Editor’s Note: More and more of this nation’s heroes from World War II are dying everyday. Soon, there will be none of them left.
To those of us who have a deep feeling for these veterans, we feel it important
to at least keep their stories alive; stories of their courage, their bravery,
their sacrifice, their history.
By Frank Lorey
Several former P-40 Warhawk pilots who served with the famed "Flying Tigers" in Burma and China talked about their experiences with the American Volunteer
Group (AVG) and it's controversial leader, General Claire Chennault.
Dick Rossi, a Flying Tiger ace now living in Fallbrook, California, recalled the
"on-the-job training," as few pilots had P-40 experience, no knowledge of Japanese tactics, and little
knowledge of the flight characteristics of the deadly Zero fighter. As they gained experience, and reputation, Rossi remembered the many children
who would gather around saying “Ding Hao”—meaning “Number One.”
Rossi was credited with at least six victories, and later went on the "fly the Hump," crossing the highest mountains in the world, with the China National Aviation
Corporation (CNAC), and later the United States' ATC. After the war he continued to fly supplies over the dangerous route, flying C-46
Commandos for the United Nation's relief effort. Rossi also recalled the pain of losing buddies in combat, including those who
were captured. For them, the experience was usually a lingering death at the hands of the
Japanese. He leads the Flying Tigers Association these days.
Another early P-40 pilot was Eric Schilling, who recalled the great statistics
of the Flying Tigers--297 Japanese aircraft confirmed downed with only four AVG
pilots lost on combat missions. Another seven were lost due to ground fire on low-level strafing missions, and three more pilots were captured after bailing out of their aircraft. These were the facts--even though the Japanese claimed 544 pilots killed. (Only
87 pilots came over to fight in the first place!) Of the 99 planes that were brought over from the U.S., over half were lost in
training accidents. It was estimated that only thirty were ever available for combat at any one
time, being outnumbered by as much as a 20-to-1 ratio.
"We made aviation history in an obsolete plane," Schilling went on to comment. He had interesting remarks about what a hero truly is--not a rock musician,
athlete, or TV star--but those with "real achievements, someone we can be proud of, someone who can be looked up
to," adding that "Chennault was one of America's true heroes." The general was made in the mold of a Billy Mitchell, not popular with the upper
brass, but he "knew his tactics, and his experience proved right," Schilling went on to say.
Schilling was at Langley Field in June 1941 when the recruiting started. He was “stuck” in a bomber outfit, and wanted out in the worst way, so he went to New York and
applied. The call had come for volunteers with Allison engine experience. "Only about 15 that answered the call actually had the experience," he added, but the rest "did a great job of talking." Nothing apparently came out of his trip, so he went back to Langley. About two weeks later, a message came through asking why he hadn’t tendered his resignation yet. It took Schilling about ten minutes to resign
his Army Air Force commission.
The next day Schilling was on a ship with 122 others, heading for the South
Pacific. The cruisers Salt Lake City and Northampton escorted them most of the way,
except the final leg to Rangoon where they picked up a Dutch cruiser as an
Training started in August, and Schilling’s aviation career then progressed from P-36's, P-37's, FM-1 Wildcats, to the
P-40. The P-40 and subsequent fighters never could turn inside a Zero, which had a top
speed of only 312 MPH. The main tactic to survival was "doing a 180-degree roll to an inverted position, and start down fast to escape
the Zero in a dive," Schilling stated. He also recalled that the first of the P-38 Lightnings didn't do too well
against the Zero, either, until the tactics had been worked out. Schilling flew
mostly the P-40B model with self-sealing fuel tanks. It could also carry a belly tank or 500-lb. bomb.
“The diving red line was at 480 MPH, and the Zero could only do 350, so it could
really out-dive them,” he recalled, adding that the “P-40 was not as bad an airplane as many people thought. It was not obsolete compared to contemporary planes of the time--it was a damn
good airplane, rugged as hell.”
Schilling had some engineering background, so he was made the group engineering
officer. His first task was to convert one P-40 into a reconnaissance plane. He mounted a 24-inch Fairchild aerial camera into the baggage compartment. Two days after Pearl Harbor, Schilling flew a photo-recon. mission in the
“I had to bank 90 degrees to locate myself over the target,” he recalled, saying that it was only then that he could turn the camera on. “I saw my oil pressure drop to zero, and I started to head back. It soon went back to normal, and it was then that I realized it was because the
oil pressure was an inverted system,” he added.
Schilling also related a contest between the Brewster Buffalo and the P-40. It seems that word had gotten out that the Buffalo was a better aircraft, since
the British were using both it and the Hurricane. Chennault chose Schilling to fly in the contest.
“It was a pretty big load on my shoulders--a British Vice Marshall and a lot of
people were there,” Schilling remembered. They headed up, and when the wings crossed, the contest was on. Schilling got on the tail of the Buffalo the first two times, “and then there was no need to do the third time,” he said.
Schilling also had a hand in the adoption of the famed “shark’s mouth” on the front of the P-40’s. A friend of his in the squadron had a magazine with a picture of a German Me-110
with a “shark’s mouth” painted on the front. They got another buddy to agree that it would be great as the squadron’s emblem, and went to ask Chennault. He liked it so much that he said he wanted it on all the fighter planes. “It wasn’t original, it had even been used on planes in World War I,” Schilling added.
The AVG got into its first combat on December 20, 1941, and it was the “senior” pilots who had the first crack--those that had reached China in the beginning of
August. Schilling had made it by mid-month, so he missed out for a while.
His most interesting experience did not even come in combat. While working with the photo-recon. plane, Schilling saw a Curtiss-Wright CW-21
Demon and fell in love with the plane. He arranged to try it out, and called it “the most impressive aircraft I ever flew--it had a fantastic rate of climb of
over 5000 feet per minute.”
The Demon was never really used much in combat, but Schilling convinced
Chennault to obtain some for the AVG. Three were purchased, and Schilling was put in charge of getting them from
Rangoon to Kunming. They had very little armor plating, and no self-sealing tanks. The airfield at Rangoon kept getting bombed, so Schilling tried to get them out
as soon as possible, with no modifications made to the planes.
They left on December 23rd, and without using any navigational maps, Schilling
led the flight of three toward their new home. Little did he know, the engines
were designed for 87-octane fuel, and the Americans had put 100-octane fuel
into them. This resulted in burnt and stuck valves, and eventually complete engine failure.
About an hour into the flight, Schilling’s plane was the first to go bad.
“I saw a clearing on the slope of a mountain, and forgot to drop my belly tank,” he recalled. “I was gliding in at 140 MPH, and tried to mush into the side of the mountain. The tail was completely sheared off, and the wing had hit a tree. Gasoline was all over the place,” Schilling said. Another pilot tried to drop a pistol to Schilling, but it landed in the jungle,
and after 30 minutes of looking for it he had to give up. It started drizzling, so Schilling picked out a tree, sat under it, and wrapped
himself up in his parachute.
“It was a very uncomfortable night, I kept hearing noises,” he remembered. There was nothing to eat but a roll of Lifesavers candy which he had brought
along. The aircraft had come to rest about fifteen feet from a native jungle trail, and
the next morning the natives showed up. At first they ran away, but eventually Schilling managed to get the large group
to come to him.
Schilling went on to relate that he “had a letter with Chinese characters on it, and so I gave it to the ‘big leader’ who was acting so important. He looked at it, pretending to read, but was actually holding it upside down. I grabbed it back, turned it around, and said ‘Here, you stupid S.O.B’, and the rest of the natives burst out laughing. He had lost face because he led them to believe that he could read.”
There was confusion, because the natives had only seen Japanese, and so they
thought Schilling was one. The next day he was allowed to get his personal items out of the plane. Schilling had brought along a Victrola wind-up phonograph and records, which
fortunately had not been broken. “Every native around had to see it,” he recalled.
Word quickly got out from the last reporting station to be on the lookout for
the downed plane and pilot. When the natives got the word, they couldn’t do enough for Schilling. They built a sedan chair, and fought over who would be fortunate enough to carry
him in it.
The two other pilots did not know the area at all, and even though Schilling
went down ten miles from home, and only a half-mile off course, the others
never made it back. From the ground, Schilling tried to point out the way to go, and even tried to
get them to notice a CNAC aircraft that was heading out from the base. Both of the other pilots were killed while trying to put their aircraft down in
Schilling also recalled the tactics of the Japanese-- “the fighters did not closely escort the bombers, they flew about ten miles
behind them and above them.” Usually the Japanese bombers came in at 12,000 feet. Chennault had taught them to go after the bombers, and when they did “we felt very safe,” Schilling remembered. Very few of the AVG planes even got holes in them. Still, some of the pilots felt they had to try dogfighting with the Japanese
fighters, which Chennault had warned against. Schilling recalled Chennault’s remark that it would be “non-habit forming.”
Schilling also recalled the end of the AVG, when Chennault was overruled by Gen.
Bissell. Bissell had stated he would turn the AVG into “regular Army.” If they refused, they would get no help in the States, and they would be drafted
into the infantry. “The fellows were so irritated at Bissell that the ground crews taught the
Chinese fuel truck drivers that the way to say ‘hello’ in English was to say ‘Piss on Bissell’,” Schilling stated.
In July 1942, with the AVG disbanded, seventeen of the original pilots joined
the CNAC to fly the Hump in C-47’s. It was also quite an experience for Schilling, as he said “the high winds and Japanese fighters made it quite hazardous. With mountains at 12,000 to 23,000 feet, and engines rated at 12,500 feet, you
had to know right where you were. The chances of surviving if you went down were damn small.”
Col. David “Tex” Hill had left a Navy career to join the American Volunteer Group in 1941 to get
a head start on fighting the Japanese. He became an ace with the Flying Tigers, with a total of 18 ¾ victories. He had a difficult time singling out a particularly tough mission, as he put it “they were all tough.”
The one that came to mind was on their first offensive mission. Up to that point, the Flying Tigers had been engaged in defense of their own
home bases. “It was our first time out to the enemy, to the Tak airdrome, previously I had
only flown in defense of Rangoon,” Hill related, adding that “we were getting ready to strafe the field.” Suddenly, they were jumped by Japanese fighters.
“I never saw the guy—he made an overhead pass,” said Hill. “I was on Howard’s tail [his wingman], and all of a sudden there were 33 holes in my airplane.” Hill broke off and pulled toward a second enemy fighter. In a head-on pass, Hill remembered his plane getting hit in the propeller,
throwing it and the engine out of balance. “I thought the engine was coming out of the plane, so I throttled back, but I did
shoot him down on the head-on pass,” he recalled.
Ken Jernstedt also flew the famed P-40 Warhawk for the Flying Tigers, and later
went on the fly the P-38 Lightning, P-47 Thunderbolt, P-51 Mustang, and F4U
Corsair as a test pilot. He had more time in the Thunderbolt than in any other aircraft.
“I like the speed of the P-40 in a dive—it was the first in-line engine I ever flew, and that was a kick,” Jernstedt remarked, adding that “I was used to radial engines.”
He also said “the P-47 was a big advantage, with twice the horsepower and firepower with eight
.50-caliber guns. It dove even faster, and was a much more modern airplane.” Jernstedt ended the war with five planes destroyed in the air, and seven on the
Another Flying Tiger, Robert Keeton, called the P-40 “a hell of a good airplane, a great airplane.” When the Tigers disbanded, he worked for American Overseas Airlines as a pilot
of Sikorsky S-43 and VS-44 flying boats. He also worked for Pan Am, starting with flying boats. By the time his flying career ended, he had put in over 27,320 flight hours.
Sam Berman was a later member of the Flying Tigers, after they had been
officially incorporated back into the USAAF. He trained in P-39's, and was first assigned to protect the Panama Canal zone. With the disbanding of the AVG, forty pilots from his squadron were called over
to relieve the volunteers. He recalled the awful series of shots they had to endure to go overseas, and the
miserable transport flights--first to Brazil in a C-54, over to Africa on a
Clipper, and then to Egypt and India on a C-47.
Berman checked out in a P-40 at Karachi, and volunteered to proceed to China
across the hump. He professed total admiration for Chennault, and said that many of the General's
problems were due to one particular superior who didn't like him. He also recalled the familiar question of "when do we get to go home?" Chennault continually gave the same answer--"when the war is over," which turned out to be true. Due to the problems with the upper brass, promotions were slow in coming to his
unit, in fact, they didn't receive any until the end of the war.
Berman told of his near-shootdown by a Zero pilot over Burma on his first
mission. He had been trusting in the experience of his wingman, whom he later found out
was only on his third combat mission. The Zero came out of the sun, and "shot me up pretty well," he related. Berman pushed the stick all the way forward, and with every loose item in the
cockpit flying by him, dove for the deck, escaping in the dive. When he got back to his base, he discovered a missing elevator, and plenty of
machine gun bullet holes, and one 20-mm cannon round damage. He felt very lucky to make it back.
In conclusion, Eric Schilling relayed portions of a letter by an aviation
historian who felt the AVG members "were a bunch of reserve officers one step ahead of the sheriff," a claim he did not deny. With members such as Gregory “Pappy” Boyington (famed “Black Sheep Squadron” member), it would be hard to live down that claim.