The shark-faced nose art of the Flying Tigers remains among the most recognizable image of any individual combat aircraft or combat unit of World War II. The group consisted of three squadrons of around 30 aircraft each. It trained in Burma before the American entry into World War II with the mission of defending China against Japanese forces, the group of volunteers were officially members of the Chinese Air Force. The members of the group had contracts with salaries ranging from $250 a month for a mechanic to $750 for a squadron commander, while it accepted some civilian volunteers for its headquarters and ground crew, the AVG recruited most of its staff from the U. S. military. The group first saw combat on 20 December 1941,12 days after Pearl Harbor, AVG pilots earned official credit, and received combat bonuses, for destroying 296 enemy aircraft, while losing only 14 pilots in combat. The combat records of the AVG still exist and researchers have found them credible, on 4 July 1942 the AVG was disbanded. It was replaced by the 23rd Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Forces, fourteenth Air Force with General Chennault as commander. The 23rd FG went on to achieve combat success, while retaining the nose art on the left-over P-40s. Chiang then asked for American combat aircraft and pilots, sending Chennault to Washington as adviser to Chinas ambassador and Chiangs brother-in-law, T. V. Soong. Since the U. S. was not at war, the Special Air Unit could not be organized overtly, the resulting clandestine operation was organized in large part by Lauchlin Currie, a young economist in the White House, and by Roosevelt intimate Thomas G. Corcoran. Financing was handled by China Defense Supplies – primarily Tommy Corcorans creation – with money loaned by the U. S. government, purchases were then made by the Chinese under the Cash and Carry provision of the Neutrality Act of 1939. Previously in the 1930s, a number of American pilots including Annapolis graduate Frank Tinker had flown combat during the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side, members were organized into the Yankee Squadron. He also laid the groundwork for a bomber group and a second fighter group. Of the pilots,60 came from the Navy and Marine Corps and 40 from the Army Air Corps, although sometimes considered a mercenary unit, the AVG was closely associated with the U. S. military. Most histories of the Flying Tigers say that on 15 April 1941, however, Flying Tigers historian Daniel Ford could find no evidence that such an order ever existed, and he argued that a wink and a nod was more the presidents style. In any event, the AVG was organized and in part directed out of the White House, during the summer and fall 1941, some 300 men carrying civilian passports boarded ships destined for Burma. They were initially based at a British airfield in Toungoo for training while their aircraft were assembled and they called Chennault the Old Man due to his much older age and leathery exterior obtained from years flying open cockpit pursuit aircraft in the Army Air Corps. Most believed that he had flown as a pilot in China
Flying Tigers personnel
Chennault in his Kunming office, May 1942. He wears a US Army brigadier general's star on his left shoulder but Chinese insignia otherwise.
3rd Squadron Hell's Angels, Flying Tigers, over China, photographed in 1942 by AVG pilot Robert T. Smith