Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Flying Tigers: Born fighting

by Staff Sgt. Alex Griffin
23rd Wing Public Affairs

10/12/2010 - MOODY AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. -- "The outstanding gallantry and conspicuous daring that the American Volunteer Group combined with their unbelievable efficiency is a source of tremendous pride throughout the whole of America."

- President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1944

Aviation icon Claire Lee Chennault was destined to join the world's Pantheon of legendary flyers. The hardscrabble Louisianan was directly descended from both Sam Houston and Robert E. Lee. Chennault, we must assume, was aware of the fighting blood that stroked though his heart at an early age. The destiny of Chennault is that of the Flying Tigers. The storied fighter group's fight lives on today nearly 70 years later, at Moody Air Force Base, Ga. The men and women of the 23rd Wing hold the mantle of those brave volunteers and thrill-seekers from the dark days of the Second World War.

The story of Claire Chennault begins as America entered into the First World War. He left his job as the principal of a four-room schoolhouse for Army Officer Training. Originally rejected from pilot training three times, he would not be stopped. While assigned to Camp Travis in San Antonio, Texas, then-1st Lt. Chennault "took advantage of the general confusion on Kelly" to obtain his goal. He then convinced his fellow officers to teach him to fly while off duty across town at Kelly Field.

Chennault was passionate about aviation; in particular, he was a staunch advocate for the power of the fighter plane and pursuit tactics. As he trained new pilots in Virginia, Texas and Alabama, Chennault continued to further his ideas on air power and fought for new tactics in lieu of the outdated ones. The Army's anti-aviation stance coupled with his inability to be patient led to his relationship with the Army being severed in 1937. The passionate Major Chennault, retired from the Army and left the U.S. to find a nation willing to listen to his campaign to modernize air power. In particular, the need for pursuit aircraft.

That willing nation was the Republic of China. Its Air Force was ill-equipped to handle the Japanese forces rising on its borders. Chennault found a kindred spirit in its leader Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his wife Madame Kai-shek. As Chennault provided his training and vision to China, he lent his skills to help the Chinese fight their Japanese opponents in the Second Sino-Japanese War. As he believed, the Chinese fight would soon become an American one. He sought Americans to help the fight in Asia. The new American Volunteer Group was formed. The volunteers were allowed to leave their American commissions behind to join the AVG. The aerial campaign to repel Japanese aggression set the stage for the future U.S.-Japanese conflict.

After Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the AVG found itself answering President Franklin D. Roosevelt's call for help. Chennault found himself back on active duty with the Army Air Force. He was promoted to colonel then quickly brigadier general. Just three weeks after Pearl Harbor, the Flying Tigers swiftly became the most effective fighters in Asia. The AVG disbanded in 1942.

Those that remained became the 23rd Fighter Group and were now under the command of the 14th Air Force in Asia. Chennault and his men were visionaries, albeit sometimes wreckless. Nevertheless, the results from those Flying Tigers were crucial to the Pacific and China Burma theaters of World War II. Not just the freeing of supply routes and pushing the advances in air strategy and the real world arguments for the fighter plane.

His life was a litany of battles, both on the actual battlefield and off. He frequently disagreed with his superiors, whom he felt were inadequate. Circumventing a chain of command he disagreed with was common. While that did not win him many friends, it did win battles.

Regardless of how superiors saw him, his men would have fought for no other leader. Affectionately called "the Old Man," pilots were often as quoted as willing to take demotions: "give me second lieutenant bars to fly", "I wouldn't fight with anyone else" and "I'd sooner fight under Chennault as anyone in the world." This loyalty was paramount in the Flying Tigers during World War II.

Chennault gave his men his loyalty and in turn, they gave him theirs. That steadfast dedication and wiliness to get the job done remains a cornerstone of their brave heritage today. Just as Lt. General Chennault ushered the Air Force through the struggles of the Twentieth Century, our Tigers today continue to push the U.S. Air Force through the challenges of the Twenty-First.


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