A biker gang is often depicted as a group of outlaws with long criminal records, covered in tattoos, wearing leather jackets, and riding in together on Harley-Davidson motorcycles, causing trouble as they go along their merry way. Thanks to movies like The Wild One and Motorcycle Gang, their image is painted as lawless, troublemaking, always brawling drunkards who live to ride and ride to live. That was pretty much the problem that the first Hells Angels Motorcycle Club (HAMC) faced. Despite the fact that the Hells Angels had a long and extensive record of involvement in drug and sex trafficking, arson, robbery, rapes, assaults, and murders, they nevertheless were successful in recruiting former and even active duty service members to their organization, much to the concern of the Department of Defence.

Fake Story

According to some of the reports, HAMC were originally military veterans who lived for fights and brawls with other clubs and gangs as a reflection of their inability to return to civilian life. These ex-servicemen were drunkards, military misfits, and substandard soldiers of the WWII Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Forces unit in Europe, and in particular, the 303rd Bombardment Group.

It is said that the 303rd was named “Hell’s Angels” and was led by the drunken Capt. Irl E. Baldwin. While Captain Baldwin indeed existed, he was far from being a drunkard.

The Real Story

The Hells Angels Motorcycle Club was founded in Fontana/San Bernardino area on March 17, 1948. According to their website, other clubs were also formed at that same time in various places in California, but they were not really associated with each other. As time went by, some 50 more Hells Angels Chapters from different places sprouted up, but none were connected to one another. After some years, they finally decided to unite and establish criteria for admission.

Members of the Hells Angels who attend the California Charter
Members of the Hells Angels who attend the California Charter (California, USA). (Lee Brimelow from San Francisco Bay Area, USACC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Soon enough, the motorcycle club developed and expanded internationally, having charters in Auckland, New Zealand; London, England; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Johannesburg, Africa; and even the Caribbean Islands and Turkey. Because of this expansion, the Berdoo charter in San Bernardino became its mother chapter. The Hells Angels Motorcycle Club became the world’s largest motorcycle brotherhood with charters even in Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia, and the Americas.

Now, if you’ve noticed, there was no mention at all of the 303 Bombardment Group or any military affiliation, so how did they come into the picture?

Military Involvement

To answer that, we have to know first about the all-volunteer group hired to help the Chinese Air Force. These men fought the Japanese Imperial Air Forces in China and became known as the Flying Tigers. The United States had not yet joined the chaos of World War II, but the US was covertly involved in the war between China and Japan, providing planes, pilots, and funding with President Franklin Roosevelt’s approval on December 23, 1940. The unit’s 3rd Pursuit Squadron, which was made up of Marine Corps aviators(Like the legendary Pappy Boyington), and called themselves the Hell’s Angels. Their first combat missions against Japan were just a few days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Throughout their time in China, they successfully downed around 300 Japanese aircraft. Now, it’s important to note that none of these servicemen were drunkards or brawlers. They may have drunk off duty, but in the air, they were solid professionals with an air combat record that proved it.

“Hell’s Angels,” the 3rd Squadron of the 1st American Volunteer Group “Flying Tigers,” 1942. (Lt. R.T. Smith,1st American Volunteer Group, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Now, the only link between the two was Arvid Olson, the former Squadron Leader of the 3rd Pursuit Squadron “Hell’s Angels.” He was an associate of the founders of the HAMC who gave the idea of the name, although he never really tried to be a member of the motorcycle gang.

HAMC then copyrighted the name Hells Angels in any of its forms or spelling. Moreover, they copyrighted the Death Head insignia that were from two insignias: the 85th Squadron and the 552nd Medium Bomber Squadron.

Motorcycle club Hell’s Angels, 1981, Netherlands (Cees de Boer, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

As of today, Hells Angels Motorcycle Club has a total of 467 chapters all over the globe, and as their banner motto, “Nobody will destroy our culture.”