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Claire Lee Chennault
6 September 1893(1893-09-06) – 27 July 1958 (aged 64)

Place of birth Commerce, Texas
Resting place Arlington National Cemetery
Allegiance Republic of China
United States of America
Service/branch United States Army Air Corps
United States Army Air Forces
Years of service 1910–1937; 1941–1946
Rank Lieutenant General
Commands held 1st American Volunteer Group, Flying Tigers
Battles/wars World War I
Sino-Japanese War
World War II
Awards Army Distinguished Service Medal (2)
Distinguished Flying Cross (2)
Order of the Cloud and Banner
Commander of the Order of the British Empire

Lieutenant General Claire Lee Chennault (September 6, 1893 – July 27, 1958), was an American military aviator who commanded the "Flying Tigers" during World War II. His family name is pronounced shen-awlt.


Early life

Born in Commerce, Texas, to John Stonewall Jackson Chennault and Jessie (Lee) Chennault. His mother was born August 20, 1876 in Franklin Parish, Louisiana, the second daughter of William Wallace Lee (1836–1911), son of Henry Bryant Lee and his wife, Margaret Bell Lee, prominent slaveowners and planters of Scott County, Mississippi, and his second wife, Josephine Gilbert.[1][2] Chennault was raised in the town of Waterproof in Tensas Parish, Louisiana. Chennault began misrepresenting his birth date as September 1890, perhaps as early as the middle of 1909. He was too young to attend college after he graduated from high school, so his father added three years to his age.[3] The 1900 US Census record from Franklin Parish, LA, Ward 2 states that C L Chennault was age six in 1900, with a younger brother age three (born in Louisiana).[4]

Birthplace of Claire Chennault in Commerce, Texas

Military career

Chennault attended Louisiana State University between 1909 and 1910 and received ROTC training (Claire). At the onset of World War I, Chennault graduated from Officer's School at Fort Benjamin Harrison, and was transferred to the Aviation Division of the Army Signal Corps.[5] He learned to fly in the Air Service during World War I, remained in the service after it became the Air Corps in 1926, and became Chief of Pursuit Section at Air Corps Tactical School in the 1930s. Poor health and disputes with superiors led Chennault to resign from the service on Friday, 30 April 1937. He then joined a small group of American civilians training Chinese airmen and served as "air adviser" to Kuomintang (KMT) Nationalist Government leader Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, Soong May-ling, during the Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945).

Chennault participated in planning operations and observed the Chinese Air Force in combat from a Curtiss Hawk 75. In this period, he would organize the International Squadron.[6]


Creation of the Flying Tigers

Chennault arrived in China on June 1937, after retiring from the United States Army Air Corps with the rank of captain. He had a three-month contract at a salary of $1,000 per month, with the mission of making a survey of the Chinese Air Force. Soong May-ling, or "Madame Chiang" as she was known to Americans, was in charge of the Aeronautical Commission and thus became Chennault's immediate supervisor. Upon the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War that August, he became Chiang Kai-shek's chief air adviser, helping to train Chinese Air Force bomber and fighter pilots, sometimes flying scouting missions in an export Curtiss H-75 fighter, and organizing the "International Squadron" of mercenary pilots. Increasingly, however, Soviet bomber and fighter squadrons took over from China's battered units, and in the summer of 1938 Chennault went to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province in Western China, to train a new Chinese Air Force from an American mold.[7][8]

On 19 October 1939, Claire L. Chennault (traveling as a U.S. citizen; passport no. 379160) boarded Pan American Airways "California Clipper" (Boeing B-314; NC18602) at the Pan American Airways terminal in Hong Kong. Chennault was on a special mission for Chiang Kai-shek. The California Clipper made a number of stops in the Pacific that included Manila (21 October) and Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii (25 October), eventually arriving at Treasure Island, San Francisco CA (26 October). Traveling with Chennault were four Chinese government officials: Mr. Shiao-down Chiang, Mr. Liu Yu-Wan, Mr. Tuan-Sheng Chien, and Mr. Ken-Sen Chow. Four of these passengers listed their place of origination as Kunming China, and Mr. Chow as Kaiting China.[9]

By 1940, seeing that the Chinese Air Force had collapsed, because of ill-trained Chinese pilots and shortage of equipment, Chiang Kai-shek sent Captain Claire Lee Chennault, U.S.A.A.C (Ret.) to the United States to meet with Dr. T. V. Soong in Washington DC; purpose: to get as many fighter planes, bombers, and transports as possible, plus all the supplies needed to maintain them and the pilots to fly the aircraft. With Chennault, the Chinese President ordered Chinese Air Force General Pang-Tsu Mow to assist Chennault at the Chinese Embassy in Washington DC. Together, they departed on Tuesday, 15 October 1940, from Chungking (Chongqing), China, arriving at the Port of Hong Kong where they boarded American Clipper (Boeing B-314, Pan American Airlines No. NC 18606, Captain J. Chase), on Friday, 1 November 1940; arriving Port of San Francisco at Treasure Island, on Thursday, 14 November 1940. They reported to the Chinese Ambassador to the United States Hu Shih on a mission that would ultimately conclude negotiations for the creation of an American Volunteer Group of pilots and mechanics to serve in China.[10] How to obtain the shopping list of planes, aviation supplies, volunteers, and funds for the Bank of China were discussed in a meeting held at the home of Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. Saturday afternoon, 21 December 1940, with Captain Chennault, Dr. T. V. Soong, and General Pang-Tsu Mow.[11]

By Monday afternoon, 23 December, upon approval by the War Department, State Department and the President of the United States, an agreement was reached to provide China the 100 P-40B Tomahawk aircraft (redesignated P-40C's after their modifications for overseas service) that were originally scheduled for shipment to Great Britian but cancelled due to the Tomahawk's inferior flight performance against German fighters.[12] With an agreement reached, General Pang-Tsu Mow returned to China aboard SS Lurline; departing out of the Port of Los Angeles Friday morning, 24 January 1941. Captain Chennault followed shortly after with a promise from the War Department and President Roosevelt to be delivered to Chiang Kai-shek that several shipments of P-40C fighters were forthcoming along with pilots, mechanics, and aviation supplies. And, Dr. Soong began negotiations for an increase in financial aid with U.S. Secretary of Commerce and Federal Loan Administrator Jesse H. Jones on Thursday, 17 October 1940.[13]

Bank of China president T.V. Soong with the United States Secretary of Commerce and Federal Loan Administrator Jesse H. Jones, in the secretary's office at the Department of Commerce in Washington DC, February 1941.

President Roosevelt then sent Curtiss P-40 Tomahawks to the Chinese under the American Lend-Lease program. Chennault also was able to recruit some 300 American pilots and ground crew, posing as tourists, who were adventurers or mercenaries, not necessarily idealists out to save China. But under Chennault they developed into a crack fighting unit, always going against superior Japanese forces. They became the symbol of America's military might in Asia.[14]

Flying Tigers

Immediately following the Air Raid Attack on Pearl Harbor (Sunday morning, 7 December 1941), the first news reports released to the public pertaining to Claire Chennault's war exploits occurred on 20 December 1941 when senior Chinese officials in Chungking that Saturday evening released his name to United Press International reporters to commemorate the first aerial attack made by the international air force called the American Volunteer Group (AVG).[15] These American flyers encountered ten Japanese planes heading to raid Kunming, and successfully shot down four of the raiders. Thus, Colonel Claire Chennault became America's first military leader to be publicly recognized for striking a blow against the Japanese military forces. This American public fame would last four months until the Doolittle Raid led by Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, United States Army Air Forces.[citation needed] In 1948, Chennault would make a controversial claim that General Clayton Bissell had not informed him of the upcoming raid, and that the raiders took unnecessary casualties because of it.[16]

Based primarily out of Rangoon, Burma and Kunming, Yunnan, Chennault's 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG) – better known as the "Flying Tigers" – began training in August 1941 and fought the Japanese for seven months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Chennault's three squadrons used P-40s, and his tactics of "defensive pursuit," formulated in the years when bombers were actually faster than intercepting fighter planes, to guard the Burma Road, Rangoon, and other strategic locations in Southeast Asia and western China against Japanese forces. As the commander of the Chinese Air Force flight training school at Yunnan-yi, west of Kunming, Chennault also made a great contribution by training a new generation Chinese fighter pilots.

Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) thanked Chennault by inducting him into the Society of Red Tape Cutters on August 30, 1942

The Flying Tigers were formally incorporated into the United States Army Air Forces in 1942. Prior to that, Chennault had rejoined the Army with the rank of colonel. He was later promoted to brigadier and then major general, commanding the Fourteenth Air Force.

The first magazine photo coverage of Claire Chennault took place within Life magazine in the Monday, 10 August 1942, issue.

Life magazine, 10 August 1942. Life cover displays Brigadier General Claire Lee Chennault; born in Texas, 1890; enlisted in Army Air Force, 1917; barnstormed around country in Army's flying circus, 1922; retired because of deafness, went to China to plan aerial defense, 1937; commanded A.V.G., 1941; made chief of U.S. Air Force in China, 1941.

The first Time magazine photo coverage of Claire Chennault took place in its Monday, 6 December 1943, issue.

Time magazine cover of Major General Claire Lee Chennault, U.S.A.A.F, commander of 14th Air Force in China, with a Burmese tiger with wings. Date: 06 December 1943.

China-Burma-India theater

Throughout the war Chennault was engaged in a bitter dispute with the American ground commander, General Joseph Stilwell. Chennault believed that the Fourteenth Air Force, operating out of bases in China, could attack Japanese forces in concert with Nationalist Chinese troops. For his part, Stilwell wanted air assets diverted to his command to support the opening of a ground supply route through northern Burma to China. This route would provide supplies and new equipment for a greatly expanded Nationalist force of twenty to thirty modernized divisions. Chiang Kai-shek favored Chennault's plans, since he was suspicious of British colonial interests in Burma and was not prepared to begin major offensive operations against the Japanese. He was also concerned about alliances with semi-independent generals supporting the Nationalist government, and was concerned that a major loss of military forces would enable his Communist Chinese adversaries to gain the upper hand.

Good weather in November 1943 found the Japanese Army air forces ready to challenge Allied forces again, and they began night and day raids on Calcutta and the Hump bases while their fighters contested Allied air intrusions over Burma. In 1944, Japanese ground forces advanced and seized Chennault's forward bases. Slowly, however, the greater numbers and greater skill of the Allied air forces began to assert themselves. By mid-1944, Major General George E. Stratemeyer's Eastern Air Command dominated the skies over Burma; this superiority was never to be relinquished. At the same time, logistical support reaching India and China via the Hump finally reached levels permitting an Allied offensive into northern Burma.

Chennault had long argued for expansion of the airlift, doubting that any ground supply network through Burma could provide the tonnage needed to re-equip Chiang's divisions. However, work on the Ledo Road overland route continued throughout 1944 and was completed in January 1945. Training of the new Chinese divisions commenced; however, predictions of monthly tonnage (65,000 per month) over the road were never achieved. By the time Nationalist armies began to receive large amounts of supplies via the Ledo Road, the war had ended. Instead, the airlift continued to expand until the end of the war, after delivering 650,000 tons of supplies, gasoline, and military equipment.


Chennault, who, unlike Joseph Stilwell, had a high opinion of Chiang Kai-shek, advocated international support for Asian anti-communist movements. Returning to China, he purchased several surplus military aircraft and created the Civil Air Transport, (later known as Air America).[17] These aircraft facilitated aid to Nationalist China during the struggle against Chinese Communists in the late 1940s, and were later used in supply missions to French forces in Indochina[17] and the Kuomintang occupation of Northern Burma throughout the mid- and late-1950s, providing support for the Thai police force.

In 1951, a now-retired Major General Chennault testified and provided written statements to the Senate Joint Committee on Armed Forces and Foreign Relations, which was investigating the causes of the fall of China in 1949 to Communist forces. Together with Army General Albert C. Wedemeyer, Navy Vice Admiral Oscar C. Badger II, and others, Chennault stated that the Truman administration's arms embargo was a key factor in the loss of morale to the Nationalist armies.[18]

Chennault advocated changes in the way foreign aid was distributed, encouraged the U.S. Congress to focus on individualized aid assistance with specific goals, with close monitoring by U.S. advisers. This viewpoint may have reflected his experiences during the Chinese Civil War, where officials of the Kuomintang and semi-independent army officers diverted aid intended for the Nationalist armies. Shortly before his death, Chennault was asked to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee of the Congress. When a committee member asked him who won the Korean War, his response was blunt: "The Communists."

Death and legacy

P-40 Warhawk "Joy" at the USS Kidd Louisiana Veterans Memorial & Museum in Baton Rouge

Chennault was ultimately given an honorary promotion to Lieutenant General in the U.S. Air Force[19], one day before his death at the Ochsner Foundation Hospital in New Orleans. He died of lung cancer in 1958 after the removal of most of one lung the previous year. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery (Section 2, 873).[20]

Chennault is commemorated by a statue in the ROC capital of Taipei, as well as by monuments on the grounds of the Louisiana state capitol at Baton Rouge, and at the former Chennault Air Force Base, now the commercial Chennault International Airport in Lake Charles, Louisiana. A vintage P-40 aircraft, nicknamed "Joy", is on display at the riverside war memorial in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, painted in the colors of the Flying Tigers. A large display of General Chennault's orders, medals and other decorations has been on loan to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum (Washington D.C.) by his widow Anna Chennault, since the museum's opening in 1976.

Chennault and wife Chen Xiangmei

In China, Chennault is recognized as a major war hero. His Chinese name is Chen-na-de (陳纳德). In 2005, the "Flying Tigers Memorial" was built in Huaihua, Hunan Province, on one of the old airstrips used by the Flying Tigers in the 1940s. Chennault's first wife, Nell Thompson, was an American of British ancestry. By the time he was serving in China, they had divorced. Chennault then married Chen Xiangmei, a young reporter for the Central News Agency. Anna Chennault, as his wife was known, became one of the ROC's chief lobbyists in Washington.

See also



  1. ^ “In the Matter of Est. H. B. Lee, deceased, T. H. and R. H. Lee, Executors.” Chancery Case #1834, Scott Co., MS, March Term 1913.
  2. ^ Hamilton, Jeffrey W. "The Family of Jeffrey W. Hamilton.", November 9, 2006. Retrieved: December 2, 2009.
  3. ^ Hessen 1983, p. ix.
  4. ^ 1900 US Census, Franklin Parish, LA, p. 5A.
  5. ^ "Claire Lee Chennault and the Flying Tigers." Retrieved: November 28, 2009.
  6. ^ Caidin 1978. Note: It is possible his command of this formation as well as the AVG led to the mistaken belief that the AVG was in action before Pearl Harbor.
  7. ^ Xu, Guangqiu. War Wings: The United States and Chinese Military Aviation, 1929–1949. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001. ISBN 978-0313320040.
  8. ^ "The Flying Tigers American Volunteer Group – Chinese Air Force." Flying Tigers Home Page. Retrieved: May 21, 2009.
  9. ^ "California Passenger and Crew Lists, 1893–1957." Passenger List, B.O. No. 39637/1, Sheet No. 1, U.S. Immigration Officer Mr. E. C. Benson – Inspector In Charge at Treasure Island.
  10. ^ General Pang-Tsu Mow: Form 500, U.S. Department of Labor, Immigration and Naturalization Service, List Or Manifest Of Alien Passengers For the United States Immigrant Inspector At Port Of Arrival. Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at San Francisco, 1893-1953. National Archives Microfilm Publication M1410, 429 rolls; page 244, line no. 7; and, Passenger List 40419, Sheet no. 1. Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, RG 85; National Archives, Washington, D.C. Returning to China aboard S.S. Lurline (voyage no. 179; master of ship- Konrad Hubbenette): name of passenger (Pon-Tsu Mow); age (37); occupation (General Chinese Air Force); race (Mongolian); nationality (Chinese); wife (Mrs. Wang Mow residing at General P.O. Chunking China); visa (issued 22 October 1940, Diplomatic C-20); height (5-ft, 7-in); complexion (yellow); hair (black); eyes (brown); identifying marks (scar under left eye); staying one day at the Moana Hotel, Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii.
  11. ^ Dr. T.V. Soong: President of the Bank of China. He departed Hong Kong on 19 June 1940 aboard Pan American Airways Honolulu Clipper; departed Manila, Philippines, on 21 June; arrived at Treasure Island, San Francisco, California, on 25 June; departed from Naval Auxiliary Air Facility Mills Field, Oakland, California, at 7:00 PM, 25 June aboard a United Airlines DC-3; arriving at Washington National Airport, 26 June. This mission was focused on establishing bank loans between the U.S. government and the Bank of China. Traveling with Dr. Soong were three other Chinese government bank officials: Chu-Chen Lee, Fu-Chen Chang, Chien-Hung Chang. By late July 1940, Dr. Soong was able to obtain concessions from the U.S. government for two $50 million loans (to stabilize Chinese financial market; to purchase war material). On Friday, 25 April 1941, the United States and China formally signed a $50 million stabilization agreement to support the Chinese currency. Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau signed for the United States, and Dr. T. V. Soong and Dr. Lee Kan both signed for the Chinese government with the Chinese Ambassador to the United States Dr. Hu Shih present.
  12. ^ The P-40 Allison engine produced its optimum performance at just 15,000-ft- far below the operational ceilings of contemporary European fighters.
  13. ^ United Press. Washington DC. 17 October 1940. "U.S. Considers Help To China. Additional Loans To Nation Sought". It was stated in this UP news article that during the past seven years the United States had loaned China about $85 million.
  14. ^ Sehnert, Walt. "McCook's Glen Beneda and the Flying Tigers.", January 5, 2009. Retrieved: May 22, 2009.
  15. ^ Associated Press. Chungking. 20 December 1941. "Burma Road Air Defense Scores". Also, Associated Press. New Orleans. 20 December 1941. "'Crazy' Maneuver Used by Colonel". Also, Associated Press. Tokyo. 20 December 1941. "Domei Says Japs Downed Five Ships". Also, Associated Press. Chungking. 20 December 1941. "American Fliers Engage Japanese".
  16. ^ Considene, Bob. "Under Fire.", 18 October 2007. Retrieved: 11 February 2010.
  17. ^ a b Smith 1995
  18. ^ Chennault, Claire Lee (Major-General, retired). Testimony to the Senate Joint Committee on the Armed Forces and Foreign Relations, letter dated June 20, 1951, and supplemental statement, Appendix 00, p. 3342.
  19. ^ "Major General Claire Lee Chennault ." Retrieved: December 2, 2009.
  20. ^ "Military Figures: Arlington Cemetery." Retrieved: December 2, 2009.


  • Bond, Janet. A Pictorial History of China Post 1, Part I – 1919–1959. Slidell, Louisiana: American Legion Generals Ward & Chennault & Lt. Helseth Post No. 1 (China), 1988.
  • Byrd, Martha. Chennault: Giving Wings to the Tiger. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University Alabama Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8173-0322-7.
  • Caidin, Martin. The Ragged, Rugged Warriors. New York: Ballantine, 1978. ISBN 0-345-28302-3.
  • Chennault, Claire. Way of a Fighter. New York: Putnam's, 1949.
  • "Claire Lee Chennault." Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 6: 1956–1960, Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Michigan: Thomson Gale, 1980.
  • Ford, Daniel. Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941–1942. Washington, DC: HarperCollins|Smithsonian Books, 2007. ISBN 0-06124-655-7.
  • Hessen, Robert, ed. General Claire Lee Chennault: A Guide to His Papers in the Hoover Institution Archives. Palo Alto, California: Hoover Institution Press, 1983. ISBN 0-8179-2652-6.
  • Latimer, Jon. Burma: The Forgotten War. London: John Murray, 2004. ISBN 0-7195-6576-6.
  • "1900 United States Federal Census, Franklin Parish, Louisiana, Ward 2.", January 20, 2007.
  • Scott, Robert Lee Jr. Flying Tiger: Chennault of China. Westport Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1973. ISBN 0-8371-6774-4.
  • Smith, Felix. China Pilot: Flying for Chiang and Chennault. New York: Brassey's Inc., 1995. ISBN 978-1574880519.

External links

Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Cover of Time Magazine
December 6, 1943
Succeeded by
Charles Edward Wilson


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