Monday, September 10, 2018

The Lady and the Tigers

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

In September of 1941, Ethel Nichols was on a mission, and so were the 300 men of the American Volunteer Group (AVG). Ethel, an Elmira native and member of the Southside Baptist Church, was headed for Gauhati, India, where she would be in charge of the Satri Bari Girls’ School for the next twenty years. She had joined the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society in 1920 after graduating from Elmira College and had been working in India ever since. She was headed back to her work after a visit home when she met an unusual group of men on her voyage across the Pacific.

Ethel Nichols, ca. 1920s
They, like Ethel, were classified as civilian missionaries according to their passports, but their mission was far less spiritual. In the spring of 1941, retired U.S. Army Air Corps officer Claire L. Chennault assembled a team of 100 pilots from the Navy, Marine Corps, and Army Air Corps, along with 200 ground crew personnel to help the Chinese fight the Japanese. He did so with the supplies, funding, and blessing of the United States government.
AVG personnel were transported across the Pacific in small batches. There were thirty-eight of them on Ethel’s ship. Ethel described them in her letter of September 10, 1941: 

I mentioned a group on board. Guess I can tell you about them now. They are 38 young men, aviators and engineers, on a secret mission. We can guess that they will be on the Burma Road. They were listed as “missionaries”—part of the secret I suppose. That’s why we ran out of beer or low on it. My partner, “Twisty” is one of the “38.” We always speak of them as the “the 38” or sometimes the “38 missionaries.” We are about divided into thirds.: 1/3 missionaries, 1/3 businessmen, and 1/3 the “38.”

So much for secrecy. 

Ethel's letter of September 10, 1941

In his autobiography Baa Baa Black Sheep, Gregory Boyington, an AVG pilot described his own trip across the Pacific aboard the Dutch ship Bosch Fontein with 26 other pilots. They managed to blow their cover the first night. 

Of course it took very little time before these genuine missionaries realized that we were traveling under false colors and weren’t missionaries at all. But the manner by which they let us know that they knew was done rather cleverly…One day one of the real missionaries came up and asked if I would give the sermon for next Sunday’s services, explaining that the duty rotated. I had to decline the invitation to lead the services…As it was, the same missionary invited me to next Sunday services aboard ship. He was one of the younger missionaries, and he himself gave the sermon. But as he did so (I was seated in one of the front rows) he seemed to direct the entire sermon at me and the group I represented.  His point was how horrible it was for people to fight for money. 

Gregory Boyington's autobiography
Nicknamed the Flying Tigers, the AVG proved vital in delaying the fall of Rangoon and preventing the Japanese from advancing into China beyond the west bank of the upper Salween River. Their combat record was exemplary with a kill ratio better than any Allied unit in the Pacific theater. They were disbanded on July 4, 1942 and the surviving members were integrated back into the regular U.S. military. 

Ethel Nichols continued to work in North East India until her retirement in May 1961. In addition to running Satri Bari Girls’ School, she was established training classes to teach rural girls about basic health care and Christian life. After her retirement, the Council of Baptist Churches in North East India established the Nichols English School in her honor.


  1. What an interesting voyage it must have been. Certainly not boring. Ethel spent 20 years in India that is quite the accomplishment. Pappy Boyington another American Hero that you don't see mentioned very often....

    1. Thanks for commenting. I wish we had more information about Ethel's time in India beyond broad strokes. Boyington's autobiography is both detailed and fascinating. He certainly had a time of it.