Before and after Pearl Harbor, Eagles vs. Tigers
An introduction to the Eagle Squadrons
By all means, December 7th, 1941 was not the start of the war for the few American Volunteers who had already been risking it all, life, citizenship, career, livelihood… to precede their country into the war against the forces of the Axis before the aggression on Pearl Harbor.
The title may be misleading but this article is not in relation to any face-off of MLB or NFL teams, even if some may find entertaining to imagine the Philly Eagles facing the Detroit Tigers. It would surely make for a more dramatic way to run for the bases.
More seriously though, today marks the 75th anniversary (although anniversary seems a term more appropriate to celebrations) of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the tipping tragedy that pulled the isolationist America into war, first against the Japanese Empire and later, in 1942, on the North African shores, gateway to the Italian boot of the Axis.
I am certain that there will be plenty of commemorations to remember, especially for those of you who reside in the US, in a country which marks any occasion as an opportunity for patriotic salutes, from the major professional events to the Sunday little league games. However, my purpose is not per se to speak of Pearl Harbor, whether in terms of recalling the event as we have simplistically learnt it at school or to bring forward the more elaborated schemes leading to the incident who woke the sleeping giant. It provoked the USA into the heart of the war at the cost of the sacrifice of men and outdated ships and provided the necessary revolt to assure the seal of approval of a declaration of war which had been debated four months earlier, when Roosevelt and Churchill had met to discuss their alliance and draft the Atlantic charter, precursor of the later NATO version.
The date remains a crucial marker of the most modern and cruelest of all wars. It is as significant as the bombing, in a similar early morning unprovoked fashion (except for the preparative false flag Gleiwitz incident, which provided Germany its justification for its Blitzkrieg), of the town of Wielun with a comparable death toll even if it could be argued that the Luftwaffe had at the time mostly targeted civilians. In the first hours of September 1939, the flames of Wielun heralded the war in Europe and on the Atlantic Ocean. Two years later, other morning pillars of smoke announced the expansion of the conflict, in its full scale dimension, across the Pacific Ocean.
However, on a date when a tragedy is remembered as the first day of WWII for the USA, I wish to evoke instead the memory of the (few) forgotten Americans who came and fought before Pearl Harbor, against the odds and the bans of their own country. Because of their contribution, because they seem to have been unfairly dismissed (it took in fact 40 years after the end of the war to erect them a privately-financed monument in Grosvenor Square in London), and, moreover, because it relates directly to the initial events in my upcoming book, Aquilis Serenade, I will be publishing in the next weeks on my website blog one or more article(s) relating the story of the actual very first American soldiers to enter the second big war, the Eagle squadron.
In this introductory chapter about these American heroes, whom some of you will consider as early hot-headed adventurers but most will surely consider rightfully for whom they truly were, altruistic heroes of the first hour, I would like to bring back from amnesia the feats of the true first US volunteers. This is an introduction to the memory of those who, in spite of their country laws, joined the fight a year or more before the drama of Pearl Harbor.
As I speak of volunteers and if I add to this label the word ´pilots´, some of your may think, in a reflex born from the vintage old boys´ paperback comics of your childhood, of the “Flying Tigers”. I am talking of the B&W or weakly coloured small books printed on grey newspaper material illustrated with planes made fiercer by a painted shark grin full of teeth (in reality inspired from a Luftwaffe unit). Remember how we used to buy in the 60s and 70s these graphic fiction with our meager pocket money before the age of video games additions, when kids read before falling asleep with a smile and dream of incarnating a champion of glorious battles. It seems long gone. Times have changed. I suppose that now they dream of a perfect skin, tan, haircut, and a high count of followers for a meaningless selfie of their undetermined sexuality…
But, to return to our topic, I will not speak of the very recognisable and more flashy “Tigers”. It is not a preference based on merit nor reputation nor success. The truth is that, in spite of being named the 1st AVG (American Volunteer Group), in spite of preparing their deployment in Burma and Southern China to assist the Nationalist China and the British Asian colonies to protect the key Burma road, these feline volunteers arrived in China only days before the event of December 7th, 1941. Furthermore, they were already veterans of the various branches of the US military. They were professional military pilots who had been contracted on rather high salary (up to $750 and $500 bonus per kill) by a private organisation (although close to the US military and supported under the table by the government of Roosevelt) as a mercenary unit. They were an early but nonetheless a combat aircraft unit of the US military. And they actually saw first action after their country had already committed to the fight, on December 20th 1941, 12 days past the declaration of war by Roosevelt. Calling them volunteers may therefore be debatable even if they were admittedly fighters, heroes and aces of the first American hours.
Instead, I would like to mention the true first American volunteers (in the air at least) of the war. These were civilians, untrained for war, who had left all behind, who had no or an insignificant salary of handful of pounds and ration coupons. They had anticipated their countrymen by nearly a year and a half for some, a long time to fight before the rest (even if until Pearl Harbor no commitment of the American forces was openly considered). Hence, I would first like to start by asking you if you have ever heard of the Eagles. Because in the facts and in the obstacles which they faced, these raptors who formed an early American combat unit (under foreign flag), initially organised in three squadron of fighting aircrafts, were the true volunteers of the initial months of the war.
The Eagles entered the fray not only as straight civilians for most of them but they saw battle and suffered losses well before the bombing of the Hawaii since mid 1941. Indeed, these undoubtedly real volunteers, who did not enlist or, against the law, who were not hired, had no ties nor training from the USAAF at the time of their enrollment in the conflict against the technologically superior and experienced counterparts of the Luftwaffe. Few of them had even been rejected from becoming pilot officers in the American Forces (at peace before and during the years of the war when the USA hesitated to engage) because of their social class, age, education or all of the above. These motivated Eagles were a composition of unprobable barn stormers, stunt, mail or airline pilots, aviators from air races and circus rides or more simply blue collar workers with few hours under their belt (including reporters, mechanics, bar tenders, civil servants, etc…).
Their commitment does not suffer any doubt whether they were eager to serve to help the fighting against the Nazis´ seemingly unstoppable war machine or more romantically driven by the attraction of flying the Rolls Royce powered airplanes of the RAF. One of the most perceptive members of the Eagles, Robinson believed that “the reasons why most Americans joined the Royal Air Force as volunteers are very varied. Some came for sheer idealism, others had the idea that they wanted to fight Hitler and get into a scrap while others because they thought they would like to emerge fully trained as fighter pilots”.
Their motivation was not tinted by the perspective of well paid job or the obligation of serving a country already engaged in a war. To the difference of the later AVG, and to their credit, in a context of an isolationist America, the Eagles emerged and operated against the laws and regulations of their country. To enroll, they were forced to flee their home and cross the Canadian border under false pretexts. They renounced the privilege of their citizenship and the option to return home, at least for the next 2 years, although when they joined the RAF the verdict had seemed definitive.
In 1935, the US Congress had passed a strict Neutrality Act which, amongst other provisions, even stressed that Americans who travelled on belligerent ships did so at their own risk. The Congress revised this act in 1936 and then again in 1937 to forbid travel on ships of factions at war or navigating in a war zone. The Fourth Neutrality Act of November 1939 was passed in response to the German expansion in Europe and reaffirmed the congressional stance which reflected the larger views of its isolationist population. But more importantly than reiterating another shade of isolationism of the last Act, its 1939 version had been preceded in September by a presidential proclamation that had specifically forbidden any recruiting within the United States or American protectorate of men to serve in the armed forces of a foreign government.
Unfortunately for Colonel Charles Sweeney (the promoter and recruiter of the Eagles for whom these new squadrons of volunteers were a resurgence of the Lafayette escadrille in which he had served) and his potential pilots, the proclamation also included the provision that it was illegal to hire anyone who would later travel beyond the territorial limits of the USA to enlist in a foreign country’s military, such as in Canada, for example, where the project of the Eagles proposed to incorporate them in some units of the RCAF or RAF.
But it was without counting on the veteran officer, one of the most colourful aviator adventurer of his age. Logically a friend to Hemingway and few other revolutionaries, volunteer as early as 1915 in the first World War in the foreign legions of the French army, he had already advertised the opportunity to fly in the resisting air-forces of Europe in newspapers, air shows, at various airfields across America. Regardless of the Act(s), he persisted to alleviate the FBI and the rulings of the neutrality legislation, which stated that “hiring or retaining another person to enlist or enter himself in the service of a belligerent as a soldier or a marine or seaman on board any ship of war” was illegal. But for his efforts and his refusal to abide the rules of neutrality issued by his government, he soon became the target of FBI investigations, but also a preoccupation for the Nazi spies. He and his associates were threatened and pursued for their transgression by both the US authorities and the American press which advocated as many to remain out of the war.
According to the Citizenship Act of 1907, “any American citizen shall be deemed to have expatriated himself… when he has taken an oath of allegiance to any foreign state”. Since the country and its USAAF were not committed in a proper war declaration, these future Eagles, men who had been refused to enroll in their own air forces or, for reason of ideology or pure bravery, wanted to fight the Nazi conquests, were left with the only option to enroll in the combat unit of the Royal and Royal Canadian Forces. They did not hesitate from 1939 to oppose the neutral position adopted by the US government or to dare the proscription of a State department of the USA keen to avoid a diplomatic incident with Germany because a handful of hot-headed daredevil American boys and older men had taken upon themselves to get in the fight. Indeed, such were the sacrifices that the godfathers of the Eagles and their recruits were ready to commit for the pleasure of flying a fighting aircraft and/or have the honour to face off the fierce pilots of Germany.
It is in part why I elected to bring awareness to the exceptional and over-shadowed story of the men who defied their condition, their rejection, the authority and the neutrality of their country for the privilege to fly above England and defend the last standing bastion of democracy in Europe. Indeed, they transgressed the laws of their home country but history would prove them right and admittedly so on the 75th anniversary date of Pearl Harbor.
They risked and, until the changes of policy of 1942, were set to abandon it all, their citizenship, their future and their freedom, to give their life for a cause and a longing to fly higher and faster. Such were the men who not only had the necessary courage to defy their own police, to lose their most cherished rights, but also to meet the overwhelming waves of enemy planes with little or for most of them no anterior military knowledge.
However, I must admit that it is not the sole reason why I chose to highlight their sacrifice and contribution. Surely, such heroes deserve a column from time to time, a fading but persistent memorial trace of their feats and abnegation. But if I write about who they were and what they did, it is also because their reference is part of the book that I am about to publish. Some chapters, some tales, are inspired from their existence and their actions. And before you meet one or several of them in my pages, I would like for you to know and understand their nature and their implication in the political context that is too often under-appreciated when the engagement of the various nations in the war is recounted… It was not always a matter of an arbitrary choice, of ´we are in´or ´we are out´.
Some young men of no experience actually travelled far from their homes, away from all that they had ever known, under the promise of never being able to return there or to their loved ones, under the threat of losing their lives for a motive which their country had told them was not theirs. They did not wait for the last month of 1941, they rushed right in with the authorities on their heels, caught between prison and war. I would like to think that you have heard of them but I must be honest and as I was ignorant before researching for my book, I am quite certain you know little on those who fought regardless of all the odds and rules, even though they did not have to, were not encouraged to, but rather discouraged to…
After the initial Battle of Britain, Churchill wrote a statement that resonated and inspired the people of Britain and of the unyielding parts of free world. Although the Eagle squadrons came after this emblematic month of the war, their members were undoubtedly galvanised by the speech. Their pilots soon reinforced the RAF after the famous aerial battle over England. In truth, they soon joined the same uninterrupted fight over the shores on either sides of the Channel. They would be involved the extension of the same glorious battle which would never truly cease over the next couple of years, not until the tide would convincingly turn with the contribution of the US forces in the European theatre. I think it is only fair to associate to Churchill´s words the engagement of some of the 200 Americans who chivalrously served the longest in the war, wearing both the wings of the RAF on their heart and, in spite of their destitution, the Eagle of their home country on their shoulder
“The gratitude of every home in our island, in our Empire and indeed in the world, goes out to the (British) airmen. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.
To be continued…