Talking Proud --- Military

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

February 22, 2005

The Allies eat up the clock getting organized

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

The US was completely unprepared for this Japanese race through Asia. 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."

The 80th FG originally formed in January 1942 with two squadrons, the 88th and 90th. Then, in March, the 89th was formed. All three squadrons would fly combat with the P-40 "Warhawk." A fourth squadron, the 459th, was formed in 1943 and, unlike the other three squadrons, flew the P-38 “Lightening.”

On February 12, 1942, the 10th Army Air Force (AAF) was activated at Patterson Field, Ohio. The 80th FG was assigned to it.

The 10th's first order of business was to set up shop in New Delhi, India, which it did between March-May 1942. The 80th FG's first order of business was to get pilots and train them to fly and fight. Their flight training began in July 1942 with the Curtis P-47 “Thunderbolt” and then the P-40.

Republic P-47 "Thunderbolt," affectionately known as the "Jug." Originally conceived as a lightweight interceptor, it ended up as a heavyweight fighter. Photo courtesy of the USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.

Curtiss P-40 was America's foremost fighter in service when WWII began. P-40s engaged Japanese aircraft during the attack on Pearl Harbor and the invasion of the Philippines in December 1941. They also were flown in China early in 1942 by the Flying Tigers and in North Africa in 1943 by the first AAF all-black unit, the 99th Fighter Squadron. Photo courtesy of the USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.

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 some considerable time and effort to piece it together. We hesitate outlining it, because it can be a boring read and will twist you all over the place. But we're going to do it anyway.


The Bataan Death March, the Philippines, U.S. National Archives, presented by Department of History, University of San Diego

The short answer is "because." Japan was busily conquering nearly all of Asia and a good part of the Pacific Ocean and its islands, it attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, it was committing horrendous crimes against humanity, which it would continue to do throughout the war, thousands and thousands of American and friendly forces were fighting, dying, being wounded and captured, and the US and British were scrambling about to give these courageous warriors a command and control system that was essential for these troops to fight effectively. Understanding what evolved is therefore important.

What will evolve is a division of effort in the war against Japan.

First, we have the Japanese invasion of mainland Asia, most importantly China, Indochina, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya and Burma. Then we have the Japanese attacks and invasions of major island states throughout the Pacific, including, most notably, Hawaii, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, and the island chains stretching from Australia all the way to Japan.

The invasion of China began in 1931 and expanded considerably in 1937. Prior to this, China had been partly occupied by Japan and much of Europe. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was leading the Chinese Nationalists and Mao Tse-Tung was leading the Chinese communists, both fighting each other and the Japanese. The US sided with the Chinese Nationalists, opposed the Japanese invasion and the Chinese communists, but was not ready to send military combat forces to help. From an American view, Chiang was in charge and would receive American financial and logistics support. With the blessing of the White House, in 1937, Claire L. Chennault, then a civilian, became a special advisor to the Chinese Air Force, and created the American Volunteer Group (AVG), known as the “Flying Tigers,” to provide air support to Chinese forces fighting against the Japanese. It took until 1941 for the Flying Tigers to become combat ready. From a command and control standpoint, Chiang was in charge and Chennault reported to him.

The lead American military man on the ground in the Pacific was General Douglas MacArthur, located in the Philippines. MacArthur came to the Philippines for a second tour in 1935 to help train the Filipino army in preparation for its forthcoming independence. He retired in 1937, held the position of field marshal in the Philippine army, and remained there. He was recalled to active duty in July 1941 as commander of US Army Forces in the Far East. Located there with him was an organization called the Far East Air Forces (FEAF), commanded by Major General Lewis H. Brereton, a name you want to remember as we proceed.

The lead British general in the region was General Archibald P. Wavell, commander-in-chief of India, then a British colony. Interestingly, in 1937 Burma broke away from India and had its own army.

Wavell graduated at the top of his class at the prestigious Sandhurst Military Academy, fought in the Boer War in South Africa, fought on India's Northwest frontier, fought in France during WWI, served in Palestine, and created the Middle East Command responsible for protecting the Suez Canal from Germany. German General Rommel gave Wavell a hard time in Libya, Wavell lost the confidence of Churchill, and was transferred to become the Commander-in-chief of British forces in India. Following Pearl Harbor, he was sent to Burma where he was outgunned by the Japanese, and lost Malaya, Singapore, and Burma. He resigned. In 1943 he was promoted to field marshal and returned to India tasked with the job of liberating Burma.

The picture that is in its embryonic stage here is of a three-fold geographic division of effort: China, the island states of the Pacific, and Southeast Asia: Chiang Kai-shek, MacArthur, and Wavell. To be perfectly accurate, we should say there was a fourth geographic region, the Pacific Ocean itself, which was under the command of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas.

As previously described, the Japanese onslaught of Asia and the Pacific islands began in December 1941 and occurred with lightening speed. The Allies found it very hard to catch up organizationally to fight efficiently and effectively.

Soon after the war with Japan began, the US and Britain planned for a combined command (more than one country) for all Allied forces in Southeast Asia. In other words, they saw a singular combined command running the war against Japan in the Pacific. This command was named the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command, or ABDACOM.

ABDACOM area of responsibility, presented by World War II History

General Wavell was called from India to command the ABDACOM, comprised of thinly spread Allied forces from Burma to Dutch New Guinea and the Philippines. Other areas, including India, Australia, and Hawaii remained under separate, national commands, as did the fleets at sea. Wavell set up his command headquarters in Java.

For our purposes, US Lt. General George H. Brett, Army Air Corps (AAC), was named the deputy commander and Major General Lewis H. Brereton, also AAC, was named deputy commander air forces behind a RAF air marshall.

Brereton was an interesting choice, since he was General MacArthur's "air boss" in the Philippines, the commander Far East Air Forces (FEAF). Brett too was an interesting choice. Then Major General Brett was in charge of arranging plans for General MacArthur's escape from the Philippines. When the Philippines was attacked, what was left of the FEAF covered the retreat to Australia and Brereton arrived in Darwin in late December 1941. MacArthur stayed behind. Continue keeping Brereton in your memory bank.

Also note for the record that the ABDACOM did not include China. As we have said, the command arrangement there was settled. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was in charge.

This ABDACOM arrangement never had a chance of working, for at least two reasons. First, the Japanese moved so quickly through the entire Pacific and mainland Asia that ABDACOM, first headquartered in Java, was split in two by the Japanese advance. Second, General MacArthur saw himself responsible for the Philippines, and no British general was going to get a piece of that pie. But MacArthur would end up stuck in Australia, so his only way back to the Philippines was to island hop his way back, and that would demand a major ground, air and naval commitment.

Wavell saw the combined command as unworkable, and, with the agreement of his superiors, resigned from that job in February 1942, with only one month under his belt. He returned control of the forces subordinated to him to the individual nations, and recommended creation of a Southwest Pacific Command and another similar command based in India.

Map of India, 1930, presented by PBS

General Wavell had to get out of Java anyway, as the Japanese were on their way. He returned to India to be the British Commander-in-chief, India, and he took control over operations in Burma and Ceylon as well. This is a good map of the India-Burma-Ceylon area of command. Ceylon today is Sri Lanka. But also note that in those days, India butted right up to Burma along Burma's entire western border. There was no Bangladesh and no Pakistan. Karachi, which became a very important logistics center, belonged to India and hence to Britain. You can also clearly see the Indian state of Assam, which is from where the majority of Allied air operations would launch later in the war.

We will return to this region in a moment, because Wavell's command is a British command, although it is multinational with British, Indian and Burmese forces involved. The point to make here is that Chiang is in charge as an Allied commander in China, and Wavell for the moment is in charge of South East Asia.

Let's now move over to the Southwest Pacific Area.

Nearly everyone except MacArthur acknowledged that he would have to leave the Philippines and go to Australia, but MacArthur would not budge. Something had to be done about all those American forces in Australia. So, Lt. General George H. Brett arrived in Australia on December 28, 1941 to take command of all American forces there. Major General Brereton, also in Australia, in turn was appointed to command all US Army Air Forces under Brett.

This is General MacArthur being greeted at the Terowie railway station by the commanding officer, Terowie Staging Camp, Australia, Major Claude Rogers, March 20, 1942. It was here that MacArthur address journalists with the statement echoed around the world: "I came out of Bataan and I shall return." Photo credit Terowie Citizens' Association, Inc., presented by Peter Dunn's Australia at War

MacArthur finally left the Philippines for Australia in March 1941 in a harrowing escape for his pilots. They flew heavy and through Japanese lines. Shortly after his arrival, he went to Brisbane and the US appointed him as Supreme Allied Command South West Pacific Area, (SWAPA). General Brett became the Commander of Allied Air Forces in Australia, subordinate to MacArthur. A decision was made that the 5th AAF, previously commanded by Brereton in his FEAF role, would be focused entirely on the SWAPA. Interestingly, Brereton was instructed to split away from the SWAPA and organize the 10th AAF in India. A new commander, General George Kenney, a close associate of General MacArthur, was brought in to replace Brett, take command of the 5th AAF, and ultimately command a resurrected FEAF.

Map of South West Pacific Area (SWAPA), presented by the National Park Service

This map is not perfect for what we want, but it does show MacArthur's SWAPA area of responsibility and his general objectives. Fundamentally, when you think of SWAPA, think of allied forces launching from Australia and elsewhere to take back all the major islands and island states in the western Pacific. As it turned out, this would include taking the island state of Japan.

The important point here is that by March and April 1942, the broad command and control lines in the Pacific took shape. The US Navy was responsible for all of the Pacific Ocean. There were two supreme allied commanders, General MacArthur and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. General Wavell was the British Commander-in-chief, India Command, which included Burma, but he had not yet donned a combined command hat.

The India-Burma command lines still had to be sorted out. Frankly, these lines of command were a mess, and commands would change names frequently, with various general officers wearing several hats at one time.

In February 1942 US General Joseph W. Stilwell, with the approval of Chiang Kai-shek, was appointed to be the Commander of American Forces in the China-Burma-India Theater of War (Photo of Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek with General Stilwell, from the National Archives, presented by the US Army). The title is, really, misleading. Stilwell was sent to India, not to China. He immediately went into Burma to command two Chinese armies, the 5th and the 6th, which were division equivalents and stationed in Burma, not China. His mission was to defend Burma, not China. There were no significant American military forces in China for him to command. There were a limited but growing number of American forces being organized to come to India to fight in Burma, most notably the 10th AAF, commanded by Maj. General Brereton. Brereton took charge of the 10th in March 1942. He was subordinate to Stilwell.

The British also had a commander in Burma, subordinate to Wavell, named General Thomas Hutton. He was removed just before Rangoon fell in March 1942, and became chief of staff to a new British commander for Burma, General Harold Alexander. We had reported that Burma broke away from India, and hence Britain, and organized its own army. But with the Japanese advance, the British reinstated their command over the Burmese Army.

General Alexander was educated at Harrow and Sandhurst, served with distinction in France during WWI and between the wars, he served as a brigadier-general on the north west frontier of India (later to become Pakistan). At the start of Britain’s military involvement in WWII, Alexander commanded the First Division that was part of the British Expeditionary Force that landed in France. The First Division was to suffer the same consequences of other British units in northern Europe when in April 1940, the Germans unleashed its blitzkrieg against armies ill prepared for such an attack. The First Division was pushed back to Dunkirk where it was evacuated. Alexander was the last officer to be evacuated from the beaches there. After this, in 1942, Alexander was given the task of stemming the onslaught of the Japanese in Burma. Among his first tasks was to oversee the British and Commonwealth withdrawal from Rangoon, Burma, to Assam state, India.

Also in Burma was British Major-General William Slim, who commanded a corps made up of one Indian division and one Burmese division. He reported to Wavell. Slim also fought in WWI. Following that, he joined the Indian Army and rose to the rank of brigadier in 1940. He commanded British forces in Sudan in 1940 and led a division in Iran and Iraq in 1941. In 1942, he went to Burma as a corps commander and was forced by the Japanese onslaught to retreat to India. In 1943-45, he commanded the British 14th Army. This army was the second largest army of Commonwealth troops, with nearly one million men under arms by 1944 with eight Indian divisions, one East African and two West African divisions, and two British divisions. The 14th Army would defend India against Japanese attacks, then launch an offensive in 1944 that ultimately took back Rangoon. This 14th Army was very important and would be a good subject for a later report.

But, for our purposes here, it is still 1942 and the lines of command in the India-Burma region were not well formed and started breaking down. Recall that Rangoon fell in February 1942, the British general there was fired and Alexander took over, then all Burma was lost to the Japanese in April, the Japanese were in full control of Burma in May, and they were knocking on India's door.

Let's focus on Stilwell to demonstrate how the lines of command were messed up.

Stilwell's air commander, General Brereton of the 10th AAF, had largely a paper organization to command. He did have some bombers, mainly from the 9th and 436th Bombardment Squadrons (BS) of the 7th Bombardment Group (BG), B-17s and B-24s. He told General Stilwell he would not be combat ready until May. Yet, on April 2, 1942, Brereton authorized two 10th AAF bombing raids, one at Port Blair on April 2 against the Andaman Islands, a British possession off the coast of Rangoon, and another against docks and warehouses at Rangoon on April 3. These were the 10th AAF's first combat missions.

Set aside that he had just told Stilwell he would not be combat ready until May. The missions he ordered were not coordinated with Stilwell, his boss. Brereton received orders directly from Washington to support the British in India, hence the raids. The British never had much use for Burma, seeing it only as rich in resources. India was the crown jewel. Responding to British desires, the War Department on April 15 instructed the 10th AAF to concentrate on defending India and forget about providing air support for the Burma campaign.

That ran against Stilwell's grain. It was his intention to defend Burma to the last drop of blood, and then take the offensive and drive the Japanese out.

In addition, Chiang Kai-Shek had agreed to place the Chinese troops in Burma under General Stilwell's command, but Chiang routinely gave instructions directly to his commanders, circumventing Stilwell. Stilwell also communicated directly with the Joint Chiefs back home to receive his orders. There was no love lost between Chiang and "Vinegar Joe." We have seen reports they literally hated each other. Chiang viewed Stilwell as arrogant and power hungry, while Stilwell always wanted to be on the offensive and did not like the defensive strategy Chiang was employing. In any event, Chinese commanders refused to follow Stilwell's direction to launch a counter-offensive against the Japanese. Then, abruptly, the Chinese were placed under General Alexander's command. Alexander ordered all forces under his command to retreat into India.

Following the British lead, the US War Department gave up on Burma. General Brereton launched a few more bombing raids on Rangoon on April 16 and 29, but on April 22, his and other aircraft began evacuating military and civilian people from Burma to India, a process that continued through June 15. The Chinese, Indian and Burmese were in hot retreat to India, and the Chinese then were finding ways to get back to China. Well, Stilwell was still in Burma, angry watching all these forces, especially the Chinese under his command, retreating.

General Stilwell (in the lead) marches out of Burma, May 1942. Photo courtesy of the National Archives, presented by the US Army.

In May 1942, General Stilwell officially ordered the evacuation of Burma. He tried to get himself, his staff and others out by air, rail, truck and jeep but by May 6
decided to walk out of Burma over very difficult terrain to Imphal, India. He took about 114 people, including his staff, medical people, and a Chinese general, and marched them out, arriving in India on May 20. By May 26, the Burma campaign was effectively over. Stilwell's famous assessment was this:

"I claim we got a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out why it happened and go back and retake it."

Following all this tumult, the loss of Burma started to sink in back in Washington.

The loss of Burma meant China was effectively blockaded by the Japanese, nearly completely blockaded. The Japanese held that part of the Burma Road that ran through Burma and the rail lines to Rangoon. There was no way Chiang's forces could fight the Japanese with no supplies.

General Stilwell, all the way up to the point he decided he had to march himself and his people out of Burma, was attempting to develop and implement alternate scenarios to return to the offensive, but most of his forces were going in the other direction. To the British, Burma was not important. With Japanese forces knocking on the door, India had to be defended at all costs. To the Chinese, Burma was a lifeline for national survival and supply routes had to be re-opened. Reversing course away from the British position, the US started to view Burma as central to keeping China in the war against Japan.

As a result, General Stilwell, now in India, began planning to recapture Burma and reestablish the supply line to China.

But Vinegar Joe's troubles were not over. In June 1942, Major General Brereton, his 10th AAF air commander, was appointed to command the Middle East Air Force. Somehow, Brereton arranged for the 9th Bombardment Squadron to go with him. The 9th was virtually the only operational squadron in the 10th AAF's inventory.

B-17 "Sally B" Flying Fortress at the Shuttleworth Military Pageant (UK) in August 2001. This aircraft is the official flagship of the American Air Museum in Britain, is believed to have fought in Europe and is permanently based at the Imperial War Museum Duxford, England. Photo credit: Jo Mitchell, presented by

Not only did the crews leave, but they took all the B-17s belonging to the 7th BG, leaving behind the B-24s. As a general rule, crews preferred the B-17 to the B-24 "Liberator.". The B-24 was actually a newer and better aircraft, she flew in all theaters, but she was advanced and complicated, demanded more pilot training, and often flew so heavy that she was dog to fly. At any rate, Brereton's maneuver here effectively left the 10th AAF with no offensive capability until the 436th squadron could get checked out on the B-24s that were left behind. The 7th BG had two other squadrons, the 492nd and 493rd, but they had no aircraft and no personnel assigned.

B-24 "Dauntless Dottie" Liberator flown by the 380th BG of the 5th AAF in the Southwest Pacific. Photo presented by

The 436th completed its training on the B-24 in late in 1942. The 9th returned to India in October 1942 and transitioned to the B-24. So, by year's end, the 10th AAF again had some operational forces, mostly bombers.

Brigadier General Earl L Naiden took over the 10th AAF in June when Brereton left. Naiden did not stay at the helm very long either, replaced in August 1942, by Major General Clayton L Bissell. Naiden took command of India-China Ferry Command under the 10th AAF, responsible for ferrying supplies over the Himalayas, the "Hump," to China. This had to be done because the Burma Road and Burma's railroads to the sea were closed to friendly traffic bound for China.

Bissell was a heck of a fighter pilot, shown here as a captain in WWI. Assigned to the 148th Pursuit Squadron operating under British control in WWI, he shot down six Fokker D.VIIs while flying the Sopwith Camel. In 1919, he assumed command of the 639th Pursuit Squadron in occupied Germany. Bissell later served on General "Billy" Mitchell's staff, leading the flight that sank the Ostrieland. In 1922, he made the first successful night flight from Washington to New York.

Much like his boss, General Stilwell, Bissell was autocratic, and austere, and, like Stilwell, he came into immediate conflict with now Major General Chennault up in China, who ran his operation by what came to be known as "shirtsleeve efficiency" as opposed to Bissell's "accounting efficiency." As an aside, by this time Chennault's "Flying Tigers" had disbanded and were melded in first with the 23rd FG and then, with the arrival of the 51st FG, with what would become the 14th AAF. Chennault, recalled to active duty at the rank of major general, commanded the 23rd and then the 14th AAF. Note that the 14th AAF was responsible for Chinese airspace and ground targets, while the 10th AAF was responsible for Indian and Burmese airspace and ground targets, the former responsible to Chiang, the latter to Stilwell.

Legend has it Chennault taught his Chinese ground maintenance crews to greet pilots disembarking from a 10th AAF aircraft with these words: "Piss on Bissell." Chennault was close to Chiang Kai-shek, Chiang hated Stilwell and now complained to Washington about Bissell's failing to get along with Chennault. Bissell was reassigned to Washington in August 1943, a year and a day after taking the 10th.

Bissell was replaced by Major General Howard C. Davidson in July 1943. He is shown in this photo as a brigadier, when he was the commander, 7th Interceptor Command, Hawaii. He had flown both bombers and fighters, and had served in the infantry in the Philippines during WWI.

It's now August 1943, the 10th AAF has certainly been through a roller coaster ride, and the ride was not over. Yet more new organizational arrangements were made. As an aside, the 80th FG Burma Banshees had been training in the US for about 8-9 months, and in May 1943, declared themselves operationally ready and shipped out for India. We don't want to discuss this now, but be aware that they're on their way and three squadrons arrived in June. Let's finish the organizational issue in this area of war.

In August 1943, Lt. General George E. Stratemeyer took command of the newly created US Army Air Forces, India-Burma Sector, China-Burma-India Theater. This command included the 10th AAF, China-Burma-India Air Service Command (Provisional), China-Burma-India Training Unit (Provisional) and several lesser units.

Stratemeyer was a West Point graduate, early member of Army aviation, and executive officer and later chief of staff to General "Hap" Arnold, the chief of the Air Corps.

Broadly speaking, up until now, the British were fighting under their command and control system, and the US under its, such as it was. That changed, also in August 1943.

The Allies created the combined South East Asian Command (SEAC) to take over their separate national commands and strategic objectives. Admiral Louis F. Mountbatten was appointed Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia.

Great grandson of Queen Victoria and cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Battenberg, otherwise known as Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, was called “Dickie” by his close relations and friends. While commanding the 5th Destroyer Flotilla from the HMS Kelly at the beginning of WWII, the Kelly was sunk by a torpedo and dive bomber attack. In 1941, Prime Minister Churchill appointed him to lead the Combined Operations Command in the European war. One of his initial undertakings was to plan a Canadian assault on the French port of Dieppe, which failed, and led to the deaths of 70 percent of the attacking Canadian force. Following this, he was assigned to be the Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia (SEAC).

Much can be said about the quality of some of the British officers sent to this area to command. But that's for others to comment. For our purposes, by August 1943, there were supreme allied commanders in all three sectors of the war against Japan: Chiang in China, MacArthur in the Southwest Pacific area, and Mountbatten in South East Asia. There were more changes later, but we'll stop here.

Please remember that during all this time, soldiers and airmen were fighting and dying, and perhaps worst of all, being captured by the Japanese. A lot was lost by the Allied failure to have solid command arrangements in the region.

We mentioned that the Burma Banshees were ready. Originally, the group trained on P-47s because it thought it was going to Europe. It then received orders for India and had to train in the P-40. The group shipped out in May 1943, bound for India by way of Brazil, the Cape of Good Hope, and Ceylon. Once there, the group deployed to bases in the Assam Valley in India, just outside northern Burma. Its motto was, “Angels on our wings."

In the next section, we'll take a close look at what the 80th FG was up against when it arrived.
That is, what missions would the group have to fly, and why.