Atlanta biographer tackles Flying Tigers and the life of Georgia fighter pilot Robert Lee Scott, Jr.

Credit: Nedra Rhone

Credit: Nedra Rhone

In the early 1940s, young boys could often be found sketching P-40 fighter planes with the face of a snarling shark baring its teeth as they dreamed of flying planes like their war heroes.

The shark face was one of the most iconic symbols of  WWII-- the emblem of the Flying Tigers, a group of American pilots (the American Volunteer Group) recruited from the armed forces who resigned their commissions and flew as part of the Chinese Air Force in combat against the Japanese.

This weekend, that history will be on display during Atlanta Warbird Weekend at Peachtree DeKalb Airport  for the 75th Anniversary AVG Reunion. Two original Flying Tigers will be in attendance -- Frank Losonsky, Chairman of the AVG, and vice president of the association, Chuck Baisden.

Also attending the event -- billed as the largest gathering of P-40 aircraft since the war -- is Atlanta-based author Robert Coram. Coram was one of those boys who sketched images of P-40s with a shark face in his notebooks. Later as a journalist, he would write many stories about the Flying Tigers and one in particular for New Yorker magazine about a fellow Georgian named Robert Lee Scott, Jr..

In his fourth military biography, " Double Ace: The Life of Robert Lee Scott Jr., Pilot, Hero, and Teller of Tall Tales," (Thomas Dunne Books, $27), Coram tackles the complex man and hero who became intimately associated with the Flying Tigers though he technically was never a member of the group. 

Choosing Scott as his subject was a practical matter for Coram. "My books take me all over the country," said Coram, 78 who lives in Brookhaven. "I did it because I was tired of traveling. I wanted to write another biography but I wanted to stay close to home."

While Scott was a geographically desirable subject for Coram to take on, he certainly not an easy one. Traditionally, the families of Coram's subjects can't do enough to see their loved one immortalized in a biography. That wasn't the case with Scott whose closest family members, including his only child, declined to be interviewed for the book.

"I was seen as satanic, poking around in the ashes of this great legend," Coram said.  "It turned out to be a complex story about a very complex man. While Scott was a great hero, the most important one in America for about a year, he often slid to the human end of the scale."

Scott died ten years ago at the age of 96. His early years were marked by failures in school -- he barely made it through high school and graduated last in his class at West Point -- but he also had an overbearing mother who pushed him toward the greatness she envisioned for him.

His career in the Army Air Corps got off to a slow start in part due to his lack of humility and his single-minded pursuit to become a fighter pilot. When he commandeered a spare P-40 and began flying his own unauthorized missions alongside the Flying Tigers, he gained national attention for his daring.

"We look back today and think how a victory in WWII was inevitable, but it was not," Coram said. "The only group that was winning was a group of American boys (the Flying Tigers along with Scott) who were in China fighting the Japanese."

The Flying Tigers disbanded after just six months and mostly they wanted nothing to do with Scott who continued flying the iconic P-40s as leader of the 23 Fighter Group. He is officially recognized as a double ace, a pilot who has shot down 10 aircraft, Coram said.

Scott's 1943 memoir, "God is My Co-Pilot" sealed his status as a national icon and sent him to Hollywood (a movie version was released in 1945) as well as around the country to boost morale and sell war bonds.

But Scott was prone to bouts of depression, a sense of self-importance and other human frailties that would challenge his ability to function. His shortcomings would ultimately lead to the dissolution of his marriage and estrangement from his daughter.

"He was famous all over the world and an icon in the military, but like all of us he had his secret heartaches. For him, it was his terrible family life," Coram said.

Scott's P-40 is on display at the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins, the second largest aviation museum in they country. Long retired, Scott returned to Georgia at the age of 82 to help establish and raise funds for the museum which opened in 1984.

"This is a military biography, but at the heart, it is the all American success story. It is about a small town boy from Macon who became famous," Coram said. "He did everything in life that he ever wanted to do."