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COLUMN ONE : One Last Combat Victory : The Flying Tigers tore up the Japanese in World War II. Now, they have won a U.S. admission that they were on 'active duty,' and memos disclose the operation's covert nature.

July 06, 1991|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They sailed across the Pacific on Dutch freighters, representing themselves as farmers, missionaries and mechanics. But this group of recently discharged military pilots had a special mission in 1941: to go to China and fight the Japanese.

After landing in Rangoon, they set up an ostensibly volunteer aviation force in China. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the fighting began. Ultimately, the 100 pilots amassed perhaps the greatest record in the history of air combat.

Historians have long asserted that this group, the famous Flying Tigers, was a covert operation, orchestrated by wheeler-dealers in the White House of Franklin D. Roosevelt and supported by the War Department.

But the Pentagon has denied that the Flying Tigers force was anything but voluntary, its members ineligible for veteran status or benefits.

Now, five decades later, the Pentagon is making amends--and thus tacitly admitting what really happened.

A special service review board has determined that the pilots and 200 or so crewmen of the Flying Tigers--formally known as the American Volunteers Group--served "active duty" during their battles in 1941. An announcement of the Defense Department finding, which was signed without ceremony on May 3, is scheduled to be made today.

Few people have had adventures as compelling as those of the Flying Tigers. Some were housed in royal splendor by the colonial British, a double Scotch awaiting their evening arrival from the airfield. Others slept in leech-infested rice paddies. There was romance. And there was plenty of booze, with some drinking until dawn in Rangoon nightclubs.

They served under Chinese leader Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the ardent anti-communist, and their aircraft bore the insignia of the Chinese army--circumstances that ordinarily would make them servants of a foreign power.

But nothing was ordinary about the operation.

Secret documents obtained by Robert Schriebman, the group's attorney in Torrance, leave little doubt about the origin of the unusual war effort. Creation of the Flying Tigers "has the approval of the president and the War Department," according to an August, 1941, memo for the chief of the Army Air Corps, Gen. Henry (Hap) Arnold.

The official U.S. involvement in the operation was clandestine at least in part because it violated the U.S. Neutrality Act, which forbade taking sides between "belligerent" nations such as China and Japan. No doubt there was concern that a U.S. military operation in China would be a provocation to the Japanese.

"To avoid a breach of international law, the entire project was organized as a commercial venture," according to a heretofore secret report prepared by an Army intelligence officer in 1942 and recently obtained by Schriebman.

The covert U.S. effort in China "makes the the Iran-Contra affair look like a small-scale operation," Schriebman said.

It remains unclear why secrets about the Flying Tigers were protected for so long. But historians say that much about World War II is still murky. British authorities, for example, are suppressing release of U.S. documents that shed light on espionage activities.

"Even with the passage of all this time, there are still matters in the history of World War II that are regarded as sensitive," said Richard Hallion, a prominent aerospace historian.

Destroyed 296 Planes

Unlike many special military operations that have proved ill-conceived, the Flying Tigers executed their bizarre plan with stunning results.

Over a six-month period, the aviators destroyed 296 Japanese fighters and bombers, while losing just four of their own pilots to enemy gunfire. During their brief operation, which ended July 4, 1942, the operation slowed Japan's advance on China and bought critical time for the United States.

"We have a record that is second to none," said David Lee (Tex) Hill, one of 26 surviving Flying Tiger pilots, who shot down 12 Japanese planes and shared credit for a 13th. "Nobody will ever match that again: 296 to 4."

At that moment in history, the victory was the lone American success in the war against Japan. After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese quickly captured Hong Kong, Manila, Bangkok, Singapore and eventually Rangoon.

It looked like nothing could stop the Japanese, least of all a group of ragtag volunteers from America, equipped with dated Curtiss-Wright P-40 aircraft. The fighters, powered by noisy 12-cylinder engines, could not turn or maneuver as well as their lighter Japanese adversaries, the infamous Mitsubishi Zero and the closely related Nakajima Oscar.

But the American aircraft were no clunkers. They sported twin .50-caliber nose guns and four .30-caliber wing guns, providing superior fire power. They could also take abuse--a cylinder head could punch a hole in a wing without catastrophic effect. And they had one tactic that proved to be the doom of the Japanese: by diving, they could pull away from their adversaries and maneuver into a position of advantage.

'Hard-Bitten' Leader

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