An American ally is under brutal attack from the air by a militarily superior aggressor. But the ally is physically distant from the United States and, in some ways, politically problematic. A complicating factor is that the United States is and wants to remain — officially at least — at peace with the aggressor. Aside from offering its sympathy, what can the United States do?
We’ve been here before. In 1940, the American ally under assault wasn’t Georgia, but nationalist China, and the aggressor wasn’t Russia, but imperial Japan. Prodded by Claire Chennault, a retired U.S. Army aviator who was employed by Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek as an air adviser, President Franklin D. Roosevelt in early 1941 authorized the formation of the 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG). Its three squadrons were intended to keep the Japanese army air force at bay until sufficient numbers of Chinese pilots could be trained and equipped to take on the task themselves.
By necessity, the 1st AVG was a semi-covert operation. To evade the strictures of the Neutrality Act (not to mention the wrath of isolationist sentiment), the U.S. government could have no official involvement. This was a polite fiction. Operating through the front of the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company, the program was run directly out of the White House by FDR aides Lauchlin Currie and Tommy Corcoran and funded entirely by U.S. taxpayers. The U.S. Army Air Corps provided the Curtiss P-40 aircraft (diverted from a Royal Air Force order).
The most important ingredient though, was the human element. Roosevelt authorized the recruitment of 100 pilots and 200 ground crewmen. Volunteers were discharged from the Army Air Corps, Navy, and Marines with the understanding they could be reinstated later. While idealism certainly played a role in the decision of some to volunteer, the prospect of actual combat in an exotic part of the world, along with the high pay (about double their service pay) also played no small role.
The main mission of the Flying Tigers — as they came to be called after their distinctive “shark-mouth” nose art — was to prevent the Japanese from cutting the vital Burma Road (not unlike the vital pipelines flowing through today’s Georgia). They experienced their first combat encounter on Dec. 20, 1941, two weeks after Pearl Harbor, during which they downed four Japanese bombers without loss to themselves. In the early days of U.S. involvement in World War II, when the news was mostly of retreats and defeats, the tactical prowess of the Flying Tigers sent the message that the Japanese airmen were not invincible.
The unit’s record remains remarkable. In only seven months of active combat, 19 Flying Tigers were credited with the minimum five kills required to achieve “ace” status. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, probably the most famous Flying Tiger, returned to the Marine Corps and later received the Medal of Honor. Only 14 Flying Tigers were killed, captured or listed as missing in action.
Maybe it’s time to resurrect the Flying Tigers and send them to Georgia. Unlike Chechnya, Georgia was not merely aspiring to independence; it has achieved it. This aggression is as naked as Saddam Hussein’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait in 1990. A volunteer U.S. unit would send an unmistakable signal to Moscow that we aren’t going to abandon the Georgians to their fate.
And if the Russians complain? Note simply that Russian “volunteers” flew in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, killing U.S. personnel in the process. We are only evening the score.
We probably wouldn’t need to take active duty pilots or ground crew to staff the new unit. Since the post-Cold War drawdown of the armed forces, there are plenty of Top Gun-trained aviators out there who would likely welcome a chance to test their skills against the enemy they trained initially to fight: the Russians. Up against poorly trained Russian pilots who get little in the way of flying time (as their inaccurate bombing in this campaign so far suggests), they likely would wrack up as strong a score as the original Flying Tigers.
President Roosevelt knew there had to be a middle ground between pointless hand-wringing and sending in the Marines. President Bush (or his successor) would do well to take note.
– John A. Barnes is corporate speechwriting consultant in New York.