Flying Tigers

'Vivid and fact-filled'

by William Calhoun (Naval War College Review)

In this vivid and fact-filled historical account of aerial combat, Daniel Ford completely updates and revises his 1991 work describing the extraordinary accomplishments of the pilots and support crews of the 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG) in the earliest days of World War II. Ford -- a writer for the Wall Street Journal, a recreational pilot, and author of Incident at Muc Wa (made into the Burt Lancaster movie Go Tell the Spartans) -- has used recent American, British, and Japanese sources to both improve and shorten the original book.

Famously known as the "Flying Tigers," the AVG was a group of American volunteers recruited by Claire Chennault from the aviation ranks of the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps to help protect China and key areas of Southeast Asia from unrelenting attack by the Japanese army air force. In their Curtiss P-40 Tomahawks, with their iconic shark's teeth motif painted on the noses, the Flying Tigers flew combat missions from three days after Pearl Harbor until July 1942, when the unit was absorbed into the U.S. Army Air Corps. During this seven-month period, the AVG, never numbering at any one time more than about seventy pilots and a roughly equal number of aircraft, inflicted disproportionate damage on the Japanese (1:28 ratio for aircrew losses). This deadly aerial struggle kept the vital 750-mile supply line from India across Burma and into China open and operational for as long as possible during the Japanese onslaught. The men of the AVG did this while living in mostly deplorable conditions, with at best erratic maintenance and logistic support.

The author's depictions of air combat are especially gripping, often describing individual pilots flying for both sides, while providing ample technical information on the types of aircraft in the engagements. Of course the primary characters are all here, from Chennault, a chain-smoking, tough, and innovative leader, to pilots Tex Hill, Eddie Rector, and Greg Boyington (later of VMF-214 "Black Sheep" fame). Ford's history is serious, but it is also rich with stories about this colorful and adventurous group, including the beautiful and mysterious Olga Greenlaw, wife of the AVG's executive officer.

While correcting some errors and omissions, Ford stands his ground on the most controversial viewpoint expressed in his 1991 edition -- that the Flying Tigers' claimed official record of 296 combat victories (including aircraft destroyed on the ground) was greater than what they actually achieved. Citing comprehensive research into the historical records of all involved, Ford makes a good case that because of the predictable stress, fear, and chaos involved in vicious aerial combat, the AVG's reported victories were inflated over a true figure likely closer to 115. Ford's book, then, is not a glorification of the Flying Tigers, but its meticulous examination of their genuine and courageous achievements pays them greater homage than the numbers would, however tallied. Ford closes his book with these words: "More than sixty years ago, in their incandescent youth, they were heroes to a nation that needed heroes.... All honor to them." Indeed, and acclaim to Daniel Ford for his thorough telling of an eventful war in the air, one that should be remembered.

(Copyright Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Naval War College Summer 2008)

Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

Get a signed copy

Other sites: Annals of the Flying Tigers | Daniel Ford's blog | Warbird's Forum | Daniel Ford's books | Facebook | Piper Cub Forum | Raintree County | Reading Proust | Expedition Yacht Seal

Posted August 2019. Websites ©1997-2019 Daniel Ford; all rights reserved. This site sets no cookies, but the Mailchimp sign-up service does, and so does Amazon if you click through to their store.