Following her invasion of China in 1937 and having all but swept China’s fledgling air force from the skies by 1939, Japan began a sustained bombing campaign against China’s cities. Free China’s Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek sent Claire L. Chennault, a medically retired U.S. Army captain serving as an advisor to the Chinese Air Force, back to the United States in late 1940 with an urgent request for American planes and pilots.
Arrangement was made for China to purchase 100 P-40B aircraft, and President Roosevelt approved the voluntary recruitment of 200 support personnel and 100 pilots from the armed forces. Since the United States was not at war, the volunteers would have to accept discharge from the service and those who were officers would have to resign their commissions. They would sign a one-year contract as civilian employees of the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO), an American company with operations in China. With letters of introduction signed by high government officials in hand, Chennault and his recruiters proceeded to scour America’s military and naval air bases for acceptable volunteers.
John Donovan, a Navy pilot, was one of Chennault’s recruits. An Eagle Scout in his youth, Donovan graduated at the top of his high school class in 1933 and pursued his college education on an installment plan of sorts. These were the Great Depression years, and Donovan interrupted his education at various times to work for enough money to continue his studies. His perseverance paid off with a bachelor’s degree in 1939 after which he briefly entered law school.
A relative wrote of him, “John was concerned with the start of World War II in Europe and the Japanese-Chinese War in Asia. He decided to prepare himself for the war he felt was coming to America. Dropping out of law school, he joined the Navy’s air cadet program and was sent to the Pensacola Naval Air Station.”
Donovan completed Navy flight training and received his officer’s commission in 1940. He was an instructor pilot flying the Navy’s PBY, a large two-engine amphibious aircraft, when he accepted the offer in 1941 to join Chennault’s First American Volunteer Group, or AVG.
The initial contingent of AVG volunteers left the United States by ship for Rangoon, Burma on July 10, 1941. Donovan, part of the second AVG contingent, boarded the Dutch ship Boschfontein in San Francisco on September 24. At age 26 and not well traveled, Donovan’s senses and curiosity were alert to everything he might experience on his voyage and afterward in Burma and China. I know this and much of the rest of his story from having read his letters written in 1941 and 1942. The letters and his photo scrapbook are in a collection at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida.
The seven-week voyage to Rangoon followed an indirect route taking the ship to Hawaii, then southwest below the Samoan Islands and west to Australia, through the Torres Strait between Australia and New Guinea to Java, and then northwest to Singapore and onward past the Malay States to Thailand and finally Rangoon.
A combination freighter and passenger liner, Boschfontein had accommodations for 150 passengers and carried about 100 on this trip. Of the 100 passengers, 25 were missionaries and 25 were AVG pilots. The remainder was comprised of some AVG ground support personnel and a variety of people having business in the ship’s ports of call. Although there was plenty of room for more passengers, cargo bound for Java in the Netherlands East Indies and Burma filled her cargo hold and fore and aft deck spaces to capacity.
Boschfontein’s captain was under orders to run from any ship spotted on the horizon. The ship’s navigation and running lights remained off and with a tarpaulin raised around her deck, she ran completely blacked out at night. When a cabin’s interior lights were on, the cabin’s portholes stayed closed. Smoking on deck was also prohibited. Given the possibility of a Japanese warship intercepting or sinking the ship, the AVG volunteers carried passports listing fictitious occupations that gave no hint of the real purpose of their travel.
Life at sea consisted of conversation, reading, eating, sleeping, and except for the missionaries aboard, drinking and gambling. Donovan scratched gambling off his list of activities after the first night, complaining, “I lost $10 in a poker game last night. Perhaps it was the best thing. It certainly convinced me that I am not a poker player and I’ll not try again.” Shipboard food, however, presented a different problem. Of excellent quality and preparation, it was plentiful, offered frequently throughout the day, and served in grand style. Raving about it through five paragraphs of his first letter home, Donovan finally summarized, “We dine better than the best restaurant that I have ever been into.” Less than three weeks later, he would write that he had taken up deck tennis, playing up to three hours per day. Reading between the lines, I’d have to guess the latter activity was a direct result of the former.
Having been a naval officer, Donovan probably had a keener interest in and was more knowledgeable of the warfare sweeping across Asia and Europe than Americans in general. But many of the ship’s crew and his fellow passengers had already either witnessed or been affected by the war firsthand, and his growing acquaintanceships and conversations with these people began educating him in a way that news reports never could.
He learned from the Dutch crewmembers that they had not been home in over two years and that the company would not allow them to send money to their families because the occupying Germans would confiscate it. The crew had sailed from Amsterdam on a scheduled five-week trip to Central America only three weeks before Germany invaded Holland. Returning to Holland was out of the question, so the ship continued into the Pacific and had been operating in those waters ever since.
Some of the missionaries aboard had been in China when Japan invaded in 1937 and had witnessed the fighting and Japanese atrocities. Donovan wrote home of the missionaries and the horrific stories they told, “How they can reconcile the religion they preach to the slaughter of human beings that they witness, is beyond me. These missionaries tell gruesome tales of bombings, mass killings and of having to flee for their lives. They have witnessed guerilla warfare by the Chinese which causes the enemy no end of trouble.”
Almost six days after leaving San Francisco, Boschfontein arrived in Honolulu. The passengers were disappointed to learn they would only be staying the day, just long enough to replenish water and provisions for the longer voyage ahead. As the ship pulled out of the harbor early in the evening, a Japanese fishing boat came alongside. Two of the fishing boat’s crew were obvious in scanning the ship’s hull for her name, but Boschfontein carried neither name nor flag. The ship’s chief engineer later told Donovan the same thing had occurred when they left San Francisco.
On the second day out of Hawaii the AVG volunteers offered to join the crew in standing two-hour lookout watches in the ship’s crow’s nest, a mast-mounted perch about one hundred feet above the main deck. Visibility from this location was about eighteen miles, and a phone in the crow’s nest connected the lookout directly to the ship’s bridge. The crew gladly accepted the AVG’s offer.
They would be another thirteen days at sea after leaving Hawaii until the ship reached Cairns, Australia and even then, the stop would only be long enough to take a ship’s pilot aboard to guide them through the Torres Strait. The island of Java would provide their only prolonged stay and they wouldn’t reach Java for yet another week after the brief stop at Cairns.
This lengthy stretch at sea was broken up by a bit of fun in the form of the ceremony of Crossing the Line, the initiation of those who had never before crossed the Equator. Donovan described it this way:
Our celebration of crossing the Equator was probably the roughest toughest battle of the century. It had been planned for days. Neptune’s court was all rigged up in outlandish dress. Cut up smelly fish was put into the mouths of every initiate along with a gooey paste which was spread on with a floor mop. Since nobody offered themselves voluntarily, they had to be chased and pulled, dragged, carried to the throne of Neptune. Lastly the initiate was seated in a chair and tipped into the pool. Everyone has minor scratches and bruises. What a rough and tumble good time!
The long days and nights provided an abundance of time to read, converse, and think. Donovan used this time to learn everything he could about China, its culture and customs, and the ideologies of those who had brought this war to China and much of the world.
The ship’s library and books borrowed from some of his fellow passengers provided him such reading fare as Burma Road, Through China’s Wall, Berlin Diary, Yang and Yin, and Keys of the Kingdom. He described the September issue of Fortune magazine as being “overrun with information about China.”
Among the passengers that Donovan befriended was an American-educated Chinese man who offered to tutor him in Mandarin Chinese. Under no illusion about how much he would be able to absorb over the remainder of the voyage, Donovan nonetheless accepted. Even a rudimentary ability to communicate with the Chinese he would encounter would be helpful.
By the time Boschfontein neared the Australian coast on October 12, her passengers were weary of the never changing daytime view of the Pacific. Only the night sky provided them with a welcome change from horizon-to-horizon water. “The sunsets and moon rises have been the most beautiful that I have ever seen. The Southern Cross is distinctly visible every night,” Donovan recorded.
The ship arrived in Soerabaja, Java around October 20 for what would be a welcome two-week respite for her passengers while she made cargo runs up and down the north Java coast. Donovan traveled with the ship on its initial run from Soerabaja to Semarang and Batavia. From there, he and some of the other AVG volunteers took the train from Batavia through Bandoeng to see the island’s agricultural interior and met the ship again in Soerabaja.
While he enjoyed Java’s natural beauty, something he repeatedly saw deeply disturbed him. Only the dark-skinned Javanese worked the rice paddies, the mountain terraces, and the rubber, coffee, and tea plantations. Only the Javanese worked the docks day and night loading and unloading ships, stopping only to eat and sleep without ever leaving the workplace. Only the Javanese performed Java’s menial labor, and it was the only labor made available to them. And for this, the white Dutch paid them an amount equivalent to a few American pennies per day.
In attempting to compare Javanese poverty to any Dutch colonial resident’s wealth, Donovan wrote, “Their standard of living is so far above that of the natives, that a comparison of a $15 per week clerk to an American millionaire would not be nearly so vast a difference.”
Had Donovan written of his angry disgust at Dutch colonial treatment of the Javanese only once, I probably wouldn’t have thought it important enough to include in his story. But four pages of letters chronicle his stay in Java and his writing in three of these returns at length to the pitiable plight of the Javanese. We might not consider his strong reaction odd in 2011, but this was 1941.
In the America Donovan had just left, educational opportunity, occupational availability, and even where people lived and their place in society were all limited for black Americans, other minorities, and recent immigrants. And while the south had its race-based laws of the time, race-constraining societal pressure was prevalent throughout the country and just as effective in “keeping certain people in their place.” To the extent that most white Americans gave any thought to this or considered it wrong, well, maybe it was somewhat wrong.
Even Hitler’s ultra nationalistic and anti-Semitic ranting had American sympathizers through the mid to late 1930s. And if Hitler was wrong, well, maybe he was somewhat wrong.
European colonialism on the African continent, the Middle East, India, and the Pacific Rim was sometimes paternalistic, sometimes harsh, but always self-justified by the need for resources that the indigenous peoples weren’t considered smart enough to develop on their own and for which they were considered to have no need. If acquiring these resources at the expense and by the labor of those who rightfully owned them was wrong, well, maybe it was somewhat wrong.
Donovan may not have known what lay at the core of German Nazism and Japanese imperialism when his voyage began. But his reading and lengthy conversations with those who had witnessed or experienced the brutality of those ideologies educated him. An absolute belief in racial and ethnic superiority was firmly rooted in both: inferior peoples deserved conquering; they deserved brutal treatment from their German and Japanese masters; and beyond the point to which they could be of use, they deserved elimination.
It’s entirely possible that Donovan’s angry writings from Java resulted from all he had observed and learned on this voyage having crystallized itself into a disturbing truth. The human folly of accepting racial and ethnic superiority as having only degrees of wrong was a path that ended in ultimate wrong. Germany and Japan had willfully marched to the end of the path—and plunged Donovan and the world into chaos.
Boschfontein departed Java for Singapore in the first week of November and after a three-day layover, she left on the last leg of her voyage to Rangoon. Donovan wrote home again on November 10, and passages from this letter would seem prescient less than a month later:
Japan, of course, is going to do something and soon. When a nation builds a formidable war machine it almost has to use it. Japan is in a situation where she almost has to do something. The country is terribly overcrowded and has serious economic conditions at home because of being cut off from normal trade relations with other countries. Also, she has already pledged herself to an aggressive policy. …
The great tragedy in the past has been that other nations sit by and wait until it is too late … .
Boschfontein arrived at the mouth of the Rangoon River early on November 12 and proceeded about fifty miles inland to the port of Rangoon. Forty-eight days had passed since the ship left San Francisco. Donovan wrote that leaving the ship was like leaving home because he had been with the ship’s passengers and crew for so long now.
The AVG volunteers went to the offices of the Intercontinent Corporation of which CAMCO was a subsidiary and received the pay they were due. Later that evening they took the train to Toungoo, about 150 miles north of Rangoon and arrived at the AVG’s Burma headquarters where they would undergo training.
The Toungoo training location was primitive. More like a Boy Scout camp than an airbase, it consisted of one flying field and open-sided buildings made of teakwood, bamboo, and straw. Donovan wrote of it, “We have no hangars and the whole place looks anything but like Pensacola NAS.” Ballgames provided daytime recreation and there was a nightly movie. None of the open-sided buildings had screening, however, and if a light was turned on after dark, swarms of insects descended making it impossible to read or write. The men could either go to the movie or go to bed.
Chennault organized the AVG along the lines of a combat air group consisting of a group headquarters and three flying squadrons. As CAMCO employees, the AVG members held no military status or rank, but they all referred to Chennault as “colonel,” probably out of affectionate respect. Pilots in leadership roles had position titles of either squadron leader or flight leader. The remainder of the pilots, including Donovan, had the position title of wingman. Support position titles were as varied as the jobs performed; crew chief, clerk, nurse, cook, propeller mechanic, etc.
Chennault designed a comprehensive pilot training program consisting of more than seventy hours of classroom training and sixty hours of flying designed to overcome the AVG’s first major problem: most of the pilots were not fighter pilots!
Donovan wrote that Chennault had been unable to recruit more than ten experienced fighter pilots from the Army and Navy combined, and few of these had ever flown the P-40 aircraft. The reason for this is unclear. Some references I’ve read indicate that pilots lied about their qualifications and experience in order to join the AVG. This explanation defies logic, however. Chennault and his recruiters were experienced military aviators and they would have had access to the military flight records of the pilots they interviewed. A more likely explanation is that fighter pilots’ superiors quietly discouraged them from volunteering. The government guaranteed that AVG volunteers could return to the service after completing the one-year contract and that their time with CAMCO would count for military pay and promotion purposes on their return. But it is easy to imagine fighter pilots’ commanders unofficially making clear that returning to fly fighters or returning to fly at all was not guaranteed and that their remembrance of pilots who left to join the AVG would be long.
The first AVG contingent had arrived around August 15, and together with Donovan’s just arrived group, about eighty AVG pilots were now in Burma. The first contingent’s training phase was complete or nearly so when Donovan’s group arrived and the evidence of it was visible in the form of wrecked airplanes. Because the P-40 was a single seat fighter, from the moment a pilot climbed into the seat until he landed and climbed out, he was alone. There was no instructor present to offer corrections or take the controls if the need arose. Most of the pilots had been either bomber or transport pilots, and none of them had flown at all for about three months before arriving because of the time it had taken to process out of the service, go home for a short visit, and then make the lengthy sea voyage.
Donovan made his first flight in a P-40 on November 17 without incident, but he wrote that it was nothing to see two or three crashes per day in the early going of his group’s training. Edwin Conant, a former PBY pilot like himself, wrecked three planes in landings alone. Freeman Ricketts, who had no prior fighter training, wrecked three planes and one automobile! Twenty P-40s were wrecked in training accidents at Toungoo to the point of not being flyable again, and not all of the planes had even arrived yet.
While still at Toungoo, one of the pilots spotted a photo in a newspaper’s magazine section of a Royal Air Force (RAF) plane in North Africa with its nose painted to look like a shark’s mouth. All the pilots loved the nose art and Chennault ordered it painted on the AVG’s P-40s.
On December 7, which was December 8 in Donovan’s part of the world, Japan attacked Hawaii; the Philippine Islands; Malaya; Thailand; Shanghai, China; and several American-held Pacific islands.
Donovan wrote home that day:
Well, to-day they have gone and done it. You have to give the guys credit for nerve, To-day and for many days to come there will be changes made. We received the news this morning. It was hard to believe. …
We Americans already over here will give good account of ourselves because war has been on our doorsteps ever since we’ve been here. We are psychologically, physically and technically ready to fight the enemy. …
In truth, Donovan, the pilots he arrived with, and several more that had come in since were not technically ready. None of them had very many hours in the P-40 yet. Chennault’s few experienced fighter pilots and those who had arrived in September and received the most training to date would have to be thrown into the fray. He currently had twice as many pilots as flyable planes and this condition would not improve by much throughout the AVG’s existence.
Chennault moved the 3rd Squadron, the one to which Donovan was assigned, to Rangoon where they and the RAF would defend the city and its airbase. The other two squadrons relocated to Kunming, China, which would be the AVG’s permanent operating base.
Donovan, who wouldn’t fly combat missions for about another month, wrote on December 28 of the AVG’s first three combat encounters. The first occurred on December 19 when the 1st Squadron intercepted ten Japanese bombers about sixty miles from Kunming and brought down six of them with no AVG combat losses and no damage other than to Fritz Wolf’s plane when he made a forced landing after running out of fuel.
On December 23, the 3rd Squadron took on about fifty Japanese bombers and their twenty fighter escorts over Rangoon. Chuck Older dove through an entire enemy formation and knocked down the formation leader. Donovan’s close friend Neil Martin was killed when his P-40 became caught in the crossfire of Japanese bombers as he pulled up after a diving attack. Hank Gilbert went down in flames. Paul Greene had to bail out and the Japanese shot at him all the way down but never hit him. His parachute partly split on opening and he dropped fast. Hitting the ground hard, he was left badly bruised. The 3rd Squadron was bloodied, but the Japanese lost fourteen aircraft confirmed with an additional twenty-two probable.
The next fight came on Christmas when the Japanese attacked Rangoon again with about the same number of bombers and fighters. The AVG suffered no deaths this time, but Ed Overend and George McMillan went down. Both men were missing for a couple of days. Parker Dupouy’s ship collided with a Japanese fighter and the fighter crashed. Though his wing and aileron were badly damaged, Dupouy managed to get his plane back to the base and landed. Ralph Gunvordahl told Donovan that an AVG pilot shot a fighter off C.E. Smith’s tail, and the enemy plane exploded in front of Smith’s P-40. The disintegrating fighter dented Smith’s wing. This time the Japanese lost ten bombers and nine fighters confirmed with other probables. Robert Hedman received credit for downing four of the bombers alone.
Christmas passed with little celebration, but each AVG member received a personal Christmas gift from Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, a beautiful white silk scarf with his signature on it in red embroidered silk.
With few aircraft available for training flights and unable to participate in combat yet, Donovan and nine other new pilots left Rangoon and flew into Kunming on a Chinese National Aviation Corporation (CNAC) transport plane, arriving there on New Year’s Eve at three in the morning. Donovan wrote that both the CNAC pilot and co-pilot were Chinese and that he was amused by the pilot who swore incessantly—in English. He was also impressed with their flying and navigation skills, writing, “You really have to hand it to the CNAC pilots. They take off, fly through clouds skirting mountain tops and come down through the overcast and they’re right above the airport.”
The AVG’s living facility in Kunming was a former agricultural college building called Hostel One, a vast improvement over Toungoo’s open-sided teakwood structures. The pilots had separate rooms, and Donovan got his first hot water shower and shave since arriving in Rangoon on November 12.
In Kunming, the pilots received the same flight clothing, leather jackets, and flight helmets as had been furnished to Donovan in the Navy. All the flying in Toungoo and Rangoon had been done wearing khakis, ordinary sunglasses, and either homemade flying helmets or none at all.
With the shortage of aircraft and the need to be ready for combat around the clock now, training was curtailed for the newer pilots. Donovan and ten other pilots he named in a January 1 letter had only about fifteen hours in the P-40 and he wrote that they still had no training in attack tactics and gunnery. They would have to make do with about six additional hours of both. Their twenty-one flight hours before being assigned to combat missions, he added, would be less than half the minimum required by the Navy.
The glut of pilots compared to airplanes worked out better for the pilots than the mechanics who worked twelve to eighteen hour shifts keeping as many P-40s as possible in flying condition. Pilots were on alert status around the clock in shifts that changed at 5:30 AM and 5:30 PM. There were enough pilots to allow for some off-duty days, as well. An alert shack at the flying field provided a place for on-duty pilots to play ping-pong or cards, read, or even nap between missions.
A letter from Donovan in mid-January 1942 told of two recent AVG raids into Thailand. In the first raid, three AVG P-40s and two RAF aircraft attacked an airfield and destroyed seven Japanese aircraft on the ground. Machinegun fire from the ground, however, hit Charlie Mott’s P-40 and it burst into flames and crashed. Severely injured, Mott became the first AVG member taken prisoner by the Japanese.
In the second raid, nine AVG P-40s and five RAF Brewsters attacked another airfield and destroyed twenty-four Japanese planes on the ground and three trucks with no AVG or RAF losses.
By now, both the Japanese and Chinese knew who was flying the P-40s with Chinese Air Force wing markings and shark mouth-painted noses. The Chinese saw something other than a shark mouth, calling the planes “Fei Hu.” American newspapers, eager to report good war news to a public in desperate need of it, began running stories of the victories of these “Flying Tigers.”
Donovan’s only airplane accident happened on March 2 while flying in response to a “jing baw,” or air raid alarm. When his flight reached the area where Japanese aircraft had been reported, they instead found Chinese bombers flying in the vicinity. Flying back to Kunming, the flight leader lost his bearings in overcast near mountains that all looked alike. Donovan had some idea of their location and led the flight to a nearby auxiliary field. First to land, his plane ran into a small irrigation ditch that was impossible to see until he was upon it. The plane jumped the ditch but suffered considerable damage. Fortunately, the other pilots in the flight saw his landing and avoided the ditch. After determining where they were, the rest of the flight took off again and returned to Kunming. Donovan was left to catch a ride with a passing Chinese truck convoy, his only trip on the famous Burma Road. He wrote, “The trip back over the road took two days, by air the time is 25 minutes.”
Using almost no heavy equipment, 160,000 workers built the Burma Road from Kunming to the Lashio railhead in Burma to bring war supplies into China. With Burma falling to Japan in March, the only alternative to the road was to fly supplies into Kunming from Calcutta, India over a dangerous air route known as “flying the hump” because it included flying over the southern Himalayas. It was not unheard of for AVG pilots to take a CNAC flight to Calcutta and sometimes travel onward as far as Africa to obtain replacement P-40s and then ferry them back to Kunming.
On March 6, the entire AVG were guests at a banquet held in their honor by Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Donovan’s letter describes the event in an emotion-laden piece of writing:
To-day I saw both of them for the first time. To me he looked older, thinner, and more worried than I had imagined him to be. She is vivacious, attractive, energetic, with a much more striking personality than most women possess.
I have now returned from the banquet which I enjoyed much more than most banquets. I must revise my description of the Generalissimo. When I saw him for the first time this morning he was preparing to address the senior members of his staff in this area including the Governor of this province, General Yuen (?). To-night, he was much happier, as he knew that he was among friends, none of whom were questioning his conduct of the war and he was not questioning our activities against the enemy. He was well pleased with our record, he said, and considered us as his own officers and men. Thus, I must say that to-night he looked not so old, nor so thin, nor so worried.
Concerning the Madame, I can only enlarge on what I have already written. She is well preserved for her age and has a perfect figure. She absolutely captured our hearts. Col. Chennault has always adored her and now she has the adoration of every member of the AVG. She has a superb sense of humor and is a good sport. One might think that she could be a little wicked. She admitted to being interesting. When she rose to speak her first words bespoke an intellectual. She gathered the entire group up into her arms and called us “her boys.” This, despite the fact that she doesn’t look a day over 28. Her eyes are the most noticeable thing about her. She was a much better speaker than most and a much better man than many. She was at once a mother, an attractive bewitching girl, a counselor, a wit, a sternly disciplined person who encouraged us to discipline ourselves. She was as much at home speaking before the entire group as if she had been talking to one person. We cheered her to the rafters time and again. She earned the respect and admiration of all. She is definitely a superior person and the Generalissimo would be lost without her. Both are idealists but factual.
Fortunately I had a seat not five feet from both. At all the other nearby tables were other pilots. As I looked from one to the other, I knew of at least one story about each. Some were good for several stories. The Generalissimo was worth several that I knew of. A good story about the Madame was her part in the Sian kidnapping, when she with the help of Donald, secured Chiang’s release. None of the stories were told at the banquet, of course, but some of them occurred to me, as I sat there reflecting just what kind of people these were.
The pilot on my right had a black eye resulting from a recent parachute jump when his plane was shot up. The one on my left had crashed into a Jap plane in the air and flown back over 100 miles to our field with half of his right wing torn off. The eyes of the fellow across from me were still irritated from particles of glass which had gotten into his eyes when a bullet burst through the canopy of his plane and passed a couple inches from his head, while in combat. Next to him was a pilot who had been forced down in enemy territory but had found a friendly native who took him through Jap lines to safety. Another had a Jap plane shot off his tail by two other pilots, but didn’t know that the Jap was behind shooting at him until he got back to the aerodrome. Another was surprised by Jap planes which dove at him from out of the sun and he still has some lead in his back which broke through a joint in the armor plate. Another was up on an engineering hop, without an oxygen mask, and seeing an enemy observation plane, managed to get up to 16,000 feet without undue discomfort and shot it down. So on and so on the stories are numberless and they are being added to every day.
In one of Donovan’s letters to his mother near the start of hostilities, he wrote that he wouldn’t write much about his participation in the fighting out of concern that his letters wouldn’t be delivered due to mail censoring. I noticed that censoring concerns didn’t seem to bother him when he described in detail the combat encounters of others in subsequent letters, and I suspected that censoring was an excuse for not writing things about himself that would worry his mother.
An April letter to a young woman named Jane provided more evidence that my suspicion was correct. In this letter, Donovan gave a turn-by-turn, gun burst-by-gun burst running narrative of his downing of one Japanese plane and the severe damaging of another with phrases like “… this Jap that began to stream black smoke like a choo choo train … .” It seems Donovan was not only a thoughtful son, but also an all-American boy not above trying to impress a girl back home.
The instance that Donovan wrote about in the letter to Jane was an air raid by thirteen Japanese planes on the Kunming airfield. Ten enemy planes were downed and two damaged with no AVG losses in the air, but two new P-40Es that had just been ferried in were destroyed on the ground. With a continuing shortage of aircraft, the loss of the advanced model P-40s was one the AVG could ill-afford.
Donovan wrote a several-page letter to his family on May 9. Most of it described a day trip he had taken with some missionaries the day before and had nothing to do with the war. He ended the letter as follows:
Did not get much sleep last night and have been “alert” since 5 this morning. At seven-thirty this morning twelve of us flew down about 100 miles over the lines and bombed and strafed enemy trucks and a few armored cars. Right in the middle of one of our former aerodromes was an enemy two-engine observation plane. All of us swooped down and shot it to bits. There has been no other activity to-day except three fellows that went on a mission a couple hours ago that I hope they get back from. It is a pretty dangerous mission.
[Donovan added later that evening in pen] They got back OK with good results. I have been talking with them and Colonel Chennault a couple hours to-night during and after dinner. It’s getting late – past bed time and I expect to see plenty activity to-morrow – so, since I have to be up at 4:15 – Good nite.
P.S. We’ve got the Japs on the run the past couple days if we can just keep ‘em running.
On May 12, 1942, three later-model P-40s equipped with bomb racks and three P-40Bs took off from Kunming on a mission to attack the Gia Lam airfield near Hanoi, French Indochina.
After the P-40s armed with bombs dropped their loads, the older P-40Bs rolled in on strafing runs. As Donovan completed his strafing attack and pulled up, Japanese anti-aircraft fire found its mark, devastating his plane.
Thomas Trumble, Chennault’s personal secretary throughout the war, wrote:
Jim Howard's plane engine caused him to abort and he returned to Kunming. The others shot up the control tower and the grounded planes pretty thoroughly, but the AA fire was intense and Donovan crashed. Bishop was hit by AA fire over another airfield and was captured.
Three of the planes returned in the Kunming twilight. Chennault watched to the south with his binoculars for over an hour before we saw them coming home. The three pilots talked to the General in the darkness and Link Laughlin described Donavan's crash. Driver Wang drove us home to Hostel One. Chennault was utterly silent and I didn't break the stillness. The strain and ache in my throat was almost intolerable. Donovan had been such an eager, likeable youngster.
Touch the Wall, a website dedicated to those whose names are on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, lists Donovan as the first veteran killed in-country, saying of him, “Flying Tiger John T. Donovan was killed on May 12, 1942, but our involvement in Vietnam was not considered official and his name is not on the Memorial.”
John Donovan’s combat record was indistinguishable from that of many of the AVG pilots. He flew his assigned missions and had four Japanese aircraft kills and two probables to his credit. But as the first American killed in combat in what was then French Indochina and now Vietnam, his death occupies a unique place in American history connecting two wars and spanning two generations.
* * *
Originally, Chennault planned to form second and third AVG groups, but with the United States now well into the war, those plans were cancelled. The First AVG—the Flying Tigers—was disbanded on July 4, 1942 and its pilots commemorated the day of their disbanding by flying combat missions. A U.S. military organization, the China Air Task Force of the United States Army Air Forces officially took over air operations in China.
The Flying Tigers fought for seven months over Burma, China, Thailand, and French Indochina, destroying 299 Japanese planes with another 153 probably destroyed. A few of the men re-entered active duty with the new military organization in China. Several went to work flying for CNAC, “flying the hump” for the rest of the war. But most made their way back to the United States and back to the services they left when they joined the AVG.
Claire Chennault, the medically retired Army captain, returned to active duty and became the commanding general of the 14th Air Force in China. He retired from active duty for the second and final time in 1945.
Greg “Pappy” Boyington gained fame and some notoriety as a Marine Corps fighter pilot and squadron leader while fighting in the Pacific where he received the Medal of Honor.
James Howard received the Medal of Honor as a P-51 fighter pilot while fighting in Europe.
Chuck Older returned to China with the 14th Air Force and was recalled to active duty yet again in the Korean War. He pursued a career in law and his name would again be in the news decades later as the presiding judge of the Charles Manson mass murder trial.
What was it Donovan had written? “So on and so on the stories are numberless and they are being added to every day.”
To my mind, what most distinguished the Flying Tigers is that they believed so strongly in the inevitability and imminence of war coming to them and their families that they resigned their commissions, left military service, and journeyed halfway around the world as civilians to confront the malevolence—on their own terms.
* * *
I’ve always had a strong interest in military aviation and I knew a little about the Flying Tigers’ history. But it was my wall calendar with its photos of restored World War II aircraft and a chance remark by my wife a year or so ago that eventually led me to Donovan’s story.
“When I was a little girl, I cut out a picture from a magazine cover like the one on your calendar. My mother said it was a Flying Tigers plane and that our cousin John had been a Flying Tiger.”
“Really?” I asked, interested. “Which cousin is that?”
“She just said, ‘John’,” my wife answered. “I’ve always assumed it must be John Mims.”
Dr. John Mims, a Muscle Shoals, Alabama physician who I had met once and briefly spoken with at my brother-in-law’s funeral is my wife’s first cousin. He had been a World War II combat aviator, so her assumption made sense.
A few days later I recalled what she told me and I went to the Flying Tigers Internet home page to see what I could find. The website had a complete roster of all the AVG members, including those who had not finished their contracts for one reason or another. There were also separate rosters for the headquarters and three flying squadrons. I searched the lists for John Mims’ name.
It should surprise no one that oral family histories suffer from embellishment. Family stories change slightly with each retelling. One-time rumors told and retold become fact. It’s not intentional; it just happens.
“Mother wouldn’t have lied to me.” The flicker of confusion in her eyes was as unmistakable as the finality of her statement. My wife’s brother, sister, parents, and grandparents had all passed away and she knew of no one left to ask who the Flying Tiger cousin, if he ever existed, was. I felt terrible. I should have kept what I’d found—or rather not found—to myself.
The matter lay dormant until about a month ago when she began a serious effort to trace her family history. With little more than her father’s surname and her mother’s maiden name to go on and with both these names being prolific throughout Alabama, her initial research yielded little but frustration. Finally, she subscribed to an Internet genealogical service and began getting better results. Her father’s side of the family filled in quickly, but her mother’s side not nearly so much.
The genealogical service provided links to others investigating the family names. It was through one of these that she found a family member in Birmingham whose late father had researched the family and recorded what he’d found in writing. The Birmingham family member, a woman she had never met or even known of, sent my wife a copy of the research. As she expected, the family was large, mostly deceased, and contained some unfamiliar surnames due to marriage.
One series of entries immediately grabbed our attention, though. The entries named the mystery cousin—the Flying Tiger—and summarized his wartime service.
Although he was my late mother-in-law’s first cousin, there were good reasons why my wife never knew who he was. He died more than three years before she was born, and his last name was the same as her maternal grandmother’s maiden last name, Donovan. John Tyler Donovan.
“And now—” as the late radio commentator Paul Harvey used to say, “now you know the rest of the story.”
Copyright © 2011 by Gary Stephens
Gary Stephens is a retired U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer and the author of the 2007 techno-thriller, Epiphany
“AVG American Volunteer Group Flying Tigers,” at:
“Children of Daniel and Virginia Donovan”
(unpublished family genealogy)
“National Naval Aviation Museum,” (search John Donovan) at:
“Wikitravel:Burma Road,” at:
Thomas G. Trumble, “Thomas Trumble Biography,” circa 1980-83, at:
“Touch the Wall,” at: