Claire Lee Chennault was born on September 6, 1893, in Commerce, Texas.
Chennault spent his early years in Louisiana, attended Louisiana State University, and joined the ROTC. He worked as a school principal until the outbreak of World War I, at which point he joined the Army Signal Corps. Chennault went on to fly with the Army Air Service during that war.
After World War I, Chennault was made Chief of Pursuant Section at the Air Corps Tactical School. He also led the 1st Pursuit Group Army Air Corps aerobatic team, the Three Musketeers, which he later reorganized as Three Men on the Flying Trapeze.
By the mid-1930s, Chennault’s health was suffering and he fought with superiors after he was passed over for a promotion. So he retired from the military on April 30, 1937. He was then invited to join a small group of American civilians in China training their airmen.
Shortly after Chennault’s arrival in China, the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out and he was made chief air advisor to Chiang Kai-shek. In this role he trained Chinese Air Force pilots and flew on occasional scouting missions. Then in 1940 he traveled back to the U.S. to request more planes and pilots. From this meeting came the creation of the American Volunteer Group, also known as the Flying Tigers. The U.S. promised 100 planes as well as mechanics, pilots, and aviation supplies.
Chennault planned and campaigned for a bombing raid by his tigers, which he believed could end the war. The raid never happened because airfields weren’t built close enough to Japan to launch the planes. Then on December 20, 1941, Chennault’s Tigers shot down four Japanese planes bound for Kunming.
The Tigers continued to guard the Burma Road, Rangoon, and other important locations in Southeast Asia and Western China. Eventually, Chennault rejoined the Army and the Tigers were formally incorporated into the U.S. Army Air Forces.
After the war Chennault returned to China and created Civil Air Transport (later Air America) to aid Nationalist China in its struggle against Communist China. He was eventually promoted to lieutenant general in the Air Force nine days before his death on July 27, 1958.
Flying Tigers First Combat
On December 20, 1941, the Flying Tigers engaged in their first battle.
The Flying Tigers were the brainchild of Claire L. Chennault, a retired US Army Air Corps officer. Chennault had been working in China as Chiang Kai-shek’s military adviser in 1937 when the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out. He then worked as director of the Chinese Air Force flight school in Kunming.
In this role, Chennault trained Chinese Air Force pilots and flew on occasional scouting missions. Up until the summer of 1940, the Soviet Union had provided fighter and bomber squadrons but withdrew them after that time. So that year Chennault returned to the US to request that the US provide pilots and planes to aid in the Chinese cause.
After President Franklin Roosevelt approved Chennault’s request in April 1941, he spent several months overseeing the purchase of 100 Curtiss P-40 fighters and recruiting 100 pilots and 200 ground crew and administrative workers. Together, they would become the American Volunteer Group (AVG), nicknamed the Flying Tigers. The pilots consisted of 60 men from the Navy and Marine Corps and 40 from the Army Air Corps. Each one was discharged from their service and hired by a private military contractor, though they would ultimately work closely with the US Army.
Chennault set up a flight school for the pilots in China because it turned out some had lied about their flight experience and needed pursuit training. Chennault also pushed a different approach to air combat based on what he’d seen previously in China. He ordered his pilots to work in teams with an altitude advantage and use a “dive-and-zoom” technique.
By November, the pilots were all trained and most of the planes arrived in China. The pilots were divided into three squadrons – 1st Squadron (Adam and Eves), 2nd Squadron (Panda Bears), and 3rd Squadron (Hell’s Angels). Their first mission was to protect the Burma Road, a vital supply route for China.
The Flying Tigers first saw combat on December 20, 1941, while protecting the Burma Road. Members of the 1st and 2nd squadrons encountered 10 Japanese bombers near Kunming. They shot down three of them and prevented them from bombing their target. And after that, the Japanese abandoned any further raids on Kunming. Three days later, the 3rd squadron entered combat defending Rangoon. Though the Japanese managed to bomb the city, the Flying Tigers shot down 35 enemy planes.
The Japanese then launched their Burma Campaign in January 1942. The Flying Tigers were largely outnumbered but managed to inflict high casualties on the Japanese. By January 24, the Flying Tigers had shot down 73 Japanese planes, while losing just five of their own. However, as the fighting wore on through February, the Tigers lost a number of planes and were down to just 38 aircraft. Even as their number of aircraft dwindled, the Tigers continued to harass the Japanese and even prevented an advance on Kunming.
By June 1942, members of the new USAAF 23rd Fighter group began to arrive in China to replace the Tigers. The Tigers flew their last mission on July 4, the same day they were disbanded. In all, the Tigers were credited with shooting down 297 enemy aircraft. Fourteen Tigers were killed in action, captured, or disappeared, two died of wounds from bombing raids, and six were killed in accidents. Because they served as part of the Chinese air force, they received Chinese awards – the Order of the Cloud and Banner and the Chinese Air Force Medal. And 50 years after their service, the Tigers were officially recognized as members of the US military and awarded the Presidential Unit Citation and each received a Distinguished Flying Cross.
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