The Flying Tigers: The Untold Story of the American Pilots Who Waged a Secret War Against Japan by Sam Kleiner, Viking, 2018, $28.

The American Volunteer Group (AVG) that helped China fend off Japanese invaders in the first seven months after Pearl Harbor has probably been detailed in books and assorted media more extensively than any other combat flying organization, so the subtitle of this new book on the legendary Flying Tigers will raise eyebrows with its claim that this is an “untold story.” 

While the author benefitted from previously unavailable letters and diaries, these materials only reinforce the longstanding narrative. Publisher hyperbole aside, this is a well-told story by a gifted debut author whose talent has been to weave the disparate parts of this familiar yet complex history into a cohesive, fast-paced whole.

We are reminded that the pilots joined for varied reasons—some for the money, others because of a belief in the cause and still others for the sheer adventure. They were a colorful bunch whose exploits in the air satisfied the thirst back home for heroes at a time when reports of enemy advances around the globe left little cause for cheer. Appropriately, the author focuses on the group’s maverick commander, Claire Lee Chennault, a loyalist of Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek who saw in China the opportunity to prove his airpower theory that stressed the primacy of the fighter. 

Other major figures such as pilots Tex Hill, Jack Newkirk and R.T. Smith are covered with a flair that captures them in all their glory. Longtime enthusiasts will enjoy retracing well-worn territory while newcomers to the subject will relish this thoroughly researched and finely modulated account of courageous young men at war. Highly recommended.