native East Texans find fame and fortune far away from their birthplace.
A case in point is Claire Lee Chennault, who was born in Commerce,
Texas, in 1893, but was moved by his family to Gilbert, Louisiana,
at the age of one month.
Chennault attended LSU in Baton Rouge but was graduated from Louisiana
State Normal School and taught in schools in various locations in
Louisiana, Mississippi, and Kentucky before he became a lieutenant
in the Army during WWI.
He served as a flight instructor during the conflict, and remained
in the military after the war.
Chennault served with the border patrol early in the 1920s, then was
transferred to the Hawaiian Pursuit Squadron, and served as leader
of the Air Corps Exhibition Group until deafness and disputes with
higher ranking officers forced his retirement in 1937.
Chiang Kai-shek, leader of Chinese nationalists faced with a communist
insurgency led by Mao Zedong, hired Chennault to advise leaders of
his air forces. Thus Chennault was in China when the Empire of Japan
invaded, and in 1941 he organized the American Volunteer Group, or
aviators who flew American-supplied and maintained aircraft against
Japanese forces months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor
and Americaís declaration of war against Japan on December 8, 1941.
The slightly premature participation of the Flying Tigers in WWII
was legitimized by their subsequent absorption by the Army Air Corps.
Operationally, little changed.
Chennault became a major general in command of the Fourteenth Air
Force in March 1943, but ever a responder to the sound of his own
drum, he was soon at cross purposes with theatre commander Lieutenant
General Joseph Stilwell, who also quarreled with Chiang and with his
own superiors, but Stilwell won the dispute with Chennault, who was
again retired from the service.
After the war Chennault became chairman of the board of Civil Air
Transport, and divided his time between homes in Louisiana and in
Taipei, Taiwan. Chennault became a victim of cancer on July 27, 1958.
Chennault Air Force Base, located near Lake Charles, Louisiana, was
named in his honor and became an important military installation during
the Cold War.
The Flying Tigers were celebrated, especially early in WWII,
in a film named for their unit starring John Wayne. Wayne played a
character that was loosely based on Chennaultís role as leader of
the Tigers. Chennault is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, a
long way from where he began life in Commerce,
P. McDonald, PhD
August 7, 2005 column
A syndicated column in over 40 East Texas newspapers
(This column is provided as a public service by the East Texas Historical
Association. Archie P. McDonald is director of the Association and
author of more than 20 books on Texas.)
by Archie P. McDonald