The Flying Tigers

The Flying Tigers

The Untold Story of the American Pilots Who Waged a Secret War against Japan

Sam Kleiner

Viking, New York, 2018, 304 pages

Book Review published on: April 27, 2018

In the late morning hours of 20 December 1941, ten Ki-48 “Lily” bombers from the Japanese air force approached the city of Kunming in southeast China, where the headquarters of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s National Army was located. Expecting no opposition, the Japanese bomber crews were surprised by eight Curtiss P-40 Tomahawks that attacked their formation. With shark teeth painted on their forward cowlings, two of the P-40s opened fire, triggering the Japanese to drop their bombs and turn away to evade the fighters. After several minutes, sixteen more P-40s intercepted the bombers from different directions with guns firing, causing four Japanese bombers to trail black smoke and to plunge to the earth. This was the American Volunteer Group’s first combat action. Newspapers in the United States published reports of these pilots’ actions over Kunming days later and labeled them “the Flying Tigers.”

Sam Kleiner provides an extensively researched account of Claire Chennault and his American Volunteer Group in The Flying Tigers: The Untold Story of the American Pilots Who Waged a Secret War against Japan. Drawing from diaries, memoirs, and news articles, Kleiner takes readers through Chennault’s youth and service as an Army pilot, and his eventual command of the American Volunteer Group. Along with Chennault, Kleiner provides additional depth on other significant figures involved with the Flying Tigers’ mission, such as Madame Chiang (a.k.a. Soong Mei-ling), David Lee “Tex” Hill, and Greg Boyington. While the story reads as a great adventure, the sobering brutality of the Second Sino-Japanese War is conveyed as well, reminding readers of the serious risks undertaken by Chennault and the American volunteers.

The story of the Flying Tigers is extraordinary, and Kleiner does an excellent job describing their creation and exploits in Southeast Asia. Beginning as a contractor surveying the Chinese air force in 1937, Chennault eventually led the efforts to recruit American volunteers and acquire fighter aircraft, and then organized the people and equipment into the American Volunteer Group in 1941. The U.S. support was enabled by Madame Chiang’s brother, T. V. Soong, who approached Secretary of the U.S. Treasury Henry Morgenthau, and who in turn obtained President Franklin Roosevelt’s personal approval for funding the covert operation. To avoid violating U.S. neutrality at the time, volunteers from the Army, the Navy, and the Marine Corps were allowed to resign their commissions and fly as “employees” of the Chinese air force. Kleiner enhances the story with the volunteers’ experiences during this unique mission. Prominent among the pilots are “Tex” Hill and Robert Tharp “R. T.” Smith. Both eventually became aces and participated in the Flying Tigers’ notable May 1942 air interdiction missions against Japanese forces attempting to cross the Salween River, preventing them from advancing on to Kunming. Boyington did not fare well with the group due to a heavy drinking habit and a mean demeanor, which led to breaking his contract early and returning to the United States in May 1941. Nevertheless, he would later prove himself a formidable fighter pilot in 1943 as “Pappy” Boyington, commander of the VMF-214 “Black Sheep” Squadron, scoring an impressive twenty-six kills.

The Flying Tigers operated for seven months until their contracts terminated on 4 July 1942. They conducted combat operations over Burma, China, Thailand, and French Indo-China. Operating under austere conditions, with ground crews cannibalizing damaged airplanes to keep others flying, the Flying Tigers disrupted the Japanese air campaign and were credited with destroying approximately three hundred enemy aircraft. Kleiner provides the full story in a relatively concise 304 pages that is engaging throughout. This is an excellent book for those interested in reading about this extraordinary episode in World War II.

Book Review written by: Dirk C. Blackdeer, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas