Today in History, December 20: 1941 –
Nearly two weeks after the surprise attack by the Japanese Navy on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the First American Volunteer Group (AVG) enters combat for the first time in defense of Kunming from Japanese Air Force bombers.
The AVG was made up of pilots and air crews who were allowed to resign their positions in the USAAF, US Navy and US Marines before the US entered World War II in order to fly for the Nationalist Chinese Air Force defending the Burma Road…China’s primary access to military supplies. The AVG members had been recruited by a retired USAAF officer, Claire Chennault, who had been training and supervising Chinese flyers for Chinese leader Chiang Kai-Shek since the 1930’s. The covert program had begun in April 1941, and by the time the AVG’s pilots, crews and their Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighter aircraft had arrived in Asia and trained, the US had entered the war.
In their first combat the Flying Tigers destroyed 5 of the attacking bombers. In the coming months they destroyed nearly 300 Japanese aircraft with a loss of 14 of their own aircraft. In the dark months after Pearl Harbor the Japanese were “sweeping the table” across the Pacific, and the victories of the small Flying Tigers units provided much needed morale boosters for the Allied powers. In July of 1942, after little more than six months, the unit would be absorbed into USAAF units in the Asian theater of operations. Most of the pilots returned to US service, including “Tex” Hill and Gregory “Pappy” Boyington.