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 Claire Lee Chennault

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Claire Lee Chennault

Military Aviator. He is best remembered as the leader of the Flying Tigers, an all-volunteer air service in China fighting the Japanese before the United States entered World War II. When the US entered the war, he took command of all Allied Air Forces in the Far East. Born in Commerce, Texas, the son of John Stonewall Jackson and Jessie Lee Chennault, he was raised in Gilbert, Louisiana. Chennault attended Louisiana State University, where he also took ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) training, then one of the easiest ways to obtain an Army commission. During World War I, he volunteered for the newly created Army Air Service, and was taught to fly, but didn't finish his training until after the war ended. Chennault decided to remain in the Army after the World War, and transferred into the Air Corps, eventually becoming Chief of the Pursuit Section at the Air Corps Tactical School in the 1930s. In June 1937, Chennault retired after disputes with his superiors, and joined a group of American civilians training Chinese Airmen to fight in the Sino-Japanese War, which had just broken out into full-scale warfare. Very quickly he became an "air advisor" to the Kuomintang Government President, General Chiang Kai-shek. Realizing that the Japanese would not end the war until they conquered all of China, Chennault began raising an International Group of Aviators to defend China, calling it the All Volunteer Force (AVG). The AVG would fly aircraft with Chinese markings, and were officially serving as the Chinese Air Force. For the next several years, they would fight with whatever aircraft they could convince countries or manufacturers to sell them. Many governments, while sympathetic to China's cause, did not want to antagonize Japan by selling war goods to Japan's enemies, and stayed officially neutral. In 1940, Chennault was able to convince President Franklin Roosevelt to sell Curtis P-40 Tomahawks, then considered a very good fighter plane, to the Chinese under the Lend-Lease Act, and the following year, Chennault would recruit up to 300 American volunteers to serve as pilots and ground crews for the new P-40s. Using the lessons learned from his earlier AVG, he began training them in tactics that would keep them alive against superior Japanese fighter aircraft. Since the tiger was an emblem of fear to the Japanese and an emblem of good luck to the Chinese, Chennault had a tiger's mouth painted on the front cowling of his P-40 fighters, leading the American press later to dub the unit "The Flying Tigers." Their first attack on the Japanese was on December 20, 1941, which soon caught the attention of the American public as one of the first offensive actions against the Japanese following the Pearl Harbor attack. President Chiang Kai-shek would make Chennault the official Commander of the Chinese Air Force. The 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG), as they were by then known, fought the Japanese for six months before becoming absorbed into the American Army Air Force. Once the United States entered World War II, Chennault was offered a commission in the US Army Air Force as a Colonel, and made Commander of the 14th US Air Force, which incorporated the 1st AVG. Eventually, he commanded all US Air Forces in the Far East, and was quickly promoted to Major General. During the war, Chennault would often dispute war strategy with the other leading American general in China, MG Joseph Stilwell. Stilwell, an Infantryman, wanted Chennault's aircraft to defend the construction of the Burma Road and to support British operations in Burma, while Chennault favored supporting the Chinese Army in attacking the Japanese. When the war ended, Chennault purchased several surplus military aircraft and created the Civil Air Transport (later to become Air America), to support the Nationalist Chinese during the restart of their war against the Chinese Communists. Firmly anti-communist, Chennault's CAT would also support French forces in Indochina during the French Indo-Chinese War, the Nationalist Chinese occupation of Northern Burma during the 1950s, and the government of Thailand. In 1951, again retired, MG Chennault testified before a Senate Joint Committee that was investigating why Nationalist China had fallen to communist forces in 1949. Chennault was frank and outspoken; pointing out that the Truman Administration's arms embargo was a key factor in the loss of China. In 1957, Chennault contracted lung cancer, and had one lung surgically removed. But the cancer moved into his other lung, and shortly before he died, he was given an honorary promotion to Lieutenant General, in recognition of his wartime service. Chennault is remembered by the Republic of China (Taiwan) as a war hero, and is honored with a statue in the capital city, Taipei. He also has a statue honoring him on the grounds of the State Capitol in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; the statue was later moved to the nearby USS Kidd, anchored as a memorial in Baton Rouge. The US Air Force named a base after him, Chennault Air Force Base, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, which is now demilitarized and has been renamed Chennault International Airport.

Bio by: Kit and Morgan Benson



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  • Maintained by: Find A Grave
  • Added: 31 Dec 2000
  • Find A Grave Memorial 194
  • Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed ), memorial page for Claire Lee Chennault (6 Sep 1893–27 Jul 1958), Find A Grave Memorial no. 194, citing Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Arlington County, Virginia, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave .