Georgia’s Flying Tiger
Our family moved from the farmlands of south Georgia to Savannah in 1940; my father had been a sharecropper and had landed a job in the so-called “defense work” established by President Franklin Roosevelt, anticipating America’s forced entry into World War II.
I was eight years old at the time, and the next five years were traumatic and hectic, as I saw the Savannah segment of our society being dragged into the greatest war in world history.
The war actually began in September 1939, with Germany’s invasion of Poland; it ended September 2, 1945. In those intervening years, all major powers of the world had joined the war; countries not involved directly in the conflict also felt the war’s violent impact.
Primary participants in the war were Germany, Italy and Japan, the side which lost, and the United States, Great Britain and the commonwealth, Russia, France, and China, the side which opposed them and won.
The issue of the war was that of aggressions made by Germany and its allies, and the war was fought to put down these aggressions and strip these nations of their military power.
The warfare covered much of the globe from Europe, Asia, North Africa, the islands of Japan and the central Pacific.
I saw the war as a childhood observer, seeing family members leave in their handsome uniforms to fight, and some to die, in this most devastating and disastrous of all wars.
Stories of the war came to me in many ways: letters from soldiers and Marines; radio broadcasts, newsreels, comic books and such. Believe me. I was involved.
My favorite groups were the paratroops and the fighter pilots. I came especially captivated by the famous Flying Tigers, who found their glory honor in their battles in the wild blue yonder over enemy-occupied China.
When I wasn’t practicing Ju-jitzu, the Japanese art of selfdefense which was made popular by the war, I was making model airplanes. My first attempt at construction of a plane was the P-40, the kind used by the flying Tigers. I imagined that I was flying it.
Years later, after returning from my own war experience in the 187th Airborne in Korea, I landed in Macon where I learned about a hometown boy from that city who had been one of the most famous of the Flying Tigers of World War II — Robert L. Scott.
After jumping with the paratroops once in North Korea, near Pyongyang, and again at Munsan-ni, which made a total of twenty-seven jumps, I felt that I had seen and experienced similar exploits to those of Col. Scott, and my interest in him became intense.
Scott was intimately involved with operations in the Allied Offensive in Southeast Asia during the early part of World War II.
This important campaign began when Lord Mountbatten set up the British command headquarters at Kandy, Ceylon, and was in charge of the Allied forces in the India-Burma theater; he directed the operations of a land combat force composed of 340,000 Indian, 100,000 British, 65,000 Chinese and 10,000 United States troops, supported by 47 U. S. and British air squadrons.
One of the main objectives of the campaign was to furnish large quantities of supplies and warfare materials to the embattled Chinese, a project which became increasingly difficult due to the Japanese conquest of the Burma Road early in the war.
To thwart the enemy control of this vital route to China, the United States Air Transport Command established an air route over the Burma Road known as The Hump, so-called because it was actually over the Himalayas from India to the interior of China.
Until the Japanese were defeated in Burma by British and Chinese forces in 1945 and the Burma Road was finally opened, the air route over The Hump was the most important operation in Asia.
Col. Robert L. Scott was one American soldier who was there. The experience brought him fame. Noted for his book, “God Is My Copilot,” he was Group Commander of General Chennault’s Flying Tigers.
Scott made his first flight in 1920, in Macon; he was 12 at the time. He was trying to earn a Boy Scout aviation merit badge, so he built a crude model of the Wright brothers’ plane barely big enough for one small passenger. With the help of some of his adventurous friends, he hoisted the airplane to the top of one of Macon’s old colonial homes and prepared to take-off.
He ran down the sloping roof with the homemade contraption and flew into space. Suddenly, he heard a crack, like the closing of a jail door, and the wing buckled in the center. The plane crashed. He said in his book, “the Cherokee rose bush — probably saved my life, but the thorns stayed with me for a long time.”
He never lost the desire to fly. So he kept trying. World War II came, and Scott found himself in the U. S. Army at Pearl Harbor; this was his introduction to combat, bloody and fearful. Again he turned his eyes toward the sky, and volunteered for the U. S. Army Air Force. He was thirtyfour at the time and deemed too old for combat flying.
But he was favored with Air Force assignment and went on to become a hero to all Georgians and all Americans.
In the Asian campaign in Burma as Group Commander he scheduled himself as a pilot on all possible missions and led all types of combat tactics, specializing in the most dangerous. He led long-range flights to strafe Japanese airdromes, motor vehicles and ships deep in enemy territory.
He wanted more to be involved in the action than to direct the action as commander. He set the highest record in combat as a “One Man Air Force” shortly before he was named Commander of all the American Fighters in China.
Often with odds as much as five to one, in planes that were battered, Col. Scott led the Tigers in fierce, courageous battles which had never been seen before or even imagined.
Until January 1943, Col. Scott held the Army record for enemy planes shot down and became one of the nation’s highest decorated airmen. After commanding the famed Flying Tigers, he became Wing Commander of the Jet Fighter School at Williams Air Force Base and later led a Thunderjet Wing in Germany. He was promoted to Brigadier General, and served as Director of Information Services for the Air Force in Washington.
His life was marked by adventure; he proved his willingness to try the unthinkable, by walking the entire length of the Great Wall of China, an ambition he achieved at age seventy-two.
“The Day I Owned the Sky,” Scott’s autobiography, published in 1988, is a splendid tale of one of the most charismatic men of history. He wrote it after he returned to Macon in 1987, to head a fund-raising drive and promote the Museum of Aviation at Warner Robins Air Force Base. He finished this feat in his usual, dramatic style.
The museum stands as one of the most comprehensive collections of aviation history in the world.
When General Scott came home, he decided to stay. Georgians can be proud.