In 1937 Japan launched a many pronged invasion of China . Inflicted immense damage to China , Japanese occupied China's east coast ,the Nationalist government relocated in Chongqing ,Sichuan ,with some ministries and industries moving to Yunnan . To keep supplies coming into western China the Nationalists has a road constructed from Kunming to Dehong , the famous Burma Road ,using mostly labour conscripted from tribes along the route. The road followed the old Southeast Silk Route as far as Baoshan and continued to Wanding,Dehong,Goods and war material continued to come from British Burma over the bridge at Wanding until the Japanese overran Burma in 1942 and closed the route .
By that time the Americans were involved in the Pacific War as much as the British . New supply routes were organised out of British India . One was by land from the eastern Himalayan town of Kalimpong . From here pony and mule caravans traveled up through eastern Tibet ,then into Yunnan at Deqen , down to Zhongdian , Lijiang and Xiaguan. From there fresh caravans carried the goods to Kunming and from the capital to Sichuan or other parts of China .
The other route was by air ,over that section of the eastern Himalayas called the Hump , and famous as one of the most hazardous air routes in the entire world . Volunteer pilots of Claire Chennault's Flying Tigers , who had a base in Kunming and whose boss was a strategic advisor to General Chiang Kai-Shek . Chennault kept telling Chiang that his air unit could defend western China against any Japanese advance . The implication was that Chiang needn't deploy his own forces intact for the Communists . This attitude infuriated General Joseph Stillwell ,the American responsible for the Sino-Allied defence against the Japanese .
Yet no one could deny that Chennault's Flying Tigers were men of great courage . An uncomfortably large number of transport planes crashed when buffeted by the unpredictable winds and storms of the Hump . Even in recent years Yunnanese farmers have discovered the remains of planes in various mountain locations in the west . and the older folks still remember the sacrifices made by American and British pilots in the war ,reflected in the very friendly and favourable attitude they have nowadays towards tourist from these two countries .
In April, 1937, Claire L. Chennault, then a captain in the United States Army Air Corps, retired from active duty and accepted an offer form Madame Chiang Kai-shek for a three month mission to China to make a confidential survey of the Chinese Air Force. At that time China and Japan were on the verge of war and the fledgling Chinese Air Force was beset by internal problems and torn between American and Italian influence. Madame Chiang Kai-shek took over leadership of the Aeronautical Commission in order to reorganize the Chinese Air Force. This was the beginning of Chennault's stay in China which did not terminate until 1945 at the close of World War II. Chennault's combat and other experiences between 1937 and 1941 in China are another story, but it was these experiences together with the knowledge he attained of combat tactics and the operations of Japanese Air Force over China that laid the ground work for the organization of the American Volunteer Group in 1941.
The official status of Claire L. Chennault in China prior to 1942 was always a subject of speculation. Chennault himself states that he was a civilian advisor to the Secretary of the Commission for Aeronautical Affairs, first Madame Chiang and later T.V. Soong. Until he returned to active duty with the United States Army in the spring of 1942, four months after Pearl Harbor, he had no legal status as a belligerent and held no rank other than retired captain in the United States Army. Even while he commanded the American Volunteer Group in combat, his official job was adviser to the Central Bank of China, and his passport listed his occupation as a farmer.
In the summer of 1938 Chennault went to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province in Western China, to forge, at the request of Madame Chiang, a new Chinese Air Force from an American mold.
SELF IMPOSED EXILE
It was during these years of self-imposed exile in the Chinese hinterland, that Chennault laid the foundation for the unique American air operations that featured the final three years of the Japanese war in China. In addition to his solid relations with Chinese of both high and low estate, these operations were based on clusters of strategically located air fields and an air-raid warning system that covered Free China. Without those three solid supports American air power could hardly have functioned in China.
"All over Free China these human ant heaps rose to turn mud, rocks, lime and sweat into 5,000 foot runways to nest planes not yet built in Los Angels and Buffalo factories"
Describing the Chinese air-raid warning net, Chennault states:
"The Chinese air-raid warning system was a vast spidernet of people, radios, telephones, and telegraph lines that covered all of Free China accessible to enemy aircraft. In addition to continuous intelligence of enemy attacks, the net served to locate and guide lost friendly planes, direct aid to friendly pilots who had crashed or bailed out, and helped guide our technical intelligence experts to wrecks of crashed enemy aircraft."
"Most efficient sector of the net was developed in Yunnan as a dire necessity. It was the Yunnan net that was a key to the early A.V.G. successes and the defense of Chinese terminals on this side of the Hump against fantastic numerical odds."
Early in 1939 the Japanese began their tremendous effort to break the back of Chinese resistance by sustained bombing of every major population center in Free China. It was the virtually unopposed and continuous bombing of the major centers of Free China by Japanese Air Force that directly led to the organization of the American Volunteer Group. In the fall of 1940 the Generalissimo instructed Chennault to go to the United States for the purpose of obtaining American planes and American pilots to end the Japanese bombing.
Chennault's original plans called for the injection of a rejuvenated Chinese Air Force spearheaded by American volunteers to upset the Pacific stalemate.