Talking Proud --- Military

Burma Banshees, "Angels on our Wings," the call of death to the enemy

February 22, 2005

The Japanese race through Asia

80th Fighter Group (FG) "Burma Banshee" P-40N "Warhawk," 1944. A painting by Richard Groh, presented by Adam Lewis' "Adam's planes."

The word to describe Japanese ambitions in Asia is “expansion.” The Japanese had a vision of owning a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere," though their actions to follow would hardly have accomplished such an objective. While the Chinese wanted the Europeans out, the Japanese wanted to control as much of Asia as they could. At this point, the Japanese were not anxious to confront the Europeans directly, but instead chose to impress the them, and the Americans, that it would be wise to leave.

Imperial Japanese Army Invades China. Photo courtesy of Fourth Marines Band, and J. Michael Miller

In 1931, the Japanese Army invaded Manchuria and took it over, lock, stock and barrel. Japan then invaded the rest of China in 1937. The year 1937 is an important one to remember in Chinese history.

To complicate all this, the Nationalist Chinese, led by Chiang Kai-shek, were in a civil war with the Communist Chinese led by Mao Tse Tung, and both the Nationalist and Communist Chinese were at war against the Japanese invasion forces. So it's now 1937 and China is really in a shambles.

The United States allied with Chiang, the "nationalist," and against Mao, the communist. But the US was mightily concerned about Japanese expansionism and imperialist ambitions as well.

For our purposes, the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 produced two major events:

This map, courtesy of National Geographic, highlights the situation in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The brownish-red areas are held by the Japanese.

First, recall that the Japanese by now controlled the Manchurian Railway in the north, controlled the entire Korean peninsula, and were rapidly gaining control of most of China's Pacific coastline as the result of their invasion. China was effectively cut off from world trade. In response, the Chinese undertook to build a road from Kunming in southern China to a Burmese railhead at Lashio, which then connected to Rangoon port by rail, and thence the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean.

Section of the Burma Road, known as the "twenty-one curves" at Annan, China travels through a mountain pass. US Army photo, drawn from "Stillwell Road, land route to China," by Nelson Grant Tayman, June 1945 edition, National Geographic.

The Chinese finished this road in 1938. This road, called the Burma Road, was crucial because Japan already controlled the Manchurian Railway in the north, was rapidly gaining control of China's entire coastline, and the Nationalist Chinese had only one available outlet for resupply left, through Burma. For now, disregard the Ledo Road on the map above. Just tuck it into your memory bank. It was built later and we will highlight that for you when the time comes.

Claire L. Chennault with Madame Chiang Kai-shek and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. In 1937, with China at war with Japan, he accepted an invitation by Madame Chiang Kai-shek, Secretary of the Chinese air force, to build the Chinese air force. Photo presented by the Secretary of State, Louisiana, "Delta State Museum."

Second, in 1937, Claire L. Chennault, an ambitious retired Army Air Corps captain, became a special advisor to the Chinese Air Force. With a White House nod, he created, in Burma, the American Volunteer Group (AVG), known as the “Flying Tigers.” During that same year, 1937, Burma separated from British India, so Britain's fears of losing its "possessions" began to show some validity. The Burmese were excited to break away from India and British rule.

A Chinese soldier guards a line of American P-40 fighter planes, painted with the shark-face emblem of the "FlyingTigers," at a flying field somewhere in China, 1942. Photo, taken in 1942, presented by the History Department, University of San Diego

The AVG was not easy to organize, or to get it some aircraft. FDR had to give the order in April 1941 before the generals would budge. General “Hap” Arnold was against the idea, in part because it was being organized outside the Army Air Corps. Nonetheless, FDR prevailed and the AVG got about 100 pilots and 200 ground crew and trained with the out-dated P-40B “Warhawk” in Rangoon in September 1941.

Two of the three squadrons moved out of Burma into Kunming, China in late 1941 to protect the Burma Road connecting Burma to China on what was, at the time, the only such ground route out to the world. The third squadron remained in Rangoon and partnered with the British Royal Air Force (RAF) to defend that area.

Japanese occupation troops enter Saigon across an iron bridge on September 15, 1941. Photo from the Historical Archives of Roger-Viollet, Paris.

In August 1940, Japan pressured the French government to allow Japanese forces to be stationed in northern Indochina, adjacent to the border with China. A year later the Japanese would have 40,000 troops stationed there. By September 1941, Japanese forces were marching into Saigon.

In November 1941 the US demanded that Japanese military forces leave China, and Japan rejected the demand.

December 1941 was a big month for Japanese expansion.

It attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor on the 7th.

Rescuing survivor near USS West Virginia during Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, USA. Photo courtesy of US Navy

Japanese forces landed near Singapore and entered Thailand on the 8th. Japan invaded the Philippines and seized Guam on the 10th.

Japanese troops land in the Philippines, December 16, 1941. Photo courtesy of WWII Multimedia Database.

Japan invaded Burma on the 11th, Borneo on the 16th, and Hong Kong on the 18th.

Lt General Sakai, the Japanese Commander-in-Chief, and Vice Admiral Niimi entering Hong Kong with their troops after the British forces had retreated to Hong Kong Island. Lt General Sakai was tried and executed in Nanking in 1946 for the crimes against Humanity committed under his command. Photo courtesy of "The Fall of Hong," presented by the Hamstat Site.

But on December 20th, 1941, just a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Americans, albeit volunteers with the AVG, fired their first warning shot across Japan's bow. The Flying Tigers beat back a Japanese bomber attack on Kunming, China and inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese. The Flying Tigers were the first group of Americans to take the battle to the Japanese. The next warning shots came a few days later, on December 23, then again on the 25th, when the RAF and Flying Tiger squadron in Rangoon engaged attacking Japanese bombers and fighters and again inflicted heavy losses. The Japanese just kept coming, and kept losing. By New Year's Eve, the Japanese Air Force had lost 75 aircraft to the AVG, not counting the losses inflicted by the RAF. The AVG had lost only six aircraft and two pilots.

Taking care of business in the air was really not a difficult problem for the RAF and AVG. The Japanese kept attacking from the air, and kept getting defeated. Furthermore, RAF and AVG aircraft began ground attacks against Japanese air bases in the region, most notably in Thailand. It is our impression that in this theater of war, Japanese pilots were not well trained and were fairly easy pickings, throughout most of the war here. But, they did keep coming, so that was a problem. But the bigger problem was on the ground. No one could stop the Japanese on the ground.

Early 1942 was another banner period for expansion-minded Japan. Japanese military forces took Singapore and North Borneo, invaded and took the Dutch East Indies, General MacArthur was forced to leave the Philippines, US forces in Bataan, Philippines surrendered, and Japan conducted an air attack on Darwin, Australia.

The Japanese Army just kept moving. Rangoon fell in February 1942. Burma was lost to the Japanese in April. By this time, the Japanese had taken Burma, Indochina, Korea, modern-day Indonesia (Dutch East Indies), and much of China, most notably the coastline, Manchuria and a good swath of the interior.

Japanese welcomed in Burma, 1942. The Burmese, recently freed from British control, thought their lives would improve markedly under Japanese control. They were soon to be sadly disappointed. The Japanese treated them with the same kinds and level of crimes against humanity that they employed throughout Asia during this war. The Burmese paid a heavy price. Photo, taken in 1942, presented by the History Department, University of San Diego

The US and Europeans, mainly the British and French, were all completely unprepared. This is what the Japanese Empire looked like at its peak in 1942.

Graphic presented by The History Place

In January 1942, shortly after the Japanese onslaught began, the Congress created a plethora of new combat units, including the 80th Pursuit Group, which was later renamed the 80th Fighter Group (FG) and later came to be known as the "Burma Banshees." Shortly thereafter, the 10th AAF was created and the 80th was subordinated to it. But at this point, everything is on paper. A study of the 10th AAF to which the Burma Banshees were assigned takes you into the mind-boggling organizational chaos that enveloped the Allies from the outset of the war against Japan. It has taken us considerable time and effort to piece it together. What evolved was a remarkable and workable division of effort in the war against Japan, along with a cast of characters that can compete with Monty and Patton over in Europe any day of the week. Let's now proceed to the Allies getting organized to fight.