One of the most famous flying units of World War II was the American Volunteer Group (AVG) under Claire Lee Chennault (pictured). Known as the “Flying Tigers,” the AVG fought in China and Southeast Asia for 7 months (20 December 1941 to 4 July 1942) and destroyed 296 Japanese aircraft versus a combat loss of only 14 of their own.
The Tigers never numbered more than 90 planes (mostly P-40s) in three squadrons, and the distinctive shark’s teeth painted on the planes was soon world-famous. In 1942 the AVG became the basis of the 23d Fighter Group.
While the Flying Tigers are well-known, it is less known that they are also an echo of the Civil War.
The major Civil War echo is found in the Flying Tiger commander, Colonel (later Major General) Claire Lee Chennault. A Louisianan, Chennault was born in 1893; his father (born 1862) was John Stonewall Jackson Chennault, who was a cousin of Sam Houston.
Claire’s middle name was no accident. His maternal grandfather, Dr. William Wallace Lee, traced his lineage to the Lees of Virginia and was a proud veteran medical officer of the Army of Northern Virginia. Claire’s biographer Martha Byrd noted that Claire “grew up hearing tales of military exploits, of family adventures revolving around the Chennaults and Houstons and Lees, fighters all.” This heritage inspired Claire Chennault to enter the military; first as a cadet at LSU, later in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1917 to 1937, and then in China afterward. “All my life I wanted to be a soldier,” wrote Claire in his 1949 memoir Way of A Fighter, “But until flying came along I never found a segment of military life entirely to my liking.” Considered an expert in pursuit combat, command of the Flying Tigers was a natural progression for Chennault. He later rejoined the U.S. Army and ended in command of the Fourteenth Air Force from 1943 to 1945; after the war he founded Civil Air Transport (later Air America).
Another Tiger-related echo of the Civil War is through John Jouett, an early airplane purchaser for the Chinese Air Force. He was from a notable Kentucky family that sent several sons to the Union war effort. One, the Lieutenant Colonel of the 15th Kentucky, died at Perryville in October 1862; another was commander of USS Metacomet at the Battle of Mobile Bay. Metacomet was lashed to USS Hartford, and when Admiral David G. Farragut cried “Damn the torpedoes!” he then yelled over to Metacomet “Jouett, full speed!”
Today the Flying Tigers live on through the 23d Fighter Group, which is currently based in Georgia. The 23d’s A-10s still have the shark’s teeth on their noses.
Top: Claire Lee Chennault in 1944.
Bottom: Flying Tiger P-40s in formation, 1942.