The Flying Tigers were one of the first American air units to fight the Japanese as World War II began. A gruff Texas native, Claire Chennault, organized the volunteer force in the months before the United States entered the war. His determination and success of his pilots drew the attention of the world to an almost forgotten corner of the global conflict. Chennault’s Flying Tigers helped the lay the foundation for the defeat of the Japanese in China.
Claire Lee Chennault was born in Commerce in 1890. Circumstances, however, led the family to leave for Northeast Louisiana while Chennault was still young. He proved to be a bright student and eventually attended Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge through the Reserve Officer Training Corps program.
In 1913, he left LSU to become a school principal back in Northeast Louisiana. He married, and the two had eight children together. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, he completed his officer training and was assigned to aviation section of the army signal corps to train as a pilot. From there began his love affair with the skies.
After World War I, he returned to Texas for further combat pilot training at Ellington Field in Houston. He spent much of the 1920s as part of an army air corps stunt flying exhibition team and eventually became a combat flight instructor based at Brooks Field in San Antonio by 1928. In spite of his skills, his prickly personality led to conflicts with his superiors and fellow officers. As he continued to be passed over for promotions, he retired from the army in 1937.
In the meantime, Japan had conquered Manchuria in 1931 and was priming to conquer the rest of China. Chennault was recruited by Chinese officials after his retirement to inspect Chinese air capabilities. Soon after his arrival in June 1937, Japan attacked; and Chennault had to quickly rebuild the smashed Chinese Air Force. He recruited pilots from wherever he could find them, trained them, and used whatever planes he could against the Japanese, including both American and Russian. But it was having little effect as Japan continued to advance throughout 1938 and 1939.
By late 1940, Chennault and a delegation from the Chinese government traveled to the United States to make a direct appeal for aid. President Franklin Roosevelt agreed to send 100 P-40 Warhawk fighters. From there, Chennault recruited 300 American volunteers, including pilots and ground crew, as the First American Volunteer Group, paid at rates significantly higher than the regular military. With few supplies in a distant part of the world, Chennault had to improvise with materiel and tactics.
By August 1941, his men, who quickly became known as the Flying Tigers, were fully organized. In the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Flying Tigers were in action, shooting down nearly 300 Japanese fighters in a matter of days, mostly in southern China. Chennault won wide acclaim for leading attacks against Japan while America still recovered from the initial attacks.
With the success of the Flying Tigers, the army absorbed the entire group in April 1942, promoting Chennault to brigadier general. Most of what had been the Flying Tigers become the Fourteenth Air Force, expanded, and maintaining the high aerial victory rates. However, Chennault continued to argue with his superiors over policies and tactics. His forces undertook tasks from air support for Chinese forces to preparations for the allied invasion of Burma. In July 1945, he was reassigned to Washington, DC. He retired from the service a second time that October.
He returned to China in 1946 and served four years as president of Civil Air Transport before returning to Louisiana. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1957. He had been a heavy smoker, and little could be done for his type of cancer at the time. Chennault decided to live his last days to the fullest and took a tour of Europe and Taiwan. By July 1958, his strength was fading, but the air force honored him with a promotion to lieutenant general. Chennault died a few days alter in a New Orleans hospital at the age of 67.
Chennault was widely honored in the years after his death. He was featured on a stamp in the 1980s. He was also inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio, in 1972. The Chinese government unveiled a series of memorials and museums honoring the Flying Tigers and Chennault starting in 2005 to mark the end of World War II in China, while the government in Taiwan presented a special award in memory of Chennault to his family. His childhood home in Commerce is now noted with a historical marker.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.