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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 574

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This is the grave of Claire Chennault.

Born in 1893 in Commerce, Texas, Chennault grew up in Louisiana. He and his father decided to lie about the boy’s age, moving his date of birth back to 1890 so he could enroll at LSU and join the ROTC in 1909. He became principal of a school in Louisiana upon graduation, but when the nation joined World War I, he went to officers’ school in Indiana and then was transferred to the Aviation Division of the Army Signal Corps. He learned to fly and unlike nearly all other volunteers in the war, was not mustered out in 1919. Instead, he continued learning to fly and rose in the Army Air Corps. He became Chief of Pursuit Section at the Air Corps Technical School by the 1930s and spent his time not only teaching people to fly but also leading the Army’s stunt pilot team that would perform for audiences at air shows.

In 1937, Chennault left the military. There were a number of reasons. For one, lots of people hated the guy, including his own superiors. Second, he had bad health, including hearing loss. He also didn’t have the qualifications for promotion and that bothered him. So he went to China to train airmen for the Chinese Army. That would change his life. For one, he left his wife and married a woman a mere 31 1/2 years younger than he, though that would not happen for several years yet. She is buried with him. He also worked for the woman in charge of the Chinese military–Madame Chiang. They became close and when the Japanese launched its big invasion of China, Chennault became Chiang Kai-Shek’s top air power advisor. Chiang was also working with the Soviets at this time and it was a lot of their pilots who took over the day to day fighting. Chennault went to western China in 1938 to train an entirely new squadron on the American model. Chennault also became one of Chiang’s best connections with the United States, which he was always good at cultivating. He sent Chennault to Washington in 1940 to meet with Madame Chiang’s brother T.V. Soong to have him raise more money to build the nation’s air power, for instance.

While Chennault was back in the U.S., he started recruiting American pilots to help the Chinese out. This was part of the general slow preparation for war the Roosevelt administration was engaging in. Similar lend-lease terms was granted to China and in fact, some planes designated for the British were then sent to China. About 100 planes and 300 men came to China. Chennault trained them into the Flying Tigers, one of World War II’s most famous military units. They were training in Burma by August 1941. As his planes were shooting down Japanese planes before the U.S. entered the war, he became in a sense the first military hero of the war and was the first to receive widespread attention at the very least. The Flying Tigers existed as an independent unit until June 1942, when they were incorporated into the Army Air Force. Chennault had rejoined the military at the rank of colonel and rose to major general by the end of war.

But Chennault was still hated by a lot of people and that very much included his superior, Joseph Stillwell. The short version of this is that Chennault wanted to support Chiang Kai-Shek and Stillwell didn’t care about that. Chiang didn’t want to commit his troops to massive ground war, hoping they could be saved to kill communists after the Americans kicked out the Japanese. Stillwell wanted air power used to support a campaign in which Chinese troops took the lead. Stillwell and Chennault really, really, really hated each other. Some of it is that Stillwell was puritanical while Chennault opened a brothel for his own troops. Some of it is that Stillwell correctly recognized that Chiang was a fraud while Chennault was a bought man of the generalissimo. When British Field Marshal Alan Brooke met both of them in 1943, he thought little of either, basically calling Chennault an idiot, if a brave man. Both men took their war to FDR. Chennault argued that air power alone could defeat Japan, which conveniently allowed Chiang to not do anything that would get in the way of killing commies, while Stillwell knew this was wrong. They continued their infighting until the war ended, over the use of air power, over doing drops of supplies for the horribly managed Chinese troops, and over everything else.

After the war, Chennault continued filling the hack gap for Chiang, urging the use of American air power to attack Chinese communist forces in support of Chiang and buying up planes for anti-communist forces around Asia. After the communists defeated the corrupt and inept Chiang in 1949, Chennault testified before Congress that it was all the fault of the Truman administration for not giving Chiang the proper support. He fully believed the Korean War was a loss for the Americans and a victory for global communism.

In 1957, Chennault was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died the next year.

Claire Chennault is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia. This is also the grave of Anna Chennault, who would follow up her life with her much older husband by being a leader of the Republican lobby against the Chinese government. She campaigned for Richard Nixon in 1960 and then helped sabotage the peace negotiations between the Johnson administration and the North Vietnamese in 1968 in order to help Nixon and keep up the war against the evil commies. In 1981, she served as Reagan’s unofficial representative in Beijing to tell Deng Xiaoping that he might hate communism and use strong rhetoric, but was only concerned with the Soviets, not the Chinese. She lived all the way until 2018.

If you would like this series to visit other leading figures of World War II, you can donate to cover the required expense here. Joseph Stillwell is at West Point and Dwight Eisenhower is in Abilene, Kansas. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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