American Volunteer Group – Flying Tigers – China Air Task Force – 14th UAAAF


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 the 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 will 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. (Gen Claire 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 Second 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.

The Sino-Japanese War: Our Army's Occupation of Fengtianfu (Nisshin sensô Hôtenfu wagagun senryô no zu)
The First Sino-Japanese War: Our Army’s Occupation of Fengtianfu (Nisshin sensô Hôtenfu wagagun senryô no zu) ‘Ôju Yôsai Nobukazu hitsu)
Sino-Japanese War : The Fierce Battle on the Floating Bridge at Jiuliancheng” by Kobayashi Toshimitsu, October 1894. Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The First Sino-Japanese War : The Fierce Battle on the Floating Bridge at Jiuliancheng” by
Kobayashi Toshimitsu, October 1894. Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Above and Bellow : Second Sino-Japanese War

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.

The third tier of protection was mobility. Chennault saw his only chance for survival was using mobility to both attack the Japanese and frustrate their efforts to concentrate against him. He used every advantage of interior lines of communication to attack the Japanese while forcing the numerically larger enemy to attack from exterior lines. Chennault wrote he used the

principle of the Confederate cavalry leaders in the War between the States applied to modern air war. With our tiny but mobile task force, we could cut the Japanese communications, destroy supplies, batter their bases, and create confusion in their rear out of all proportion to our tiny effort.

Chennault’s forces were so small that conventional defensive tactics would have doomed them to extinction. Chennault’s omniscient 1937 request for the construction of one hundred-odd airfields gave him the bases he needed to fight this aerial shell game. He kept the Japanese guessing where his forces were, from Burma to the Yangtze. Using a doctrine of mobility required a thorough understanding of time-distance relationships and almost perfect intelligence. In order to destroy the Japanese across a 2000-mile front, he had to plan with certitude. Chennault’s detection of the Japanese came from intelligence sources such as observation reconnaissance flights, photo reconnaissance, reports from the Chinese Army, his forward air controllers, and the US Navy; but the crowning jewel of Chennault’s detection effort was the early warning net. First begun shortly before Chennault’s arrival, he quickly expanded the net’s function and area, to include protection of the triangle from Shanghai, Hangchow, and Nanking. After a particularly destructive raid upon Kunming in which no Chinese Air Force plane took off, Chennault ordered John Williams to improve the Yunnan early warning net so that it could direct fighters against the enemy. This took six months. Now the operational concept of air superiority could be achieved with interception. Chennault continued expanding his intelligence base to achieve destruction of the Japanese when two significant events occurred in 1942. First, a missionary, John Birch, escorted a downed pilot, Lt Col James Doolittle, into Chennault’s headquarters. This prompted Chennault to formalize an underground railroad to repatriate shot-down pilots and offer further protection to his small force. Second, William J. Donovan visited the theater and asked for Chennault’s help in gathering intelligence.

Chennault’s intelligence network grew slowly and quietly. More missionaries were recruited … Soon Chennault’s agents were dispersed throughout occupied China, along the coast and around Hankow, serving as liaison between the Chinese armies and Chennault’s airmen, passing on information on subjects ranging from Japanese ship movements and troop activity to the black market.

With this intelligence net, and intercepted radio traffic provided by captured Japanese signallers, Chennault’s force was secure and he increased his offensive effectiveness. A thorough appreciation for and analysis of time-distance relationships were the keys to interception. Battling the enemy over your lines or airfields meant that the enemy had probably already dropped his bombs. The ideal was to intercept the attackers at a great distance from their target, either the airfield or front lines. Timely information from the early warning net and calculation from the net’s command post provided this information. Six variables had to be known and then the net could calculate the desired point of interception. The variables were : (1) altitude and speed of enemy, (2) rate of climb and speed of pursuit force, (3) time for pursuit to apply effective fire, (4) time for collection of information from observers and transmission to the pursuit organization, (5) time for the pursuit to leave the ground after receipt of orders, (6) ability of pursuit to make interception by the shortest route. Using simple algebra and updated reports from the early warning observers, the net command post could direct interception. The time-distance relationships were the underlying principle supporting Chennault’s doctrine of mobility, too. Presently, we refer to this as acting before the enemy can detect your actions or can react to your sudden move. Chennault employed mass and surprise to facilitate destruction of the Japanese. Chennault did not wait for command of the sky to take the war to the Japanese, rather he deflected the Japanese blows with his detection and interception while taking to the offense. He wrote, Our only defense was a good offense.

Chennault’s operational concept achieved two goals. First, he clarified and defined the China theater’s end state with the approval of Chiang Kai-shek and President Roosevelt. Second, he determined the means he could use from within the theater and he gathered the means from outside the theater that he needed to support Chiang’s campaign. The essentials of Chennault’s security were the early warning net, deception, mobility, and a careful study of the enemy. His final task was to refine his plan and methods to defeat the Japanese.

    Around the top-level conference table the war is a neat precise series of operations that come ready-made out of the planners’ brief cases, figured out to the last man, round of ammunition, and can of rations. These beautiful planning pictures quickly blur in the field. When the plans go awry, as they always do in varying degrees, it is the field commander who must take over and win or lose with what he has at the moment, not what the plans eventually call for. There is a tremendous gulf between the military planners and the military operators. Both are necessary, but it has been my experience that while an operator can be a planner, the planners seldom succeed in an operational command. Some of the biggest military busts of the war can easily be traced to putting a professional planner into an operational command. (Lt Gen Claire L. Chennault)

Chennault, like many others in China, was unable to accomplish his objective. That is important, but not critical to this study. What is far more important is to note the tremendous contributions he made with the meager means available and to determine if his theory assisted in his campaign planning. From 1937 on, he believed that China’s very limited internal lines of communication restricted Allied ground involvement as he relayed to Brig gen John Magruder, US Military Mission to China. Logistics and transportation limitations were the major reasons that Chennault sought to limit American involvement to small, mobile forces offset with superior intelligence and striking power. When he finally gained his small 500-plane force in the spring of 1944 instead of late in 1941, its missions were diffused by the allied requirements. He could not mass on Japanese shipping and the mainland. He could only conduct offensive operations after providing protection for the War Department – controlled 20th Strategic Bomber Wing, protecting the Hump, supporting ground forces in Burma, and supporting the Chinese Army fighting against the Japanese Inchigo Offensive. Chennault’s overly optimistic 500 plane aerial offensive was inadequate to defeat Japan; however, without the divergent objectives pressed upon Chennault, the impact upon Japan would have been even greater.

Since the history of the theater and its tactics were closely tied to the history of logistics, it is useful to examine how Chennault’s ways improvised to adapt to his meager means. The Fourteenth Air Force sent one bomber in at 200 feet to drop one bridge instead of using the Eighth Air Force’s tactic of using a group with hundreds of bombs at thousands of feet to do a similar job. The Fourteenth used fighters as dive bombers to increase accuracy and borrowed General Kenney’s Fifth Air Force bomber tactic of using skip-bombing against ships. Chennault calculated that it cost half a ton of supplies per month to support an American in theater so he worked with the National Resistance will of the Chinese to reduce his American overhead. The Americans operated at about half the normal troop strength and fought on one-fourth the supplies usually allocated to an air force of its size. Chinese troops performed almost all the service functions for the Fourteenth. Chennault initiated this relationship with the arrival of the AVG and it continued until early 1945 when his growing forces overwhelmed the Chinese resources. The theater mastered improvisation from bomb racks to bamboo auxiliary fuel tanks. Gasoline was so critical that visiting planes flying into Chennault’s headquarters at Kunming, were drained of all but the absolutely essential fuel for the return trip. The early warning net and intelligence provided security for his theater. Young provided one example in describing the early warning net around Chungking :

The warning system was excellent. Probably the best in the world at the time. Spies with radios near enemy bases spotted the take-off and movements of enemy planes, telling the number and direction of flight [detection]. This, along with advice on the progress of the flights, was relayed to air defense headquarters in the threatened cities. Warnings there were given in the early stages by signal raised and lowered in high places, and then by sirens. People who could not take shelter had time to disperse in the countryside [protection]. The morale in Chungking was high, despite losses, at this stage of air bombardment.

Even without the means to offensively fight, Chennault had taken actions to preserve his fighting forces and his most important asset, the Chinese people.
Adviser, Circa June 1937 – July 1941

Two Chinese men kneeling prior to execution by Chinese soldiers. The Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945) was a fight against the Japanese occupation as well as a civil war between the Nationalists and Communists.

Invasion of China

Most historians place the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War on the Battle of Lugou Bridge (Marco Polo Bridge Incident) on July 7 1937. Contemporary Chinese historians, however place the starting point at the Mukden Incident of September 18 1931. Following the Mukden Incident, the Japanese Guandong Army occupied Manchuria and established the puppet state of Manchukuo in February 1932. Japan pressured China into recognizing the independence of Manchukuo. Following the Battle of Lugou Bridge in 1937, the Japanese occupied Shanghai, Nanjing and Northern Shanxi as part of campaigns involving approximately 200.000 Japanese soldiers, and considerably more Chinese soldiers. Chinese historians estimate as many as 300.000 people perished in the Nanjing Massacre, after the fall of the city. The Marco Polo Bridge Incident not only marked the beginning of an open, undeclared, war between China and Japan, but also hastened the formation of the second Kuomintang-Communist Party of China (CCP). The collaboration took place with salutary effects for the beleaguered CCP. The distrust between the two antagonists was scarcely veiled. The uneasy alliance began breaking down by late 1938, despite Japan’s steady territorial gains in northern China, the coastal regions, and the rich Yangtze River Valley in central China. After 1940, conflict between the Nationalists and Communists became more frequent in the areas outside Japanese control. The Communists expanded their influence wherever opportunities were presented, through mass organizations, administrative reforms, land and tax reform measures favoring peasants – and the Nationalists attempted to neutralize the spread of Communist influence. The Japanese had neither the intention nor the capability of directly administering China. Their goal was to set up friendly puppet governments favorable to Japanese interests. However, the actions of the Japanese army made the governments that were set up very unpopular, and the Japanese refused to negotiate with either the Kuomintang or the Communist Party of China, which could have brought popularity.
(Source : Pvt Joker : Second Sino-Japanese War)

The Sino-Japanese War broke out days after Chennault’s arrival in Shanghai. While he went to China as a pursuit expert, his role was quickly broadened and within weekss he became Chiang’s Air Force Chief of Staff. Chennault did not wait for the formalities of appointment to begin fighting. His defense of Shanghai and Nanking, cited earlier, were vintage Chennault theory which included civil and base defense from the protection plank, and the detection and interception planks of his theory. His hastily orchestrated defense with the best Chinese pilots that he, MacDonald, and Williamson could find, drove the Japanese to escorted bombing missions within a week and to night bombing within a fortnight. Chennault’s deceptive trap for the Japanese culminated in the biggest aerial battle in history up to that time, near Hankow on April 29 1938. He coordinated for the Chinese and Russian fighters and ground crews to noisily depart the area. Chennault was sure that Japanese spies would report this withdrawal. At sunset the planes returned at low level and landed without circling [protection through mobility]. The following morning the Japanese flew in for what they thought was a leisurely bombing of Hankow. After the battle, only three enemy planes returned to base while 36 were burning in the countryside [destruction].

Over time, Chennault needed other resources as he could not overcome the superior Japanese numbers, higher quality pilots, and equipment. After a fair accounting of itself in late 1937 and early 1938 the Chinese Air Force had less than 20 obsolete aircraft and fewer capable pilots. Seven Russian fighter and five bomber squadrons provided most of China’s air power until their withdrawal to the Russian western front. His first actions after the exodus and establishing his headquarters at Kunming was emplacing an early warning [detection] net over a land mass larger than half of the United States. He applied his educator’s mettle to reduce each task to its simplest element. He spent months with trainers and interpreters supervising training the Chinese to establish the multi-concentric net and command posts. The net saved tens of thousands of lives [protection] buying precious minutes for the civilian urban dwellers and labors to seek air raid shelters before the Japanese bombers, often using incendiaries, struck. The net saved precious airplanes and dozens of airmen’s lives, also. Maps were general and very inaccurate. When pilots became lost, they were instructed to circle several times. Inevitably the radio silence would soon break giving them their location and the location of the nearest base. Chennault’s early warning net also provided him with an intelligence net that spanned occupied and unoccupied China [detection]. The mainland was so massive that it was impossible for the Japanese Army to garrison the entire country. Early warning outposts that had been overlooked by the invaders remained in place and continued their observation. Other early warning posts infiltrated behind the Japanese lines and operated with great success.

The early warning net was the heart of the downed pilot recovery effort. Chennault initiated the blood chit; pilots wore painted cloth stitched on their jackets, with directions for repatriation and reward written in Burmese and Chinese. Chennault’s protection doctrine minimized casualties and aircraft losses, and maximized downed pilot recoveries. Likewise, Chennault trained the CAF and coordinated combat actions with the Russian squadrons for protection of their bases, support to the army, and protection of Chungking. The former headmaster established classes that he would repeat later for the AVG. Later as his missions and resources expanded he had to delegate trusted subordinates to train the new pilots of the Chinese Air Task Force and the Fourteenth Air Force.

After training 11 classes of CAF pilots, Chennault remained frustrated and felt that there was more he could do to contribute to the war against Japanese aggression. In October of 1940, Chiang sent him to Washington to plead China’s case to receive the weapons of war (means) to include 500 planes and Americans to fly them. (AVG)

The sudden Japanese offensive in Burma threatened Chiang’s and Chennault’s LOC [protection] if the offensive was not stopped before reaching Dinjau, India, the northwestern terminus of the Hump. The Japanese were advancing on two fronts. The Allied air forces coordinated attacks with ground forces withdrawing toward India. The Japanese were halted at the Irrawaddy River. Chennault felt that bombers were so indispensable to the China theater that he created bombers from the AVG’s P-40 pursuit planes. His mechanics fashioned homemade bomb racks and pilots dropped combinations of homemade, Chinese, and Russian bombs. The bombings’ destruction cost the Japanese dozens of planes on the ground and convinced the Japanese Army to stop at the Swaleen Gorge in January of 1042, and not pursue the retreating Chinese into the Yunnan Province. By the time of the Burma debacle, Chennault already had moved his base of operation and two squadrons northeast to Kunming. The loss of the Burma Road prompted Chiang to order Chennault to ensure he offered protection over the Hump route until the Tenth Air Force was in position to assume the mission. Chennault accomplished this mission in his usual offensive economy-of-force manner. His plan was to operate his air force deep in China, using the country’s depth as a protection. With limited capability to defeat the Japanese in conventional battle, Chennault attacked the Japanese when intelligence and logistics permitted it.

Map showing military airlift route over the Himalayas between Assam, India and Kunming, China, known as The Hump. Also shown is the planned route of the Ledo Road to connect to the Burma Road. The shaded area is Japanese occupied Burma.

A decade earlier Chennault wrote that a radio-equipped early warning detection net could guide pursuit interception of a bomber attack. On January 17 1942, it came together over Mengzi, 75 miles from the Indo-china border. Four AVG planes destroyed a flight of bombers which had launched their attack from Hanoi. Chennault continued moving his force around in the Chinese interior and attacking the Japanese. It was hard to keep the airdromes and airplane movements secret. Chennault used this to enhance his protection through a simple but elaborate deception which caused the Japanese to overestimate his strength by a factor of ten. With the stroke of a paint brush Chennault’s planes changed propeller spinner colors, fin flashes and fuselage numbers. The paint brush, the wooden and canvas decoy (complete with a little gasoline to burn if the decoy were attacked), the mobility of the force to marshal and then always attack from a different direction, had the Japanese convinced that they were fighting a force of equal strength to themselves. The application of this protection theory was clearly demonstrated during the bomb-free summer over Chunking.

In the spring of 1942 Chiang directed Chennault to permit no bomb to fall in the city [Chungking] during the summer of 1942. Chennault defended the city with two squadrons of canvas dummies and two to three P-40s while he offensively sought the destruction of the Japanese throughout eastern and southern China. By summer’s end no bombs had fallen on Chungking and more than 100 Japanese planes were destroyed. By the time the AVG faded into the history books they had lost one pilot for every 17 Japanese airmen killed. The Foreign Legion of the Sky’s service cost the Chinese government $3.000.000. In return, the Flying Tigers and the Allies had stymied the Japanese offensive into eastern India and eastern China, blunted the Japanese aerial offensive, and given Chunking its first summer without being bombed in four years.

23RD FLYING TIGERChina Air Task Force – July 5 1942 – March 9 1943. Chennault’s resources to fight with the CATF were, in many ways, reduced rather than increased when compared with the AVG’s means. The CATF inherited 47 worn-out planes from the AVG, but replacements in people and planes ran months behind schedule. The eight months that the CATF existed it operated on fewer tons of supplies than the weight of bombs which the Eighth Air Force dropped in one mission over Europe. When the CATF could put thirty fighters and half a dozen bombers aloft, it felt powerful. In December, the CATF had 34 fighters and two days of gasoline remaining. By spring, Chennault’s means received through the Hump supply line were from 30 to 50 percent of his promised supplies. Col Robert Scott, a transport pilot prior to assuming command of 23rd Fighter Group, discovered that in addition to the Transport command lacking the will for the Hump mission, the priority for China’s supplies was set by a far-off staff officer and not by those fighting in China. After dumping a plane load of worthless paper money into the jungle, Scott returned for a load of the gas and bullets that the fighters in China needed. Chennault continued fighting for protection using his war of mobility. He controlled some missions through his mobile headquarters which could be set up in less than an hour after his DC-3 landed. He ordered five B-25s and three P-40s to stage through an airfield only five minutes flying time from the enemy lines; swarms of Chinese workmen refueled them from five-gallon cans. The planes sank a 4.000 ton freighter and started large fires which burned for three days in the dock and warehouse area. He also used this mobility when the CATF struck the important ports of Canton, China and Haiphong, Indo-china. In six days the CATF massed for 11 missions at Japanese concentrations 800 miles apart without a combat loss. The Japanese sustained the destruction of 71 planes, three ships and miscellaneous dock and port damage. Thus, he continued his destruction of the Japanese LOCs.

Chennault’s objective of striking the Japanese mainland, shipping, and lines of communication resulted from his determination of the Japanese weakness and his
doctrine of mobility and destruction.

Aerial mining of waters around Rangoon, Moulmein, Martaban and Makpalin on the Sittang, Bangkok and Irrawaddy rivers started February 22 1943. In March, during a series of concentrated attacks upon important railway bridges and main ports of entry, six P-40s knocked out the vital Mogaung Bridge, severing rail connections with Myitkyina at the time that Japanese forces were attempting to drive north from Sumprabum toward Fort Hertz … by October 1943, they had destroyed almost 65 percent of Burma’s rail facilities and a great amount of shipping. India-based and China-based air attacks during 1943 cost the Japanese an estimated 275.000 tons of shipping and forced the enemy to rely on barges for China coastal traffic and to employ larger vessels on the open seas where Allied submarines could take heavy toll.

Yet, Chennault still did not consider that his long-planned offensive against the Japanese had begun.

23RD FLYING TIGER14th Air Force – March 10 1943 – August 1 1945. Chennault’s early warning net continued to function almost flawlessly while the theater continually improved its capabilities. Maj Barclay P. Schoyer organized an Air-Ground Aid Section (AGAS) in November 1942 with Army, Navy and Marine units. [it] accounted for the rescue of 898 airmen between March, 1943 and the end of the war. In addition to their search activities, AGAS men collected intelligence, trained hundreds of Chinese (and missionaries) in the assistance of lost American airmen, and organized the Chinese underground. The force protection in this theater probably out-classed any theater during the war. During the Trident Conference, Chennault proposed using a 500-plane force to defeat Japan through attacks on her shipping and mainland while the Chinese Army held the Japanese Army in China. His plan was accepted by the sovereigns, but was not resourced in 1943. Similarly, the operational concept the combined UK-US staffs (CCS) worked out from 1942 to 1944 was strikingly parallel to one proposed by Chennault. The execution of the CCS plan changed from its concept and now called for routing the Japanese from Burma. Chennault determined that it would take years to drive the Japanese out of Burma and China. The Burma campaign was a tactical success, but a strategic failure. In Burma, the Allies took two years to begin an offensive of even limited success. Yet, in two years the Allies regained the Solomons, the Gilberts, the Aleutians, occupied the Marshalls and Papua, landed on New Britain and were assembling for the invasion of the Admiralty Islands and Dutch New Guinea.

The Burma Road – 滇缅公路 (Stilwell’s Road) was a road linking Burma with the southwest of China. Its terminals were Kunming, Yunnan, and Lashio, Burma. It was built while Burma was a British colony in order to convey supplies to China during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Preventing the flow of supplies on the road helped motivate the occupation of Burma by the Empire of Japan in 1942. Use of the road was restored to the Allies in 1945 after the completion of the Ledo Road. Some parts of the old road are still visible today.

From the Chinese viewpoint, the Burma plan had significant risk to their position within China. They were bitter with the British for rejecting Chiang’s offer of Chinese troops in 1941-1942 as the British were losing the Burma Road. By now, Chiang learned that Chennault was correct – the Chinese army could be supported by an air bridge, so sending troops south did not make sense. Numerous Chinese delays occurred in their support of the campaign to reopen the road because of the sacrifices the campaign required to east China offensives. Chennault determined that shipping and LOCs were Japan’s greatest operational and strategic vulnerability. In late 1943 and early 1944 Chennault was attacking Japanese shipping, railroads, depots and bases with his two B-25 squadrons. By early 1944 Chennault’s destruction in Indo-china abrogated any value the region gave to the Japanese. Chennault’s conviction was that shipping was Japan’s Achilles’ heel and was the key to her destruction. He waged his anti-shipping destruction and mining campaign throughout the eastern Chinese coast and included the river barge traffic. He wrote in response to the B-29 campaign targeting Japan’s steel industry [strategic bombing campaign Matterhorn controlled by the War Department] that the effort could be significant but not decisive by itself. He argued that if Matterhorn was done simultaneously with his anti-shipping campaign, then the destruction could be decisive.

Chennault was more right than he knew and the Matterhorn planners could not have known that they had the wrong target. The 1943 Japanese steel industry was operating at a third of its capacity due to a critical shortage of ore. And the ore was not reaching Japan because of the Fourteenth Air Force steady campaign against riverand coastalshipping. Chennault’s acute observations of the Japanese vulnerabilites were dovetailing with his theoretical planks to protect one’s forces, acquire timely intelligence on the enemy. then interdict, and destroy him where he is most vulnerable.

In the spring of 1944 when Chennault’s offensive was logistically supported, the success of his aerial campaign precipitated the results that Stilwell predicted. Stilwell predicted that if Chennault’s campaign against the Japanese LOCs was effective that the Japanese Army would strike to destroy Chennault’s bases. Chennault’s ability to accurately assess the detection and identification parts of his theory never failed him. He discovered the build-up for and the beginning of the Japanese Inchigo campaign in April of 1944 while the theater denied it. When the Japanese Army finally reacted to the Fourteenth’s interdiction they rolled over the Chinese Army. The Japanese struck to establish a land bridge with their forces in Indochina. They were successful but underestimated the capabilities of the Fourteenth. When the Japanese stuck their heads further into China, they merely presented Chennault with greater opportunity to cut their necks as he had done during the previous summers rice offensives. This was demonstrated when the Fourteenth Air Force reopened the eastern China airfields of Suichwan and Kanchow. The units based there received support completely by air from Chihkiang. Delivery of two gallons of gas cost three gallons in intra-theater haul. The eastern-based attacks contributed two-thirds of the Fourteenth’s success during the three months from November, 1944 through January, 1945. The planes using these bases sank 80.000 tons of enemy shipping and damaged 178.000 tons. The destruction included over 300 enemy planes while the US lost only 15 during the 11 weeks. Later, Chennault moved the squadrons 130 miles further east toward Changting and continued the damaging strikes and mining operations.

A post-war statement by Lt Gen Takahashi, the northern Japanese Army Chief of Staff is revealing : I judge that the operations of the Fourteenth Air Force to have constituted between 60 and 75 percent of our effective opposition in China. Without the air force we could have gone anywhere we wished. By the spring of 1945, the Japanese began to fall back on their lines established before Inchigo.

Many of Chennault’s targets were lightly defended ships, harbors, airdromes, and railroads. The Fourteenth Air Force. limited by its means and China’s great distances, was never able to strike at the heart of Japanese industry and war potential. Operations against major Japanese surface lines of communication constituted a strategic effort, however, in the opinion of the theater command, because they influenced the course of the war in India-Burma and in the Pacific as well as in China. Chennault used fighters and bombers of all types against Japanese shipping. In June of 1944, radar-equipped LAB (low-altitude bombardment) Liberators had remarkable success in night attacks and in daylight attacks through the overcast. The LABs were coordinated with sea sweeps off the China coast with Fourteenth Air Force mining missions against the harbors of Haiphong, Canton, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. The Fourteenth continually mined the Yangtze River, targeting enemy shipping. Mining of the approaches to Canton was the chief factor in stalling a Japanese drive north from Canton in the summer of 1944. Chennault used US Naval resources to fight the Japanese by adding maritime detection stations to his early warning net, as he had espoused in his theory. He first coordinated defensive actions with Capt James McHugh (USMC), US Assistant Naval Attache since July of 1937. Since that time he planned with naval officer Milton Miles, who was with Naval Group China collecting intelligence for possible landings on the Chinese coast. The Navy requested the Fourteenth’s assistance with reconnaissance over the South China Sea, Strait of Formosa, the Indo-china coast, and the Philippine waters. Together, with Lt Cmd Sam Savage, Chennault established a joint detection, interception and targeting command post – the 308th Radar Control Detachment Number 1.

The only radar that the 308th Radar Control Cell used was in the belly of the LABs. The LABs conducted reconnaissance patrols for detection of Japanese shipping and would either attack it or hand off the Japanese convoys to submarines in the South China Sea. The cooperation worked so well that the LABs were able to hand off damaged ships for the-submarines to sink and, conversely, the submarines were able to hand off damaged ships for the more mobile Labs to sink. By April of 1945, the LABs rarely found any large merchant ships – Japan’s sea LOC was cut. The Navy was so pleased with the energetic cooperation and results that they awarded Chennault the Navy’s Distinguished Service Medal. With a million-man Japanese army still in China and the Americans enjoying success in the Pacific, the War Department eased its logistical burden by basing the strategic bombers in Saipan. The Joint Chiefs maintained control of the B-29 Super Fortresses. It was unimportant who controlled their targeting, but what was done with the bombers was important. Within months the bombers had made 80 Japanese cities unfit for human habitation and completed the destruction that Chennault foretold in the 1930’s and with his campaign plans of 1940 and 1942.


This archive reviewed Chennault’s education, academic experience, and physical practicum with military history and theory. Over the course of a full career Chennault developed a theory of war, operational concept and tactical doctrine which he argued, committed to paper, and defended to the detriment of his career. He finely tuned these thoughts in light of his experiences advising the Chinese during the Sino-Japanese War from 1937 to 1940. Ultimately his theory assisted the US with prosecution of the Second World War and the uncertainty thereafter. Chennault foresaw the defeat of Japan because of his ability to transition from the theoretical to the practical employment of forces. His grounding in a tactical foundation – while questioning the utility of dog fighting at Brooks Field and experiencing the vulnerability of Ford Island, Hawaii – drove him to push the envelope to extract the most from the air arm. His theories were firmly based upon the historical precedent of centuries of warfare. When he vociferously argued for a balanced air arm and professed uncertainty as to whether the air arm alone could defeat a warring nation, he acknowledged that success in war was not a function of geographic medium (air, sea, or ground), but of broader issues such as will and morale. Chennault’s campaign plan, within his ability to control logistics, produced a campaign in line with his theory. Chennault’s theory of war aided his campaign planning and execution in the CBI Theater during the Second World War. What is important to Chennault’s theory is that it offered a balanced approach that, in execution, was instrumental in Japan’s defeat. Sufficient evidence exists to show that Japan was well on the road to defeat based upon the denial of her sea lines of communication and attacks on her ability to wage war. This was Chennault’s theory of war. The use of nuclear weapons only hastened the inevitable victory.


Chennault’s performance in the CBI theater is important for two reasons. First, Chennault’s example illustrates that a historical and tactical foundation is paramount for military officers. Lacking his academician’s acumen, historical foundation, and tactical background, it is difficult to imagine that Chennault could have both recognized the logical flaws in the Douhet theory and offered a logical, practical alternative. Through letters from his former wing men, Chennault was mentally assessing China’s predicament before his medical retirement in 1937. His experience in China, advising and fighting during 1937-1938, nurtured the operational adaption of his theory which he had penned earlier the mid- 1930’s. The instructiveness from Chennault’s experience is that without a foundation in history and theory, modem soldiers may not be able to adapt to changing ways of warfare. 175 Numerous officers exhibited the capability to change their methods and techniques over the short term; however, these were not in response to warfare’s theoretical change-,, but rather to technological minutiae from bomber and air arm development. The ability to adapt theory is core to restructure means and ways for the campaign. Second, Chennault’s larger donation to military professionals is his theory. We still operate within his vision. Numerous historians credit Chennault as the author of guerrilla and clandestine aerial warfare, the concept of an air bridge (which later sustained besieged Berlin), and air superiority. While his theory includes these elements, the theory is expansible to broader methods of war.

His appreciation of time-distance factors is as useful in today’s space-based warfare and heightened reliance upon early detection and aerial warfare as it was sixty years ago. Chennault recognized that defensive pursuit was grounded in timely intelligence and timely orders. His detection element was the key to defensive pursuit or air superiority. It is inconceivable for us now to think of fighting without striving for command of the air. Chennault’s identification of the enemy’s strategic and operational centers of gravity offers present campaign planners models for campaign design. He progressed far beyond the 18th and 19th century paradigm of occupying the enemy’s capital. He correctly viewed war as the struggle of nations and societies. To win, the victor had to reduce the enemy’s accumulation and projection of power to irrelevancy. Chennault’s use of a small, highly trained force to extract victory all out of proportion to the force’s small size is his legacy. The Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), the Defense Early Warning (DEW) Line, and the Joint Targeting Board (JTB) are all descendants of Chennault’s theory. “Old Leather face” would champion the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to enhance early warning and protect America. While our current detection is largely technological and space-based, if Chennault were here, he would not forget the moral element of war. He would support our better knowing and accepting of our neighbors, and not judging them.

Chennault’s theory of war is as pertinent today as it was when he formulated it using biplanes, flying through the air with the greatest of ease as the leader of The Flying Trapeze. His lessons for the future are grounded in the present :

Mistakes made in peacetime constitute the greatest danger to our national defense. It is in time of peace that we must develop our technical equipment and train our personnel. We cannot do these things after the beginning of hostilities nor can we suddenly shift from one type of vital equipment to another after the fighting starts. Our leaders in peacetime should have sufficient imagination, vision, and experience to direct technical development and personnel training
upon sound lines.

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