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Robert Tharp (R.T.) Smith (February 23, 1918 – August 21, 1995) was a World War II fighter pilot and ace, credited with 8.7, 8.9 or 9 Japanese aircraft while fighting with the American Volunteer Group (Flying Tigers).

Robert T. Smith
Flying tigers pilot.jpg
R.T. Smith
Nickname(s)"R.T.", "Tadpole", "Bob"
Born(1918-02-23)February 23, 1918
York, Nebraska
DiedAugust 21, 1995(1995-08-21) (aged 77)
Van Nuys, California
AllegianceUnited States
Service/branchUnited States Army Air Forces
United States Air Force Reserve
Years of service1939–1945
RankLieutenant Colonel
Service number0-395294
UnitAmerican Volunteer Group
1st Air Commando Group
Commands held337th Fighter Squadron
Battles/warsWorld War II
AwardsSilver Star
Distinguished Flying Cross
Air Medal
Order of the Cloud and Banner with Special Cravat (China)
Star Wing Medal (China)
Distinguished Flying Cross (United Kingdom)
Other workTWA pilot


Early lifeEdit

He was born in York, Nebraska.[1][2] His family moved to Red Cloud from Hooper, Nebraska in 1927 when his father, Earl W. Smith, was hired as Superintendent of Schools. He graduated Red Cloud High School in 1935. Smith attended the University of Nebraska before joining the United States Army Air Corps[1] in 1939, midway through his senior year.[3] Prior to the time he enrolled in the Air Corps, he worked for the Nebraska State Journal as a proof reader.[4]

Flight trainingEdit

He received his primary flight training at the Allan Hancock College of Aeronautics at Santa Maria, California. During his training, he was given a couple of check rides with Robert L. Scott, who on May 17, 1942 flew as Smith's wingman on Scott's first combat mission in China.[5][6] Smith completed basic training with Class 40-C at Randolph Field, Texas and advanced training at Brooks Field, Texas. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in June 1940, and returned to Randolph Field where his first assignment was as a basic flight instructor.[7]

American Volunteer GroupEdit

Smith resigned his commission in July 1941 in order to join Colonel Claire Lee Chennault's American Volunteer Group (AVG) as a "soldier of fortune" with the Nationalist Chinese Air Force. The Flying Tigers, as they were soon to be called, were in Burma training in Curtiss P-40s (actually Hawk Model 81-A-2s, or, as the British called them, Tomahawks) when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 8, 1941 (December 7 in the United States).

R.T. Smith (sometimes called "Tadpole"[3] after David Lee "Tex" Hill supplied the answer to a question someone posed to Smith, "What's the 'T' stand for?") saw his first combat action over Rangoon on December 23, 1941, when he was credited with shooting down 1.5 Mitsubishi Ki-21 "Sally" bombers, followed on Christmas Day with credit for two more Sallys and a fighter. Promoted to flight leader in the Third Pursuit Squadron, the "Hell's Angels", Smith was credited with shooting down a total of 8.7,[8] 8.9[9] or 9[1][10] Japanese planes, and was twice decorated by the Chinese government. The AVG continued to fight throughout Burma and southwest China until it was officially disbanded on July 4, 1942.[11]

1st Air Commando GroupEdit

1st Air Commando Group Bomber Section Commander R.T. Smith and Co-commanders John Alison and Phil Cochran in front of R.T. Smith's B-25H "Barbie III" at Hailkandi, India in March 1944

Smith returned to the United States on the USAT Mariposa along with 82 other AVG pilots and ground personnel.[12] Prior to being drafted as a private in December 1942,[13] Smith served as the technical advisor on The Sky's the Limit directed by E.H. Griffith and starring Fred Astaire and Joan Leslie.[14][15] The side of the P-40 Astaire is flying at the beginning of the movie has a sitting Hell's Angel of the AVG's Third Squadron that was on the side of Smith's P-40 #77.

Smith was quickly recommissioned as a U.S. Air Corps second lieutenant and promoted to major the next month. For the next few months, as commanding officer of the 337 Fighter Squadron, 329 Fighter Group at Glendale, California and Paine Field, Everett, Washington,[16] he trained replacement pilots using Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter aircraft. Smith married Barbara Bradford in June 1943, adopting her son Brad from a previous marriage to vaudeville performer George Mann.

Shortly after being appointed commanding officer of the 329th Fighter Group in September 1943, he volunteered to return to the China-India-Burma Theater with the 1st Air Commando Group, flying occasional P-51 Mustang missions and commanding that group's B-25 Mitchell squadron in support of British General Orde Wingate's troops working out of India and moving behind Japanese lines in Burma (now Myanmar). One story is told of when Smith was flying alone in his P-51 (named "Barbie" after his wife) and saw a crowd gathered around a jeep on the flying field. Someone was making a speech and Smith assumed it was Phil Cochran, co-commander (with John Alison) of the 1st Air Commando Group. He put his P-51 into a dive and buzzed the speaker, nearly taking his hat off, at over 450 miles an hour. It was only after Smith landed that he learned the speaker was Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander, South-East Asia. Lord Mountbatten was not angry at Smith, but was angry at his aide for having him make a speech on an active flying field.[17] Smith ("R.T." according to Chuck Baisden, for "Round Trip" while in the 1st Air Commando Group)[18] was promoted to lieutenant colonel in March 1944, flew 55 combat missions over Burma, and was awarded the Air Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross and Silver Star.

After dischargeEdit

Painting of Curtiss P-40 Warhawk in the Republic of China Air Force, autographed by R.T. Smith.
Hells Angels, Flying Tigers, in formation over China, 1942. Photo and autograph by R.T. Smith.

Smith returned to the United States in the late spring of 1944 and was assigned as Director of Flying Training with the 441st Army Air Force Base Unit at Van Nuys, California, a P-38 training base. The Base Operations Officer at the time was Major Barry Goldwater. He resigned from the Air Corps at the conclusion of World War II and bought a home in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California across from the Los Angeles River when it was actually a river instead of the concrete channel it is today.

After flying DC3s and Constellations between Los Angeles and Kansas City for a year and a half with Trans-World Airlines (TWA), he wrote radio scripts for the Hopalong Cassidy Western Adventure Show, Lum and Abner, The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, and the Clyde Beatty Show. He also wrote the screenplay (with Frank Taussig) for the 1953 movie Perils of the Jungle starring Clyde Beatty.[19] Smith was co-owner of a toy manufacturing company (Smith-Miller); developed and sold a product for conditioning automobile convertible tops (Top Secret);[1] and worked for Roy Weatherby as a sales manager for Weatherby's Inc.

R. T. and Barbara Smith were divorced in 1955. About this time, Smith joined Lockheed Aircraft Corporation as a technical writer, working his way up through the organization, first as a military sales representative for the F-104 Starfighter, and later to open and manage a new corporate office for Lockheed in Newport News, Virginia.[20] (Gerhard Neumann, who joined the American Volunteer Group in China, designed the J79 jet engine used in the F-104.) Smith served at the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve from 1949 to 1966.

Smith married Ronni Burkett in July 1965. During the late 1960s, he joined the Flying Tiger Line,[1] founded by Robert Prescott, a fellow pilot with the American Volunteer Group, first as Vice President for Industrial Affairs in Washington, D.C. and later as Vice President for the Far East, headquartered in Tokyo. He left the Flying Tiger Line and Tokyo in the early 1970s to live and work in Palm Springs, California.

R. T. and Ronni Smith were divorced in the mid-1970s. He returned to the San Fernando Valley, where he wrote and published Tale of a Tiger,[21] based on his original diary entries[1] and several articles for Air Classics. He also established a mail-order business, selling his book and color photographs he shot while he was in the AVG and 1st Air Commando Group, including this often reproduced formation shot of the 3rd Squadron Hell's Angels taken on May 28, 1942 near the Salween River along the China-Burma border.

He died at age 77 (the number he had selected for his first P-40 in the AVG) of lung cancer on August 21, 1995.[1]

Smith was survived by his sister, June, who died in 2001; three sons, Bradford, Robert, and William; and three grandchildren.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Brett A. Collins (August 24, 1995). "Obituaries : * Robert T. Smith; Author, Flying Tigers Ace". Los Angeles Times.
  2. ^ Burke, Kate (March 17, 2009). "York Native was a Flying Tiger". York Times-News. York, Nebraska.
  3. ^ a b "Biography of R.T. Smith on Flying Tigers Association Website". Retrieved 2011-06-19.
  4. ^ "Nebraska pilot downs four enemy planes". Nebraska State Journal. Lincoln, Nebraska. Associated Press. January 3, 1942.
  5. ^ Smith, R.T. (1986). Tale of a Tiger. Van Nuys, CA: Tiger Originals. p. 312. ISBN 0-9618012-0-4.
  6. ^ Scott, Jr., Robert L. (1943). God is My Co-Pilot. Garden City, NY: Blue Ribbon Books. p. 141.
  7. ^ Chadwick, Major B.F. (October 4, 1940). "Let's Get Acquainted". The Military Service News.
  8. ^ "Robert T. Smith". Retrieved October 12, 2012.
  9. ^ Ford, Daniel (2007). Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers. New York: Harper Collins. p. 361. ISBN 978-0-06-124655-5.
  10. ^ "American Volunteer Group Aces, World War II, 1939-1945". American Fighter Aces Association ( Retrieved October 12, 2012.
  11. ^ Rossi, J.R. (1998). "The Flying Tigers – American Volunteer Group – Chinese Air Force". AVG.
  12. ^ "'Flying Tigers' in City, Tell of Epic Campaign". New York Herald Tribune. September 9, 1942.
  13. ^ "Flying Tiger Back in Army as Private". Los Angeles Examiner. December 11, 1942.
  14. ^ "The Sky's the Limit". Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Retrieved 26 November 2012.
  15. ^ Starr, Jimmy (December 3, 1942). "Director and Ex-Flying Tiger Plot Daring Flight". Los Angeles Evening Herald and Express.
  16. ^ "Ex-AVG Flyer Now at Paine". The Ace-Pursuiter. 3 (37): 1, 4. September 11, 1943.
  17. ^ Thomas, Lowell (1951). Back to Mandalay. New York: Greystone Press. pp. 135–36.
  18. ^ Baisden, Chuck (1999). Flying Tiger to Air Commando. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing. ISBN 0-7643-0690-1.
  19. ^ Perils of the Jungle on IMDb
  20. ^ Read, Tom (June 17, 1964). "Former Flying Tiger Set for Far East Convention". The Times-Herald, Newport News, Virginia.
  21. ^ Smith, R.T. (1986). Tale of a Tiger. Van Nuys, CA: Tiger Originals. ISBN 0-9618012-0-4.


  • Baisden, Chuck (1999). Flying Tiger to Air Commando. Schiffer Military History. ISBN 0-7643-0690-1.
  • Belcher, Rod (September 11, 1943). "ExAVG Flyer [Robert T. Smith] Now at Paine". The Ace-Pursuiter. Paine Field, Everett, WA: Special Service Office. pp. 1, 4.
  • Bergin, Bob (December 2016 – January 2017). "Kunming Remembers The Flying Tigers: A photography exhibit on the work of R.T. Smith honors the legendary fighter group that saved a Chinese city". Air & Space/Smithsonian. Smithsonian Enterprises. 31 (6): 34–38.
  • Bergin, Bob (2017). A Tiger's View of War in the Air: The AVG Flying Tigers in Action through the Eyes of AVG Pilot Robert T. Smith. Banana Tree Press. ASIN B077CQSTGJ.
  • Bledsoe, Larry (December 1995 – January 1996). "R.T. Smith: 1918–1995". Aviation Illustrated.
  • Boyce, Ward (Winter 1991). "Christmas Over Rangoon". American Fighter Aces and Friends Bulletin. American Fighter Aces Association. 8 (4): 3–7.
  • Burke, Kate (March 17, 2009). "York Native was a Flying Tiger". York News-Times. York, Nebraska.
  • Cernecca, Francesco (2013). Le Tigri di Kunming (in Italian). Italy: Francesco Cernecca. ISBN 978-1-291-30169-4.
  • Clements, Terrill (2001). American Volunteer Group Colours and Markings. Osprey Aircraft of the Aces • 41. Great Britain: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1-84176-224-5.
  • Collins, Brett (August 24, 1995). "Robert T. Smith; Author, Flying Tigers Ace". Los Angeles Times.
  • Copley, Robert E., Keith J. Christensen, Tex Kehley, Joe Poshefko, Gerhard Neumann, Clarence Simonsen, Clarence W. Riffer, Bill Smith, David Lee "Tex" Hill, Jasper Harrington, Charles H. Older, George B. Kepka, Joseph Gasdick, Morgan H. Vaux and Edgar T. Goyette (September 1988). "Letters to the Editor regarding 'The Flying Tigers: An Endangered Species'". Air Classics. 24 (9): 6–8, 10, 66–67. ISSN 0002-2241.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  • Couston, Jean-Louis (2001). Flying Tigers: American Volunteer Group (in French). France: DTU. ISBN 2912749034.
  • Couston, Jean-Louis (September 2003). "Robert Tharp Smith et les Tigres Volants". Avions (in French). 126: 6–14. ISSN 1243-8650.
  • Couston, Jean-Louis (October 2003). "Robert Tharp Smith et les Tigres Volants, Deuxième partie". Avions (in French). 127: 30–37. ISSN 1243-8650.
  • Crumpler, Hugh (January 1999). "An AVG "Flying Tiger" [Robert T. Smith] Tells It Like It Was". Ex-CBI Roundup. 54 (1): 28–31. ISSN 0014-388X.
  • Dorr, Robert F. (1997). "American Volunteer Group: The 'Flying Tigers'". Wings of Fame. London, UK: Aerospace Publishing. 9: 4–18. ISSN 1361-2034.
  • Dorr, Robert F. (February 4, 2002). "Flying Tiger [Robert T. Smith] fought Japanese early in WWII". Air Force Times. pp. 40–41.
  • Dupouy, P.S., Gen. David Lee "Tex" Hill, George B. Kepka, Joseph Gasdick, Jasper J. Harrington, Harry L. Cross, Charles "Chuck" Baisden, Harvy C. Wirta, Bob Neale, Gordon Weaver, Daniel Ford, Herbert W. Isherwood, Frank A. Anderson, C.H. "Link" Laughlin, Jim Cross, J.B. Hyde, J.R. Rossi and George W. Burgess (October 1988). "Letters to the Editor regarding 'The Flying Tigers: An Endangered Species'". Air Classics. 24 (10): 6–8, 10, 74. ISSN 0002-2241.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  • Ford, Daniel (2007) [First published 1991]. Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and his American Volunteers, 1941–1942. Smithsonian Books. ISBN 1-56098-011-7.
  • Greene, Vaughn & Felix Rodriguez (November 1988). "Letters to the Editor regarding 'The Flying Tigers: An Endangered Species'". Air Classics. 24 (11): 6–8, 29. ISSN 0002-2241.
  • Li, Xiaofan (June 2017). "Flying Squad: The War of Resistance". Deep World (in Chinese): 100–111. ISSN 1672-6499.
  • Losonsky, Frank S. & Terry M. Losonsky (1996). Flying Tiger: A Crew Chief's Story. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military/Aviation History. ISBN 0-7643-0045-8.
  • Minnich, Mike (1977). "Tiger in the Sky: The Saga of the AVG". Air Enthusiast Quarterly. London: Fine Scroll. 4: 113–128.
  • Minnich, Mike (May 1985). "Honoring the Tiger: Decorations to the American Volunteer Group". The Medal Collector. The Orders of Medals Society of America. 36 (5): 19–29.
  • O'Leary, Michael (January 1996). "R.T. Smith: The passing of an American aviation legend". Air Classics. 32 (1): 20–21. ISSN 0002-2241.
  • O'Leary, Michael (January–February 2015). "Colonel Smith's Mitchell". Warbirds International. 34 (1): 20–29.
  • Read, Tom (June 17, 1964). "Former Flying Tiger Set for Far East Convention". The Times-Herald. Newport News, VA. pp. 19–20.
  • Smith, R[obert] T. (October 28, 1939). "Elements of Higher Learning or A Day at the Circus". Aerie "Eagles Nest". Santa Maria California: College of Aeronautics. 2 (2): 5. Editor's Note: This is typical of the mind of a cadet soon after he starts training. The only change after his full twelve weeks is that the whole thing is more complicated still.
  • Smith, Robert T. (September 1952). "We Were the Flying Tigers". Men. 1: 35–37, 62–63.
  • Smith, R[obert] T. (January–February 1982). "Accuracy of the B-25H Cannon". The Basha Blabber, Newsletter of the No. 1 Air Commando Association: 3–4.
  • Smith, R[obert] T. (1986). Tale of a Tiger. Van Nuys, CA: Tiger Originals. ISBN 0-9618012-0-4.
  • Smith, R[obert] T. (June 1986). "Long-Range Ferry, Part One". Air Classics. 22 (6): 22–26, 28–29, 75, 78. ISSN 0002-2241.
  • Smith, R[obert] T. (July 1986). "Long-Range Ferry, Part Two". Air Classics. 22 (7): 14–19, 79, 82. ISSN 0002-2241.
  • Smith, Robert T. (June 1988). "The Flying Tigers: An Endangered Species". Air Classics. 24 (6): 38–49, 64–65, 68–71. ISSN 0002-2241.
  • Smith, R[obert] T. (August 1990). "Captain Incredible!: The Amazing Unmasking of one individual and his 'phoney war'". Air Classics. 26 (8): 46–48, 50–57, 78–79. ISSN 0002-2241. Roland Sperry, who claimed to be a decorated AVG pilot in his book China Through the Eyes of a Tiger, is unmasked as a fraud in this article.
  • Smith, R[obert] T. (February 1992). "Review of Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and the American Volunteer Group by Daniel Ford". Air Classics. 28 (2): 12–13, 71. ISSN 0002-2241.
  • Smith, R[obert] T. (September 1992). "My Meeting with Hinoki: Flying Tiger Ace R.T. Smith Reflects on the Japanese Pilot he Encountered in combat 50 years ago". Air Classics. 28 (9): 24–26, 56–58, 60–61. ISSN 0002-2241.
  • Smith, Robert T. (November 2015). "Recollections of a P-38 Pilot". Lighting Strikes!. P-38 National Association. 28 (3): 14–15.
  • Sperry, Roland with Terryl C. Boodman (1990). China Through the Eyes of a Tiger. ISBN 0-671-66942-7. Roland Sperry's claim to be a decorated AVG pilot was unmasked as a fraud in R.T. Smith's article "Captain Incredible" in the August 1990 issue of Air Classics.
  • Tamelander, Michael (September 2012). "The Flying Tigers". MILITÆR HISTORIE (in Norwegian): 4–16.
  • Thomas, Lowell (1951). Back to Mandalay. New York: Greystone Press. Story of General Orde Wingate's Chindit's and the 1st Air Commando Group.
  • Van Wagner, R.D. (1998). Any Place, Any Time, Any Where: The 1st Air Commandos in WWII. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military/Aviation History. ISBN 0-7643-0447-X.
  • Vartabedian, Ralph (July 6, 1991). "One Last WWII Combat Victory". Los Angeles Times. pp. A1, A22–A23.

External linksEdit