Flying Tigers Remembered in Taipei

The Republic of China Air Force, popularly known outside of Taiwan as the Taiwan Air Force, this month is celebrating two events, the Air Battle Over Hangchow, now commemorated as “Republic of China Air Force Day” and the 80th Anniversary of the First American Volunteer Group, popularly just remembered as Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers, taking to the air.

The 14 August 1937 air battle over Hangchow, in which the first Chinese Air Force (of the Nationalist Kuomintang’s) fighter squadrons, the which Chennault had just been hired to advise, took to the air over Shanghai and Nanjing to provide the incoming Japanese bombers the first air-to-air threat they had ever experienced. The American-made Curtiss Hawk IIIs of the Chinese 21st, 22nd, and 23rd Pursuit Squadrons (borrowing the term used at the time for fighter squadrons in the U.S. Army) destroyed four Japanese Mitsubishi G3M Type 96 (Nell) long-range bombers without losing a single plane in return. The event is referred to these days by the Taiwan Air Force as “814” after its date.

Box art for the 1:48 Hawk III kit sold by Special Hobby (SH72223), depicting the events of 814 against IJN G3M2 “Nells”. The 30 or so Hawk IIIs used by the pre-war ROCAF were gradually replaced by Soviet fighter types they were destroyed, and Russian-built I-15 and I-16 types were imported to rebuild it.

Likewise, the Flying Tigers were formed in April 1941 with 100 former and on-leave American military aviators employed by the shell “Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company,” and were later married up with an equal number of crated Curtis P-40B Warhawks shipped via slow boat to Rangoon. By August 1941, 99 Warhawks were more or less assembled and on their way to the AVG training unit at Toungoo where they would be fitted with gunsights, radios, and wing guns which Curtiss was not allowed to supply. They would enter combat on 20 December 1941, 12 days after Pearl Harbor. 

1941 AVG Flying Tigers 3rd Pursuit Squadron in front of a P-40 Tomahawk fighter.

A “blood chit” issued to the American Volunteer Group Flying Tigers. The Chinese characters read, “This foreign person has come to China to help in the war effort. Soldiers and civilians, one and all, should rescue and protect him.” The same flag as flown by the old Republic is Taiwan’s current flag. (R. E. Baldwin Collection)

Hell’s Angels, the 3rd Squadron of the 1st American Volunteer Group “Flying Tigers”, photo by RT Smith.

To celebrate the two events, the ROCAF has specially designed a commemorative emblem incorporating both, showing “the spirit of victory, inheritance, and loyalty and unremitting struggle.”

It should also be noted that the service has an affinity for the Tigers’ characteristic “sharks mouth” nose paint. Here, seen on a ROCAF F-16 and F-CK-1

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