COLUMN: A Flying Tiger from South Alabama: The Story of Ben Crum Foshee and the American Volunteer Group – Part 1

Published 1:00 pm Friday, December 1, 2023

After completing flight training at Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida, Ensign Ben Crum Foshee had to complete a fixed number of “arrested landings” aboard an aircraft carrier. The carrier was the USS Lexington [CV-2], located just off the port of Miami, Florida. After successfully becoming “carrier qualified, Foshee had a chance meeting with Col. Claire Chennault at the Officer’s Club in Miami. That meeting resulted in Ensign Foshee resigning his Naval commission and joining a volunteer group of pilots that Col. Chennault was taking to China. 

Ben Crum Foshee was born in the small community of Cohassett, Conecuh County, Alabama, on December 21, 1915. His parents were George Washington and Ella Lavonia Foshee. Ben Crum was the youngest of six children. 

Young Foshee attended the tiny Cohassett School for the first six grades. After that, he attended Red Level High School where he graduated in 1934. Foshee enrolled at Alabama Polytechnic Institute [now Auburn University] where he studied Aeronautical Engineering. Ben was a member of Sigma Pi social fraternity and was a member of the Auburn Rifle Team. Foshee earned his B. S. in Aeronautical Engineering in 1938.

After graduation, Foshee was accepted for the Aviation Officer Candidate Program at Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida. He was commissioned an Ensign in the Navy at the end of the 12-week program, on May 31, 1940. Ben was designated a Naval Aviator on June 25, 1940. The yearbook for Ben’s Aviation Cadet Battalion showed that he was assigned to the Naval Reserve Air Base at Opa Locka, Florida. While there, Foshee continued his flight training and became “carrier qualified” aboard USS Lexington [CV-2] near the port of Miami, Florida. With a fixed number of arrested landings aboard the carrier, Foshee was a fully qualified naval aviator. The chance meeting with Col. Claire Chennault happened when the Colonel was on a recruiting trip, hiring pilots for the American Volunteer Group [AVG].

Col. Claire Lee Chennault had worked in China since August 1937, working for Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Check as his aviation advisor during the Japanese invasion of China. He later directed the Chinese Air Force flight school at Kunming. By January 1941, China was in danger of losing Chungking as well as the Burma Road, which had been the source of much of their supplies.

Col. Chennault wanted to form a volunteer group of American pilots to help fight the superior Japanese air forces which had wreaked havoc on China’s weak air forces. To do this, he needed planes and men, not just pilots but the support staff to keep the planes flying. With Chiang Kai-check’s blessing and the influence of T. V. Soong, Chiang’s brother-in-law in Washington, D.C., Chennault was able to purchase 100 Curtiss P-40 fighters. President Roosevelt gave his blessing to the operation.

With the promise of the planes, Chennault set about finding the pilots, ground support and administrative personnel that would form the American Volunteer Group. Ben Crum Foshee was among the 100 pilots that formed the 1st American Volunteer Group. The men resigned from the Army and Navy and were hired by a private military contractor for the Republic of China, the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company. The pilots were typically paid $600/ month, with flight leaders earning $675/month and squadron leaders $750/month. Pilots were promised an additional $500 for each enemy plane shot down as well as those destroyed on the ground.

After resigning his commission in the Navy, Foshee drove his green Pontiac all the way to the port of San Francisco where he had his car shipped home. When the car arrived at Evergreen, Alabama, the family had it unloaded and drove it home.

Foshee departed for the far east aboard the Dutch ship, Bloemfontain. Also onboard the ship was George B. McMillan who became flight leader of the Hell’s Angels and a close friend of Foshee. After a stop in Singapore, they boarded the Penang Trader and arrived in Rangoon, Burma, on September 15, 1941. After arriving at Kunming, Foshee was assigned as a wingman in the 3rd pursuit squadron called the Hell’s Angels. The other two pursuit squadrons were called Adam and Eve and Panda Bears.

The construction of the base at Kunming still had not been finished by October 31, 1941. Col. Chennault had finally received a personal plane that aided him in flying around the country to speed up the completion of the base. The plane was a twin-engine Beechcraft that required lots of work by the mechanics at Toungoo. Spare parts were so hard to get that the plane was flown with one prop five inches shorter than the other. Ben Foshee was one of Chennault’s personal pilots.

With permission from Col. Chennault, the Curtiss P-40 Warhawks were painted with a “shark’s teeth” motif. The original idea came from a RAF squadron of P-40s in the Libyan desert of N. Africa. Someone had seen the color illustration in the India Illustrated Weekly. Chennault himself admitted that he had no idea how the name, “Flying Tigers” began. Once the term had been widely used in the international press, Walt Disney furnished the AVG with the image that came to symbolize the Flying Tigers.

Foshee’s first combat with the Hell’s Angels took place on December 23, when the Japanese attacked the airfield at Mingaladon. Some 48 bombers were able to plaster the Rangoon docks before the AVG pilots and a group of Royal Air Force Brewster Buffalo fighters were able to get airborne. As the second wave of Japanese bombers approached the Mingaladon Airfield, the 12 Hell’s Angels’ P-40s and RAF Buffaloes attacked from above.

The Hell’s Angels shot down six bombers on their first pass. By the time the Japanese had turned for home, they had lost at least 12 aircraft along with several “probable kills.” The AVG lost three planes and two pilots while the RAF lost four planes and four pilots.

The legend of the Flying Tigers was born over the skies of Rangoon on Christmas Day, 1941. The Allies had little reason for optimism up to that time. The Axis powers, now fortified with the addition of Japan, were on the march everywhere and Allied morale was at a low ebb. Leave it to an anonymous group of young flyers called the Flying Tigers to bring a little cheer to the world that Christmas. 

For the first time on December 25, the AVG was given an early warning of a Japanese attack and were able to get their fighters airborne before the bombers reached their target. The AVG, along with the RAF fighters, pounced on the Japanese force of more than 71 bombers and 30-40 fighters. The AVG’s 3rd pursuit squadron was led by Arvid E. Olson, Jr. and attacked with 12 P-40s while the RAF attacked with an additional 16 Buffaloes. Foshee flew with his squadron, but we have no record of his combat from that time.

After the battle, the news quickly spread around the world. The Japanese had lost 35 planes, seven to the RAF and 28 to the AVG. The RAF lost nine planes but the AVG only lost only two. Journalists’ headlines back home were about the Flying Tigers, a colorful group of men flying “shark toothed” fighters who were now challenging the Japanese. Their headlines gave America its heroes and raised the country’s sagging morale. [End Part 1].

John Vick 

[Sources to be given at the end of Part 2]