Chiang Kai-shek thought he had 500 airplanes

Tuesday, December 21st, 2021

Eighty years ago this week, a small group of American aviators fought in their first battle in World War II:

In the West, 1939 is considered the start of World War II. But in Asia, China and Japan had been at war since 1937.

China was already fighting its own civil war between the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek and Communist forces. The two sides came to a truce to fight against the Japanese. China, however, had little air power to fend off Japanese bombings.

Enter Claire Lee Chennault, a U.S. Army aviator, instructor and tactician, once described by Time magazine as “lean, hard-bitten, taciturn.” Health problems and disputes with his superiors pushed him into retirement from his position with the Army Air Corps in 1937, at age 43.

But he quickly got a lucrative job offer with the Chinese Air Force, which was operating under Chiang’s Nationalist government. Chennault was asked to come survey the readiness of its fleet.

“Chiang Kai-shek thought he had 500 airplanes,” says Nell Chennault Calloway, who is Chennault’s granddaughter and CEO of the Chennault Aviation & Military Museum in Monroe, La. “Chennault said, ‘You have 500, but you only have 91 that fly.’ That’s how far behind they were in aviation.”

Once the war with Japan officially broke out that summer, China hired Chennault as an adviser to its air force. He became its de facto commander.


With the help of T.V. Soong, a Chinese official who was also Chiang’s brother-in-law, a deal was worked out to allow China to buy 100 American-made Curtiss P-40 fighter planes.

As for who would fly and maintain them, many of the pilots in China’s existing air force were poorly trained. So Chennault sent recruiters to U.S. military bases.


“By using Chinese funds to buy the aircraft and supplies and pay the salaries of the proposed crews, the U.S. government could retain a façade of neutrality, while helping China against the Japanese,” the Department of Defense’s history of the Flying Tigers explained.

To make recruitment easier, pilots and mechanics were offered pay that was often more than double what they were making before.

So in summer and fall of 1941, 99 pilots — 59 from the Navy, seven Marines, and 33 from the Army — traveled to Asia, along with about 200 support crew, according to the DOD’s history. About a dozen of them were Chinese Americans, says Yue-him Tam, a Macalester College history professor who studies China and Japan.


Pilot Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, who would go on to receive the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross, told Aviation History Magazine in the 1980s: “I resigned my commission and accepted the job with the AVG in September 1941, since rank was slow in coming and I needed the money…. And with an ex-wife, three kids, debts and my lifestyle, I really needed the work.”


The Flying Tigers’ first combat came on Dec. 20, 1941 — 13 days after Pearl Harbor and 12 days after the U.S. declared war on Japan. Japanese bombers attacked the AVG base at Kunming.


By this point, the U.S. was formally at war with Japan and there was no need for pretense. U.S. military leaders pushed for the AVG to be absorbed into the U.S. Army Air Forces. Chennault rejoined the Army in April 1942.


It’s unclear who came up with the nickname “Flying Tigers,” though it was used as early as a week after their first battle, when Time magazine said the “Flying Tigers swooped, let the Japanese have it.” Other publicity came when T.V. Soong, who had earlier worked with Chennault in Washington to gather the planes, helped get The Walt Disney Company design the group’s logo of a Bengal Tiger jumping through a V for victory sign. And John Wayne played a character based on Chennault in the 1942 movie Flying Tigers.

Chiang wanted American air power far more than American ground forces or advisors.


  1. Redan says:

    “Chiang wanted American air power far more than American ground forces or advisors.”

    What Chiang wanted most of all was Yankee dollars, as indicated by his ‘Cash My Check’ nickname.

  2. Altitude Zero says:

    Stillwell and the State Department hated Chiang, and did a lot to blacken his reputation, but “Cash My Check” held off millions of Japanese troops, while the Communists did essentially nothing, and Stillwell did little but gripe and play politics. Chiang had lots of faults, but he’s due for a rehabilitation. He was, at any rate, a lot better than what came after…

  3. Harry Jones says:

    Rehabilitate CKS? There are still many alive who remember the White Terror. But when the gongfei land, they’ll put all that in perspective.

    Tsai will be remembered as that nice little old lady who wasn’t a lot of use when it mattered. Weak people need a strong leader. Strong people prefer a leader who can keep up with them, or else no leader at all. Only stupid people want a weak leader.

    MacArthur wanted Taiwanese troops in Korea. We’ll never know if that would have been a good idea.

  4. Altitude Zero says:

    Yeah, the White Terror was bad, very bad, about 5,000 people were killed over the 38 years that it lasted. But by comparison, Mao ruled China for about 27 years, and in that time was responsible for around 55 million deaths, which means that, on average, he killed about that many every day. Yeah, yeah, I know, most of them starved in the Great Leap Forward, and he had a much larger population to work with, but still. Frank Dikotter’s book “The Age of Openness” does a good job dispelling many of the myths about Nationalist China, although he’s not anything like a Chiang apologist.

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