This summer, FedEx will deliver a big package to Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor—a World War II P-40E Warhawk. FedEx inherited the P-40 when it purchased Flying Tiger Airlines. As you might expect, the aircraft is painted in the colors of the Flying Tigers. This new arrival will give docents at Pacific Aviation Museum the opportunity to talk about the famous Flying Tigers and the often-overlooked China-Burma-India (CBI) theater.
In preparation for the P-40E’s arrival, this blog gives some background on the Flying Tigers and our new aircraft in particular. At the end of this blog, there are some larger-size pictures of P-40s, the Flying Tigers, and Claire Chennault.
Blood for the Tigers
Pearl Harbor was just the beginning. Just hours after striking Hawaii, Japan decimated MacArthur’s air forces in the Philippines and the British air forces in Malaya. Later that same day, Japan bombed Guam, Wake Island, Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and several other targets. During the next weeks and months, the Japanese rolled across Asia and the Pacific in an unbroken string of victories. U.S. morale was at rock bottom.
On December 20, 1941, ten Ki-48 Japanese bombers approached Kunming, China. With all eastern seaports closed, China could only get supplies through the Burma Road. Kunming was the road’s terminus in China, and it was all too familiar with devastating Japanese air raids.
This time, however, new fighters dove into the Japanese bomber formation. These were P-40B Warhawks, which had fared poorly against Japanese attackers at the beginning of the war. These P-40s, however, were a different story. They quickly shot down four of the bombers. The surviving raiders dropped their bombs short of the target and fled for home. More crash landed on the way back to their bases. Claire Lee Chennault, who commanded the P-40s, had assured his pilots that if they could shoot down a quarter of the bombers in a raid, the Japanese would not come back to Kunming. He was right. In their first combat, Chennault’s American Volunteer Group had made its mark. The AVG would continue to make its mark in coming weeks and months.
Time Magazine latched onto this small initial victory. In an article “Blood for the Tigers,” Time extolled this victory and introduced the name Flying Tigers. This name had been coined by the AVG’s small staff in the United States. Disney soon produced a logo for the AVG. It was a pouncing tiger jumping out of a V for victory. Of course, the logo had nothing to do the iconic shark’s mouth design on the Flying Tigers P-40s, but who cared? Soon many other news sources were following the exploits of the Tigers.