Fed up over frequent disagreements with his military superiors, Claire Chennault retired from the Army Air Corps in 1937 for “health” reasons. He seemed to regain his strength, however, when the Chinese Air Force asked him to be an advisor. Dealing with an air force plagued by untrained pilots, inadequate planes and poor runways wasn’t easy, but under Chennault’s guidance the struggling branch achieved greater success than ever before. In the process, Chennault’s American Volunteer Group managed to shoot down 40 Japanese planes, and he reached the rank of brigadier general. The U.S. Army Air Force later recalled him and subsequently commanded the famed “Flying Tigers,” the first group of American pilots to battle Japanese forces during World War II.
- Chennault took command of the 19th Pursuit Squadron in Hawaii in 1923 and began a study of pursuit plane tactics.
- He became director of flying at Brooks Field, Texas in 1928 continuing his study of pursuit tactics.
- At the 1934 and 1935 National Air Races, his newly formed “Three Men On a Flying Trapeze” acrobatic team demonstrated pursuit concepts he developed.
- After retiring from the Air Corps in 1937, he became advisor to the Chinese Air Force in its struggle against Japan.
- In 1940, he organized the American Volunteer Group that became known as the Flying Tigers.
- During World War II, he took command of the 14th Air Force and won air superiority over China.
- After the war he organized an air freight service in China, and later organized the Civil Air Transports servicing China.
Claire Lee Chennault, leader of the famed Flying Tigers in China, has long been recognized as one of top U.S. authorities on air tactics.
Born in Commerce, Texas in 1890, Chennault received his education in Louisiana colleges and even taught public school in that state before receiving a commission as a first lieutenant in the Infantry Reserve in 1917. After his commissioning, he transferred immediately to the aviation section of the Signal Reserve Corps and served in World War I. Not until after the war, however, did Chennault learn to fly, while stationed at Kelly Field in Texas. After earning his wings in 1919, he attended the Mechanical School at Kelly Field before receiving an honorable discharge from the Reserves in April of 1920.
But within three months he was back in uniform with a commission as a First Lieutenant in the Regular Army, where he served in various flying capacities until his retirement in 1937. While at Maxwell Field, Alabama, he formed the “Three Men on a Trapeze” acrobatics team to demonstrate his pursuit tactics, and they proved to be a sensation at the 1934 and 1935 National Air Races.
Shortly after his retirement, Madame and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek invited Chennault to become an advisor to the Chinese Air Force. He arrived in China following the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War and began to train pursuit units of the Chinese Air Force. Four years later he was made a brigadier general in that nation’s air force. With his new rank, he was put in charge of recruiting the American Volunteer Group–pursuit pilots and ground crewmen who became famous as the “Flying Tigers”. Recalled to active duty by the U.S. Army Air Force in 1942, Chennault became Commanding General of the China Air Task Force and later commanded the Fourteenth Air Force there as a Major General. Under Chennault’s leadership, his “Flying Tigers” received the herculean task of keeping the Burma Road supply line open. They accomplished this mission in exemplary fashion.
During the three years after the “Flying Tigers” disbanded in 1942, Chennault proved to be a tactical genius in both fighter and bomber procedures, winning air superiority over China. In July 1945, Chennault returned to the United States for a brief assignment at the Army Air Force Headquarters in Washington, D.C., before announcing his retirement in October of that year. The next year, he returned to China and stayed for four years as president of the Civil Air Transports.
A great pilot, Chennault had formed a precision acrobatic flying team, “Three Men on a Flying Trapeze,” while stationed as an instructor at Maxwell Field. Also during that same tour, he continued to improve the science of pursuit tactics and wrote a text book on “The Role of Defensive Pursuit.”
Among the general’s many honors were the Distinguished Service Medal with one oak leaf cluster, The Distinguished Flying Cross, the Chinese Order of the Celestial Banner and the Order of the British Empire. On July 18th, 1958, the President and Congress of the United States promoted Chennault to the rank of Lieutenant General. Nine days later, in New Orleans, Chennault died.
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