December 20, 1941: The 1st American Volunteer group engages enemy forces for the first time.

Famously called the “Flying Tigers”, this group of volunteer pilots flew their famous shark-mouth-painted fighters over China between December 1941 and July 1942, helping the Chinese Air Force defend the country against the Japanese. They first saw action shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, when fighters from two squadrons intercepted Japanese bombers performing air raids over Kunming, a strategically important city in South China that became the group’s base. Pilots of the 1st AVG were picked from the Navy, Marines, and Army Air Forces, and commanded by Claire Lee Chennault (pictured), an American colonel who also trained Chinese aviators (and later married a Chinese journalist). The name “Flying Tigers” was derived from the group’s signature nose paint, which Chennault admitted had been copied from an Indian news magazine depicting RAF fighters. It has been theorized that the local people mistook the sharks for tigers, hence “flying tigers”. Members of the group wore patches (pictured above) so that, in the event that their plane was shot down, locals would be able to identify and help them. 

Active for a mere seven months, the group gained great public fame for striking early blows against Japanese forces when morale in the United States was low and successful efforts against the enemy were rare. Despite lacking resources and basic medical supplies, the Flying Tigers were credited with destroying nearly 300 enemy aircraft, and a contemporary Life article called them a “shining hope” who “conclusively proved what was once only a Yankee belief: that one American flier is equal to two or three Japs”. In 1942 the group was replaced by the 23rd Fighter Group of the USAAF, and the Burma Road, a supply line that linked Burma and Kunming, was overrun by the Japanese that year. Although often described as a “mercenary group”, the Flying Tigers were nevertheless closely associated with the United States military, and in 1996 all its pilots were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Many of the pilots were also decorated by the Chinese government.

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