The great value of the American Volunteer Group (AVG or Flying Tigers) was psychological and diplomatic: Americans and Chinese hailed them as heroes during the early period of World War II when Japan had the upper hand. The Flying Tigers raised public hopes for eventual victory while Allied forces, reeling from Pearl Harbor and other Japanese victories, organized for war.
Claire Chennault's AVG volunteers began training in Burma in July 1941. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December, the small American group had few supplies and little hope of reinforcement. Starting with 43 serviceable P-40B fighters and 84 former U.S. military pilots, their first combat was on Dec. 20, 1941. The name "Flying Tigers" came from news reports of the group's exploits, and the AVG was flashy, informal and very effective. In its brief combat life -- December 1941 to July 1942 -- the AVG destroyed 296 Japanese aircraft in China and Burma.
When the U.S. Army Air Forces arrived in July 1942, Gen. Chennault's AVG was disbanded and a few of its members joined him in a regular army unit called the China Air Task Force. In March 1943, the Task Force became the nucleus of the new 14th Air Force. Their supplies came over "the Hump," a dangerous 500-mile air route from India to China over the Himalayas.
"Japan can be defeated in China. It can be defeated by an Air Force so small that in other theaters it would be called ridiculous. I am confident that, given real authority in command of such an Air Force, I can cause the collapse of Japan."
- Brig. Gen. Claire Chennault
Despite supply problems, the 14th Air Force grew from fewer than 200 aircraft to more than 700 planes by the end of the war. American airmen in China destroyed and damaged more than 4,000 Japanese aircraft during the war. They also sank more than a million tons of shipping and destroyed hundreds of locomotives, trucks and bridges while helping to defeat the Japanese in China.
"... I judge the operations of the 14th Air Force to have constituted between 60 percent and 75 percent of our effective opposition in China. Without the (14th) air force we could have gone anywhere we wished."
- Lt. Gen. Takahashi, Japanese Chief of Staff in China
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