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Volunteering Against the Odds

This is the third blog post in a series marking the 75th Anniversary of the End of World War II, and will feature an “Aviator Flight Log Book,” which will be available during the Arsenal of Democracy Flyover in September 2020.

In the spring of 1940, Nazi Germany’s shadow was cast over much of Western Europe, but with world domination in mind, their target was locked on Great Britain. Meanwhile, the Second Sino-Japanese War raged on as the Empire of Japan had invaded the Republic of China with aims to dominate all of Southeast Asia.

An ocean away, the United States was still reeling from the grievances caused by World War I, and was finally emerging from the Great Depression. American isolationists believed neutrality to be key, whereas interventionists argued that U.S. military action was inevitable to shut down the impending World War.

Jerry Costello (1897–1971). The Restraining Hand Needed, 1939. Published in the Albany Knickerbocker News, July 7, 1939. India ink, graphite, and opaque white drawing. Art Wood Collection of Cartoon and Caricature, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Used by permission of the (Albany, N.Y.) Times Union. LC-DIG-ppmsca-38554 

Despite the official stance of neutrality, America seemed to be preparing for imminent war. The U.S. became an “Arsenal of Democracy” for the Allied powers and soon after saw the first peacetime military draft, the U.S. Navy doubled to build up a coastal defense, service members were sent to replace British forces stationed in Iceland, and some Americans volunteered to risk their citizenship, even their lives to support a foreign war.

As VHP collections are specific to U.S. military veterans, I was curious as to how many collections would include veterans who surreptitiously fought before the U.S. had officially declared war.  As I started to explore the collections, I couldn’t shake the advice ringing in my head that I hear so frequently given to new recruits: “Keep your head down and don’t volunteer for anything.” With the inherent burdens of joining another nation’s military, what drew Americans to risk everything for a war and a country they undoubtedly knew little about?

For Michael “Eddie” Miluck it was the opportunity to not only defend democracy from the Axis powers, but a chance to join the action on his terms. Having just “washed out” of the U.S. Army Air Corps cadetship, Miluck couldn’t believe his luck when he spotted an intriguing newspaper advertisement seemingly tailor-made for him. The Dallas paper asked pilots seeking adventure to pursue further information at a local hotel.  In doing so, he learned that a handful of Americans opted not to wait for the war to come to them.

Screenshot from Michael T Miluck’s oral history. Miluck is standing far right along with his P-47 and Eagle Squadron 71 before a mission. Michael T. Miluck Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/52927.

Despite potential penalty of jail time or fines, they volunteered their efforts to fly, fight and win the Battle of Britain for the Royal Air Force (R.A.F.) With immediate need for aviators, the R.A.F. also had less stringent standards.  If given the chance, would you rather be an R.A.F. fighter pilot or wait to be drafted into the U.S. Army Infantry?

In September 1941, Miluck shipped off to England with the Eagle Squadron: three fighter squadrons of the R.A.F. formed by volunteer pilots from the United States.  In total, 244 Americans served with the three squadrons before the R.A.F. turned them over to the Eighth Air Force of the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1942. Miluck flew Submarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes while engaging in escort and offensive fighter sweeps over the channel and northern France.  Despite the dangerous odds (many were killed in action, died in training accidents or were captured as prisoners), Miluck craved even more adventure, and volunteered for active service in the Far East Services. He was posted in North Africa, participating in the El Alamein Campaign, a turning point in the desert.  Miluck’s unit was okay with the looming peril, but the lackluster food (they even considering eating their pet goat at one point) and absence of water was sometimes too much to bear.

We had to reuse the water to wash our faces and shave. I felt terrible sweating as I knew I was wasting precious water, said Miluck during his oral history.

By January 1943, Miluck was one of the last Eagles to integrate into the Army Air Forces where his combat experience was used to train airmen who would soon be heading into war.

While the “Yanks in the RAF” were fighting the Luftwaffe around Europe, another American volunteer group started to form to fight the war in the Pacific. Claire L. Chennault, retired captain in the United States Army Air Corps and aerobatic pilot, was serving as an advisor in China when he started the American Volunteer Group (A.V.G.), consisting of a clandestine air unit comprised of three squadrons of U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps aviators for service in China.

 Lt. Gen. H.H. “Hap” Arnold left and Brig. Gen. Claire Chennault inspect a line of P-40s emblazoned with the “Sharknose” emblem of the Flying Tigers., 1958. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, //www.loc.gov/item/2008677723/.

Morgan Vaux was serving a Selfridge Air Field when “Skip” Adair, recruiter for the A.V.G., arrived to conscript a group of spirited mercenaries who would be honorably discharged from the U.S. military in order to fly and maintain the aircraft for the Chinese Air Forces. With monthly salaries far exceeding that of the U.S. military, many found it was better to take advantage of the opportunity rather than wait for the war to come to them. Vaux, a radio operator and mechanic, signed a one-year contact with the A.V.G. on July 4, 1941, and was soon shipped off to Burma, where he struggled in the unbearable heat to install radios in cast-off fighter planes. Wondering if he had made the right decision, Vaux was vindicated in November 1941 when he was stationed in Kunming, China.  This was where he got his first sense of war: viewing firsthand the aftermath of a Japanese Air Raid, killing hundreds of Chinese citizens. With renewed purpose, the aviators and crew prepared the planes for battle, complete with aircraft war paint meant to play into psychological warfare. After seeing a photo of the 112 Squadron Tomahawk’s shark mouth, the A.V.G. adopted the pattern for their P-40s.  Although they may not have been the first, the menacing shark face with razor sharp teeth is now synonymous with the P-40 and the A.V.G.

Further confirmation came when Vaux learned of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor which officially propelled the U.S. into the war. Days later, Vaux received a radio report that bombers were headed toward Kunming.  He reported on the sighting and the First A.V.G. dispatched their squadrons to shoot down the bombers before they reached Kunming. The mission was one of the earliest American aerial victories in the Pacific and earned the A.V.G. their official nickname of “Fei Hu”, or in English the “Flying Tigers.” It was also the first time the city had been sparred in years.  For this, Vaux took part in a number of celebrations full of Saki wine accompanied by “whatever it was we ate.”  His year in service with the Flying Tigers included dusty conditions, Japanese fighter plane strafing runs, vermin bites, and even intestinal ailments, no doubt from “whatever it was they ate.”

Log Book for Morgan Vaux. Based on the Morgan H. Vaux Collections, Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/02759.

When the recruiters came in summer to offer to enlist the A.V.G into the Army Air Corps, Vaux turned down a commission in favor of returning to the States to heal his ailments.  He was diagnosed with hepatitis, and spent most of the voyage home in the sick bay.  Arriving home in September 1942, Vaux was informed that the local draft board would give him 60 days medical leave before being drafted. Despite the challenges, Vaux had seen and done more in that one year than his whole life.  Why stop there?  In December 1942, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps where he served with Captain Joe Foss who would receive the Medal of Honor for his record as a Marine fighter pilot at Guadalcanal in the South Pacific. As luck would have it, Vaux even had a mini reunion with another A.V.G member on the Sterling Island.  He returned home in September 1945, after Japan ended at the signing of the armistice in Tokyo Bay.  Some years later, Vaux reflected on his service and decided to finally put his pen to pad as he

had come to realize that of the millions who were in military service during World War II, only a relatively few were a part of it from the first to the last.

Vaux’s memoir makes me wonder how many other American volunteers fought with combatant nations to provide international relief.  I’m curious what they would think of the legacy that remains active today through the U.S. Air Force Fighter Groups who carry their name, and the  stories they shared with VHP.

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