Flying Tigers: Detailed Plot of John Wayne’s First War Movie

Produced by Edmund Grainger at Republic Pictures, and directed by David Miller, Flying Tigers depicts the exploits of the American Volunteer Group (AVG), Americans fighting the Japanese in China prior to the U.S. entry into WWII.

Jim Gordon (Wayne in his first war film) leads the Flying Tigers, a squadron of freelance American pilots who fly Curtiss P-40 fighters against Japanese aircraft over China.  A mixed bunch, some pilots are motivated by money (bounty for each aircraft shot down), while others enjoy the thrill of aerial combat.

Old friend and former airline pilot Woody Jason (John Carroll) signs up under Jim’s command. An arrogant, hot-shot aviator, he starts causing trouble immediately. When the Japanese raid the Flying Tigers’ airbase, the enthusiastic new arrival goes after them, taking up a P-40 fighter without permission, not realizing until too late that it has no ammunition. As a result, Woody is shot down. He is unharmed after his fighter crash lands, but the precious P-40 fighter is a total wreck. As time goes on, Woody shows that he is not a team player, alienating and endangering the other pilots.

Indeed, he abandons his wingman, Blackie Bales (Edmund MacDonald), in order to shoot down a Japanese aircraft. As a result, Blackie comes under fire from another and must bail out of his burning P-40. While hanging suspended in his parachute, he is strafed to death by the Japanese pilot.

Woody starts romancing nurse Brooke Elliott (Anna Lee), who is considered the Tiger pilots to be Jim’s girlfriend.  Out on a date, he is late for a night patrol, and Jim’s right-hand man, “Hap” Smith (Paul Kelly), secretly takes his place, despite having been grounded by Jim because of his deteriorated vision.

Unable to grasp distances, Hap dies in a collision with a Japanese aircraft. This proves to be the final straw. While sitting at his office desk, Jim fires Woody, explaining that “It’s out of my hands now. None of these men will ever fly with you again. And they have to fly.”  It’s Sunday, December 7, 1941, the day the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II.

Jim receives notice that a vital bridge must be destroyed, but the target is so heavily defended that the only way of succeeding is flying in low with a single unescorted bomber to attack the bridge–sort of one-way suicide mission. Jim volunteers to fly the bomber, and Woody joins at the last second, to Jim’s irritation. They attack the bridge too late to keep enemy supply train from crossing, and their aircraft is hit by flak, catching fire.

Jim bails out with an unexpected push from Woody. Woody conceals the fact that he is bleeding from a hit by shrapnel from a flak burst. Taking the bomber’s controls, he crashes into the train, destroying it at the cost of his own life.

Woody’s goodbye letter, read by Jim and Brooke read, asks that lucky scarf be given to the next pilot who thinks aerial combat will be “an easy racket.”  Jim hands the scarf to his youthful new wingman, telling him, “Take good care of it, it belonged to a pretty good flyer.”