How The Hell’s Angels Came To Share A Name With The U.S. Military

Photo by Steve Thorne/Redferns

The Hell’s Angels have long been the most well-known motorcycle club in the world. While the biker gang is listed as a criminal syndicate in the United States with Europol, they are also known for their charity fundraising and much more. What many of our readers may not realize is that their name actually derives from the United States military. Here’s the story of the biker gang’s origins and how they ended up with the name of a fierce group of American fighter pilots.

The Founding of the Hell’s Angels

Hells Angels Ride down the street in San Francisco
Photo by Duke Downey/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

The Hell’s Angels, the largest motorcycle club in the world, was officially formed in 1948. The first chapter was located in Fontana, California, in San Bernadino County. The club has grown to include 467 chapters in 59 different countries. The initial founder of the group was Otto Friedli, a World War II veteran who had recently split from the Pissed Off Bastards motorcycle club.

The members of the predominantly White group exclusively ride Harley Davidson motorcycles. The club says that it does not have a formal policy of discrimination, and chapters in other countries have non-White members. The process of getting into a club is a long one that features multiple steps. Once a member does join the Hell’s Angels, though, they are expected to remain a member for the rest of their lives.

The Public Learns More

Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson sits on a Penton Motorcycle
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/GettyImages

At first, the motorcycle club was viewed almost romantically. People saw the gang as representing freedom, loyalty, and brotherhood. The public learned more about the Hell’s Angels through two notable 1966 sources. Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson wrote a book about the San Franciso chapter titled Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. Thompson embedded with the gang and spent a year with them. Eventually, though, the Hells Angels turned on the author and badly beat him.

Also, in 1966, Roger Corman released the film, The Wild Angels. While the movie did begin the biker movie genre, it was not kind to the Hells Angels. The group was primarily portrayed as being lawless and nihilistic. The film starred Peter Fonda, Nancy Sinatra, Bruce Dern, and Diane Ladd.

The Mythmaking of the Hells Angels.

Members of the Hells Angels Hold a Press Conference in San Diego
Photo Via Getty Images

The Hell’s Angels have long portrayed themselves as an organization that gives back and does good. The motorcycle club regularly participates in charitable endeavors, especially those involving children. Many chapters within the group hold a toy drive during the holiday season. Other chapters are also involved in charities that fight back against animal cruelty or child abuse.

At the same time, the Hell’s Angels have also been connected to criminality. Both the United States Department of Justice and Europol consider the motorcycle club to be an organized crime syndicate. In 2019, a Netherlands court issued an edict banning the Hell’s Angels from the country. In Germany, certain chapters of the club have been banned, but not the entire organization.

Even the origins of the name, Hell’s Angels, in under dispute. It has long been believed that the name was based on an Army Air Force Unit from World War II. That myth, however, is untrue.

The 303rd Bombardment Group

An biker from an English chapter of the Hells Angels wears the Group's jacket
Photo by Steve Thorne/Redferns

This unit was one of the most successful flying groups of World War II. The members of the group named their B-17 bomber Hell’s Angels after a 1930 movie produced by Howard Hughes. The bomber was among the first to strike Berlin in 1944. There were many accolades among the 303rd Bombardment Group. Two members of the unit were recipients of the Medal of Honor. Four other members received the Navy Cross.

According to We Are the Mighty, “In its official history, the motorcycle club tells the story of the B-17 the 303rd named ‘Hell’s Angels,’ and its commander, the capable (and not drunken) Capt. Irl E. Baldwin. Why? To make sure the world knows this aircrew wasn’t a band of drunken misfits, but instead were heroes of the war in Europe. The aircrew has nothing to do with the motorcycle club.”

The Flying Tigers

The Flying Tigers fly in formation during a 1943 mission
Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images

In reality, the motorcycle club is actually named after a different flying outfit. The Flying Tigers were a volunteer group that worked with the Chinese Army both flying planes and helping to maintain them. Many of the pilots participated in World War II. In fact, the Flying Tigers had air fights against the Japanese Imperial Air Force prior to the start of World War II. Tigers’ pilots downed more than 300 Japanese aircraft between 1941 and 1942.

There was a group of Marine Corps aviators who made up the Flying Tigers 3rd Pursuit Squadron. They referred to themselves as the Hell’s Angels. A man named Arvid Olson was part of this group. Olson was friends with some of the initial members of the motorcycle club and helped to give them the Hell’s Angels name. The former pilot, though, never made any attempt to join the group.