During the latter half of 1941, a little more 300 young men and two women nurses made their way by at least five different ships to Rangoon, Burma, and then by train to an auxiliary British airfield just outside Toungoo, Burma. The men, recently discharged from the U.S. military by special order from the President of the United States, were to be trained by Claire Chennault to form the first American Volunteer Group. They did not know it then, but they had a date with destiny.
The legendary exploits of the Flying Tigers, as they became known, are well documented in more than two score books that have since been published about them. Russell Whelan’s “”The Flying Tigers”” was the first, published late in 1942, just months after the group was disbanded, followed by Olga Greenlaw’s “”The Lady and the Tigers”” in 1943.
According to aviation artist John Shaw, less than two dozen of these great American heroes are still with us. Only six of those survivors were pilots.
Shaw has published five prints honoring the Flying Tigers. His latest is called “”Shark Sighting.””
The plane depicted in the painting, number 92, was assigned to the 3rd Pursuit Squadron, “”Hell’s Angels.”” It was flown by different pilots, including Duke Hedman and Chuck Older. Both of these men became aces on Dec. 25, 1941, in the skies over Rangoon. They were the AVG’s first two aces — which one was the first is only a matter of speculation because it happened during the same air battle. That day was a major victory for the AVG and the press made the most of it, calling them “”Flying Tigers.”” The name stuck and their subsequent accomplishments made them legendary.
Shaw’s first Flying Tiger prints depicted key events in their short, seven-month combat career before they were disbanded July 4, 1942. His latest print, however, honors the ground crew.
R.T. Smith, in his book “”Tale of a Tiger,”” said this about the ground crew: “”Theirs was not an enviable task, but they were tough and seemed to thrive on adversity. They were extremely proud of their ability to ‘keep ‘em flying,’ and of the individual pilots who flew ‘their’ planes. A good thing, too, for without them we’d have been grounded in no time.””
While it’s the pilots who usually get the glory for their combat triumphs — and rightly so — it is the ground crew, the unsung heroes, who made it possible. Too little has been said and not enough recognition given to the hard working ground crew and support staff.
They are like the linemen on a football team. It’s the quarterback and the rest of the backfield who get all the glory, but it’s the linemen who make it possible. All are part of the team, and each has to do his part for the team to be successful.
The crew chiefs, armorers, propeller specialists and sheet metal workers all were needed to keep the planes in the air, but it was more than just making them flyable. The planes had to perform well and withstand the rigors of combat.
For the AVG ground crews this was a challenge. They didn’t have a supply of spare parts, only what they could salvage from wrecked planes. Tires were in short supply. Landing accidents took a toll on props. Bearings, engine bearings in particular, were wearing out constantly and had to be replaced. Engines were used well beyond their normal combat life expectancy. They flew planes that were patched together from parts of other planes, a wing here, a rudder there, a fuselage from another wreck. These planes wouldn’t have been allowed to fly in training squadrons back in the States but the AVG pilots flew them, and flew them with the confidence that the ground crew had done their best.
Artist Shaw noted that before the pilots could take to the skies against the enemy, the all-important task of bore sighting the .30 caliber wing guns of their P-40s had to take place. The ingenious armorers of the AVG were often forced to improvise, but as the Tigers’ incredible combat record can attest, these great Americans got the job done!
Shaw has recreated this scenario, featuring likenesses of actual AVG personnel, such as Tex Hill and armorer Chuck Baisden.
The artist noted that it’s been a true honor to work with the remaining Flying Tigers on another painting to help keep their legacy alive.
Larry W. Bledsoe is an avid aviation historian and writer. He can be reached at 909-986-1103.