ATLANTA, Georgia — Frank Losonsky was just another 20-year-old soldier from Detroit, Michigan, but his life took a historic turn when a recruiter offered him the adventure of a lifetime.
Would Losonsky be willing to board a ship headed to Asia and join a group of volunteers helping China fight off Japanese invaders?
Losonsky said yes.
That was May of 1941. Now, 75 years later at age 96, Losonsky is one of three known living survivors of what’s arguably the most famous fighter plane outfit in history: the Flying Tigers.
If you haven’t heard the name Flying Tigers, you might recognize their planes. They flew US-made Curtiss P-40 Warhawks painted with a menacing looking shark-mouth design that eventually became iconic.
During the outfit’s short lifetime in 1941 and ’42, 311 people were recruited for what was officially called the 1st American Volunteer Group.
Starting with 99 planes, they racked up an amazing combat record in just about seven months, destroying 297 enemy aircraft in Burma, Thailand and China, according to Tripp Alyn of the AVG Flying Tiger Association. Twenty pilots qualified as “aces” by shooting down five enemy aircraft each.
Experts say the Flying Tigers helped the US strategically by keeping Japan focused on China, giving the US economy time to gear itself up for the war by making tanks, planes and other weapons.
Some Flying Tigers fought as pilots. Others — including mechanics, clerks, doctors, dentists and nurses — served as ground support. Losonsky was a crew chief in the 3rd Squadron — maintaining three, sometimes four, airplanes. He also helped deliver bombs and salvage parts to keep the planes in the air.
This weekend at Atlanta’s DeKalb-Peachtree Airport, Losonsky climbed into a P-40 for the first time since the war, as part of a historic Flying Tiger reunion sponsored by the Commemorative Air Force, which works to preserve historic warbirds.
During his flight, Losonsky remained cool and calm in the back of the two-seat trainer. Up front, pilot Bernie Vasquez of the Texas Flying Legends Museum executed two barrel rolls high over the Atlanta skyline.
The aerobatics left the tough old Flying Tiger unshaken. “No problem,” Losonsky said a few minutes after exiting the aircraft.
Two women served as nurses in the Flying Tigers, but the group was overwhelmingly comprised of young male officers or enlisted men.
Under US law, all AVG Flying Tiger volunteers had to resign from the military, which put them at risk. If Japanese forces had captured them in Asia as civilians, they could be executed as spies.
With fascist Germany and Italy taking over Europe, many Americans in early 1941 wanted to stay out of the fighting.
“I felt like I was doing something,” he said. “I wasn’t scared. I just thought that I could help a little.”
Shipping out to join the ‘gangsters’
From its beginning, the Flying Tigers was a secret operation green-lighted by President Franklin Roosevelt.
When recruits crossed the Pacific on commercial ships, they were forced to assume fake identities.
Losonsky traveled under cover with a specially-made passport that said he was a missionary. Others made the trip posing as plantation managers, cowboys or even circus performers.
The plane used by the Tigers — the P-40 Warhawk — was “built like a truck,” Alyn said. Rugged construction allowed the P-40s to withstand steep dives as they swooped down on Japanese fighter planes from high above.
“The Japanese referred to them as ‘gangsters’ because they said they didn’t fight fair,” Alyn explained.
A deadly attack
After seven decades, memories tend to fade, but the horror of a Japanese air attack on a Flying Tiger base in Magwe, Burma, in March 1942, still haunts Losonsky.
The fighter planes “shot up the airfield and all the equipment,” he said, forcing him and his fellow Flying Tigers to take cover. “I remember having to get into the slit trenches,” he said. “You could hear the Japanese shooting as they came in pretty high.”
Losonsky’s friend, crew chief John Fauth of Red Lion, Pennsylvania, lost his life in that attack. “That was real sad when that happened,” Losonsky recalled. “You had to be careful.” Fauth was good man, he said. “He was good to everybody.”
Three years ago, the graves of hundreds of Chinese troops who died fighting alongside the Flying Tigers reportedly were discovered in southern China. “… despite official pledges to restore and protect it, little has been done,” the New York Times reported in 2013.
The adventure ends
By July 1942, the American Volunteer Group was disbanded and the mission was taken over by US Army aviators. Overall, 23 Flying Tiger pilots and ground crew were killed or went missing, according to AVG Flying Tiger Association records.
Some surviving members had to find their own way home, said Losonsky’s son, Terry Losonsky.
“But they all treated it like an adventure,” he said. “My dad and his very good friend ended up in South Africa and became good friends with the US consulate there.”
“They were anxious to get back to the States, but they couldn’t find a way.”
American officials advised them to make themselves “undesirable,” Terry said. They went to “one of the more posh hotels,” where Frank Losonsky and his friend then “sort of broke up some of the furniture.”
That got them declared as “undesirable” by local government officials — and earned them a ticket on an ocean freighter bound for the States soon after.
Going from merely famous to legendary
After the war, Losonsky hired on as a commercial airline pilot for Trans Asiatic Airlines. While Losonsky hauled passengers between Manila, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Burma, the Flying Tigers’ storied reputation continued to grow.
Younger generations came to idolize the Tigers after toymakers Monogram and Revell began selling plastic Flying Tiger model kits. In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, shark-mouth P-40s hung from countless ceilings in kids’ bedrooms across America.
Over the decades, other aircraft units in the US Army, Navy and the Air Force have adopted similar shark-mouth nose art. The 23rd Fighter Group based at Georgia’s Moody Air Force Base painted its A-10 Thunderbolt attack jets with the motif.
Most recently, the US Air Force Academy football team unveiled “alternate” helmets this season featuring the shark-mouth design, honoring the Tigers.
Flying Tigers leader Claire Lee Chennault revealed the origin of the design in his 1949 memoir, “Way of a Fighter.”
“Our pilots copied the shark-tooth design on their P-40s’ noses from a colored illustration in the India Illustrated Weekly depicting a [British Royal Air Force] squadron in the Libyan Desert with shark-nose P-40s,” Chennault wrote. “Even before that the German Air Force painted shark’s teeth on some of its Messerschmitt 210 fighters.”
But the Flying Tigers will be remembered for much more than their shark-mouth airplanes. Their legacy was forged by the hundreds of daring volunteers who chose to travel halfway around the world to risk their lives in a secret operation.
Only three of those volunteers are known to be alive today, including Losonsky, armorer Charles Baisden, age 96, and the last living Flying Tiger pilot, 99-year-old Carl Brown.
Between them, they’re carrying the legacy of one of the most fascinating stories of World War II.