Lt. Gen. Claire Chennault, Flying Tiger

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Claire Lee Chennault

Chinese: 陳納德
Birthplace: Commerce, Hunt County, Texas, USA
Death: Died in New Orleans, Orleans Parish, Louisiana, USA
Place of Burial: Arlington County, Virginia, USA
Immediate Family:

Son of J. Stonewall Jackson Chennault and Jessie Chennault
Husband of Nell Chennault and <private> Chennault (Chan)
Father of Max Chennault; Clair Patterson Chennault; David Wallace Chennault; Robert Kenneth Chennault; Rosemay Simrell and 6 others

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Lt. Gen. Claire Chennault, Flying Tiger

Lieutenant General Claire Lee Chennault (September 6, 1893 – July 27, 1958), was an American military aviator. A contentious officer, he was a fierce advocate of "pursuit" or fight-interceptor aircraft during the 1930s when the U.S. Army Air Corps was focused primarily on high-altitude bombardment. Chennault retired in 1937, went to work as an aviation trainer and adviser in China, and commanded the "Flying Tigers" during World War II, both the volunteer group and the uniformed units that replaced it in 1942. His family name is French and is normally pronounced shen-auw. However, his family being thoroughly Americanized, the name was instead pronounced "shen-AWLT."

Early life

Claire Lee Chennault was born in Commerce, Texas, to John Stonewall Jackson Chennault and Jessie (nėe Lee) Chennault. He was reared in the Louisiana towns of Gilbert and Waterproof. He began misrepresenting his year of birth as 1890, possibly because he was too young to attend college after he graduated from high school, so his father added three years to his age. The 1900 US Census record from Franklin Parish, LA, Ward 2 states that C L Chennault was six years of age in 1900, with a younger brother, aged three.)

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. He learned to fly in the Air Service during World War I, graduated from pursuit pilot training at Ellington Field, Texas, on April 23, 1922, and remained in the service after it became the Air Corps in 1926. Chennault became Chief of Pursuit Section at Air Corps Tactical School in the 1930s.


Into the mid 1930s Chennault led and represented the 1st Pursuit Group of the Army Air Corps aerobatic team the "Three Musketeers" based in Montgomery, Alabama—the group performed at the 1928 National Air Races. Later, in 1932, as a pursuit aviation instructor at Maxwell Field, Chennault re-organized the team under the name "The Men on the Flying Trapeze".


Poor health and disputes with superiors led Chennault to resign from the service on 30 April 1937. He then went to China and joined a small group of American civilians training Chinese airmen. When the Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) broke out in July, he served as "air adviser" to Kuomintang (KMT) Nationalist Government leader Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, working through the generalissimo's wife, Soong May-ling. Chennault participated in planning operations, observed the Chinese Air Force in combat from a Curtiss Hawk 75, and helped organize the so-called "International Squadron" of foreign mercenary aviators. However, as Soviet air units increasingly flowed into China from the beginning of 1938, Chennault was sent to Kunming to head up a new training effort.

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, Chennault 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.

On October 19, 1939, Chennault 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 (October 25), eventually arriving at Treasure Island, San Francisco CA (October 26). 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.

By 1940, seeing that the Chinese Air Force had collapsed, because of ill-trained Chinese pilots and shortage of equipment, Chiang Kai-shek sent Chennault to the United States to meet with Dr. T. V. Soong in Washington DC, with the following directed 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, October 15, 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, November 14, 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. How to obtain the shopping list of aircraft, 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. He departed Hong Kong on June 19, 1940 aboard Pan American Airways Honolulu Clipper; departed Manila, Philippines, on June 21; arrived at Treasure Island, San Francisco, California, on June 25; 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, June 26. 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, April 25, 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.

By Monday afternoon, December 23, 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-40Cs after their modifications for overseas service) that were originally scheduled for shipment to Great Britain but cancelled due to the Tomahawk's inferior flight performance against German fighters. With an agreement reached, General Pang-Tsu Mow returned to China aboard SS Lurline; departing out of the Port of Los Angeles Friday morning, January 24, 1941. 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.

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.

Flying Tigers

Just weeks after the Japanese air Attack on Pearl Harbor (Sunday morning, December 7, 1941), the first news reports released to the public pertaining to Claire Chennault's war exploits occurred on December 20, 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). These American flyers encountered 10 Japanese aircraft 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.

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.

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.

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). 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 and the Kuomintang occupation of Northern Burma throughout the mid- and late-1950s, providing support for the Thai police force. This same force supplied the intelligence community and others during the Vietnam conflict.

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.

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

Chennault was promoted to Lieutenant General in the U.S. Air Force, several days before his death on July 27, 1958 at the Ochsner Foundation Hospital in New Orleans. He died of lung cancer. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery (Section 2, 873).

Chennault was twice married and had a total of ten children, eight by his first wife, the former Nell Thompson (1893–1977), an American of British ancestry, whom he met at a high school graduation ceremony and subsequently wed in Winnsboro, Louisiana on December 24, 1911. By the time he was serving in China, they had divorced. He had two children by his second wife, Chen Xiangmei (Anna Chennault), a young reporter for the Central News Agency. She became one of the ROC's chief lobbyists in Washington.

His children from the first marriage were John Stephen Chennault (1913–1977), Max Thompson Chennault (1914–2001), Charles Lee Chennault (1918–1967), Peggy Sue Chennault Lee (born 1919), Claire Patterson Chennault (November 24, 1920 - October 3, 2011), David Wallace Chennault (1923–1980), Robert Kenneth Chennault (1925–2006), and Rosemary Louise Chennault Simrall (born 1928). By his second wife, he had two daughters, Claire Anna Chennault (born 1948) and Cynthia Louise Chennault (born 1950), a professor of Chinese at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

On January 11, 1960, his son, David Chennault was defeated in a Democratic runoff election for the office of Louisiana state custodian of voting machines. He lost to the incumbent, Douglas Fowler.

Son Claire P. Chennault was a United States Army Air Corps and then Air Force officer from 1943 to 1966 and subsequent resident of Ferriday.

Chennault was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in December 1972, along with Leroy Grumman, Curtis LeMay and James H. Kindelberger. The ceremony was headed by retired Brigadier General Jimmy Stewart, and a portrait of Chennault by cartoonist Milton Caniff was unveiled. General Electric vice-president Gerhard Neumann, a former AVG crew chief and the tech sergeant who repaired a downed Zero for flight, spoke of Chennault's unorthodox methods and of his strong personality. An award plaque was presented by Stewart to presidential adviser Thomas Gardiner Corcoran and fighter ace John R. "Johnny" Alison, who both accepted for Anna Chennault, who could not attend.

He was honored by the United States Postal Service with a 40¢ Great Americans series (1980–2000) postage stamp.

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 since the museum's opening in 1976.

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. On the 65th anniversary of the Japanese surrender to China, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and PRC officials unveiled a statue of Chennault in Zhijiang County, Hunan, the site of the surrender of Japan.

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Lt. Gen. Claire Chennault, Flying Tiger's Timeline

September 6, 1893
Commerce, Hunt County, Texas, USA
Age 19
Age 20
Age 22
Age 24
Age 26
Age 29
Age 31
Age 35