The Flying Tigers and Guerrilla Air Warfare in China

by Oct 18, 2018Air Force, History, MIlitary, Second World War, War Aircraft

Daniel Jackson, a military historian and active Air Force pilot made a presentation at the Dunwoody Campus of Georgia State University on October 9, 2018.


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The reality of American pilots operating as guerillas was emphasized during the course of his presentation.  Japan was the imperial and aggressive power that had captured ninety-five percent (95%) of China’s industry, fifty-percent (50%) of China’s population, and twenty-five percent (25%) of the land mass of China.  When the American Volunteer Group or “Flying Tigers” entered the picture as an active combat force in December of 1941, there was only one transportation artery between China and the outside world, and that was the Burma Road that wound its way from Kunming to the Harbor of Rangoon in Burma.  With the fall of Burma in the Spring of 1942, China was completely isolated except for materiel that could be transported from India into China over the Himalayan Mountains commonly referred to as “The Hump.”

To refer to the Flying Tigers as a “Guerilla Air Corps” is not an exaggeration.  With 100 primitive air fields at their disposal and sometimes with as few as 50 serviceable aircraft available, the Japanese never really knew where the Flying Tigers were.  Unaware of exactly where the Flying Tiger aircraft were based, the Japanese were forced to expend their resources bombing a number of airfields that could quickly be repaired by Chinese coolies.  The construction of the 100 airfields by the Chinese was an act of faith by the Chinese at a time when few aircraft even existed in China.  Conversely, when Claire Chennault and his Flying Tigers did hit the Japanese, they waited until the Japanese aircraft were concentrated at one location and on several occasions dealt severe blows to the Japanese Empire with no loss of Flying Tiger aircraft in the process.  The American pilots serving in China used hit and run tactics that were spawned by their leader, Claire Chennault  who was both a maverick and rogue when viewed by personnel in the Army Air Corps.  Chennault was correct and Army Air Corps doctrine was wrong.  Chennault recognized that bomber aircraft could not fly unescorted to and from the target without fighter escort.  He further recognized that information from a telephone warning net could enable him to position fighter aircraft to intercept bomber aircraft and deny them access to the target with substantial losses to the bomber force.  All these realities were foretold by Chennault in his thesis, The Role of Defensive Pursuit. 

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The nature of the Guerilla Air War in China is not merely a function of hit and run tactics employed by Chennault and his band of mercenary pilots.  The human capital of China facilitated the construction of 100 airfields that were at the disposal of Chennault and his band of mercenary pilots.  The Japanese never really knew where Chennault and his pilots were.  This allowed Chennault to concentrate his forces and provide local air superiority when necessary while the Japanese enjoyed less success in their efforts to bring the Flying Tigers to battle.

The Extraordinary Degree of Collaboration and Cooperation Between the Americans and Chinese

Looking back on the activities of the Flying Tigers in China, one sees a remarkable statistic.  Ninety percent of the airmen downed made their way back to Allied lines.  In fact, an American pilot could be brought down within viewing distance of a Japanese air base and still be secreted back from enemy lines to Allied bases in China.  The Chinese people were extremely dedicated and courageous in rescuing and transporting American pilots back to Allied bases.  The Chinese population did this at a terrible cost.  For example, when the Doolittle Raiders came through China, the Japanese took a terrible and murderous revenge on those areas in China through which the Allied pilots had traveled following their raid on Tokyo and other cities in the Japanese Empire.

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The Robert Mooney Memorial

On December 26, 1942, Japanese bombers flew into China from French Indochina.  Robert Mooney, an American pilot, was late getting airborne because of mechanical issues with his P-40.  In a blazing head on encounter between his P-40 and a Japanese Oscar, the Oscar was destroyed, but Mooney’s P-40 was severely damaged.  With his stricken P-40 about to fall out of the sky at 1,000 feet, Mooney maneuvered his aircraft away from a populated area and waited to bail out until he was only 400 feet above ground level.  Due to the low level of his bailout, Mooney later died.  The Chinese who witnessed his courageous act built a monument to him known as the Robert Mooney Memorial.  It stands to this day as a testament to the appreciation of the Chinese people for the courage exhibited by American pilots in China.  

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Vinegar Joe Stillwell and Claire Chennault – A Contrast in Personalities and Strategy

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Vinegar Joe Stillwell, the Commanding General of Ground Forces in China and Claire Chennault, the Commander of Air Forces in China held diametrically opposed views about how the air war in China should be prosecuted.  Stillwell was a traditional military thinker proposing a linear campaign where inch by inch and yard by yard, territory that had been seized by the Japanese would be recaptured including territory in China and Burma, a British colony.  It was Stillwell’s conviction that a land artery was necessary to provide the materiel to prosecute a war against Japan.  By the time this land artery had been constructed, the quantity of materiel being flown over The Hump rendered the land artery virtually irrelevant. 

Unlike Stillwell, Chennault was a visionary and unorthodox in his thought processes.  He knew his men were outnumbered and had to take advantage of the Japanese by hit and run tactics and by moving from air base to air base so the Japanese never knew where they were.  This resulted in the Japanese squandering substantial resources looking for the Flying Tigers and bombing American bases while Chennault and his airmen had superior intelligence on the Japanese, the location of their aircraft and the flight paths of the aircraft when they were airborne.  This information enabled Chennault and his pilots to gain local air superiority when needed.  Limitations on resources available to Chennault required him to focus and husband his resources unlike his Japanese opponents.


The activities of Claire Chennault and his Flying Tiger pilots in China is a remarkable study in the ability of a smaller force to keep a vastly larger force at bay using the elements of surprise and superior combat tactics to offset the sheer numbers and weight of the Japanese Air Force in China.  The air war in China was anything but orthodox.  It was a maverick or guerilla air war flown by American pilots under the leadership of an American commander who had gone rogue.  By any measure, as a combat strategist, Chennault was a genius.  However, he had a taciturn personality, and his direct communications with President Roosevelt made him a political threat to his superior officers.  The air war in China in World War II was a rough and tumble affair, and Claire Chennault was the perfect commander to combat the superior forces of the Japanese Empire.  It is to the deep regret of the United States of America that Claire Chennault was not aboard the U.S.S. Missouri when the Japanese surrendered in Tokyo Bay at the conclusion of hostilities.  If anyone deserved to be at that surrender ceremony, it was Claire Chennault. 

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