Thomas Calabrese — The First American Volunteer Group (AVG) of the Chinese Air Force,1941-1942, nicknamed the ‘Flying Tigers’, was composed of pilots from the United States Army Air Corps, Navy and Marine Corps who resigned their commissions in the military. It was recruited under presidential authority and commanded by Claire Lee Chennault. The group consisted of three fighter squadrons of around 30 aircraft each. It trained in Burma before the American entry into World War II with the mission of defending China against Japanese forces. The volunteers were officially members of the Chinese Air Force and had contracts with salaries ranging from $250 a month for a mechanic to $750 for a squadron commander. The group first saw combat on 20 December 1941, 13 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The AVG was largely the creation of Claire L. Chennault, a retired U.S. Army Air Corps officer who worked in China since August 1937 as a military aviation advisor to General Chiang Kai-shek. Since the U.S. was not at war, the ‘Special Air Unit’ could not be organized overtly, but the request was approved by President D. Roosevelt himself. Chennault spent the winter of 1940-1941 in Washington supervising the purchase of 100 Curtiss P-40 fighters and the recruiting of 100 pilots and 200 ground view and administrative personnel. He also laid groundwork for a bomber group and second fighter group, but these plans were aborted after the Pearl Harbor attack. The aircraft were crated and sent to Burma. At Rangoon, they were unloaded, assembled and test flown by personnel of Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO) before being delivered to the Flying Tigers.
The port of Rangoon and the Burma Road leading from there to China were of crucial importance. Eastern China was under occupation, so all military supplies for China arrived via the Burma route. The Flying Tigers were divided into three squadrons: 1st Squadron (Adam &Eves) 2nd Squadron (Panda Bears) and 3rd Squadron (Hell’s Angels) and assigned to opposite ends of the Burma Road.
Six years earlier, on June 13, 1935 Gregory ‘Pappy’ Boyington enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and was accepted as an aviation cadet. After graduation he was assigned to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Group at the San Diego Naval Air Station. It was while he was in San Diego that he met a young actor named John Wayne who was on location with the movie, California Straight Ahead in 1937. The two men struck up a friendship based on their mutual affection for hard living, hard drinking and flying. Wayne got Boyington work as a flight stunt man in the film industry and they often flew to Mexico for weeks of hard partying when their schedules permitted.
On August 11, 1941, Boyington met Wayne at a small seaside bar in Oceanside, “I’m going to resign my commission and take a job with Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company.”
Wayne downed a shot of tequila, “What the hell is that?”
“They’ve been contracted to staff a Special Air Unit to defend China and the Burma Road.”
“Nobody can say that you ain’t one crazy S.O.B,” Wayne growled and called out, “A round for the house!”
On August 26, 1941, Boyington resigned his commission in the Marine Corps and headed to China. When America entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, many Hollywood stars enlisted in the military, but John Wayne received a deferment because he had four children at the time. The government also thought that he could do more good making patriotic movies to keep America’s morale up. This bothered Wayne, who saw his fellow actors, James Stewart, Henry Fonda and Clark Gable go off to serve their country and he wanted to do his part.
During his time with the ‘Flying Tigers’, Boyington became a flight leader, but he was frequently in trouble, so he decided to return to the United States. There was a problem though, the ‘Flying Tigers’ were already shorthanded and vastly outnumbered by the Japanese and to lose a qualified pilot would further endanger his fellow aviators and Boyington wouldn’t do that.
He thought about his dilemma and approached Chennault, “We got off on the wrong foot and I don’t see things getting any better for us. You’ve got your way of doing things and I’ve got mine, so I’d like to head back to the states.”
“Break your contract, it’s not like I’ve got time to take you to court,” Chennault grumbled.
“I know a pilot that might want to take my place. I’ve flown with him on numerous occasions and he’s damn good,” Boyington said, “As much as I hate to admit it, he might even be a little bit better than me.”
“What is this pilot’s name?” Chennault asked.
“Sounds like a woman.”
“You’re one to talk with a name like Claire, but he doesn’t go by that name anymore,” Boyington said.
“As much as you get on my nerves, there is one thing that I always liked about you,” Chennault rubbed his chin in thought.
“My boyish charm and engaging smile,” Boyington joked.
“You got to the point and didn’t waste my time!”
“John Wayne is the pilot’s name,” Boyington volunteered.
“The actor! Are you drunk again?” Chennault blurted out.
“Sober as a preacher on Sunday morning,” Boyington responded, “Let me run it by Wayne and if he’s interested, I’ll have him come over and meet you. What have you got to lose?”
“Is he a friend of yours?” Chennault asked.
“A good one.”
“I’ll try not to hold that against him.”
When Wayne got the message from Boyington, he immediately knew that this might be his best and only opportunity to serve. He was making movies on a regular basis at the time so he had to find a way to get away so he went to his personal physician, Doctor George McLintock. Wayne put on his best acting performance in order to convince the doctor that he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, “I’m worn out and need some time off, I’ve been burning the candle at both ends for too long.”
Wayne got the letter that he wanted and brought it to Adolph Zukor, the head of Paramount Studios who was less than pleased to receive it, “You couldn’t have picked a worse time to do this, your popularity is at an all-time high.”
“It wasn’t like I planned it,” Wayne replied, “I’ll just have to hit it harder when get I back.”
Howard Hughes was currently working on a prototype high speed long range reconnaissance plane for the military designated the Hughes XF-11. The plane had 2 Pratt&Whitney R-4360-31 Wasp Major 28 cylinder air-cooled radial piston 3000 horsepower engines. It was also equipped with 8-bladed Hamilton Standard Hydromatic contra-rotating propellers and had a cruising speed of 475 mph.
“I need to get to China quickly and without anybody knowing,” Wayne said, “Can you help me out?”
“Probably can, what’s going on?” Hughes asked.
“Flying Tigers, I’m thinking about joining them.”
“No wonder that you don’t want anybody to know,” Howard Hughes flashed a big smile, “I can set up a flight plan with relief pilots to meet along the way.”
“I don’t want to rush you, but I’ve only got so much time to do this,” Wayne stated.
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do; I’ll notify the government that I’m testing the XF-11 reconnaissance plane and mount some auxiliary fuel tanks. As soon I get clearance, we’ll take off for Hickam Field in Hawaii.”
“Thanks Howard, appreciate it,” Wayne said, “I owe you.”
“Maybe you can do a movie for my new studio, California Pictures when you get back?”
“Count on it.”
Wayne and Hughes flew to Hawaii two days later and when they arrived at Hickam Field, they met with another pilot. “Marshall will accompany you the rest of the way. I need to get back to LA. I’m already behind schedule on pre-production with Jane Russell’s movie titled ‘Outlaw’,” Hughes stated, “Take care.”
Boyington wasn’t just sitting around waiting for Wayne to arrive, he was still flying patrols twice a day and accumulating kills every time that he went up; there was no shortage of targets both in the air and on the ground.
The 1st and 2nd squadrons intercepted 10 unescorted Kawasaki Ki-48 bombers of the 21st Hikotai Group on their way to Kunming, forcing the bombers to jettison their bombs before reaching their target and turn back to their base in Hanoi.
Boyington shot down two bombers and the other pilots shot down three more. After this engagement, the Japanese ceased bombing raids on Kunming.
The Flying Tigers were running short of parts and were forced to cannibalize (take parts off one aircraft and install on another) to keep as many P-40’s in the air as possible. Chennault was expecting a delivery from America, but there were unforeseeable delays and the situation was getting more desperate with each passing day. Pilots and mechanics were doing their best in a rapidly deteriorating situation. Finally, the word came that the delivery had made it to Rangoon and a convoy of parts was on the way to the training facility in Toungo. Sixty P-40’s were also being assembled and would be arriving any day now.
It was early morning when the new planes appeared on the horizon and one by one, they landed and taxied over to the hangar to smiles and applause. One pilot got out of the cockpit and stepped down to the ground, “You seen Boyington?”
The ground crew man responded without looking, “If he’s not flying then he’s probably sacked out at the pilots’ shack.”
Boyinton had just finished flying six missions and was so exhausted that he could hardly keep his eyes open or stand upright. He felt something kicking his cot and ignored it. When the kicking persisted, he angrily shouted out, “Whoever is kicking my cot, I’m warning you, if I have to get up then I’m going to show you what real kicking is like, especially when I put your butt between your shoulders!”
The kicking continued and Boyington jumped out of his rack, ready to do battle. The look of rage turned to elation in an instant when he saw Wayne standing there, “Johnny Boy! How was the trip?”
Wayne smiled, “I got some help part of the way and improvised the rest. I arrived in Rangoon a few days after the P-40’s did, so I told the maintenance crews that I’d be happy to fly one in after they put them together.”
“I’d better introduce you to Chennault,” Boyington suggested.
Chennault was checking out the new planes when the two men walked up. “This is…” Boyington started.
“I know who it is,” Chennault interrupted.
“Good to meet you, Greg told me about you,” Wayne said.
“And you still came?” Chennault laughed.
“He said that you were a hell of a pilot and an even better commander,”
“I don’t believe that,” Chennault said.
“Believe it! Just because I don’t like you personally doesn’t mean I can’t see that you’re a hell of a pilot,” Boyington replied defensively.
“Right back at you,” Chennault turned his attention to John Wayne, “I heard you flew one of the P-40’s in, “What’s your assessment of it?”
“I wish it had a supercharger for higher altitudes,” Wayne commented.
Chennault turned to Boyington, “I guess now that your replacement is here, you’ll be taking off?”
“I’ve been thinking about that and I figured it might be a good idea if I stuck around a little while until Johnny gets a feel for the place,” Boyington suggested.
“That might be a good idea. I’m going to have to put a name down on the squadron roster, do you want me to use John Wayne or your real name…what was it…Marion Morrison?”
“I had a dog named Duke… he was tough, loyal and I could always count on him. How about if you use Duke Morrison?” Wayne suggested.
“Duke Morrison it is,” Chennault reminded Wayne, “This isn’t like the movies, if you screw up over here, you don’t get a second take.”
“I’ll remember that.”
John Wayne (a.k.a Duke Morrison) was assigned to Third Squadron (Hell’s Angels) with Boyington and instead of hitting the ground running, they hit the skies flying. Wayne and Boyington and 16 other P-40’s intercepted a group of Mitsubishi Ki-21 heavy bombers of the 31st Sentai escorted by Nakajima Ki-27 fighters of the 77th Sentai and their squadron shot down four bombers and three fighters. Wayne got one bomber and Boyington downed a fighter. The pilots were getting bonuses for each plane they shot down, but since Wayne didn’t need the money that he earned for confirmed kills, he donated his bounty to his fellow pilots.
On 12 January 1942, The Japanese launched the Burma Campaign. Third Squadron of the Flying Tigers noticed 43 Japanese bombers and 25 fighters while on patrol north of Rangoon.
Boyington radioed, “Duke, cover us with planes 9 through 17, 1 through 8 with me.” then dived straight at the enemy aircraft five thousand feet below them. They took out seven bombers with blazing machine guns on the way down, but were at the mercy of Japanese escort fighters when they pulled up. Two Japanese zeros locked in on Boyington’s tail and while he tried every evasive maneuver that he knew, the P-40 wasn’t designed for a slow speed dogfight. Suddenly Wayne was above him, and he cut one Japanese plane wing in half with a burst of machine gun fire then riddled the cockpit of the second zero.
Chennault’s doctrine was called the ‘dive and zoom’ technique. Half the pilots would dive from an altitude advantage and be protected on their ascent while they 2nd group of fighters performed the same maneuver. Once the pilots perfected this aerial strategy, they were able to inflict significant damages on the Japanese while minimizing their losses.
Rangoon was lost to the Japanese at the end of February and the Flying Tigers relocated to Magwe, a small British airfield more than 300 miles away. The Japanese conducted a massive raid on Magwe forcing the Flying Tigers to relocate to Loiwing just across the Chinese border. Reinforced by new 12 P-40 E ‘Kittyhawks, the Flying Tigers still retained their attack capabilities and kept the pressure on the Japanese.
Wayne and Boyington were catching a few hours rest before going back up when Chennault walked in their shack, “Morrison, this message just came in for you,” and handed the paper to Wayne who read it and wadded it up.
“What’s up?” Boyington asked.
“It’s from Howard Hughes; it seemed that the studio is looking for me.”
“Now may be a good time to think about going back,” Chennault suggested, “Now that America is fully engaged in the war, they want to merge the Tigers with the Army Air Corps’ 23rd Fighter Group.”
“How much time do we have?” Boyington asked.
“A few weeks maybe,” Chennault answered.
“The real question is how many missions we can fly before they shut us down,” Wayne smiled.
Over the next few weeks, the two men flew every chance they got before the Flying Tigers officially disbanded on June 1, 1942. Wayne finished with 23 confirmed kills that were all attributed to other pilots and Boyington had 19. Boyington then rejoined the Marine Corps on September 29, 1942, and became Commanding Officer of Marine Fighter Squadron 214, better known by its nickname, The ‘Black Sheep Squadron.
Wayne went back to Hollywood and no sooner did he get back that he heard that Republic Pictures was thinking about doing a movie about the ‘Flying Tigers’ so he pushed hard to be in it. When screenwriter, Kenneth Gamet gave him a one paragraph synopsis of the storyline, it only heightened his enthusiasm; Jim Gordon commands a unit of the famed Flying Tigers, the American Volunteer Group which fought the Japanese in China before America’s entry into World War II. Gordon must send his outnumbered band of fighter pilots out against overwhelming odds while juggling the disparate personalities and problems of his fellow flyers. In particular, he must handle the difficulties created by a reckless hot-shot pilot named Woody Jason, who not only wants to fight a one-man war but to also waltz off with Gordon’s girlfriend.
The character Woody Jason bore an eerie resemblance to Boyington and once he got the part, Wayne gave considerable input to Director Edward Ludwig on the development of the character throughout the film,
When the movie was completed, Wayne agreed to do a USO tour to the South Pacific with John Ford and Gary Cooper. While traveling through Russell Islands-New Georgia and Bougainville areas, they tour stopped off at the island of Vella Lavella where the ‘Black Sheep’ squadron was based. After exchanging pleasantries for a few minutes, “I’ve got a mission, want to come along?” Boyington flashed a mischievous smile.
At sunrise the next morning, October 17, 1943 Wayne, Boyington and 22 pilots got in their Vought F4U Corsairs and flew to Kahili on the southern tip of Bougainville. The squadron circled the field where 60 hostile aircraft were based, goading the enemy into sending up a large force. In the fierce battle that followed, twenty aircraft enemy were shot down with Wayne and Boyington getting two each.
When the squadron returned, members of the USO tour were waiting, “Where the hell have you been?” John Ford demanded, “We need to get going.”
Wayne smiled, “Sorry about that, flying always helps relax me.”
On January 3, 1944, Boyington tied World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker’s record of 26 enemy planes destroyed before he was shot down. Following a determined and futile search, Boyington was declared missing in action. He was captured and spent 20 months in various Japanese prison camps including Rabaul, Truk, Ofuna and finally Omori. He survived the massive U.S. Navy raid known as ‘Operation Hailstone’ and escaped with former Olympic distance runner and downed aviator, Lieutenant Louis Zamperini. The two Americans hid in the woods for several weeks, scavenging for food along the way. They were able to steal a Japanese military radio and changed the frequency to one used by the Allies. They sent out an SOS, but because they were being held on the Japanese mainland, a rescue mission would be extremely risky.
The scuttlebutt was that the Allies had developed a plan to attack the Japanese mainland and were prepared to implement it at any time. Everybody was sickeningly aware that after three years of bloody fighting across the Pacific, Japan would fight to the very last man to defend their homeland.
Chennault contacted Wayne, although he still called him by the name that he used when he with the ‘Flying Tigers, “Duke, I’ve got word where Boyington is; command won’t authorize a rescue, but I’m going after him anyway, thought you might want to come.”
“I’m on my way,” Wayne stated without hesitation.
Four days later, Wayne met Chennault at Busan, South Korea. A communication was sent to Boyington that he would be picked up off the coast of Fukoka, Japan on August 5, 1945, 0700 hours. Little did they know, this was only one day before the atomic bomb would be dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.
Wayne and Chennault got inside the Catalina PBY 5A-Flying Boat and took off. Once they were in the air, they rendezvoused with twenty P-40’s. They knew that Japanese fighter planes would be patrolling the shoreline so when they got within 30 miles of mainland Japan, they descended to twenty five feet and skimmed over the ocean. They were able to pinpoint Boyington and Zamperini’s location from their radio signal. The flying boat landed and pulled up next to the raft with the two men. Chennault opened the side door, looked up and saw Japanese fighters diving toward them. “Get in, hurry!”
Boyington and Zamperini were weak and struggled to climb in as Wayne looked over his shoulder, and when he saw that the two men were in, he prepared to take off. Two Japanese fighters were coming straight at him and he wasn’t going to have enough room for take-off. Suddenly both planes exploded before his eyes and crashed into the water. Four P-40’s with their fifty caliber machine guns blazing pulled out of their steep dive. The additional American planes engaged the other Japanese zeroes allowing the PBY to make it back to Korea.
Shortly after his return to the U.S. as a lieutenant colonel, Boyington received the Navy Cross on October 4, 1945 from the Commandant of the Marine Corps. One day later he was awarded the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman. Wayne was a spectator at both ceremonies.
John Wayne. a.k.a. Duke Morrison went back to making movies and never spoke of his military exploits. To America these men were the legendary Flying Tigers, but to our enemies they were the Predators of the Skies.