The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 launches America into World War II. Just weeks after the attack, a small group of American volunteer pilots known as the Flying Tigers use their Curtiss P-40 Tomahawks to score some of the first U.S. victories against the Japanese in China. Pilot Tex Hill is one of the squadron leaders. "Chronicles of Courage: Stories of Wartime and Innovation" is a co-production of Vulcan Productions and NBC Learn.
Chronicles of Courage -- Flying Tigers
KATE SNOW, reporting:
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. military is forced to get up to speed quickly and face the grim realities of global conflict. But amidst the news of destruction and defeat, an exclusive group of American pilots has been secretly preparing to fight the Japanese in China. They are called the "Flying Tigers." Twenty-six-year-old pilot "Tex" Hill is one of the squadron leaders.
DAVID LEE "TEX" HILL (Squadron Leader, Flying Tigers): God, I mean, those days after Pearl Harbor, it was very dark, but the only bright spot was our group over there because we were beating them.
SNOW: Since 1937, Japan has been at war with China, as the Japanese attempt to expand their control throughout Asia. To assist China, the United States organizes the American Volunteer Group, nicknamed the Flying Tigers, under the command of General Claire Chennault.
HILL: Chennault was a person who was very dynamic. You knew this guy really knew what he was talking about. He's a type of guy that you'd follow him anywhere. Chennault's Flying Tigers fly the Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk, a durable fighter plane perhaps best known for its long nose painted with the group's trademark of a menacing shark mouth.
CORY GRAFF (Curator, Flying Heritage Collection): The P-40 tomahawk was America's best fighter at the beginning of World War II. It had relatively heavy machine guns, it had a powerful Allison V-12 engine.
SNOW: Cory Graff is the curator of the Flying Heritage Collection, an aviation museum near Seattle, Washington, that has meticulously restored vintage World War II aircraft, including a P-40. As good as the P-40 is, it is far outmatched by Japanese fighters, such as the Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa, or what the Americans call the “Oscar.”
GRAFF: Typical to most Japanese airplanes at the time, it was very small and very light and super maneuverable.
SNOW: One reason the Oscar is so maneuverable is because its wings are equipped with special "butterfly" flaps, paddle shaped flaps that can be extended from the back of its wings during sharp turns. In most airplanes, making a sharp turn drastically changes the way the air flows over the wing. This change reduces the plane's speed and lift, forcing pilots to make wide turns.
HILL: When you racket up trying to get around on this guy's tail, you find out you're not going to be able to get on him.
SNOW: In the Oscar, the butterfly flaps extend to increase the area of the wing.
GRAFF: What that did was change the lift over the wing, allowed you to turn at a high rate of speed and also made the airplane really stable in that turn.
SNOW: This means that in close combat, or dogfight, the Oscar could out-turn a P-40 and maneuver behind it, putting the American P-40 in range of its guns.
GRAFF: It could turn on a dime and you never wanted to get into a turning dogfight with an Oscar.
HILL: You just don't turn with the guy. Don't even think about turning with him. If you do, you're going to get shot down.
SNOW: Fearing that the Oscar's exceptional turning ability would prove deadly for the heavier P-40s, Chennault devises an innovative combat tactic that plays to the P-40s' superiority in durability and weaponry. Chennault instructs the Flying Tigers to avoid dogfights, and instead attack the Oscars from above in a deadly fly-by attack dive that plays to the P-40's advantage. The P-40's sturdy design allows it to endure the extreme forces of a fast dive, something that the nimble Oscar lacks.
HILL: In a dive, there's no way that anything could stay with them. The Japanese, if they ever tried to follow you in a dive, they'd pull their wings off.
SNOW: After their first engagement on December 20th, 1941, the Flying Tigers spend the next seven months using their daring dive tactics to overcome Japan's technological edge.
GRAFF: It worked really well. The flying tigers lost about 12 airplanes and they shot down approximately 299 Japanese airplanes over China.
SNOW: By the summer of 1942, fighter pilot "Tex" Hill is now twice the "ace," an aviator who has shot down five or more enemy aircraft.
HILL: We got $500 for each plane destroyed. I was paid for 12 and a quarter airplanes with the AVG.
SNOW: In the dark days after Pearl Harbor, the success of the Flying Tigers makes them instant legends at home, with even Hollywood's John Wayne starring in a role inspired by Tex Hill. For the real Hill, modesty prevails over his bravery and success in the skies.
HILL: You go about doing what you're trained to do and you hope you do it better than the other guy.
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt followed the news of fighting in Europe with obvious concern. He knew Americans did not want to be involved.
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