“This was the beginning of the greatest adventure I would ever hope to experience. It wasn’t until years later that I fully realized the magnitude and significance of this first step, to be a lifelong adventure in the mystic Far East.”
When Tigers Ruled the Sky: The Flying Tigers: American Outlaw Pilots over China in World War II by Bill Yenne is a look at the American fighting force in China before America entered the war. Yenne is the author of more than three dozen nonfiction books, as well as several novels and he has contributed to encyclopedias of both world wars, and has been featured in several documentaries which have aired on the History Channel, the National Geographic Channel, the Smithsonian Channel and ARD German Television.
In times of peace, some Americans still long for the adventure of war. In WWI there was the Lafayette Escadrille flying for the French. In the Spanish Civil War the was the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. In World War II it was the American Volunteer Group later to be known as the Flying Tigers. Their P-40 fighters bearing the famous shark-toothed mouth on the engine cowling. The flying tiger logo and its origins remain unknown. One of the members joked that it was odd to be a flying tiger when the planes have shark’s teeth painted on them.
Claire Lee Chennault persuaded FDR to allow the creation of this unit and recruited men from the army, navy, and Marines. The men would resign from service and essentially become mercenaries for the Chinese. There would be a one-year contract which began on July 4th, 1941. Many of the details were left out of the contract like the bonus for shooting down Japanese planes and the ability of the group members to rejoin the military after the contract. This was an opportunity many had looked for to gain experience in combat. Between the world wars, America cut back the military and flying time was severely limited.
There are mini-biographies of the key figures in the book. Gregory Hallenbeck applied to become a pilot under the Aviation Cadet Act, closed to married men. Hallenbeck applied anyway and when he received his birth certificate his name was listed as Gregory Boyington. His mother divorced when he was an infant and his stepfather raised him as his own. Gregory Boyington became a Marine pilot and a member of the Flying Tigers.
The Flying Tigers in action reads like a Hollywood adventure movie. Outnumbered by as much as 14-1 , they never lost an air battle. Pilot and plane loss was unbelievably low. The group as a whole was divided into three squadrons: The Adam and Eves, The Panda Bears, and The Hell’s Angels. Early conditions were horrible and only a few broke their contracts. Boyington would later pack up and leave in April of 1942 and rejoin the Marines. The duty schedule was heavy and understaffed mechanics had their work cut out for them repairing planes with limited supplies. The difficult duty, bad food, and lack of social contact led some to hard drinking on off-duty time.
Yenne writes a history that comes to life. Although the reputation of the Flying Tiger was well earned, there were hard times too. Being at war is difficult. Being at war with no official support from your own country is even more difficult. Still the Flying Tigers are credited with 297 enemy planes destroyed. Twenty Tiger’s lost their lives in service: 14 in combat, 2 as a result of bombings, and 6 in accidents. Many of the pilots re-entered the military after their contract as second lieutenants and were promoted to major in a matter of months putting them in leadership positions and making use of their experience. The military learned it lesson from WWI when it completely ignored the experience of the Lafayette Escadrille and considered them equal or less than untrained pilots. A remarkable read in real history.