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The Guns of August
Barbara W. Tuchman, Robert K. Massie

Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941-1942

Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941-1942 - Daniel Ford Well, it would be pretty hard to go below 4 stars on this one because I like me some fighter pilot stories. This revised edition is a fine way to spend a few hours learning about an iconic war story. My preconceived notions on the unit were set straight. First of all, they did most of their fighting in Burma, not China. That was news to me. They met the same Japanese units time and again through the year they were actively engaged in combat. I'd say they were poorly treated by the "Big Army" in the end but the US home front held them up as heroes.

They had some interesting experiences working with the RAF for the defense of Burma. This was one way to maximize the number of "scrambled" aircraft at the same time:

Group Captain Manning assigned the Tomahawks to Mingaladon’s east—west runway—the crosspiece of the letter A—while his Buffaloes used the one that ran north—south. Each squadron was split into flights, one at each end of its assigned runway. Thus, when the alarm went off, upward of thirty planes bounced across the gravel from four directions, blowing up a dust storm as they went. All pilots were supposed to keep to the right, and the Buffalo pilots to hold down and let the Tomahawks cross over them where the runways intersected.
The system was put to the test on Saturday, when Burma Observation Corps reported Japanese bombers flying into Tenasserim from Thailand. Fourteen Buffaloes and sixteen Tomahawks made the rush across the gravel, sweeping past each other with a flair that did credit to the Flying Trapeze—”the damnedest rat race you ever saw,” Curt Smith recalled. One Hell’s Angel had to stand on his brakes to avoid a Buffalo but all thirty planes got airborne without damage, and faster than any other system would have permitted. They climbed to a chilly rendezvous, three miles above the chalk-white runways and green-brown rice fields.

The Japanese initially held the Americans in contempt and dismissed their tactics. But that changed after the Flying Tigers started winning some dogfights. After the Rangoon Christmas raid, the Japanese had a different story:

At Sugawara’s headquarters in Bangkok debate had continued without letup since Christmas Day. Where allied fighters had previously been reported as stodgy, JAAF officers now described their speed as “incredible,” a problem compounded by their policy of “shooting and leaving” instead of sticking around to make turns with the Nates and Hayabusas. In the end, Sugawara called off the campaign against Rangoon. Henceforth, he’d concentrate on Malaya and Singapore, where his heavy-bomber sentais could come and go as they pleased.

It was a pretty wild group of pilots, undisciplined, but eager to fight. Greg "Pappy" Boyington was one of the pilots.

Boyington assumed he was being led into combat by a veteran, until he saw that Probst was attacking from below and into the sun. Prescott, flying on Boyington’s wing, was untroubled by this unorthodox approach. “You don’t see anything except your leader when you fly in formation,” he explained years later. When he did spot the radial-engine fighters overhead, Prescott took them for Buffaloes: “They were diving, looping, and just going nuts. I thought, Silly bastards. . . . Hell, let’s get these people out of here and we’ll fight this war. Then I looked again. . . . Hell, that’s no Buffalo—that’s a Jap. He’s diving at us!. .. I was ‘on Greg’s left wing, and this Jap was diving over my left shoulder. I couldn’t leave the formation, but nobody said I couldn’t move over and get on Greg’s right wing, so he’d shoot Greg first.”

Ford came under fire when this book was first published because he had the temerity to actually use Japanese records to match up against the kills claimed by the AVG. Well, turned out there was a little overcounting of kills made in the air and on the ground. On both sides.

When someone asks, they oblige with the same stories that were told the winter and spring of 1941—1942: that the Flying Tigers shot down 300 (or 600 or 1,000) Japanese planes, that they met and outfought the Mitsubishi Zero, that they stopped one Japanese army in the gorge of the Salween River and another in East China. (All wrong, save possibly the last, Operation Sei-go did indeed evaporate after the AVG reached Guilin. What they don’t say is that for a few months, more than sixty years ago, in their incandescent youth, they were heroes to a nation that needed heroes as never before and never since.

Yes. They fought magnificently, and their achievement isn’t at all diminished by the fact that they believed their accomplishments to be greater than they were.

I found a couple of areas I would have liked more information on:

1. The Japanese and AVG units kept running into each other. It was good to get some feel for this but would have liked more on the Japanese side to match the AVG.
2. The RAF and the AVG had a lot of interaction that was barely covered. Need more.
3. An exotic locale for the combat. Would like to see pictures of the area and targets.

They were there. Mercenaries, gamblers, innocents, black-marketers, romantics, war lovers—they were there when the British Empire was falling, and when America’s future seemed nearly as bleak. “Did you ever regret joining the AVG?” a reporter once asked R T Smith. R T glanced off to the side, put his tongue in his cheek, and said: “Only on those occasions when I was being shot at.” Yes. Frightened men in fallible machines, they fought against other men as frightened as themselves. All honor to them.