Friday, November 2, 2007

Gen. Chennault and the Flying Tigers: Private Military Contractors

One of the finest chapters of American history did not even occur in the United States and involved a gang of private military contractors: the American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers.

In early 1941 the US was not yet officially at war, but a number of Americans - including President Roosevelt - saw the need to aid the Nationalist Chinese against Japanese aggression. And so airplanes were purchased, with 82 pilots and 359 ground crewmembers recruited for the effort from among former US servicemen. The group was lead by Claire Chennault, a retired US Army Air Corps captain who had become a private military advisor to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.

These Americans were technically "mercinaries" in that they were privately hired by the Chinese government. But they were some of the most professional and skilled men in the world: at the defense of Rangoon the Flying Tigers flew alongside the men of the RAF, and by even the lowest figures, these American contractors outflew and outfought their British allies.

The AVG was officially credited with 297 enemy aircraft destroyed, including 229 in the air. Thirty-three AVG pilots and three ground crew received the Chinese Order of the Cloud Banner, many AVG pilots received the Chinese Air Force Medal and each AVG ace and double ace was awarded the Chinese Five Star or Ten Star Wing Medal. However, success did not come without a price: fourteen pilots were killed in action, captured, or disappeared on combat missions; two died of wounds sustained in bombing raids; and six were killed in accidents.

After World War II, ten ex-Flying Tigers pilots formed a cargo airline named Flying Tiger Line, after the AVG. Flying Tiger Line operated for forty years, and was the largest cargo airline in the world for some time. It was eventually purchased by Federal Express.

1 comment:

Dan Ford said...

Thanks for remembering the Flying Tigers! There was an even closer link to the Blackwater tradition: postwar, Chennault returned to China and set up Civil Air Transport to fly relief supplies. It soon became a paramilitary air unit in the civil war that followed, and retreated to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek when the communists took over. During the Korean War, CAT was a contract airline for U.S. forces, and the CIA bought a part of it. Most famously, former Flying Tigers pilots dropped supplies into Dienbienphu for the beleaguered French in 1954. Eventually the CIA took it over, and it became famous or infamous in the Vietnam War under its new name: Air America.

For more about all this, see Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941-1942, recently published by HarperCollins.

Blue skies! -- Dan Ford