AVG – Flying Tigers – China Air Task Force – 14th UAAAF

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You fly a P-40 with two hundred gallons of aviation fuel that last two and a half hours for five hundred miles … When you … fill up with another two hundred gallons you use fifty-four gallon tins that came, across the 681 miles of Burma Road, or four fifty-five gallon drums from over the Hump. You burned up gas faster than all the Chinese can get it here to you … Look! … You won’t see railroad … tank cars … or gas trucks … or any transportation. There’ll be coolies rolling fifty-five gallon drums … from Kunming to Chanyi, almost a hundred miles … It takes coolies forty days for those … drums … to move from Kunming to Kweilin to provide less than one full service for your ship. Sometimes you’ll see two coolies carrying one drum slung on a gin pole between them – three hundred and fifty pounds of gasoline and fifty pounds of can .. That method can take seventy to seventy-five days. We have to wait a long time for a hundred thousand gallons to build up. Then we have barely enough for a full three-day mission for twenty-five fighter planes or a one day mission for a dozen medium bombers. (Chennault explaining the Chinese sacrifice to his Fighter Group Commander, 1942)

With the end state defined, Chennault analyzed his means. The rapid Japanese advances during his first month in China surprised him for he thought he would have far more time to train and prepare the China Air Force. His study had two parts and was continuous over his eight-year fight. First, he determined the resources available, dividing them into human and equipment, and he determined the characteristics of each. Second, he tailored his well-defined operational concepts and doctrine to the people, equipment, and the theater. He used his theories to maximize the effectiveness of the resources. The theater possessed the means for Chennault to establish protection and detection but the Chinese desperately needed outside resources to mount any serious interception and destruction.


The numbers of Chinese volunteers were the backbone of the Chinese war effort. One of China’s harsh realities was that human life was the country’s most abundant resource, to be sacrificed as necessary so that the life of the nation might go on. Chennault credits Donald’s unstinting help and understanding with his success in mastering the Chinese character. Without the help Chennault said : no doubt I would have sailed home in disgust with a superficial Occidental contempt for the East. The schoolmaster found two challenges : teaching pilots and air defenders who had never shot a duck to lead a moving target in the air, and building runways without engineers or machinery. Even with help from foreign missions and individuals, the progress was still slow. China lacked what plagued Chennault most – no mechanical or engineering background that gave western pilots and mechanics a grounding in fundamental skills. Chennault accepted China’s backwardness and did not fault it, instead he adapted to their culture. He embraced some traits while others appalled him. But he did not judge.

During the early stages of the Sino-Japanese War, the Chinese had some success. The German trained and equipped units fought well but when flanked in late 1938 it became evident that the Japanese advance could only be slowed, not stopped. In July of 1937, the Japanese sent unescorted bombers over Nanking three times in five days and suffered the destruction of 54 planes and crews. Three days later they repeated the attack at night but Chennault coordinated the searchlights and air defense protection to bag seven of the thirteen raiders destruction. By October the Japanese were sending a hundred planes a day over Nanking and were escorting their bombers. In one mission they shot down 11 of 16 Chinese fighters. Chennault noted, with inferior planes and training and without replacements they were doomed to early extinction. Due to a lack of reserves, replacements, and ammunition, the Chinese exodus had begun.

By late 1938 continuous fighting decimated the good Chinese pilots. When the city of Hankow was captured in October 1938, China’s air force was a shell of fewer than 25 planes. Chennault had a high opinion of the ability of Chinese pilots when properly trained, equipped and led. Beginning in 1938, he could do little but plan for the future. He began a flight school at Kunming that fall to aid the rebuilding of an air force. He promoted air field construction at key points throughout the country – protection through mobility. He expanded the early warning net – detection. This net was invaluable in warning threatened bases and cities – protection. When the Flying Tigers were ready to fight late in 1941 it helped them to face an enemy who had overwhelming superiority in numbers. Given these resources, Chennault trained his American and Chinese early warning net volunteers and airmen.

The early warning net, jin-bao, was the most important part of Chennault’s operation. It was a chewing-gum and bailing-wire operation, a masterpiece of jerry rigged engineering. Telephones and radios were the mechanical parts of the net, the Chinese people were the eyes, ears, and the living heart of the net. The detection net eventually fanned out 270 degrees from Kunming extending over most of China and the occupied provinces, an area greater than half of the United States. Occasionally, the observation posts even over watched Japanese airfields. Some posts used sundials to determine time and direction. Reports were often based upon sound alone and it was not unusual when the reports contained face saving modulation. The early warning net began in July of 1937 using the concentric circles Chennault envisioned in Defensiv Pursuit. The observers were initially stationed at 100, 200, and 300 kilometer intervals. The reports were sent to a central command post and warning went out to the targeted cities and airfields. Chennault founded schools, teaching concepts such as : determining direction, approximating altitude, airplane identification, and time. The schools sent the observers to their posts after they mastered the topics – anytime from two to 12 months after beginning their studies.

War in China : Shanghai, August 1937, The record on the collection of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs reads as follows : Abri à l’angle de la Rue Kraetzer et du Boulevard de Montigny (Shelter at the Kraetzer Road and the Boulevard of Montigny), but it is unlikely this can be Rue Kraetzer. From the angle of the photograph, it is indeed boulevard de Montigny, with the Great World in the background. The tracks at the intersection, however, point to a major thoroughfare, in this case Avenue Edward VII. (Source : Institut d’Asie Orientale, Archives of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs – Paris)

War in China : Shanghai, August 1937. No other information available for this image. (Source : Institut d’Asie Orientale, Archives of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs – Paris)

Nanking, 1930-1939, Note(s) On the left, spire of the Wing On Department store; on right-front, the Sincere Department store, and behind it the spire of the Sun Sun Department store, and way back the Sun company at the corner of Nanking and Thibet roads.(Source : Institut d’Asie Orientale, Archives of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs – Paris)

Thousands of volunteers began an extensive airfield construction plan during 1938-1939 which eventually culminated in 100 airfields. The fields were to offer Chennault’s forces protection through mobility. By hand and wicker basket they built and maintained the airdromes to nest airplanes not yet built in Los Angeles and Buffalo factories. At Hankow. 120.000 peasants built a 4.800 foot airfield for heavy bombers in only sixty days. Sometimes the airfields were bombed even when they did not hold planes. As Japanese planes cleared the skies after a raid, the peasants grabbed their shovels, crushed rock and pushed compacting stones weighing thousands of pounds across the runway to repair it.118 All of the airdromes were built by hand. Four bomber fields were built by 350.000 peasants in ninety days. Chennault may not have anticipated this level of manual labor as he theorized of the National Resistance and the war absorbing all the resources of the country, but China’s resource was her people. China had manpower but needed the implements of modem war for the offensive destruction of Japan. Chiang turned to the US for planes and other armaments. By 1940 Chiang, Chennault, and Roosevelt concluded that an American sponsored Chinese Air Force may be the best economy of force mode to strike at the Japanese. Chiang insisted that Chennault go to Washington in the fall/winter of 1940 to argue his case alongside the China lobby and Roosevelt’s kitchen cabinet. To the chagrin of the War Department, President Roosevelt and Britain released 500 planes to China and authorized US airmen released from active duty to outfit three American Volunteer Groups for fighting in China. Only one AVG arrived in the Southeast Asian theater before December 7 1941, when the second two AVGs and a bomber squadron were promptly recalled.

Later, on July 4 1942, the China Air Task Force (CATF) superseded the AVG. Its strength was 34 battered P-40s, most of them inherited from the AVG, and seven B-25 medium bombers. By 1943, the CATF grew to four fighter squadrons and one medium bombardment squadron – 98 airplanes operating along a 5.000 mile front from Chungking and Chentgtu to the Indo-China Red River in the south, the Tibetan Plateau and the Salween River in the west, and the China Sea in the east. The unit’s main base was at Kweilm, 500 miles east of the Kunming headquarters, and they worked from Hengyang, Nanning, Yunnanyi and other Chinese fields, and from Dinjan in Assam, India. On March 10 1943, the Fourteenth Air Force superseded the CATF. The Fourteenth had an assigned strength of 142 airplanes and 2.234 men. By June of 1945, the 14th had 735 aircraft and 20.000 men, of which 15% were aircrew. China received additional planes for the Chinese/American Composite Group which began operations in 1944. Now with her implements of war for Japan’s destruction, China had to resupply and replace them.

The history of the China-Burma-India Theater is a history of supply. Chennault lamented, Supply problems remained my biggest headache until the end of the war. The Chinese had no supply or maintenance organizations so I found myself deeply entangled in the labyrinth of Chinese logistics. During the high water mark of the Axis, Chennault and the Chinese Army received the equivalent in supplies to outfit less than two US infantry divisions. This paltry supply tonnage kept fewer than 100 planes and 3.8 million man army in the war. During the eight months that CATF existed, they survived and fought with 800 tons of supplies per month. On December 24 1944, the Fourteenth Air Force’s supplies received 14.688 tons were slightly more than that required by one infantry division in action. The total amount of tonnage delivered to China throughout the war could have been transported in but seventy Liberty ships had a port been available. The Chinese were promised 10% of America’s lend-lease but this promise was unfulfilled. American lend-lease that China received was : 1.7% in 1941, 1.5% in 1942, and 0.4% in 1943 and 1944. Aid increased greatly in 1945 but half of the aid was received after the war. China only received 3% of all lend-lease.

The discrepancy between what President Roosevelt and the army promised to deliver and what the army actually delivered was the largest of any theater. Once Japan occupied China’s ports and the Russians focused toward Germany, China had a supply problem. Chennault was at the end of world’s longest supply line. Distribution points in China terminated a 15.000-mile supply line. The supply line consisted of a 12.000-mile voyage, a 1.500-mile trip across India, a 500-mile flight across the Hump, and distribution to the far eastern bases of the Fourteenth Air Force. Dropping one ton of bombs required eighteen tons of supplies reaching an Indian port. Few other campaigners had a million-gallon a year gasoline supply line, run by a 1.700-mile camel caravan, via the Old Silk Route. This route through Russian Turkestan carried more war materials into China than the famous Burma Road. Thousands of Chinese volunteers distributed the supplies that arrived at Kunming and the dispersed airfields from the camel caravans by sampan, by wicker backpack, and gin pole. Acquiring the means to implement his theory’s destruction upon Japan was Chennault’s greatest challenge. Again, he was forced to return to his theoretical The Will of the People to Resist which said that all classes of a population would directly contribute to the war. In China, millions literally carried on the war effort.

Chennault knew that the Burma Road was inadequate for supporting the war in China and that only a port or a large air bridge could sustain the war. He was in China before the Burma Road was opened on December 2 1938, and when the British closed it for three months in 1940 due to Japanese political pressure. Despite his (and Churchill’s) reservations, the theater sunk its scarce resources into the Ledo or Stilwell and Burma Roads. The project ambitiously begun to supply an army, became an additional burden and also diverted supplies from the Fourteenth Air Force. A glance at the contribution of the supply modes shows that from December 1941 to December 1945 air supplied 81% of the tonnage to the theater, the Ledo Road contributed 16.6% and the pipeline only 2.4%. About 30% of the incoming cargo on the road had to be gasoline needed for the round trip to Kunming. A round trip from Burma to Chungking required, by weight about 50% gasoline. The gasoline back-haul requirement and the precarious road bed caused the Burma Road became a one-way viaduct. The northern terminal, Kunming, became the world’s largest parking lot.

The success of the Hump route was central to any China strategy. Depending solely upon air transport for supply had no precedent. Chennault was confident that it could be done” as were Washington officers who surveyed the theater. Chennault’s optimism was based on his 1937 ties with pilots who pioneered the route for the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC). But a defeatist attitude permeated the command of the Tenth Air Force and later the Air Transport Command until late 1944. CNAC consistently out performed the military and events were to prove that the route was viable. Chennault tailored his operational concept, fighting doctrine, and tactical employment based upon his resources and Chinese traits. The operational concept flows from theory. Likewise, the operational concept begets tactical doctrine. Therefore, doctrine is the end product of the process the theorist begins. Chennault refined his operational concept based upon his advisory experience and the changing means (acquiring US pilots and aircraft) and his doctrine amplified his four elements of war. He determined that he needed to protect the force, his LOC, and his most valuable asset, the Chinese population from the Japanese bombers and attacks. Protection could best be provided by a three step process. First, the civilians and the military must have a passive defense to shield them from the Japanese bombing and attacks. This defense consisted of deception, warnings, revetments, and air raid shelters.

Safeguarding Chennault’s base and LOC is the second tier of protection. The AVG’s first mission was to protect the Burma Road as then it was the single southern LOC into China, since the Hump route was not formalized until November 1941. While protecting the Burma Road, Chennault was forced to split his meager AVG, sending two squadrons with 34 aircraft to protect the Chinese bases of Chungking and Kunming. After the British defeat in Burma, Chennault’s LOC defense mission was greatly simplified. The British Royal Air Force and eventually the American Tenth Air Force would later assume the LOC defense mission, but only well after this mission diverted Chennault’s scarce resources to protecting the theater LOC.

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