About the Book
The trigger for this book was a stash of documents in an old shopping bag that had been gathering dust in the attic of our family home for years.
These belonged to my maternal grandfather, Captain Bruce Gardner Leighton (USN), an early US Navy aviator (1915) and business man who had sold military aircraft for Curtiss-Wright in the Balkans and in China in the interwar years.
As I went through the folders, one caught my eye: it had a tab labelled CAMCO, A.V.G. and my mother had written on the cover, “ BGL’s account of the establishment of the AVG.”
At the time I had no idea what these acronyms meant. A quick internet search revealed that CAMCO was the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO), a subsidiary of the Intercontinent Corporation, a long forgotten US aircraft firm of which Leighton was vice president in 1937-1942: the president of both Intercontinent and CAMCO was William Douglas Pawley whom I remembered as a close friend of my grandparents. A.V.G. stood for the American Volunteer Group, the original name for the Flying Tigers.
I had heard of the Flying Tigers but had no idea that Bruce was involved in it. My parents never mentioned this connection. As I read up on the group, it struck me that Bruce was telling a different story about its genesis than I found in the books and memoirs written during and since the war. I became so intrigued by Bruce’s correspondence that I began to read everything I could about the Tigers, aviation in China during the interwar years and the Sino-Japanese war.
Such was my interest that I looked for an historian who might be willing to supervise a doctoral dissertation on the broad theme of US-China relations in the field of aviation in the interwar period. I wanted my thesis to cover the story of Intercontinent and CAMCO as well as the Flying Tigers. I ended up at Exeter University (UK) where I completed my PhD in 2013.
In tackling the AVG, I faced a problem. Leighton’s papers and other archival records contradicted much of the Flying Tigers canon. I decided to put all these secondary works to one side and start from scratch. I set out to find as many US, British, and Chinese primary sources from 1939-1941 as I could that seemed relevant to the AVG. My goal was to reconstruct a timeline of how and when the group was organized, who took part in it and when. I had no idea where my obsession with chronology would lead me.