Chennault file photo [629]

Claire Chennault

Given NameClaire
Born6 Sep 1893
Died27 Jul 1958
CountryUnited States


ww2dbaseClaire Lee Chennault was born to John Chennault and Jessie Lee in Commerce, Texas, United States and his family moved to Waterproof, Louisiana, United States early on in his life. His middle name was given in honor of General Robert E. Lee, a distant relative on his mother's side. In his younger years he ventured the bayous of Louisiana; "My earliest recollections are of roaming the oak woods and moss-draped cypress swamps in northeast Louisiana. Life in these woods and on the bayous and lakes taught me self-confidence and reliance and forced me to make my own decisions", he said in his book Way of a Fighter. His mother passed away when he was eight years old, and some time after his father married his teacher Lottie Barnes. After education at Louisiana State University (where he was a cadet in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) program) and Louisiana State Normal, he became a teacher in a small school in Athens, Louisiana. In 1911, he married his first wife, Nell Thompson. When WW1 broke out, he joined the US Army and served at Kelly Field where he worked as ground crew for aircraft; although rejected as an aviator several times, he was trained by various instructors who generously offered him the rear seats of their training aircraft while explaining the basics of flying. Very soon, he was skilled enough to fly some of the army aircraft on his own, though without permission from the Army. Officially, he became an aviator after WW1 when he re-joined the Army and entered the fighter pilot training program. In 1923, he was sent to Pearl Harbor as the commanding officer of the 19th Pursuit Squadron; it was at Pearl Harbor, US Territory of Hawaii where he considered himself to be most productive, initiating new plans for Air Corps organization and new tactics in aerial warfare. One of his innovations during this period was the use of airborne infantry, but it was way ahead of his time, and the idea was ridiculed. He was a strong supporter of the defensive capabilities of fighters against hostile bombing missions, but it was a view that was not shared by his superiors whose understanding of aerial warfare was deeply rooted in the obsolete theories from the WW1 period. After many disagreements, he retired from the army on 30 Apr 1937 under the guise of poor health.

ww2dbaseChennault's love for aviation kept him in the same field, however. A day after his retirement from the US Army, he was en route t to China, where he took a civilian position directly under Chiang Kaishek's wife Song Meiling training Chinese pilots. He provided a training program for Chinese pilots, some of whom knew little more than taking off and landing. He negotiated with the Secretaries of the Army and the Navy to give special permission for pilots to resign from their US Army and Navy postings to fly for the Chinese Air Force, which was normally not allowed for US citizens, provided that these pilots promised to return under the US banner should the US enter the war. Last but not least, he persuaded the US government to send 100 P-40 fighters originally intended for Britain to China; the first P-40 aircraft arrived in China months before the US officially entered WW2. With the American pilots and planes, he established the First American Volunteer Group (AVG), "Flying Tigers". After the US officially entered the war in Dec 1941, AVG fought against the Japanese as an independent entity for another six months; after which, he was re-commissioned in the US Army at the war time rank of colonel, and the AVG was absorbed into the US Army 14th Air Force with Chennault at the helm. He often acted in the capacity of the liaison between Chinese leader Chiang Kaishek and American leaders in Washington D.C. The pilots of the former AVG relied on Chennault's defensive pursuit theory to defend the Burma Road and to support ground operations throughout the campaigns in the China-Burma-India theater. Understanding the value of intelligence, he traded information gained from high-level aerial photography flights with US Navy's Sino-American Special Technical Cooperative Organization (SACO) under the command of Milton Miles, which operated agents across China to monitor Japanese warship and convoy movements. Behind the back of the Chinese leaders, Chennault also worked with the Communists to gain intelligence on Japanese troop movements in areas where the Nationalist Chinese had no presence. By early 1945, he had once again been frustrated by his colleague, this time more so due to the Office of Strategic Services' efforts to interfere with his operations and George Marshall's perception that Chennault had been less than loyal to Joseph Stilwell. As a punishment Marshall and Henry Arnold moved Chennault's 14th Air Force to northern China, a move that made no strategic sense, simply to get Chennault out of the way. Chennault once again retired, again under the guise of health concerns, and left China on 31 Jul 1945. While US officers typically held the view that the Chinese were difficult to work with, Chennault's view was the opposite; in a 1958 letter to Milton Miles, Chennault worte:

I always found the Chinese friendly and cooperative. The Japanese gave me a little trouble at times but not very much. The British in Burma were quite difficult sometimes. But Washington gave me trouble night and day throughout the whole war!"

ww2dbaseAt the end of his military career, Chennault achieved the rank of major general and was awarded with 17 medals including the Distinguished Service Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was regarded as a hero to the Chinese, who had affectionately given him the Chinese name Chen Nade and later erected a statue in his likeness in Taipei, Taiwan, Republic of China.

ww2dbaseIn 1946, Chennault returned to China to establish the airline Civil Air Transport Company (CAT), whose corporate logo was that of the Flying Tigers. CAT was charged with flying supplies from the port cities of Shanghai and Guangzhou into the interior, part for civilian use and part for military purposes in the resumed Chinese Civil War between the Nationalists and the Communists. Later, CAT also aided anti-Communist efforts in the Korean War. During this time, the previously divorced Chennault married Ann Chen, a reporter for the Central News Agency, who was many years his junior. In his private life, he was an outdoorsman who enjoyed gardening, fishing, and golfing. His health deteriorated slowly from bronchitis and lung cancer, and passed away as a lieutenant general in 1958. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, United States.

Linda Kush, The Rice Paddy Navy
Arlington National Cemetery
US Air Force

Last Major Revision: Nov 2005

Claire Chennault Interactive Map


Chiang Kaishek, Song Meiling, and Claire Chennault, 1940sClaire Chennault at his office, China, 1940sClaire Chennault, Song Meiling, and Chiang Kaishek in China, circa 1940sClaire Chennault at his desk, 1940s
See all 24 photographs of Claire Chennault

Claire Chennault Timeline

6 Sep 1893 Claire Chennault was born.
30 Apr 1937 Claire Chennault retired from the US Army Air Corps under the guise of poor health; in actuality, he had grown too frustrated with the USAAC leadership who did not share his vision for the future of air warfare.
14 Jul 1942 The US Army Air Force established the China Air Task Force with Claire Chennault in command; it was to be a part of the 10th Air Force.
8 Mar 1943 General Henry Arnold agreed to give Claire Chennault an air force independent from the USAAF, but maintained Chennault's position underneath Joseph Stilwell.
10 Mar 1943 Claire Chennault was promoted to the rank of major general and placed in command of the newly formed USAAF 14th Air Force in China.
31 Oct 1943 An American reconnaissance flight from Suichuan Airfield, Jianxi Province, China detected a Japanese shipping concentration in the Sasebo-Nagasaki area. Claire Chennault requested for permission to attack, but Henry Arnold rejected the request, noting that he did not wish to alert the Japanese of American air strength in China while he worked on a plan for concerted B-29 strikes from China.
31 Jul 1945 Claire Chennault departed China for the United States.
27 Jul 1958 Claire Chennault passed away from lung cancer at the Ochsner Foundation Hospital in Jefferson, Louisiana, United States.

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Visitor Submitted Comments

1. Anonymous says:
22 Nov 2005 08:44:25 AM

I am very interested in learning more about the life of Claire Chennault. My mother was from Mangum and I have heard all my life we are distant relatives of this man. If there is anything available I would appreciate any information. Thanks
2. Commenter identity confirmed BILL says:
11 May 2009 04:35:42 PM

Chennault sent reports about the Japanese Zero, to the US War Dept. but all reports were filed away, and never read. The Flying Tigers and Claire Chennault will be linked forever, in Aviation History. I even flew on (CAT) Civil Air Transport C-47, Taipei,Taiwan.
3. Anonymous says:
20 Jan 2010 10:15:08 AM

I am a distant relative and have the family tree book dating back to the 1500s. I can look up relative information for you.
4. Theresa says:
17 Feb 2010 09:10:26 AM

Anonymous - I would be very interested in having you look up something on the family tree book for me. I have been told that my mother's side of the family is related to Claire Chennault. Unfortunately, my great-aunt who was the last living person to be able to confirm how we were related passed away a few years ago. Thank you.
5. Paige Porter says:
24 Feb 2010 02:11:44 PM

Claire Chennault is the sexiest Lieutenant General ever.
6. A young student says:
4 Mar 2010 02:35:22 AM

I wonder why Chennault would marry such a young woman and divorce his faithful wife. From what I know, Chennault's wife never wanted a divorce and they had 3 kids, I think. To me he sounds like a man who got tired of his old wife and wanted a new one because he lost touch with Neil. I read a book called 'Commander of the Flying Tigers: Claire Lee Chennault' and it doesn't fully explain how he divorced, but he sound pretty immoral to me. Anyone care to enlighten me?
7. Brenda says:
28 Apr 2010 05:16:34 AM

General Chennault's first wife was named Nell, not Neil.
8. Anonymous says:
15 May 2010 06:49:18 PM

I still need a quote from him!
9. Carise C says:
31 May 2010 01:20:59 PM

I'd absolutely love to see a family tree if that were ever possible. I know I am related and was always told he was my grandfathers grandfather (or his great grandfather..not 100% sure anymore as my grandfather passed a few years ago and he was the one that knew all of the family's who's who)

If anyone has any info, it would be greatly appreciated :) I can email names of members of my family if it helps!

10. Anonymous says:
12 Jun 2012 07:00:28 PM

War, Command responsibilities, distance - all have effects you cannot imagine unless you have been there. That said, Chennault fatherd more children than most will allude to, which should not take anything away from his military career high-lights. He was not openly a philaderer, and would not have projected such an image to the men & women who served under him. His closest friends knew his moral character had less flaws than their own! Blaming any one thing or person for divorce from his TX & LA family is total injustice... and his second wife, Anna, was not a factor, but a later addition. Study the time-line before jumping to conclusions!
11. Michael Cha says:
27 Jan 2013 10:17:05 AM

I salute General Chennault for his efforts in defense of China. Unlike like his superior General Stilwell, he was true partner and cared about the defense of China. Flying Tigers will always be in the spirit of Chinese defense against the *** aggression. A true American Hero, and immortalized by Chinese Republican Air Force.
12. Karen Gentry says:
8 Aug 2014 07:10:30 AM

I was told that I am a relative through my Mother's family. Her dad is Harvey Wesley Holdiness and her mother is Ida Lily. If this is true, can you tell me how? Thanks
13. Anonymous says:
21 Sep 2014 09:34:50 AM

I am Kin to the Gen.Chennault by my Grand Daddy Chinault we are cousin's.
His Family moved South mine stayed in Virginia.
Have all the Chenault history and then some.
14. Commenter identity confirmed Alan Chanter says:
9 Sep 2016 05:49:40 AM

The Chinese were the originators of the term ‘Flying Tigers’ from a proverb – ‘Like tigers with wings, their strength is irresistible’. Madame Chiang reportedly said of them “They are my angels, with or without wings”. The pilots themselves, however, preferred the simple ‘American Volunteers’.

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More on Claire Chennault
Event(s) Participated:
» Second Battle of Shanghai
» Cairo Conference

Claire Chennault Photo Gallery
Chiang Kaishek, Song Meiling, and Claire Chennault, 1940s
See all 24 photographs of Claire Chennault

Famous WW2 Quote
"Since peace is now beyond hope, we can but fight to the end."

Chiang Kaishek, 31 Jul 1937

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