Claire L. Chennault

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Claire L. Chennault (1890-1958) was an American Major General and commander of the World War Two, China based, American Volunteer Group (AVG), more commonly known as the Flying Tigers. His tactics, developed over his many years as a fighter pilot, enabled the Flying Tigers to gain the advantage over the Japanese.[1] When the U.S. entered the war the Flying Tigers became part of the U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF), and Chennault was the U.S. Air commander in China. He cooperated with Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek, but fought with the U.S. Army commander in China Joseph Stilwell. Stillwell wanted the trickle of American supplies reaching China to be used to build a vast land army, and Chennault wanted them for air attacks on Japan. Chennault had his way, but was removed when the war ended. He set up a commercial cargo airline in China, the Flying Tigers, and with his wife became a leading spokesman for conservative causes, especially in support of Nationalist China.


He was born in Commerce, Texas, the son of John Stonewall Chennault, a farmer, and Jessie Lee. He grew up in rural northeastern Louisiana and was a bright though reluctant student. In 1909–1910, while at Louisiana State University (where he took ROTC training), he decided against a military career and became a school teacher. On Dec. 25, 1911, he married Nell Thompson; they had eight children. After divorcing Nell in 1946, he married Anna Chan, a Chinese journalist, on December 21, 1947; they had two daughters, and she became a major activist for the "China Lobby."

Pursuit versus bombers

When the U.S. entered the World War in 1917 he became a lieutenant in the infantry, and learned to fly at Kelly Field in San Antonio; he won his rating as a fighter pilot in 1919, and in 1920, was commissioned a first lieutenant in the new Army Air Service. After duty in Hawaii, Texas and Virginia, he was promoted to captain (1929) and became an instructor in the highly influential Air Corps Tactical School, in Montgomery, Alabama. While gaining national publicity for his acrobatic exhibition team ("Trapezers"), he developed the theories of air tactics he later applied against the Japanese in China; in1935 he published them in a textbook, The Role of Defensive Pursuit. Unlike the mainstream air power view, to the effect that strategic bombing was a war-winning weapon, and the bombers could always get through, Chennault argued that fast, agile pursuit (fighter) planes could shoot down the bombers. He perfected team combat tactics, experimented with airdrop supply and paratroop techniques, and crusaded for greater firepower and range in fighter aircraft. His vigorous public advocacy angered the high command of the Army Air Corps, which was committed to long range bombers like the B-17. A deal was made and in April 1937, suffering from overwork, chronic bronchial trouble, and partial deafness, Chennault retired with a disability pension at the rank of captain.

Flying Tigers

Chennault went to Chinas and soon became personal military adviser to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek; he began training the Chinese air force using American instructors at bases in southwestern China. Late in 1940 Chiang sent him to the United States to enlist support for an American-manned and -equipped air force. Air Corps chief General Hap Arnold was dead set against his Chennault's plans, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt was an avid supporter, along with Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau. Funding was no problem.

The Flying Tigers, officially the American Volunteer Group (AVG), was an American military operation against Japan clothed in Chinese colors because the U.S. was officially neutral. It took its nickname from the tiger-shark teeth, tongue, and eyes painted on the noses of the aircraft. All the decisions came from Washington and funding came from the U.S. Treasury. An American financier William Pawley set up a private corporation that handed financing and personnel.[2] Pawley recruited the pilots and ground crews from men in active service in the U.S. Army and Navy, with permission of the services. They were promised money and glory—and after the U.S. officially entered the war was absorbed officially into the Air Force (at much lower pay scales). The U.S. Air Corps provided 100 P-40B slightly obsolescent pursuit planes, with all necessary equipment, weapons, fuel, and spare parts, charging the cost against the $100 million that Lend Lease gave China. The British provided training facilities in Burma, gratis, while China built the airfields using additional Lend Lease funds.[3]

Chennault trained his Tigers in Burma in summer 1941. They adopted a two-ship element, always flying and fighting in pairs, diving in, making a quick pass, and then breaking away, thus exploiting the superior diving speed of the P-40 and refusing the turning combat for which the frail, maneuverable, Japanese aircraft were designed. Quick reflex gunnery was stressed, so that the Tigers take the fleeting shots. As a unit, the AVG was trained to break up the Japanese formations, confront their pilots with unexpected situations, and exploit the resulting confusion. His ground crews were drilled in rapid refueling and repair, and the good Chinese air-raid warning net protected his small force from surprise attack. With the British Royal Air Force (RAF) the AVG kept Rangoon and the Burma Road open for two and a half months in 1942. The AVG helped defeat the Japanese invasion of Yunnan in spring 1942, and it stopped enemy bombing of China's cities. At a cost of four pilots lost in air combat out of a total of twenty-six for all causes, it destroyed at least 299, and probably another 153, enemy aircraft. When the Japanese took Burma, the main base was moved to Kunming in southern Yunnan, China. Kunming had road and rail connections to the national capital at Chunking.[4]

The success of the Flying Tigers, with just 100 pilots, was to interdict Japanese river and coastal traffic enough to stall its military advances and perhaps even reduce its industrial production. The Flying Tigers, discovered that Japanese air tactics were as predictable as those of the army. If something worked, it was constantly repeated, and the Tigers learned to deal with it. Praising the accomplishments of the Chinese-American Composite Wing (CACW) commanded by Chennault, Guangqiu Xu concludes that Chinese strategic planning for the use of Allied air power against the Japanese was correct, and that the United States should have given China even more support.[5]

Chinese Air Force

To augment Chennault's 100 P-40Bs, in May 1941 Washington decided to send 144 Vultee P-48's, 125 P-43's and 66 Lockheed and Douglas medium bombers. The goal was to give China by early 1942, a respectable air force, judged by Far Eastern standards, sufficient to "(a) protect strategic points, (b) permit local army offensive action, (c) permit the bombing of Japanese air bases and supply dumps in China and Indo-China, and the bombing of coastal and river transport, and (d) permit occasional incendiary bombing of Japan."[6]

Plans sneak attack on Japan

A year before the U.S. officially entered the war (after Dec. 7, 1941), Chennault developed an ambitious plan for a sneak attack on Japanese bases. His Flying Tigers would use American bombers and American pilots, all with Chinese markings. The U.S. military was opposed to his scheme, and kept raising obstacles, but it was adopted by top civilian officials including Henry Morganthau (the Secretary of the Treasury who financed China) and especially President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself, who made it a high priority to keep China alive.[7] They not only approved they set it motion by sending the bombers to China. By October, 1941, bombers and crews were on their way to China and the sneak attack never took place. The bombers and crews arrived after Pearl Harbor and were used for the war in Burma, for they lacked the range to reach China.[8]

World War II

In April 1942 Chennault was officially recalled to the U.S. Air Force and was promoted brigadier general (a rank he already held and kept in the Chinese Air Force). From July 1942 he commanded the newly formed China Air Task Force (renamed Fourteenth USAAF in March 1943), which controlled all U.S. Air Force units in China, He organized the air ferry known as the Hump which flew supplies into Kuming, China. from India over the Himalayas. Chennault was promoted to major general in 1943; although nominally subordinate to General Joseph Warren Stilwell, he had the ear of Roosevelt and of Chiang Kai-shek, who disregarded the advice of his Stilwell, his nominal chief of staff. Stillwell wanted to build up large infantry forces to attack China. Chiang realized that fighting the Japanese with his numerous but underequipped and poorly led and motivated army was hopeless. He wanted American funds to feed his soldiers and prop up the government, so that it cvould later fight Mao Zedong and the Communists who were building up a base in northern China. Chennault believed that air power would defeat the Japanese. In May 1943 Chennault won the support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and succeeded in building up a strategic air force built around very long range B-29 bombers, whose supplies were brought in "over the Hump from India. The airlift was extraordinarily expensive; it took 50 gallons of gasoline to deliver one gallon the B-29 could use. Raids did begin and they were ineffective. As Stilwell had predicted, the Japanese response was the ICHI-GO offensive, in which ground troops captured Chennault's airfields. Chennault moved his bases further west and kept flying.[9] The B-29's were moved to the Pacific.

Chennault's expanded forces (China Air Task Force and, after March 1943, the Fourteenth Air Force) destroyed some 2,600 enemy aircraft and probably 1,500 more, sank 2,300,000 tons of enemy merchant shipping, and killed 66,700 enemy troops, losing about 500 aircraft in combat.

The feud between Chennault and Stilwell for control of military policy in China was vicious; it transcended professional disagreement; each saw the other as personally unprincipled, prejudiced, and power-hungry. Chennault won all the major points because he had the support of Chiang and Roosevelt, and the British found Stilwell tiresome as well. Chennault worked smoothly with Lt. Gen. Albert C. Wedemeyer, Stilwell's replacement.


In spring 1945, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, Stilwell's patron, finally managed to neutralize Chennault. In July 1945, with Roosevelt and other patrons in Washington gone, Chennault resigned in protest against the proposed disbandment of the joint Chinese–American wing of the Chinese Air Force. He remained in China to create a private air cargo company, the Civil Air Transport (CAT). Chennault and his partner Whiting Willauer, an American lawyer, were motivated by a combination of altruism and entrepreneurship. They hoped the airline would help foster China's industrial development and make them a fortune in the process. When the Chinese Civil War entered its critical phase during 1947 and 1948, however, Chennault's old friendship with Chiang Kai-shek, and CAT's business interests, thrust the company into an increasingly active partnership with the Kuomintang regime. At great personal risk, CAT's American pilots ferried Nationalist troops, delivered supplies to besieged cities, and even bombed communist positions. CAT was nearly bankrupt in 1950, when the CIA secretly purchased its assets and used it for clandestine CIA projects.[10]

Chennault and his second wife, Anna Chan Chennault, became leaders of the '"China Lobby", promoting the Nationalist regime on Taiwan and trying to block recognition of "Red China," that is the China controlled by Mao Zedong and the communists.[11]

Image, memory and controversy

General Chennault is interred at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Chennault (and his widow Anna) were unusually effective in creating favorable publicity in the United States. Their views were especially championed by the "China Lobby" and the conservative wing of the Republican party which denounced President Truman and George C. Marshall for "losing" the friendship and support of China by inadequate support for Chiang.[11]

Claire Patterson Chennault

Claire Patterson "Pat" Chennault (1920-2011), a Chennault son from the first marriage, was a lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Army Air Corps, subsequently the Air Force, having served from January 1943 during World War II until his retirement in 1966. He was assigned to the 433rd Squadron, 86th Fighter Wing of the Eighth Air Force. In combat for more than three hundred hours over Europe, the younger Chennault received the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with seven Oak Leaf Clusters, and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three Bronze Stars. He was credited with destroying two enemy aircraft.[12] A native of Gilbert in Franklin Parish, Louisiana, Pat Chennault spent his later years in Ferriday in Catahoula Parish, where he died at his home at the age of ninety. He was predeceased by his two wives, the former Hilma Keyes and the former Grace McKelvey, and a son. He had eight living children. Pat Chennault is interred at Greenlawn Memorial Cemetery in Natchez, Mississippi.[12]

David Wallace Chennault (1923-1980), another Chennault son from the first marriage, was an unsuccessful candidatge in the Democratic runoff election held on January 11, 1960, for the office of Louisiana state custodian of voting machines. He lost to the incumbent, Douglas Fowler.[13]


  • see also China-Burma-India theater (CBI)/Bibliography
  • Armstrong, Alan. Preemptive Strike: The Secret Plan That Would Have Prevented the Attack on Pearl Harbor (2006), popular history excerpt and text search
  • Byrd, Martha. Chennault: Giving Wings to the Tiger (1987) 451 pp., the standard biography
  • Cornelius, Wanda, and Thayne Short. Ding Hao: America's Air War in China, 1937-1945. (1980)
  • Craven, Wesley Frank, and James Lea Cate, eds. The Army Air Forces in World War II. Vol. 5. The Pacific: Matterhorn to Nagasaki, June 1944 to August 1945. (1983), official Air Force history.
  • Ford, Daniel. Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and the American Volunteer Group (1991).
  • Prefer, Nathan N. Vinegar Joe's War: Stilwell's Campaigns for Burma. (2000), 314pp; scholarly history online edition
  • Plating, John D. "Keeping China in the War: The Trans-Himalayan `Hump' Airlift and Sino-US Strategy in World War II." PhD dissertation Ohio State U. 2007. 397 pp. DAI 2007 68(4): 1627-A. DA3262108 Fulltext: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  • Romanus, Charles F. and Riley Sunderland. Stilwell's Mission to China (1953), official U.S. Army history online edition; Stilwell's Command Problems (1956) online edition; Time Runs Out in CBI (1958) online edition. Official U.S. Army history
  • Schaller Michael. "American Air Strategy in China, 1939-1941: The Origins of Clandestine Air Warfare," American Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Spring, 1976), pp. 3–19 in JSTOR; reprinted in ch. 4 of Schaller, The U.S. Crusade in China, 1938-1945. (1979).
  • Schaller Michael. The U.S. Crusade in China, 1938-1945. (1979). online edition
  • Thorne Bliss K. The Hump: The Great Military Airlift of World War II. (1965).
  • Tuchman, Barbara. Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45, (1972), 624pp; Pulitzer prize (The British edition is titled Against the Wind: Stilwell and the American Experience in China 1911-45,) excerpt and text search
  • Xu, Guangqiu. "The Issue of U.S. Air Support for China During the Second World War, 1942–1945," Journal of Contemporary History 36 (July 2001): 459–84. in JSTOR
  • Xu, Guangqiu. War Wings: The United States and Chinese Military Aviation, 1929–1949 (2001).

Primary Sources

  • Chennault, Anna. Chennault and the Flying Tigers. (1963).
  • Chennault, Claire Lee. Way of a Fighter: The Memoirs of Claire Lee Chennault. ed. by Robert Horz; (1949).
  • Klinkowitz, Jerome. With the Tigers Over China, 1941–1942 (1999), memoirs and oral histories

See also

Online resources


  1. Aces, by William Yenne, Berkeley Books, 2000
  2. Pawley signed a nonprofit contract with Finance Minister T. V. Soong to equip, supply, and operate the AVG. Colonel Chennault had the title of "supervisor." Congress had given the President a blank check by passing the Lend Lease act in 1941 to provide military supplies to the enemies of Germany and Japan.
  3. See Romanus and Sunderland. Stilwell's Mission to China (1953), chapter 1 online edition
  4. See Romanus and Sunderland. Stilwell's Mission to China p. 19 online
  5. Guangqiu Xu, "The Issue of U.S. Air Support for China During the Second World War, 1942–1945," Journal of Contemporary History 36 (July 2001): 459–84.
  6. Romanus and Sunderland. Stilwell's Mission to China p. 20 online
  7. The official Army history notes that 23 July 1941 FDR "approved a Joint Board paper which recommended that the United States equip, man, and maintain the 500-plane Chinese Air Force proposed by Currie. The paper suggested that this force embark on a vigorous program to be climaxed by the bombing of Japan in November 1941." Lauchlin Currie was the White House official dealing with China. Romanus and Sunderland. Stilwell's Mission to China p. 23 online
  8. Alan Armstrong, Preemptive Strike: The Secret Plan That Would Have Prevented the Attack on Pearl Harbor (2006) is a popular version; for a scholarly history see Schaller, (1976); and Romanus and Sunderland. Stilwell's Mission to China (1953), chapter 1 online edition
  9. Chiang refused to allow the shipment of weapons to defend these airfields. See Riley Sunderland, "The Secret Embargo," The Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Feb., 1960), pp. 75-80; in JSTOR
  10. William M. Leary, Perilous Missions: Civil Air Transport and CIA Covert Operations in Asia. (1984)
  11. 11.0 11.1 Catherine Forslund, Anna Chennault: Informal Diplomacy and Asian Relations. (2002)
  12. 12.0 12.1 Claire Patterson Chennault. Baton Rouge Morning Advocate. Retrieved on October 5, 2011.
  13. Minden Press, Minden, Louisiana, January 13, 1960, p. 1