Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941–1942
By Daniel Ford. 384 pp. Smithsonian Books, 2007. $15.95.
A few World War II flying units have attained legendary status: RAF Fighter Command’s “The Few,” the Tuskegee Airmen, and VMF-214 (the “Black Sheep”). But none looms larger than the famed American Volunteer Group (AVG), the “Flying Tigers,” which from December 1941 to its disbandment in July 1942 fought gallantly against the Japanese in Burma and China.
Amidst the large number of histories, memoirs, and biographies about the AVG, Daniel Ford’s Flying Tigers is quite simply the best of the lot. This is not a unanimous verdict. When the book’s first edition appeared in 1991, it was widely criticized for questioning some AVG accomplishments, especially for arguing that the number of Japanese aircraft the AVG shot down was far fewer than the 296 claimed. Ford had done his research: his investigation of surviving Japanese records showed 115 was a more accurate figure. But this emotional issue launched heated reprisals: some critics accused him of committing a revisionist-history hatchet job.
Nevertheless, Ford’s scholarship has weathered the storm, and this impressive revised edition cements his claim to preeminence. He has updated his account, drawing upon American, British, and Japanese sources that have appeared in the fifteen years since the first edition, as well as additional archival research. In a provocative new preface, he also addresses the controversy surrounding the first edition.
The new edition succeeds on many levels. Ford deftly sketches the politics surrounding the establishment of the AVG, the role of its charismatic commander Claire Chennault, and its difficult passage from concept to reality. Through careful analysis of available records, he reconstructs every major engagement in which the AVG participated—and in the process demonstrates that both sides exaggerated their aerial victory scores. His vignettes of squadron life and portraits of the colorful cast of Chinese personnel, expatriates, and Americans (pilots, staff officers, and enlisted) are highly engaging. Familiar characters like Col. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington mix with Paul Frillman, the AVG chaplain and former missionary to China who was a keen bilingual observer of events. And there is new information on the AVG’s Japanese adversaries, an important dimension missing from many accounts.
Ironically, the AVG stands taller in this account than it does in other more uncritical treatments, since Ford details the formidable logistical and maintenance challenges it faced. The Flying Tigers soldiered on despite worn-out equipment and virtually unflyable aircraft. Rubber tires were baked hard and brittle, batteries were flat, and guns often inoperable due to faulty solenoids. The intense pace of combat and the harsh living conditions took their toll on the pilots and ground crews. Yet Ford concludes, “Over Burma and China, they compiled a record without equal in the annals of aerial warfare. They fought magnificently in a losing battle. And they provided heroes at a time when we needed heroes as never before in our history, and never since.”
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.