PALM HARBOR — Edwin Janski didn't fly the shark-faced planes that helped win World War II. But his role on the ground was just as crucial to the success of the Flying Tigers, one of the most storied groups in military history.
Mr. Janski, a propeller specialist who prepared planes to go back into battle, died May 17. He was 92 and had lived in Palm Harbor for four years.
Only 16 of the original 300 Flying Tigers survive, said Frank Losonsky, 88, president of the American Volunteer Group, or AVG, the Flying Tigers' official name. Mr. Janski was the last Floridian of the group, he said.
The story of the Flying Tigers, which has spawned dozens of books and a movie starring John Wayne, is unique in that its members were not technically American soldiers at the time they fought. They were mercenaries, mostly ex-pilots and ground crew from the U.S. military and financed by the United States, whose job was to help China fend off an aerial assault by Japan.
"I remember him well," said Losonsky, 88, a former crew chief of the AVG's Hell's Angels squadron. "His expertise was in blending out the propellers when they were hit by stones and stuff. That was his specialty."
As one of just two propeller specialists responsible for keeping 100 Curtiss P-40 fighter planes in the air, Mr. Janski "had his hands full," said Joe Poshefko, 93, a former AVG chief armorist in Natick, Mass. "The amount of damage that is done to propellers is unbelievable. They were damaged left and right. Without a propeller man, we'd have never existed."
The AVG was training in Burma on Dec. 8, 1941, when they got word that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
"Now our presence had a much bigger purpose," the late AVG pilot Dick Rossi wrote in an account posted on the group's Web site. "We would be fighting directly for the United States as well as our allies."
Between Dec. 18, 1941, and July 4, 1942, the AVG destroyed 297 Japanese aircraft, Losonsky said. The exact number of AVG members shot down, captured, or who disappeared or died in unrelated accidents is unclear, but is fewer than two dozen.
The mission halted Japan's march into China — which, left unchecked, could have set the stage for an invasion of India.
After his discharge from the AVG, Mr. Janski joined the Army Air Forces Reserves. He served 30 years and was in the Korean War, retiring as a lieutenant colonel.
He carried mementos of his service: the Flying Tigers pin, a tiger inside a velvet "V," for victory; an autographed photo of Claire Chennault, who as a civilian adviser to Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek had conceived the Flying Tigers' mission.
Mr. Janski grew up in Chicago but was not close to his family — including a twin brother who died years ago, said Jack Kruzelock, 77, his friend of 40 years. Wanderlust and a ceaseless energy propelled his retirement.
"He was always on the move," Kruzelock said. "He loved his independence."
He loved gambling, especially horse racing. He traveled to Las Vegas, California and Florida for months at a time, eating fast food and staying at the Bachelor Officer Quarters at nearby military bases.
Once, Kruzelock said, Mr. Janski hit a Pick-Six at Arlington Park in Chicago for $12,000. He spent the money playing golf in the Carolinas.
Mr. Janski's friends and military buddies remember him as upbeat and a little aloof. His favorite expressions, according to Kruzelock: "Okay, Jose," "What's happening?" and "After while, crocodile."
"I swear, that was 80 percent of his conversation sometimes."
He dated women but formed no permanent attachments. "He did not mind being alone," Kruzelock said. "He never indicated to me that he'd rather have company all the time."
One bond could never be broken. Mr. Janski always showed up at the annual reunions of the Flying Tigers.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]