AS NEW DETAILS emerge about the extent of US military support for Saudi Arabia’s campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen, Americans are once again beginning to register surprise at the geographic scope of their own nation’s military intervention. Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Niger: these days it seems one might be forgiven for wondering just how we find ourselves entangled in any number of conflicts. This sense of chaos occasionally leads to nostalgia for the “Greatest Generation,” and a time when wars were supposedly simpler, the enemy known, the decision to enter into hostilities forced upon us by a bellicose other.
Sam Kleiner’s The Flying Tigers, a brisk history of the American Volunteer Group’s exploits in China, challenges wistful backward glances to the seemingly straightforward American intervention in World War II. The Flying Tigers’s heavy reliance on memoirs, letters, battlefield reports, and newspaper stories transports the reader into the early days of the War, but Kleiner ensures that we never look back uncritically.
In 1940, Claire Chennault — a former US Army Air Corps officer who had left active service for China three years earlier, when his career began to stall — requested a large quantity of state-of-the-art military aircraft for China in an effort to aid Chiang Kai-shek’s defensive war against Imperial Japan. In a classic example of what we now call “mission creep,” the request for material became a request for personnel. Chennault wanted American pilots for his American planes. “It was a fairly radical and even dangerous idea,” Kleiner reminds his readers, “for enlisting American pilots to fly American aircraft was a violation of the nation’s neutrality. It could lead to war.” Still, Roosevelt was eager to accelerate American involvement in what was fast becoming World War II. “A company in New York, Universal Trading Corporation, had been set up to funnel U.S. aid to China,” Kleiner writes, “and they would use those funds to pay Curtiss-Wright for the planes. On paper, this would be a purely commercial business transaction.” In reality, it meant American aircrews in American planes potentially engaging in hostilities without a formal declaration of war.
In the spring of 1941, the first pilots and crewmen of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) sailed for China. Like Chennault and his earlier team, the aircrews would travel with false passports — “Occupation: Executive,” Chennault’s stated. The men who volunteered would resign from active military service and begin working under a contract with the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company. They were assured, however, that their year spent as a civilian aircrewmen in “advanced training units” would still qualify as a year of active service when they resumed their military careers. In addition to Chennault — the AVG’s commander and a man who “didn’t like losing in war or in baseball” — Kleiner makes room for a full cast of characters: “Scarsdale” Jack Newkirk, “an Eagle Scout from the posh suburb” that would become his nickname; Greg “Pappy” Boyington, the belligerent drunk who would go on to fame outside of the AVG as the commander of the Black Sheep squadron; and David “Tex” Hill, a gregarious young man who was “born in Korea” to a family of missionaries. (Unconscionably, Kleiner leaves us to guess at the provenance of “Tex.”)
Once in China, the aircrews adorned their new Curtiss-Wright P-40 fighter planes with an open shark’s mouth, its teeth naked beneath a menacing eye. After training in remote locations in China and Burma, the Tigers first saw action just three weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when two squadrons of AVG P-40s intercepted an unsuspecting Japanese bomber formation. By January 3, 1942, the AVG was on the offense, flying combat sorties months before Jimmy Doolittle’s famous April 1942 raid. Doolittle’s mission, while the first against the Japanese mainland, came at a high cost. The Japanese captured and later executed a number of his downed airmen, crews that Chennault felt he could have saved had he known about the mission in advance. The AVG commander could have easily used the Chinese radio communication net to talk crippled aircraft toward friendly landing strips, he argued. “Apparently, the Army Air Forces brass wanted to avoid notifying Chennault about the raid because of concerns that, given his close ties to the Chinese, word of the attack might be leaked,” a problem occasionally encountered by combat advisors today.
The Flying Tigers reads like an adventure story, as Kleiner deftly takes his reader from cramped cockpits to quiet Washington corridors. But it’s also a cautionary tale. The resulting narrative impresses us with just how terrifyingly easy the projection of military power can be: a nod from President Roosevelt and the Arsenal of Democracy might churn a little faster and broaden its scope. The clandestine approvals and procurements in Washington play out in clashes over the skies in the China-Burma-India theater and in the pages of Life magazine (to say nothing of a ripped-from-the-headlines 1942 John Wayne film). The AVG’s defense of China helped make the CBI an important theater of the war. Without China’s participation, its continued resistance against Imperial Japan, the war in the Pacific might have been far more difficult for the United States and its allies.
Kleiner’s account is a sobering reminder of the costs of American military intervention (and non-intervention) around the world. He takes us back to a time when the United States was just beginning to assert its newfound economic and military might. For all the bravery of the American Volunteer Group, The Flying Tigers reminds us that their very existence — the decisions made to assemble this organization and place it in harm’s way — was not the result of broad public consensus. In Kleiner’s account, we feel for the loss of each Flying Tiger, and we mourn for burning Chinese cities, whose civilian populations were deliberately targeted for aerial bombardment. War, even a war waged for a righteous cause, is never bloodless. The decision to enter it should never be made in secret.
As a historical account, The Flying Tigers feels a little incomplete. For all the detail about the Tigers’ exploits, we never see much from the Japanese perspective, and the concentration can feel isolating. The Flying Tigers may not offer the reader a completely balanced battlefield perspective, but the omission has the effect of aligning us with Kleiner’s subjects. Without the point of view from opposing cockpits, we come to see the aerial combat in the CBI from the AVG’s unique vantage point. Alone with Chennault’s aircrews for long stretches of time, the reader finds him- or herself, not unlike the Tigers themselves, waiting: waiting for supplies, waiting for reinforcements, waiting for the sound of planes overhead.
Only near the end of The Flying Tigers do we hear of Anna Chen, a young reporter who would become Chennault’s second wife. Anna Chennault’s legacy — she died only this past March at the age of 94 — would eclipse her husband’s in audacity and scope. Following the success of Mao’s revolution, Mrs. Chennault became one of the most active, and hawkish, voices on Asian affairs in Washington. She facilitated Chinese Nationalist donations to the Republican Party, helped the CIA ship military supplies to anticommunist forces across eastern Asia, and even appeared on an FBI wiretap while attempting to frustrate 1968 negotiations to end the war in Vietnam. If the exploits in The Flying Tigers are ripe for cinematic adaptation, Anna Chennault’s life would surely make for a blockbuster sequel.
Nicholas Utzig is a PhD student in the department of English at Harvard University, where his research focuses on representations of soldiers in early modern drama. Nick is a former US Army aviation officer whose final assignment was as an imbedded advisor to an Afghan special operations aviation unit.