a commander would map the coming raid and calculate when and where to dispatch his interceptors.

Whether or not he ever fired a shot in anger, Chennault had seen a lot of aerial combat since 1937, and he probably understood it better than any other American group commander. He had coached Chinese pilots and foreign mercenaries; he'd studied the Russian squadrons sent by the Soviet Union to spoil the Japanese game in China; and he himself had been bombed more than once. From this experience he drew two precepts: first, if the Japanese attacked today, they'd follow with another attack tomorrow; and second, if they suffered 10 percent casualties, they would give up, at least for the present.

The Japanese had followed their triumph at Pearl Harbor with equal or greater success in Malaya, Singapore, the Philippines, and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). So when AVG Tomahawks arrived at Wu Chia Ba airport outside Kunming on the 18th, Chennault kept one squadron on alert and the other on standby.

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Friday passed without incident, but at 9:30 A.M. on Saturday, December 20, the first report came in: 10 Japanese bombers had crossed into China. A yellow warning flag was raised, and Chennault hurried to his command post in a graveyard near the airport, where he could hear the reports as they came in. "I watched Chennault's face as reports from the Chinese air radio net came in, tracing the progress of the attackers. 'Heavy engine noise at Kaiyuan,"' recalled radioman Don Whelpley. "The lines tightened around his mouth as he pulled a pipe from the pocket of his khaki jacket [and] crammed tobacco into it. 'Unknown aircraft over Hwaning, headed northwest.'"

THE ATTACKERS WERE KAWASAKI Ki-48 medium bombers from the 21st Hikotai of the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force. A bikotai was a mixed unit, in this case one squadron of 10 bombers and another of 10 fighter planes. The 21st Hikotai was based in Hanoi, the capital of French Indochina--now Vietnam--which the Japanese had occupied for the express purpose of stopping military supplies from reaching China, and for use as a springboard from which to attack Kunming and the Chinese portion of the Burma Road. The Ki-48, later known to Allied pilots as the Lily, was light and fast, carrying 880 pounds of bombs and defended by three 7.7mm machine guns, roughly equivalent to the .30-caliber guns on the P-40. The same planes had bombed defenseless Kunming on Thursday. Now they were outnumbered by fighters with more and heavier armament. They had one great advantage, however: experience. The JAAF had been at war for more than four years against the best pilots China and the Soviet Union could bring against them. (The Soviets, in addition to providing China's main air strength from 1938 to 1940, had fought a brief but bloody border war against the Japanese in Manchuria in the summer of 1939.)

The 21st Hikotai's fighters--a dozen or so Nakajima Ki-27 fixed-landing-gear planes armed with two 7.7mm guns--should have escorted the bombers. The whole purpose of a hikotai, after all, was mixing two kinds of aircraft to exploit the strengths of each. But the Nates, as the Ki-27s became known to Allied pilots, never showed up. They may have missed connections, or the bomber commander, Captain Fuji Tatsujiro, may have been fooled by the easy pickings over Kunming on Thursday. Lieutenant Goichi Suzuki, a pilot of one of the bombers, who was interviewed by a television crew in 1992, advanced another theory. The bombers, he recalled, had been designated a suteishi butai ("sacrifice squadron"), intended to lure up enemy fighters and destroy them. This notion seems farfetched, given the carefree way in which the Lilys advanced on Kunming, as Suzuki himself recalled:

The Chinese air force had almost never showed up. There might have been some planes, but they had never appeared. So we did not even worry about them.... We left Hanoi at 10:20 [Tokyo time] on 20th. Altitude was 6,000 [meters]. It was fine day but there were some clouds. We came to near Kunming in about two hours.

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In Chennault's theory of defensive pursuit, the leading fighter pilot was supported by his wingman (flying behind him, to the outside). In the same way, one flight of four aircraft would be supported by another, and squadrons were similarly assigned to assault and support roles. On December 20, the assault echelon was Robert "Sandy" Sandell's 1st Squadron, known as the Adam and Eves in tribute to their role as lead pursuers. Jack Newkirk's 2nd Squadron, with the mild nickname of the Panda Bears, was in reserve. (The 3rd Squadron pilots, down in Rangoon with the British, called themselves the Hell's Angels.)

When the red flag was hoisted at Wu Chia Ba, it was Sandy Sandell and 13 other Adam and Eves who rolled down the crushed-stone runway and took off to defend Kunming. They patrolled the railroad track leading southeast to Iliang, a logical route for the Japanese to follow. Eight Panda Bears served as backup, half of them patrolling over the airport while the others climbed to the northwest in case the Japanese circled around and approached from the unexpected side--which is just what they did. These four Panda Bears, who included squadron leader Jack Newkirk, were thus the first to spot the Lilys, arranged in a loose V of smaller Vs--three groups of three with the tenth plane tagging along with one of them. The Americans couldn't believe their eyes. "That can't be the Japs," cried one Panda Bear. The Pandas then made a mistake common to green warriors: opening fire while still out of range. Their red tracer bullets served only to warn the Japanese pilots, who turned east and fled.

Goichi Suzuki recalled the scene. "Just before we reached to Kunming," he related, "American airplanes came up in four units, each of which had six fighter airplanes." In reality, there were two separate attacks, with this first one involving only four Tomahawks. "We kept going on for a while. Then, American P-40s started to attack us all at once. Our squadron turned direction to left. I guess our leader thought none of us would survive if we kept going to the destination. We bombed a town below because we need to make our airplanes lighter by losing bombs."

Suzuki and his fellow pilots also tightened their formation so their gunners could put out a crisscross fire. Now lightened, the Lilys had a top speed of 300 mph. The Tomahawks were faster, but not by much, and a stern chase is a long chase. So Newkirk waggled his wings to signal his Panda Bears to disengage and led them back toward Wu Chia Ba. "We lost a bit of face on that deal," one of the men later confessed in a letter home.

The Japanese circled around Kunming, intending to pick up the railroad track that would lead them back to Hanoi. Instead they ran into the Adam and Eves. Following Chennault's doctrine, Sandell had split his forces, putting two pilots on a high perch to watch for enemy fighters, while the others formed themselves into three flights of four. Two flights were to dive on the Japanese formation with the blinding sun at their backs, while the third flight stayed back in reserve. That was the theory, anyhow. As with Newkirk's overly hasty attack, Sandell's assault pilots ignored the plan in the general excitement. To judge by their recollections, the eight pilots made it a free-for-all, every man for himself. (Sadly, this is one of the few AVG battles for which no actual combat reports are available, though some were excerpted in a war diary maintained by Olga Greenlaw, the wife of Chennault's executive officer, and one of three American women on the group's payroll.)

The Lilys were still in the porcupine cluster they'd assumed upon seeing the Panda Bears north of the city. Now, as a dozen Tomahawks swept down on them, each bomber lowered its "dustbin," a hinged platform that supported its belly gunner, who could defend a rather narrow arc to the rear of the plane and below it. Each Lily also had a nose gun manned by the bombardier, and a top gunner at the rear of the cockpit's greenhouse canopy. The top gunner had the widest field of fire--to the rear, right, left, and above. It's important not to underestimate the killing power of the 7.7mm bullet these guns fired, even when the enemy was protected by armor plate behind and a big engine in front. Most infantry rifles of the day were just that size--and these were machine guns, not single-shot weapons.

"I rolled and started down," AVG pilot Charlie Bond wrote in his diary (as later edited for publication), one of the best of the firsthand accounts of the AVG. "As the nearest bomber eased within the gunsight ring, I squeezed the trigger on the [control] stick. Damn it, nothing happened!" He nervously checked and rechecked the toggle switch that controlled the firing circuit; it turned out he'd gone into combat with it in the off position. He broke off and climbed back to altitude.

MEANWHILE, FRITZ WOLF, who had earlier watched the Chinese stacking the bodies of their dead in the streets, selected the outside bomber in the right-hand V formation. He dove below the Lily to attack where its defenses were weakest, as he recalled in 1942 for a wartime magazine. (His recollection was thus fresh, though no doubt spiced by the editors.) "At 500 yards I let go with a quick burst of all guns," Wolf remembered. "It was curtains for the rear [dustbin] gunner.... I could see my bullets rip into him and cut him to pieces.... At one hundred yards I let go with a long burst, and the bullets tore into the Jap's motor and gas tanks. A wing folded and the motor tore loose, then the bomber exploded in midair."

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Jim Cross was flying as Wolf's wingman. He too wrote a magazine article about the battle, and he too claimed the same bomber. "There was the Jap plane, dead in front of me," Cross wrote. "I could see the sun glinting on the gunner's goggles.... I saw my own tracer fire almost before I realized I'd pressed the button."

Both pilots then climbed back to altitude and attacked again. So did Bond, having resolved his confusion about the toggle switch. "Two bombers began to lag behind, trailing smoke," he wrote in his diary. This was probably closer to the truth than the exploding Lilys reported by Wolf.

The reserve flight was chafing in its assigned location above the fray. For Camille "Joe" Rosbert, a stocky Italian American from Philadelphia, the battle seemed "like a bunch of swarming bees. I wondered why our planes did not collide with one another, they looked so close. " It was all so inviting that Ed Liebolt, the flight leader, could contain himself no longer and gave the signal to attack. Rosbert followed him down. "As the rear bomber loomed in front of us," Rosbert recalled long after, "I pressed the gun button almost at the same time as Ed. Debris flew by as we dove down and away."

Eddie Rector of the 2nd Squadron soon joined this free-for-all. Off duty that day because his Tomahawk's engine was undergoing a 25-hour maintenance check, he sprinted out to the flight line. "Get that goddamned cowling back on!" he shouted at Harry Fox, the head mechanic. When he told me this story 45 years later, Rector had an especially vivid recollection of that day in December 1941. Picture him telling the story, still handsome as a movie star, banking his hands to represent the diving Tomahawks: "I fired up that P-40 and got out there. I saw eight damned airplanes out there engaging them."

Rector came down in a long, sweeping turn behind one of the Japanese bombers. "I came on in, right behind the guy ... and I drove up his ass. I got target fixation. I just saw my shots going into him, and I said, 'Why doesn't he blow up?' At the last moment, I realized what I was doing.... I looked at [the dustbin gunner]--right in the eye--and I'd shot away his whole jaw. And I can see him, and I can see the rivets and the camouflage pattern of that damned bomber." At the last possible moment, Rector pulled down and away, barely dodging a collision. "I know that I missed him by inches," he said, in awe of his own young foolishness.

Most or all of the Americans seem to have attacked the starboard V of bombers, led by a pilot named Funamoto Shigaru. All three Lilys in that formation went down. For each engine that burst into flame, two or three pilots had been pouring machinegun fire into it--adrenalin pumping, sphincters twitching, vision tunneled down to that eruption of black smoke and scarlet flame. Diving clear, each man was understandably convinced that he alone had killed the bomber.

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Fortunately for Suzuki, he wasn't in Funamoto's flight. Indeed, he may have been the odd man out, piloting the tenth Lily, which would have been tucked inside the Japanese formation. "I saw one of our airplanes in the right-side unit being shot and quickly going down," he recalled more than 50 years later. "Next was a closer airplane. I think the pilot was [killed or wounded because] the airplane went down in a very unbalanced way. I recognized these two, but didn't see the leading airplane, Captain Funamoto's airplane, being shot down. But when we went into formation again [after the battle], I noticed there was one more airplane missing. It had been shot down while I was not watching."

In half an hour, from that first brush with Newkirk's flight to the moment when Sandell waggled his wings and led the Adam and Eves back to Wu Chia Ba, the Japanese bomber squadron had lost three planes, each with four men aboard. Two gunners were dead, and the survivors were badly shot up. Nor was their ordeal finished, as Suzuki recalled: "[L]ots of us couldn't lower landing gear due to the damage from the shooting. So, some landed with only one gear, and others on their bodies. Everyone landed somehow, but all airplanes had bullets in their bodies. Even mine had about 30 shots."

As the tally went into the official AVG records, Wolf accounted for two downed bombers, Rector a third, and Einar Mickelson a fourth. Yet each pilot, after telling how he had knocked down a bomber or two, went on to say that the Japanese formation was mostly intact when he broke off. Sandell recalled that seven Lilys were still aloft when the Adam and Evens turned back to the airport. Robert Neale, who by the following July would rank as the AVG's--and America's--top fighter ace, thought there were eight surviving bombers, each with a dustbin gunner lying dead on his platform. Rosbert said that six Lilys escaped the battle.

In any event, more claims were lodged than there were wrecked enemy bombers on the ground, and we know exactly how many of those there were. Unlike in the later furballs near Rangoon, Chennault's warning net was in full operation between Kunming and the Vietnamese border, with both Chinese and American radiomen on duty. A Chinese listening post saw seven Japanese bombers aloft at 11:25 A.M., after Sandell had waggled his wings to lead the Adam and Eves back to Wu Chia Ba.

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So three Lilys had been shot down during the combat, just as Sandell had reported--and sure enough, Chinese scavenger crews later located three wrecks. The Chinese Aeronautical Commission reported that a fourth bomber had exploded in midair before reaching safety at Gia Lam airport in Hanoi. No evidence was provided for this conclusion, and it's not borne out by Suzuki's account, but I'm inclined to trust it. The Chinese evidently had spies on the ground at Gia Lam airport, counting the planes that took off and those that returned. Likely a shot-up bomber made a belly landing that was spectacular enough that the observers reported it as destroyed. So the official tally for December 20 was four downed Lilys.

For its part, the AVG had lost one Tomahawk--Rector had to crash-land his P-40 when it ran out of fuel. The plane couldn't be retrieved, though Rector managed to scavenge the machine guns and his remaining ammunition. There were no American injuries.

Faced with more claims than known enemy losses, Chennault divided the credit among all the pilots who had joined the attack: 14 Adam and Eves plus Rector from the Panda Bears for a total of 15. So each man was officially credited with 1/15 of each downed Japanese bomber for a total of 4/15. In time each received $133 in his combat bonus account for that tally--the equivalent of between $2,000 and $3,000 in 21st-century greenbacks.

Compared to the great air battles that had roiled the skies over Britain the previous year, the AVG's combat of December 20 was fairly small potatoes. But its impact was huge. For nearly two weeks, Japanese army and navy squadrons had swept the skies clear of American, British, and Dutch interceptors. It wasn't just at Pearl Harbor. The debacle in the Philippines on December 8 was just as bad. The Royal Air Force in Malaya and on Singapore Island had no such day of infamy, but was steadily being consumed by superior Japanese forces, and much the same was happening in the Dutch East Indies.

ONLY THE AMERICAN VOLUNTEER GROUP had given better than it got, a fact that Time noted in its next issue, dated December 29. "Last week, ten Japanese bombers came winging their carefree way up into Yunnan, heading directly for Kunming, the terminus of the Burma Road," the magazine reported in its breezy style. "Thirty miles south of Kunming, the Flying Tigers swooped, let the Japanese have it. Of the ten bombers ... four plummeted to earth in flames. The rest turned tail and fled. Tiger casualties: none." The headline: "Blood for the Tigers." So the December 20 combat not only gave the American Volunteer Group its first victory, but a fighting name as well. Forever after, they were the Flying Tigers.

For the Chinese, the fracas above the railway tracks was a game-changer. The 21st Hikotai never again flew to Kunming, nor did any other Japanese formation while the AVG guarded it. In 30 minutes, the Adam and Eves (plus one) had won the battle of Kunming.

December 20 also proved a fairly accurate forecast of how the AVG would fare over the roughly seven months of its existence as a combat force. Alone of all Allied air units in that terrible winter and spring, it regularly beat the Japanese army air squadrons sent against it. Its material losses were high, but were mostly the result of accidents or abandonment. Four AVG pilots were killed in airto-air combat--a small fraction of the number of Japanese airmen who died in those same engagements. Ground fire was a more deadly foe. Five pilots were killed when their P-40s were hit by anti-aircraft shells. Four more were shot down and taken prisoner. Of the last group, one man was either murdered or died in captivity, while three returned alive toward the end of the war.

Like the feats of all air forces of the time, the AVG's accomplishments were somewhat exaggerated for home consumption, and hugely magnified in retrospect. A more sober reading of Japanese accounts shows that the Tigers destroyed about 115 aircraft in the air and on the ground in all. A majority were bombers, carrying as many as six airmen. Thus the Japanese toll in these engagements could have been no fewer than 400 men.

The Flying Tigers achieved a combat record seldom equaled, and certainly not by any Allied air force in the first year of the Pacific War. And it all began at 9:30 in the morning on December 20, 1941, less than two weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack.

Daniel Ford is the author o/"Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941-1942. His website www.flyingtigersbook.com contains a complete bibliography of Japanese and English-language accounts of the air war in China and Burma.
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Author:Ford, Daniel
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Date:Dec 1, 2010
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