Shilling’s photo ‘Hawk

What a great original 80-year-old color photo of the American Volunteer Group “Flying Tigers” posing on one very special aircraft.

A group of AVG pilots poses for the camera. Erik Shilling is on the nose, William Bartling is next, with Frank Adkins is in the cockpit. Charles Bond and Robert Little are standing on the ground, Joe Rosbert and George Paxton are on the wing. The photograph was taken at Kunming on 11 APR 1942 by LIFE photographer Clare B. Luce. Luce was elected to Congress later that year and the photo would appear in the magazine in July, after the Tigers had been disbanded.

The “Blue Lipped” KMT Chinese-marked Tigers’ P-40 Warhawk above is Eriksen Emerson Shilling’s unarmed photo recon aircraft. It had been stripped of its guns and extra weight, then fitted with a 20-inch Fairchild camera in the baggage compartment behind the cockpit. Among other vital missions, Shilling had documented over 90 Japanese military aircraft on airfields around Bangkok at a time when Thailand was considered neutral.

While it took stones to fly against the much more numerous Japanese air forces in 1942 China-Burma, to do it sans armament was even more so.

The Flying Tiger pilots posing are the blonde Shilling (age 26 at the time), ace Bill Barthing, ace and future USAF MGen. Charles Bond, ace Frank Adkins, double ace Robert Laing “Bob” Little, ace Joe Rosbert, and the downright “elderly” paymaster George “Pappy” Paxton.

The same group was shown with Shilling (in a brown jacket and the same blue shirt) along with a uniformed Bartling, Paxton, Rosbert, and Adkins in a photo listed as being taken the next month but could have been the same day.

A group of “Hell’s Angels” pose for the camera in front of Charles Older’s #68 P-40 at Yunnan-yi on 28 MAY 1942. They are (sitting) Robert Smith, Ken Jernstedt, Bob Prescot, Link Laughlin, and Bill Reed. Standing are Erik Shilling and Arvid Olsen.

The photos were taken shortly before the AVG became the new, by-the-book, 23rd Fighter Group, which may account for Shilling wearing a blue shirt and no uniform.

Rather than join the 23rd FG, Shilling– who had served in the USAAF from 1938-41 and helped pioneer aerial recon at the time– opted instead to remain a pseudo-civilian and, along with several other Tigers, signed up with the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC), the Pan Am-KMT operation moving supplies from India to Free China over the Himalayas.

Of note, just five of Chennault’s pilots (and 19 ground crewmen) went to the 23rd FS in July 1942 while at least 16 pilots, Shilling included, elected to go CNAC instead. The Regular Army life did not appeal to men who had already had it and went for something more exotic. 

Other volunteers went back to the states to see what they could find there, with the nation now officially in the war. These included a hard-drinking Marine first lieutenant by the name of Gregory Boyington who had resigned his regular commission in August 1941 as he was leaving for China with an unrealized understanding “that I would be reinstated without loss of precedence when I returned to United States Service.”

As for Shilling, he would go on to make no less than 350 dangerous trips over “The Hump” in WWII and go on to fly post-war for Chennault’s (paid for by the CIA) Civil Air Transport (CAT) line, delivering agents and supplies to places off the record throughout the Korean War and into Dien Bien Phu. CAT would, of course, go on to become Air America.

Meanwhile, Shilling would return to the U.S. in the 1960s and turn to a quieter, less-spooky life, passing in his mid-80s. 

More on Boyington later.

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