"For that purpose I am most anxious to acquire as many of your latest Flying Fortresses as you can spare, which from our bases could effectively bomb all the vital centers of Japan, and harass their fleet and transports." 

- Telegram from Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek to Sec. of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., December 16, 1940


Executive Summary



            The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America’s most humiliating military defeat, need not have happened.  America’s defeat in the Philippines and the Bataan Death March need not have happened.  The American surrender at Wake Island need not have happened.  America’s timely implementation and execution of Joint Army/Navy Board 355, Serial 691 (the “Joint Board Plan” or the “Plan”) would have preempted Japanese aggression in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. There were many preventive measures that could have been implemented, but, most of all, the Joint Board Plan could have preempted Japanese aggression in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific.

             The Joint Board Plan, which called for bombing raids on Japanese interests beginning the first of November, 1941, could have smashed Japanese troop transport ships destined for invasions of Malaya, the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines before they left port. Ambitions of the Japanese aircraft carrier task force commander to bomb Pearl Harbor conceivably would have been postponed in order to combat bombing attacks by an American “guerilla air corps” operating from secret bases in China. Alternately, with the timely implementation of the Plan, Hawaii would have been on full alert with a wide-spread patrol effort, depriving Japan of the element of surprise.



             The Joint Board Plan was a remarkable and unusual military initiative.  It called for the formation of a “Special Air Unit” composed of American planes, pilots and technicians.  This “Special Air Unit,” which came to be known as the American Volunteer Group (“AVG”), was organized in secret in the spring and summer of 1941.  According to the Plan, the “Special Air Unit”[1] would be supplied with 450 fighter planes and 150 bombers that would operate in China as a “guerilla air corps” without any direct ties to the United States government.[2]  This American “guerilla air corps” was to be operational by October 31, 1941.[3] The design was to keep Japan bogged down in the Sino-Japanese War and divert her resources and attention from military initiatives directed at American, British and Dutch colonies and possessions.

(The Players - Morgenthau, Chennault, Hull, Knox, & Stimson)

             The origins of the Plan can be traced to a meeting in the home of Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., on Saturday, December 21, 1940. In attendance were Captain Claire Lee Chennault, U.S. Army Air Corps, retired, Morgenthau, Dr. T.V. Soong, China’s special envoy to the United States who acted, in effect, as China’s ambassador and military aid purchasing agent in America, General Mow Pang Tsu of the Chinese Air Force and others.[4] The discussion between Chennault and Morgenthau related to firebombing Japanese cities using American B-17 Flying Fortresses operating from secret airfields in Southeastern China’s Chekiang Province.

             As Chennault described the Plan in his memoirs, Way of a Fighter:

 My plan proposed to throw a small but well-equipped air force into China.  Japan, like England, floated her lifeblood on the sea and could be defeated more easily by slashing her salty arteries than by stabbing for her heart.  Air bases in Free China could put all of the vital supply lines and advanced staging areas under attack.  Begun in time and delivered with sufficient weight, an air offensive from China could have smashed the Japanese southern offensive before it left its home ports and staging areas.[5]


            Due to the intervention of General George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, the United States would not release B-17s to serve under the command of Chennault, who was ostensibly an employee of the Bank of China serving as a consultant to the Chinese Aeronautical Commission. Chennault’s United States Passport identified his occupation as “farmer.”  By Monday, December 23, 1940, a political compromise was reached whereby “the British Purchasing Mission (agreed) to let the Chinese have 100 P-40Bs allocated for Britain…”[6] While it is tempting to assume the Chinese-American bombing initiative was dead with Marshall’s disproval of the Plan in December of 1940, in fact, the Plan was revived by President Roosevelt in the spring of 1941, and was very much alive, right up to December 7, 1941. In addition to the Chinese-American bombing initiative, General Lewis H. Brereton was supervising a massive buildup of heavy bomber strength in the Philippines.[7] While Marshall demurred to basing Flying Fortresses in China on grounds of their vulnerability to air attack, approximately one-half of the heavy bomber force in the Philippines would be destroyed on the ground by Japanese air assaults on December 8, 1941.[8]


(B-17 Flying Fortress) 

        With passage of the Lend-Lease Act in March of 1941, the Chinese-American bombing initiative was no longer championed by Morgenthau. America no longer had to resort to the “fiction” of loaning China one hundred million dollars to support China’s efforts to combat Japan in the Sino-Japanese War. Rather, the Plan fell under the care and guidance of presidential aide, Dr. Lauchlin Currie, who had obtained his Ph.D. in economics from Harvard.  Convinced of the merits the preemptive strategy, Currie resurrected the Chinese-American bombing initiative on May 12, 1941, and advocated the provision of Lockheed Hudson bombers and Douglas DB-7 bombers to China.  As Professor Duane Schultz, author of The Maverick War, tells the story:


B-17s, Chennault’s preference, were out of the question; they were too scarce and too valuable to risk losing.  Currie urged that the plan be made operational within five months, by October 31, 1941.  The first bombing raids on Japan would be scheduled for the month of November.[9]


            In order to camouflage the Chinese-American bombing initiative, a number of corporate entities were used in the distribution of American funds to finance the “Special Air Unit” and in the acquisition of the aircraft and payment of salaries to the American “volunteers.”  For example, Universal Trading Corporation (“UTC”) was an entity used by the Chinese government to acquire American military hardware.  Later, it was superseded by China Defense Supplies (“CDS”), a corporation formed by Thomas Cocoran, Esq., President Roosevelt’s former speech writer.  President Roosevelt’s uncle, Frederic Delano, served as “honorary counselor” of CDS.  Interestingly, CDS, an ostensibly private corporation, conducted “business” in the offices of the Chinese Embassy in Washington. 

                Intercontinent Corporation (“Intercontinent”) was an American company with a substantial ownership in the Chinese National Airlines (“CNAC”).  Intercontinent, in turn, had a subsidiary corporation known as the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company-Federated (“CAMCO”).  In an effort to obscure this American military initiative directed towards Japan, CAMCO would serve as the ostensible employer of the volunteers who would serve in China.

 Because it was a criminal offense for Chinese personnel to recruit American airmen, the United States Department of State decided it would be best to allow American personnel to recruit American pilots and technicians for service in China.  After they left the jurisdiction of the United States, the “volunteers” would be asked to sign agreements with the Chinese Nationalist Government.  Elevating form over substance was a fashionable means of avoiding the law in 1941, as it is currently.

(Lockheed Hudson Bomber)

             While many Americans currently think of guerilla air forces or air forces composed of mercenaries as having served principally during the Cold War, such as in Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War, the reality is that the origins of clandestine American air forces and air operations can be traced to the genesis of the “Special Air Unit” that came into being following discussions at the highest levels of American government in 1940 and 1941.[10]  In fact, in describing the Plan, Michael Schaller, Ph.D., wrote in his dissertation, The U.S. Crusade in China, 1938-1945:


Between December, 1940, and July, 1941, agents and agencies of the United States did conspire with private military entrepreneurs and the Chinese Nationalists to develop a program for secret air warfare.  This appears to have set a major precedent for U.S. military and political planning…[11]




             If there is any doubt about the preemptive nature of the Plan, one only need read its Strategic Objectives.  The First Strategic Objective of the Plan was:  “Force diversion of considerable portion of available Japanese air force to defense of Japanese establishments on south China coast and in Japan to counter offensive operations in the interior of China.”[12]  The Second Strategic Objective was:  “Enable Chinese armies to assume offensive operations which will make necessary heavy reinforcement of Japanese troops in China.”[13]

             With the American trade embargo on the sale of aviation fuel to Japan following a Japanese initiative forcing closure of the Yunnan Railway on July 16, 1940, Japan’s striking southward to the oil-rich Dutch East Indies was recognized as a likely prospect by American war planners. In fact, this course of action was specifically predicted by Captain W.R. Purnell, who served under Admiral Thomas Hart aboard the U.S.S. Houston, the flagship of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet.  As a result of the American trade embargo on the sale of aviation fuel on Japan, Purnell  was assigned to study the situation in his report to President Roosevelt of May 13, 1941, entitled “Certain Strategical Considerations in Connection with an Orange War – Rainbow No. 3.” He concluded that a Japanese invasion of the Netherlands East Indies, Malaya and Burma, was likely being contemplated by the Japanese war planners.[14]

            Japan’s ambitions of striking southward from China and French Indo-China with military expeditions into colonies and possessions of the Dutch East Indies, Great Britain and the United States explains the Third Strategic Objective of the Plan, to wit:


Destruction of Japanese supplies and supply ships in order to handicap operations of an expeditionary force to the south of Indo-China.[15]


            If large numbers of Japanese troops were to be assembled in China for a southern expedition into Malaya, the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines, then an American “guerilla air corps” operating bombers in China could attack the troop ships before they left port.  The Third Strategic Objective of the Plan clearly demonstrates it was intended to preempt the Japanese military initiatives in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

            The fourth and final Strategic Objective of the Plan was extraordinarily ambitious, to wit:  “Destruction of Japanese factories in order to cripple production of munitions and essential articles for maintenance of economic structure in Japan.”[16]  While it may be true that a force of 150 bombers operating from China would not have brought the Japanese war industry to its knees, one cannot ignore the likelihood that such air raids on Japan may have forced the Japanese government to employ the aircraft carriers of the Imperial Japanese Navy for air strikes directed against the American “guerilla air corps” operating in China, as opposed to a surprise attack or a preemptive strike on Pearl Harbor. Even if that were not the case, if the bombing initiative had begun in early November of 1941, American commanders in Hawaii would have recognized the imminent danger of Japanese aggression, including air attacks. Increased air and sea patrols would have eliminated the prospects for a Japanese surprise attack.



(Chinese coolies working on runway at Kweilin, China)

            There can be no dispute about the fact that during 1940 and 1941, the Chinese Nationalist Government was engaged in a massive project to construct bomber bases to accommodate heavy American bombardment aircraft, these bases being located in or near Chengtu, Kweilin (also known as Guilin) and Chuchow (also known as Zhuzhou).  For example, this is confirmed by a telegram from Major James M. McHugh, U.S.M.C., Naval Attaché for Air of February 10, 1941, directed to the United States Department of State in which McHugh reported:  “THEY BUILDING (sic) ONE NEW AIRFIELD NEAR CHENGTU COSTING THIRTY MILLIONS AND ENLARGING MANY OTHERS.”[17]  When the United States sent an air mission to China led by General Henry B. Clagett of the United States Army Air Corps, who commanded American air forces in the Philippines, McHugh wrote two memoranda concerning meetings between the Clagett Mission and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. McHugh wrote of that meeting:


The Generalissimo inquired if the Mission had seen the new field near Chengtu at Hsin Ching (it was evident from the Generalissimo’s questions that he had expected this field to be the first choice, since it was built especially to receive American Flying Fortresses).[18]


(Secret Base at Kweilin, China)

            Of all the airfields in China that would accommodate American bombers, the one at Chuchow was closest to Japan.  According to the Plan, the distance from Chuchow to Nagasaki was 730 miles; the distance to Kobe was 1,060 miles; the distance to Osaka was 1,085 miles; and the distance to Tokyo was 1,355 miles.[19]  With regard to the airfields in China that could be employed in a Chinese-American bombing initiative, Claire Chennault wrote:


The final cluster of staging fields in Chekiang Province was only three to five air hours from the biggest industrial cities in Japan.[20]

Historian Daniel Ford has written of the Chinese air bases:


Guilin had a mile-long runway surfaced with crushed rock, and revetments large enough to hide a B-17 Flying Fortress. (For which purpose, indeed, Guilin and Zhuzhou had been built in the fall of 1940…)  The operations center and radio station were built into sugarloaves, impervious to bombing.[21]


(Chinese workers carrying rocks during airfield construction)

            The bomber airfields in China were not just open space.  They were stocked with aviation gasoline.  According to a memorandum from Brigadier General Clayton Bissell, United States Army Air Forces, to Lieutenant General Joseph Stilwell, the American general who was Chief of Staff to Chiang Kai-shek and head of the American military mission to China dated July 26, 1942, China had 1,500,000 gallons of 100 octane aviation fuel and 1,300,000 gallons of 87, 91, and 92 octane aviation fuel.  Because the British were also planning to bomb Japan with Royal Air Force bombers from air bases in China, there was a British fuel store of 375,000 gallons of 100 octane aromatic aviation fuel, which was not compatible with the self-sealing fuel tanks of American aircraft unless special provisions were made.[22]



            Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who commanded the Combined Fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy noted:


(Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto)

[W]e cannot rule out the possibility that the enemy would dare to launch an attack upon our homeland to burn down our capitol and other cities…[23]


            Admiral Yamamoto had good reason to ponder the possibility of air raids on Japan. An informant identified as “PA” with close contacts to the Chinese Nationalist Government had reported to the Japanese on May 28, 1941:


A part of the $50,000,000 export loan by the United States to China is to be used in purchasing 800 airplanes from the United States.  These planes, it appears, are of two types, including the Boeing B-17.  The United States will under this arrangement send pilots and mechanics to manage the planes.  To effect this deal will require one month.[24]


            It was further related at the same time information was acquired from “PA”:


In this connection XYZ reports that a Boeing can leave a given base in China, fly to Tokyo, raid the city for two hours, and then fly back to China.[25]


            “PA” continued to feed Tokyo with information on the bombing initiative as revealed by Radio Circular 1209 of June 6, 1941, in which it was reported:


Furthermore, according to newspaper information, American aviators are to be utilized in the transportation of bombers to China, the assembly of airplanes, their repair, and a study of actual fighting. However, there is also the matter of the request made by Chungking that it is necessary for them to participate in actual warfare.  It seems that about one-third of those sent are to take part in the war.…[26] 


            Throughout the summer of 1941, the Japanese continued to speculate about the speed with which the Chinese-American bombing initiative was moving forward.  For example, in Circular 1437 from Tokyo of July 5, 1941, the following appears:


According to information which HYŌ SI CHŌ got from DAI KŌ HŌ, bombers supplied by the United States (the number of machines is not known but I think they are 10 Boeing B-17 types and 18 heavy bombers referred to in my message #282) packed in 300 separate cases and 220 trucks…will reach Rangoon sometime between July 15 and 20 on board a steamship belonging to the Ford Company.  The bombers are to be sent into the interior as they are.  The trucks will be assembled in Rangoon and will leave that city toward the end of July or about the middle of August after being loaded with freight.  The Chungking authorities are quite anxious that this war material is shipped safely and have sent MŌ HŌ SHŌ to Singapore to discuss plans with the British and American officials.  I understand that there are points in this information which coincide with what was confidentially told by PA to a member of this staff.  I am sending this for your information.[27]


            By the fall of 1941, the Japanese were fully aware of the presence of Army Air Force General John Magruder in Chungking, as well as the fact that Chinese officials had traveled to the Philippines, Japanese Radio Circular 2176 of October 15, 1941, noting:


The purpose of this trip was to discuss with the British and American authorities both tactics and methods of military cooperation.  While the United States is, of course, earnestly hoping that Japanese-American negotiations would be a success, they are, at the same time, proceeding with fairly frank discussions with the Chungking Government for military cooperation to be effected in case of emergency.[28]




            America’s “historical memory” in the decades following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor has been that America was “suddenly and deliberately attacked” by Japan at a time when Americans believed their country was at peace with Japan.[29]Furthermore, the attack was “unprovoked.”[30] The stark reality of the events leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is that both America and Japan were planning bombing initiatives and air attacks against the other if diplomatic solutions to the impasse created by the American trade embargo imposed on or about July 26, 1941, was not resolved.  This trade embargo was imposed by America following the Japanese occupation of French Indo-China on July 23, 1941. The date of July 23, 1941, is also the date President Roosevelt endorsed the Plan to bomb Japan. Moreover, on that date, Dr. Currie dispatched a telegram to the American Embassy in Chungking for communication to Madame Chiang Kai-shek relating: “I am very happy to be able to report that today the President directed that sixty-six bombers be made available to China this year with twenty-four to be delivered immediately…”[31]   


(USS Arizona sinks at Pearl Harbor, December, 7 1941)

            Both Japan and America were clearly moving toward war in Southeast Asia and the Pacific during the summer and fall of 1941.  America had sponsored the formation of a covert “guerilla air corps” to operate in China and bomb Japanese cities, troop concentrations and supply ships. Every available Flying Fortress was being rushed to the Philippines. Japan knew of the Plan and concluded her prospects were better served if she attacked America first, crippling the U.S. Fleet at Pearl Harbor and destroying the bombers in the Philippines. America’s secret bombing initiative has been a chapter in American history shrouded in silence and secrecy for over sixty years. The time has come to lift the shroud from the Plan.

[1] The term “Special Air Unit” was first referenced in a typed message delivered by China’s envoy, Dr. T.V. Soong, to Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., this communication ostensibly having been written by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and appearing in Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Diary 342-A, China: Bombers, December 3-22, 1940, as maintained in the archives of the Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York (the “Morgenthau Diary”).

 [2] See Report of Interview with Lieutenant-Commander Bruce G. Leighton, U.S.N.R., January 17, 1940, by Major Rodney A. Boone, in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (“the Boone Report”); also see the Joint Board Plan entitled “Strategic Estimate” consisting of nine pages.

 [3] See the Joint Board Plan “Strategic Estimate,” p. 9.

 [4] See pages 24 through 26 of the Morgenthau Diary.

 [5] Claire Lee Chennault, Way of a Fighter, New York:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1949 (“Chennault”), p. 96.

 [6] Charles F. Romanus and Riley Sunderland, China-Burma-India Theater:  Stilwell’s Mission to China (United States Army in World War II), Washington:  Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1953 (“Romanus and  Sunderland”), p. 12.

 [7] William H. Bartsch, December 8, 1941—MacArthur’s Pearl Harbor, College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2003 (“Bartsh”), p. 145.

 [8] William H. Brereton, The Brereton Diaries, New York: William Morrow and Company, 1946 (“Brereton”), p. 43.

 [9] Duane Schultz, The Maverick War, Chennault and the Flying Tigers, New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 1987 (“Schultz”), pp. 11-12.

 [10] See the Boone Report.

[11] Michael Schaller, The U.S. Crusade in China, 1938-1945, New York:  Columbia University Press, 1979 (“Schaller”), p. 83.

 [12] See the Joint Board Plan document entitled “Strategic Estimate” consisting of nine pages, the Strategic Objectives appearing on page 9.

 [13] Ibid.

 [14] See Report to the Commander-in-Chief by Captain W.R. Purnell dated May 13, 1941, entitled “Certain Strategical Considerations in Connection with an Orange War – Rainbow No. 3,”  (“the Purnell Report”).

 [15] Joint Board Plan, p. 9.

[16] Ibid.

 [17] Strictly Confidential Telegram from Major James M. McHugh, U.S.M.C. to the United States Department of State, February 10, 1941, (the “McHugh Telegram”).

 [18] Memorandum of Major James M. McHugh, U.S.M.C., dated June 9, 1941, captioned “Conference of Clagett Air Mission with the Generalissimo,” (“the First McHugh Memorandum”). The parentheses in the quotation from the First McHugh Memorandum are in the original text and were not inserted by the author.

[19] The Joint Board Plan, p. 9.

[20] Chennault, p. 97.

[21] Daniel Ford, Flying Tigers – Claire Chennault and the American Volunteer Group, Washington:  Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991 (“Ford”), p. 350.

 [22] Memorandum from Brigadier General Clayton Bissell to Lieutenant General Joseph Stillwell, July 26, 1942. While this is not conclusive evidence with respect to the status of fuel stores in China prior to December 7, 1941, it is reasonable to conclude the Chinese did not add substantial quantities to their aviation fuel supplies after that date.

 [23] Gordon W. Prange, At Dawn We Slept, New York: Penguin Books, 1982 (“Prange”), p. 17.

 [24] Japanese Circular 1139 from Tokyo to offices in Nanking, Shanghai, Peking and Canton, May 28, 1941 (the “First Japanese Circular”).

[25] Ibid.






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