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All Things Historical

FLYING TIGERS

by Archie P. McDonald, PhD
Archie McDonald Ph.D.
Many native East Texans find fame and fortune far away from their birthplace. A case in point is Claire Lee Chennault, who was born in Commerce, Texas, in 1893, but was moved by his family to Gilbert, Louisiana, at the age of one month.

Chennault attended LSU in Baton Rouge but was graduated from Louisiana State Normal School and taught in schools in various locations in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Kentucky before he became a lieutenant in the Army during WWI. He served as a flight instructor during the conflict, and remained in the military after the war.

Chennault served with the border patrol early in the 1920s, then was transferred to the Hawaiian Pursuit Squadron, and served as leader of the Air Corps Exhibition Group until deafness and disputes with higher ranking officers forced his retirement in 1937.

Chiang Kai-shek, leader of Chinese nationalists faced with a communist insurgency led by Mao Zedong, hired Chennault to advise leaders of his air forces. Thus Chennault was in China when the Empire of Japan invaded, and in 1941 he organized the American Volunteer Group, or aviators who flew American-supplied and maintained aircraft against Japanese forces months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Americaís declaration of war against Japan on December 8, 1941.

The slightly premature participation of the Flying Tigers in WWII was legitimized by their subsequent absorption by the Army Air Corps. Operationally, little changed.

Chennault became a major general in command of the Fourteenth Air Force in March 1943, but ever a responder to the sound of his own drum, he was soon at cross purposes with theatre commander Lieutenant General Joseph Stilwell, who also quarreled with Chiang and with his own superiors, but Stilwell won the dispute with Chennault, who was again retired from the service.

After the war Chennault became chairman of the board of Civil Air Transport, and divided his time between homes in Louisiana and in Taipei, Taiwan. Chennault became a victim of cancer on July 27, 1958. Chennault Air Force Base, located near Lake Charles, Louisiana, was named in his honor and became an important military installation during the Cold War.

The Flying Tigers were celebrated, especially early in WWII, in a film named for their unit starring John Wayne. Wayne played a character that was loosely based on Chennaultís role as leader of the Tigers. Chennault is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, a long way from where he began life in Commerce, Texas.

© Archie P. McDonald, PhD
All Things Historical
August 7, 2005 column
A syndicated column in over 40 East Texas newspapers
(This column is provided as a public service by the East Texas Historical Association. Archie P. McDonald is director of the Association and author of more than 20 books on Texas.)



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