by Robert Coram
Robert Lee Scott Jr.
For all of his long life, the south was very much a part of Robert Lee Scott Jr.; his syrupy drawl, his endless storytelling, his love of hunting and fishing, his desire to be with his own kind, and – most of all – the defensive paranoia that is bred into the bone of southerners; the always hovering suspicion that stereotypes about the south are true; that at bottom we are all redneck racists who are not very bright and who know little of the outside world.
Robert Lee Scott Jr. went to China early in World War II, in April of 1942. His timing and his certitude about fulfilling his destiny, made him one of the best known military heroes of the mid-1940s, a pilot who shot down so many Japanese aircraft that he was a Double Ace, a glamorous man who found immortality by flying in combat with the famed Flying Tigers. His exuberance, his relationship with “The Big Sky Boss,” and his deep belief in his own destiny, made him a unique public figure. And he topped it all off by producing a best-selling book in three days. In three days. And from the book came a successful movie. After he retired, Robert Lee Scott Jr.’s astonishing accomplishments gave him the fame in civilian life that he had enjoyed in his military life.
More than seventy years have passed since the end of World War II. Yet, the American people retain a deep and abiding interest in that conflict. There are, however, some matters relating to World War II that most people get wrong. Many people believe that Chennault’s Flying Tigers were fighting the Japanese before Pearl Harbor, when, in fact, the AVG first flew in combat twelve days after Pearl Harbor. They were fighter pilots, and their mood, disposition, and every fiber of their being was to attack, attack, attack.
At last the training was over, and they were doing what they had come to China to do. And now, after Pearl Harbor, they had a new and powerful incentive: They were flying against the enemies of their country.
On December 19, Chennault’s air-raid warning net gave him notice that ten Japanese bombers were bound for Kunming, terminus of the vital Burma Road that linked China with the outside world. Chennault ordered his Tigers up high, into the sun, to wait. The bombers came in a broad open formation with no fighter escorts, the pilots arrogant in their presumption that they could bomb Chinese soil with impunity.
Above them were Chennault’s men. He watched the Japanese bombers and he waited and then, when his pilots were tense and anxious and wondering when the Old Man would give the order, he leaned into the microphone and in his intense voice growled, “Take ’em. Take ’em.”
And all at once the Japanese bombers were shaking from the impact of .50- caliber machine-gun bullets, and the Japanese pilots watched in fear as P-40s slashed through their formation, P-40s with a shark mouth on the nose. The P-40s were a blur as they roared past and then they continued diving before converting their speed to altitude, and then they were coming back in again, flown by highly disciplined pilots who waited until the last moment before firing, and then slammed bullets into the most vulnerable place on the bombers: the engines.
Six Japanese bombers were shot down the first time the Flying Tigers rose in combat.
From then on, the bombers would not always get through. On Christmas Day, the Flying Tigers and a few British aircraft climbed high over Rangoon against a force of 108 Japanese bombers and fighters. Thirteen enemy bombers and ten fighters were shot down. As Time magazine put it in a December 29 story, one of the first written about the AVG, “The Flying Tigers swooped, let the Japanese have it.”
The March 30, 1942, issue of Life had what the magazine called “the first full- length portrait of the Flying Tigers in action,” a series of dramatic photographs and super-heated verbiage: “one American flier is equal to two or three Japs,” the pilots are “always looking for a fight,” the Flying Tigers were a “holocaust” to the Japanese, the Japanese interfered with the plans of the
pilots and now the Japanese “must be eliminated,” the story of the pilots’ “skill, courage and fighting spirit has swept Free China.”
It was what the people back home in America needed. (Rarely has an enemy been so dehumanized as were the Japanese in World War II. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor put the American people in a blazing rage toward the Japanese. In newspapers, in magazines, on the radio, in official military reports, they were “Japs.” The word “Japanese” was rarely heard or seen. And then- stereotypical images of the Japanese prevailed.
Thus, when Life or Time referred to “the Jap,” they were only reflecting the tenor of the time.) Chennault’s tactics might have been ridiculed by his old colleagues back in America, but now those tactics were proven sound in the most unforgiving
cauldron of all—combat.
And while Chennault’s old colleagues thought him cranky and opinionated and cold and aloof, he gained from his young hell- raising pilots a gift rarely bestowed on a combat leader: he was loved as much as he was respected.
The legend of the Fei Hu— Chinese for Flying Tigers— had begun. The Chinese looked upon the American pilots as the saviors of their country. An English- speaking Japanese broadcaster was almost frothing at the mouth as she sputtered about the American “outlaws” and “renegades.” And America looked upon them as the most heroic, romantic, and devastating group of fighter pilots the world had ever seen. That belief has only strengthened with the passage of more than seventy years.
It must be remembered that in the weeks after Pearl Harbor, indeed through the spring and early summer of 1942, the Japanese juggernaut seemed unstoppable. At that time, it appeared to be one of the most formidable military machines the world had ever seen. Today we think of our World War II victory as inevitable. But it was not. After Pearl Harbor and the fall of the Philippines, America was reeling. The Pacific was a Japanese lake. America was losing the war, and it would be some six months before the Marines began to take the initiative on postage- stamp- sized islands that no one back home had ever heard of. But even after the Marines took Guadalcanal, there remained numerous other islands where, had the Marines been defeated, the war could easily have gone either way.
Most Americans thought of the coming war in terms of Eng land and Europe and Hitler and Mussolini. Sure, they knew of the fighting in China, but that was a sideshow. And now as Americans were still shaking off the initial shock of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war against the Japanese, from out of nowhere— well, out of China, which was the same thing as nowhere— came news that a small group of young American pilots flying old P-40s with big shark mouths on the nose were giving the Japanese the first thrashing they had known since they invaded Manchuria in 1931.
In China, a crusty and taciturn Southerner by the name of Claire Lee Chennault was leading his Flying Tigers to victory. Chennault and his fighters were proving the fallacy inherent in what now had become the driving imperative in the Army Air Forces: The bombers always get through. Within the Army Air Forces, the idea that bombers were omnipotent— now codified in the doctrine of strategic bombing— was growing stronger.
By January 1942, the Flying Tigers had sixty confirmed kills. A Japanese radio broadcaster said, “We warn the American aviators that they must cease their unorthodox tactics immediately, or they will be treated like guerrillas and shown no mercy whatsoever.”
The Flying Tigers knew little of this. They were at the end of the world and did not even know they were famous. All they knew was that they worked for a great man, and that they were killing their country’s enemies.
The euphoria Americans felt toward the Flying Tigers has not since been replicated in any war. No other group has achieved such mythic stature.
That the exploits of the AVG took place in the China- Burma- India theater, that far- off , unknown, and mysterious place on the other side of the world, only added to their mystique.
The year 1942 was the pivotal year of Robert Lee Scott Jr.’s life. Beginning in January, events came at him furiously.
He was promoted to lieutenant colonel, given the title of “Director of Training,” and transferred two hundred miles north of Los Angeles to Lemoore Field, a dry- weather field about as far out in the boondocks as it was possible to go. Robert Lee Scott Jr. said being sent to Lemoore “was one of the low periods of my life.” Kitty Rix would have said the same thing.
Robert Lee Scott Jr. fulfilled the belief of southerners that to get up, you have to get out. But even after he got out, Robert Lee Scott Jr. remained true to his birthplace. He was always a southerner and he was always respected by his own. In his last years he returned to the place where he grew up, the place that had marked him forever, and that place embraced him as a native son, a man whom fame and fortune had not changed. He was a small-town southerner who lived a big-town life; a hero in both military and civilian circles.
He proved Thomas Wolfe wrong: you can go home again.
Robert Coram is a Pullitzer Prize nominated journalist and the author of over a dozen books including biographies of Air Force pilots John Boyd and Bud Day. He is the author of DOUBLE ACE: The Life of Robert Lee Scott Jr., Pilot, Hero, and Teller of Tall Tales