Tigers Over Kweilin. the Saga. March 14, 2010

What follows is the story of the evolution of the largest painting I've ever produced, "Tigers Over Kweilin". The Painting took over two years to complete. It is 72x96 in size...

Ever since I was a little boy I was captivated with the photos and stories of the "Flying Tigers". The A.V.G., or "American Volunteer Group". Both my parents were involve in one way or the other with the war effort during WWII. Growing up I had seen images in an American Heritage Book on the History of Flight, which my parents had in their library in our home.

There was one photo in the book of General Claire Chennault. I'd seen his weathered face standing firm and confident against the painted nose art of a Curtis P-40 "Kitty hawk". It stuck me deeply.

There was something about this image that stuck with me throughout my life, and when my father told me stories about how he supplied fuel for Chennault and the A.V.G., a seed was planted. Something inside me felt proud to be an American. I felt an inner drive to acknowledge the A.V.G. in some way, some day.

This man, Claire Chennault had the vision; to enroll a small group of American Warrior Pilots, in the idea of resigning their commissions in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and fly as mercenary pilots for the Chinese Air Force; against the Japanese Imperial Forces, who were expanding into Indonesia in the early days of WWII. At the time the U.S. had an Isolationist Policy and was merely fighting a proxy war against Japan and Germany through a lend lease program; to supply armaments in order to battle the axis powers.

Chennault was able to convince the U.S. Gov. to lend around 80 aircraft to the Chinese Government, (who had been under occupation by Japan since 1936), but the U.S. Gov. would not allow U.S. Pilots to fly the aircraft. Chennault convinced a hand full of American pilots to resigned their commissions (sacrificing their futures for the sake of stemming the spread of Japanese Imperialism).

This was not a popular thing to do. In fact it was preposterous: who ever thought it appropriate to resign their commissions to fight for a foreign country? But it had to be done! These men flew training missions in the six months prior to America's entry into WWII, and on Dec. 7, 1941, as if by divine guidance, they were serendipitously in place; all ready to take on the enemy!

In the beginning of the conflict, these men flew missions against the Japanese with little support from the home front; and they would not be resupplied either in aircraft or in parts. Instead, if a plane was lost or so badly shot up that it could no longer fly, ground crews would "cannibalize" the plane for parts, just to keep the other planes flying.

Through attrition: little by little the Tiger's numbers dwindled as they, along with their aircraft, would die in their fight against the Japanese. Fortunately, their successful exploits in turning back the Japanese were reported in the newspapers back in the U.S.A., which was good for public morale. America had been caught flat footed at Pearl Harbor, but because of the vision and foresight of Chennault, the Tigers would be like a cog in a wheel for the enemy.

After the Tigers were successful in turning back the Japanese in their quest for Indochina, they were were eventually relieved of duty by the 'Official' U.S. Army Air Corps under Gen. Stilwell. These A.V.G. pilots; many of whom were double aces (denoted by five or more enemy kills), were told they could stay on and fight under the 14Th Air Force, and would lose their rank, (be demoted). Or, they go home to the USA without any future career in the U.S. Air Corps.

Many A.V.G Pilots, feeling insulted, left for home and gave up the fight. Some though continued the fight through speaking publicly about their exploits in order to raise money for the war effort. Only a handful of the original A.V.G. stayed on to instruct the incoming rookie pilots how to do combat with the enemy. These pilots eventually gained great fame and earned the accolades from their country.

Five years ago,I was gifted a large quantity of canvas. My artist friend Dominique Raboule assisted me in stretching it out on to stretcher bars. I had the intention to explore the idea of painting the effect of lightning within clouds. I held this idea for at least four to six months until one day when I was at a black and White Photo Lab in Santa Barbara called, "Specialty Photo". It was there I saw the image on a calender taken by a well known Photographer, John Sexton...

Claire Chennault
Flying Tiger, 1942