When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the only modern U.S. Army Air Force fighter stationed in Hawaii was the Curtiss P-40, an all-metal, 300-mph (if the pilot was lucky) 1934 design, updated by an inline Allison engine jammed in its snout. The P-40 was rapidly overtaken by far more capable fighters, but on December 7, 1941, the warplane boasted two winning features: In a dive, it was the fastest airplane in the world, and it was available.
By 9 a.m. that day, more than 2,400 Americans had been killed, the Navy fleet ruined, and more than half of the 200 Army aircraft on Oahu damaged beyond use. The lone aerial opposition came not from an organized action of the air wings stationed in Hawaii but from individual pilots, like George Welch, who raced for any airplane they could find. Welch’s exploits in the P-40 that day—he downed four Japanese aircraft—were dramatized in the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora! and rewarded with the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Two weeks later, 100 recruits, led by one of the most gifted and controversial commanders of the war, began flying P-40s to protect China from Japan. In seven months, the Flying Tigers of Claire Chennault’s American Volunteer Group, their big-jawed fighters flashing shark’s teeth, savaged Japanese bombers and made P-40s immortal.