In the late 1930s, China was reeling under Japanese occupation. Japan invaded in 1937, and Shanghai and Nanking soon fell, with much of the rest of the country coming under constant attack from Japanese warplanes.
The American-educated wife of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek turned to the United States for help. She sought and won approval from Washington for the creation of a special unit of American fighter pilots to help the under-equipped Chinese Air Force.
The pilots of the American Volunteer Group, or AVG, were mostly reserve officers, and were officially hired by the American company, which built planes for the Chinese.
Because of the stipulations of the Neutrality Acts of the late 1930s, designed to keep the U.S. out of foreign conflicts, the AVG was created in secret, under the pretense of being a civilian unit.
The pilots were nicknamed the "Flying Tigers" - and painted shark mouths on their planes.
The Tigers were recruited and supervised by American Claire Chennault, a retired US Army Air Corps major who had become the Generalissimo's top military aviation advisor.
Colonel Don Lopez (currently the Deputy Director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington) flew as Claire Chennault also commanded part of the 23rd Fighter Group, which replaced the AVG in July 1942.
Colonel Lopez flew 101 missions, shooting down four Japanese warplanes while piloting the P-40, the main fighter plane used by the Tigers, and the P-51 Mustang.
He recalls his first impressions of Colonel Chennault, whom he met during fighter pilot training in Sarasota, Florida. "He was the toughest looking man you ever saw, he looked like he was made out of leather and ate gravel every day, cause he had a very raspy voice - he was Cajun."
The American pilots faced one distinct disadvantage. The Japanese planes weighed 3,000 pounds less than the P-40s, allowing Japanese pilots to turn quickly and attack from behind.
But Colonel Lopez says Claire Chennault had a successful counter-strategy for his young recruits. " We would never slow down and try to turn with them, we would make a pass, attack them, and keep going, shoot at them, when it broke the turn, we would just keep going, turn around further on away, come back and fire again. It worked very well, we had good armor in our airplanes, better than theirs, and our airplanes were much tougher - so we could absorb quite a bit more."
That strategy proved essential to the unit's success in China. The Flying Tigers are credited with 299 air victories, with only eight aircraft lost in the air.
Perhaps their biggest success was helping British troops slow down the Japanese occupation of Burma, and subsequently, the Burma Road.
The 1,100 kilometer route wound from Rangoon, Burma to Kunming, China, and was the only supply line to Chinese and American forces.
The AVG's Third Squadron, just 18 planes strong, shot down or damaged approximately 90 Japanese planes from December 23rd through December 25th, 1941. Although Burma eventually fell to Japan in March 1942, the Flying Tigers' success there managed to keep Japanese troops out of western China.
Colonel Lopez recalls, "They were going to try to move into China, and the AVG bombed the bridges by the Salweeg River, and stopped them from crossing, so they never did try to invade China again. If they had come into China and taken Kunming, we would have been in very big trouble because there was no way to get supplies in at all."
But despite the problems of supplies, and being vastly outnumbered by Japanese planes, Colonel Lopez says the Tigers had a major impact on the outcome of the war, by preventing Japan from building up its forces on the Pacific Islands, which would have made the taking of those islands even more difficult for U.S. troops. "We kept some one million Japanese troops tied up in China the whole war, and they could have used them very well in the Pacific; the landings, they were fought hard enough, and with another million troops, they could have done a lot more."
Twenty-one pilots were killed, captured, or "missing in action" during the Flying Tigers' secret tour of duty. Just before their 50th reunion in 1992, surviving AVG veterans were retroactively recognized as members of the U.S. military services.