Claire Lee Chennault

Claire Lee Chennault
Claire Lee Chennault

Claire Lee Chennault grew up in rural northeastern Louisiana. He served as a fighter pilot of the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War I. After the war he served as an instructor in the army air service, organized and led an air corps acrobatic team called Three Men on a Flying Trapeze, and worked on perfecting air combat tactics. Health problems led to his retirement from the military in April 1937.

On July 7, 1937, Japan attacked China, beginning World War II in Asia, whereupon Italy, later Japan's partner in the Axis, withdrew its air force mission from China. Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek contacted Chennault and his two partners in Three Men on a Flying Trapeze to help China develop an air defense system; all three accepted.

Chennault arrived in China in 1938 and was commissioned as a major in the Chinese air force. He developed a close working relationship with Madame Chiang Kai-shek (Mei-ling Soong Chiang), commander of the Chinese air force.

Chennault first developed an effective air raid warning system by training Chinese spotters in Japanese-occupied areas, using radios to report the takeoff and direction of Japanese planes on bombing raids. In October 1940 Chiang sent Chennault to the United States to procure planes and enlist American combat pilots and a support staff to defend China. He secured 100 P-40 Tomahawks originally intended for Great Britain (which received instead a newer model of the plane), funded with $25 million through the Lend-Lease Act passed by Congress.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt then signed an executive order that allowed U.S. active and reserve military personnel to resign from their commissions and join the American Volunteer Group (AVG) to serve in China. Over 300 people—pilots, mechanics, and support personnel—signed up, including four women (two nurses and two office workers).

They were given fictitious job descriptions and headed for Toungoo, Burma. There Chennault trained them in tactics of aerial combat, with special attention to the planes and techniques used by the Japanese air force. The AVG men liked the shark mouth painted on British Tomahawk planes in Egypt but changed the logo to the "Flying Tiger."

The Flying Tigers
The Flying Tigers

The final design was created by Walt Disney. Their flight jackets had a patch called the "blood chit" that read in Chinese: "I am an aviator fighting for China against the Japanese. Please take me to the nearest communication agency." It proved a lifesaver for pilots shot down in Japanese-occupied China.

The AVG's first action took place on December 20, 1941, against 10 Japanese bombers flying out of Hanoi for Kunming in China. Only one returned. Between that day and July 4, 1942, when it was disbanded, the AVG fought and won 50 actions despite overwhelming negative odds.

For example, on February 25, 1942, the 166 Japanese planes attacking Rangoon, Burma, met nine Flying Tigers, who downed 23 planes and made another 10 probable kills, losing only one plane themselves. Chennault had the backing of thousands of Chinese workers, who repaired the runways after Japanese raids, and a large network of scouts, who kept him informed of Japanese movements.

The Chinese government paid the AVG salaries and bonuses for downed Japanese planes. In all, the AVG had 299 confirmed kills and damaged 153 planes so badly that they probably could not fly again, in addition to many destroyed on the ground.

It also destroyed thousands of tons of Japanese supplies and many trucks. A total of 29 AVG men would become aces for recording five or more enemy kills. It lost 12 planes in combat, 61 planes on the ground, 13 men in action, and 10 in operational accidents.

Although the U.S. government could not honor the AVG members, the Chinese government decorated many for heroism, as did the British government for their actions over Rangoon. Many of its men joined the regular U.S. Army Air Corps after the AVG was disbanded. Chennault also continued to serve in China, but for the U.S. armed forces.

The AVG lasted for less than two years and saw action for nine months. Chennault's skill, temperament, and courage were essential for molding its members into a great fighting unit that inflicted heavy damage on the Japanese, boosted Chinese morale, and contributed to Allied victory in World War II.

Following the war Chennault remained in China to assist the Nationalist government against the Communists. During that time he organized an airline called Civil Air Transport (CAT), which would later become a major resource for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in South Asia. Chennault died on July 27, 1958, in New Orleans, Louisiana.