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Claire Lee Chennault

Claire Lee Chennault

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Claire Lee Chennault was born in Commerce, Texas, on 6th September, 1893. He was reared in Louisiana where his father was a cotton planter. He studied agriculture at Louisiana State University but left to become a teacher in Texas.

Chennault joined the United States Army during the First World War. Chennault was transferred to the Army Air Corps but did not qualify as a pilot until 1919. He eventually became chief of fighter training at Maxwell Field, Alabama. Chennault was also the author of the book, The Role of Defensive Pursuit (1935).

In 1937 Major Chennault retired from the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) and moved to China. Soon afterwards he was employed to create an aviation school. Chennault also joined a small group of American civilians training Chinese airmen and served as 'air adviser' to Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek.

In October 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt told Tommy Corcoran that he wanted him to resign from the administration. He wanted him to carry out a covert mission and it was "too politically dangerous" to do this while serving in his government. Roosevelt believed that the best way of stopping Japanese imperialism in Asia was to arm the Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek. However, Congress was opposed to this idea as it was feared that this help might trigger a war with Japan. Therefore, Roosevelt's plan was for Corcoran to establish a private corporation to provide assistance to the nationalist government in China. Roosevelt even supplied the name of the proposed company, China Defense Supplies. He also suggested that his uncle, Frederick Delano, should be co-chairman of the company. Chiang nominated his former finance minister, Tse-ven Soong, as the other co-chairman.

Chennault told Corcoran that if he was given the resources, he could maintain an air force within China that could carry out raids against the Japanese. Corcoran returned to the United States and managed to persuade Franklin D. Roosevelt to approve the creation of the American Volunteer Group.

One hundred P-40 fighters, built by the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, intended for Britain, were redirected to Chennault in China. William Pawley was Curtiss-Wright's representative in Asia and he arranged for the P-40 to be assembled in Rangoon. It was Tommy Corcoran's son David who suggested that the American Volunteer Group should be called the Flying Tigers. Chennault liked the idea and asked his friend, Walt Disney, to design a tiger emblem for the planes.

On 13th April, 1941, Roosevelt signed a secret executive order authorizing the American Volunteer Group to recruit reserve officers from the army, navy and marines. Pawley suggested that the men should be recruited as "flying instructors".

In July, 1941, ten pilots and 150 mechanics were supplied with fake passports and sailed from San Francisco for Rangoon. When they arrived they were told that they were really involved in a secret war against Japan. To compensate for the risks involved, the pilots were to be paid $600 a month ($675 for a patrol leader). In addition, they were to receive $500 for every enemy plane they shot down.

The Flying Tigers were extremely effective in their raids on Japanese positions and helped to slow down attempts to close the Burma Road, a key supply route to China. In seven months of fighting, the Flying Tigers destroyed 296 planes at a loss of 24 men (14 while flying and 10 on the ground).

Corcoran's work with China Defense Supplies caused some disquiet in Roosevelt's administration. Henry Morgenthau was a prominent critic. He argued that in effect, Corcoran was running an off-the-books operation in which a private company was diverting some of the war material destined for China to a private army, the American Volunteer Group.

Resistance came from General George Marshall and General Joseph Stilwell, the American commander in Asia. Marshall and Stilwell both believed that Chiang Kai-shek was completely corrupt and needed to be forced into introducing reforms. Stilwell complained about Corcoran's ability to present Chiang in the best possible light with Roosevelt. Stilwell wrote to Marshall that the "continued publication of Chungking propaganda in the United States is an increasing handicap to my work." He added, "we can pull them out of this cesspool, but continued concessions have made the Generalissimo believe he has only to insist and we will yield."

In April 1942, Chennault was recalled to duty in the United States Army as a brigadier general. Six months later he published the controversial "Chennault Plan" that called for a large increase in air-power to bomb the Japanese into submission. This plan was opposed by General Joseph Stilwell who favoured intensified ground action. Franklin D. Roosevelt supported Chennault and in March 1943, he was promoted to the rank of major general.

Initially the action was fairly successful but in April 1944, the Japanese launched Operation Ichi-go. Chiang's army was forced back and the enemy took seven of the airfields built as part of the Chennault Plan. This deprived US forces in the Pacific of strategic air support. Discredited and out of favour, Chennault resigned from the United States Army Air Force.

In August 1945, Tommy Corcoran joined with David Corcoran and William S. Youngman to create a Panamanian company, Rio Carthy, for the purpose of pursuing business ventures in Asia and South America. Soon afterwards, Chennault and Whiting Willauer approached Corcoran with the idea of creating a commercial airline in China to compete with CNAC and CATC. Corcoran agreed to use Rio Cathy as the legal vehicle for investing in the airline venture. Chiang Kai-shek agreed that his government would invest in the airline. Corcoran anticipated he would own 37% of the equity in the airline, but Chennault and Willauer gave a greater percentage to the Chinese government, and Corcoran's share dropped to 28%.

Civil Air Transport (CAT) was officially launched on 29th January, 1946. Corcoran approached his old friend Fiorella LaGuardia, the director general of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). He agreed to award a $4 million contract to deliver relief to China. This contract kept them going for the first year but as the civil war intensified, CAT had difficulty maintaining its routes.

The OSS had been disbanded in October 1945 and was replaced by the War Department's Strategic Service Unit (SSU). Paul Helliwell became chief of the Far East Division of the SSU. In 1947 the SSU was replaced by the Central Intelligence Agency.

CAT needed another major customer and on 6th July, 1947, Chennault and Tommy Corcoran had a meeting with Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, the new director of the CIA. Hillenkoetter arranged for Corcoran to meet Frank Wisner, the director of the Office of Policy Coordination. Wisner was in charge of the CIA's covert operations.

On 1st November, 1948, Corcoran signed a formal agreement with the CIA. The agreement committed the agency to provide up to $500,000 to finance an CAT airbase, and $200,000 to fly agency personnel and equipment in and out of the mainland, and to underwrite any shortfall that might result from any hazardous mission. Over the next few months CAT airlifted personnel and equipment from Chungking, Kweilin, Luchnow, Nanking, and Amoy.

In January, 1950, Civil Air Transport (CAT) relocated its base of operations to the island of Formosa, where Chiang Kai-shek had established his new government. The following month, the Soviet Union and China signed a mutual defense pact. Two weeks later, President Harry S. Truman signed National Security Directive 64, which stated that “it is important to United states security interests that all practical measures be taken to prevent further communist expansion in Southeast Asia.”

The support of the government in Formosa was to become a key aspect of this policy. In February 1950, Frank Wisner began negotiating with Chennault and Corcoran for the purchase of CAT. “In March, using a ‘cutout’ banker or middleman, the CIA paid CAT $350,000 to clear up arrearages, $400,000 for future operations, and a $1 million option on the business. The money was then divided among the airline’s owners, with Corcoran and Youngman receiving more than $100,000 for six years of legal fees.” Paul Helliwell was put in charge of this operation. His deputy was Desmond FitzGerald. Helliwell's main job was to help Chiang Kai-shek to prepare for a future invasion of Communist China. The CIA created a pair of front companies to supply and finance the surviving forces of Chiang's KMT. Helliwell was put in charge of this operation. This included establishing the Sea Supply Corporation, a shipping company in Bangkok.

The CIA now launched a secret war against China. An office under commercial cover called Western Enterprises was opened on Taiwan. Training and operational bases were established in Taiwan and other offshore islands. By 1951 Chiang Kai-shek claimed to have more than a million active guerrillas in China. However, according to John Prados, “ United States intelligence estimates at the time carried the more conservative figure of 600,000 or 650,000, only half of whom could be considered loyal to Taiwan.”

Claire Lee Chennault died of lung cancer in New Orleans on 27th July, 1958.

Corcoran, ever the loyal soldier to Roosevelt, agreed to help and visited his old friends in the Senate, including Senators Burton Wheeler of Montana, Worth Clark of Montana, and Robert La Follette of Wisconsin. A few weeks later Corcoran reported to the president that while these men were opposed to involvement in Europe, he did not believe that a modest aid program to China would cause them serious concern.

After evaluating Corcoran's optimistic assessment, Roosevelt conveyed to him, again through Lauchlin Currie, that he wanted to establish a private corporation to provide assistance to the Chinese. Corcoran thought the president's idea was ingenious, and later wrote that "if we'd tried to set up a government corporation per se, or do the work out of a Federal office, there would have been devil to pay on the Hill." Instead, Corcoran set up a civilian corporation, which he chartered in Delaware and, at the suggestion of the president, named China Defense Supplies. It would be, as Corcoran later recalled, "the entire lend lease operation" for Asia.

In order to provide the company with the stamp of respectability, Roosevelt arranged for his elderly uncle, Frederick Delano, who'd spent a lifetime in the China trade, to be co-chairman. The other chairman was T. V. Soong, Chiang's personal representative who frequently visited Washington to lobby for aid to his government. Soong, a Harvard graduate, was also Chiang's finance minister, as well as his banker and his brother-in-law. And he was a close friend of David Corcoran, whom he had met when the younger Corcoran was working in the Far East.

After getting the green light to proceed with the establishment of China Defense Supplies, Corcoran hired a staff to run the company. With Delano and Soong as the chairmen, Corcoran went about appointing a politically savvy management team. First, he asked his brother David to take a leave of absence from Sterling to become president. Although David Corcoran was an extremely competent manager, Sterling was then under investigation by the Department of Justice, and David's appointment could be cynically viewed as an attempt by Tommy to protect his brother from the investigation by shielding him with a quasi-government role. Next he appointed a bright young lawyer named Bill Youngman as general counsel. Youngman had previously clerked for Judge Learned Hand, and after Ben Cohen recommended him, he landed a job as general counsel at the Federal Power Commission. To direct the program from China, Corcoran chose Whitey Willauer, who had been his brother Howard's roommate at Exeter, Princeton, and Harvard Law School. Corcoran had previously helped Willauer get a job at the Federal Aviation Administration and he knew Willauer was "crazy about China." After helping to establish and run China Defense Supplies, Willauer moved over to the Foreign Economic Administration, where he supervised both Lend-Lease to China and purchases from China. Lastly, Corcoran arranged for the Marine Corps to detail Quinn Shaughnessy, who, like Corcoran, was a graduate of Harvard Law School. Shaughnessy was given the task of locating and acquiring goods, supplies, and weapons For the Chinese. Corcoran took no title himself other than outside counsel for China Defense Supplies. He paid himself five thousand dollars to set up the company, but didn't want his affiliation with it to interfere with his incipient lobbying practice.


The illustrated story below, as found in Real Heroes No. 7, November 1942, written and published during the actual time of the war, in the heat of the battle so to speak, is a straight forward uncomplicated account of Claire Chennault, his background, who he was, and how he came to be the commander of the American Volunteer Group, the A.V.G. However, officially named or called the A.V.G. or not, to the press on both sides of the action and any military adversaries the A.V.G. encountered, as well as by all the people who loved and held them in the highest regard, they were affectionately known and forever will be as:

Claire Lee Chennault Passes Away

Today in Masonic History Claire Lee Chennault passes away in 1958.

Claire Lee Chennault was an American soldier, mercenary and pilot.

Chennault was born on September 6th, 1893 in Commerce, Texas. He was raised in Louisiana. After graduating high school he and his father began misrepresenting the year of his Chennault's birth, most commonly it is listed as 1890 or 1889. This was most likely because Chennault was too young to attend college. He attended Louisiana State University in 1909 and 1910. He was enrolled in ROTC training at the school.

From 1913 to 1915 Chennault served as the principal of Kilbourne School before enlisting in the United States Army during World War I. It was during World War I that he learned how to fly. Following the war he graduated from pursuit pilot school in 1922. He would remain as part of the service after it became the Air Corps and would become the head Chief of Pursuit Section at the Air Corps Tactical School in the 1930's.

In the mid 1930's Chennault became the head of the Army Air Corps aerobatic team nicknamed "The Three Musketeers." He would later reorganize them to "The Three Men on the Flying Trapeze."

In 1937, Chennault resigned from the military due to declining health and a disagreement with his superiors. This largely came from the opinion that Chennault was not qualified to be promoted. Shortly after his resignation he was asked to come and serve as a consultant in China who in the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Originally a three month contract, Chennault stayed in China and became a mercenary in the service of the Chinese military.

In 1940 and early 1941, Chennault was sent by the Chinese government to negotiate with the United States for planes, parts and pilots. The pilots would be mercenaries like Chennault and the planes would receive Chinese markings. At the same time Chennault advocated for a plan to end the war quickly. He wanted the Chinese government to build airstrips in the north of China so that bombing runs could begin against Japanese cities. American military leadership was against it, in part they did not think that the Chinese would be able to build the base, they also questioned Chennault leadership since he was only a few years earlier called unacceptable for promotion. Although the planes and pilots would arrive after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the air bases also never materialized. The planes and pilots were formed into the American Volunteer Group, which was nicknamed the "Flying Tigers."

Chennault proved to have incredible success with the Flying Tigers. In 1942, the Chinese government for the first time released information about the Flying Tigers and Chennault's efforts. He was put on the cover of Life magazine and Time magazine. He was also brought back in to the United States military along with the Flying Tigers. He was given command of the Fourteenth Air Force after he was promoted to the rank of Major General.

After World War II, Chennault remained in China. After purchasing some surplus military aircraft he created the Civil Air Transport which was active during the time that Chinese Communists were taking over China. He was even called to Washington D.C. to testify on the matter. Later the Civil Air Transport changed it's name to Air America and continued to operate in southeast Asia up through the Vietnam War.

Nine days before Chennault passed away he was promoted to lieutenant general in the United States Air Force. He passed away from Lung Cancer in New Orleans.

Chennault was a member of League City Lodge No. 1053, League City, Texas. He was a 32° of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite, Orient of China at Shanghai (in exile) and a member of Islam Shrine Temple, San Francisco, California.

General Claire Lee Chennault, A Vintage Vignette

It began with a call from Martha Mahaffey of Madison. She told me that her aunt had related stories of a pretty Whitworth girl from Madison in the 1940s marrying Claire Lee Chennault of China's Flying Tigers fame from World War II (see on-line Wikipedia). Martha's thought was that I should write a story about the connection, but she had no details other than that Chennault was stationed at Redstone Arsenal at the time. It didn't seem to fit what I recalled of Chennault, specifically that the General should have been in China and not at Redstone Arsenal. Furthermore, early history of the arsenal did not include service as an airbase for the Army Air Corps in which Chennault flew. Still, I promised Martha that I would look into it.

After a cursory check of websites about General Chennault, I was sure that there was no way that he could have married a Whitworth here. In fact, historical accounts of Chennault stated that he was born in Texas in 1893 and had two wives. The first was Nellie Thompson. They married in 1911 in Winnsboro, Louisiana, and had eight children before their divorce in 1946. In 1947 Chennault married Chen “Anna” Xiangmei in Shanghai, China, by whom he had two more children before his death from lung cancer in 1958. His age when Redstone Arsenal began operations plus the two known wives (neither of which was a Whitworth) during his lifetime from age 18 through his passing at age 65, seemed to totally refute the possibility Chennault being truly married to a Madison woman. However, to finish my investigation, I also checked on-line Madison County Records Center data for any Chennault marriage to a Whitworth. There indeed is a record for Charles L. Chennault marrying Mary “Allyn” Whitworth here, November 18, 1941. Newspapers of the time included the marriage notice, but no mention was made of a Flying Tigers connection.

The marriage record gave validity to the family linkage. Still, it didn't “fit” that General Chennault would commit bigamy late in life five years before divorcing his first wife. Additionally, Allyne Whitworth was born in 1923, a classmate of my friend Percy Keel. They graduated from Madison High School in 1942, and Allyne submitted her abridged autobiography from her residence in Daphne (near Mobile) for the 1992 class reunion booklet. She related that she had married Charles L. “Cheunault” in 1941 according to the typed version. Since the on-line marriage record shows the spelling as Chennault, it is likely that the local typist of the submitted autobiography misinterpreted the handwriting of the first “n” as a “u”. Allyne further wrote that Charles had served in the Air Force 21 years, retiring in 1964 and dying in March 1967. This suggests that Charles was in the Army at Redstone in 1941 and did not enter the Air Force until 1943.

Allyne was a daughter of Harvey (“Pete”) Whitworth and his wife Lucille Smith. The family was enumerated in 1930 living beside Luke Landers along Brown's Ferry Road in Madison, near today's Landers Road. Harvey was a son of John David Whitworth and his wife Emma Virginia Tribble. Their family was the subject of a Vintage Vignette in 2007. On-line research shows that General Chennault had a son named Charles Lee Chennault as his third child, born in 1918 and died in Mobile March 1967, thus confirming the Madison connection to the Flying Tigers.

My own childhood was spent north of Natchez, Mississippi, on a farm a few miles east of the Mississippi River and about 25 miles from both Waterproof and Ferriday, Louisiana. These two Louisiana towns are where the Chennault family lived when the General was not in China or Texas. Some of his descendants still are there. Websites report that they frequently fished in Lake St. John between the towns, as did my dad and I. The research for this article reminded me of my youthful interfaces with former Ferriday residents Mickey Gilley and Jerry Lee Lewis, who “hung out” there with their friend Jimmy Swaggert (see Wikipedia for all three). It is truly a small world.

Time Periods:

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

James W. Pohl, &ldquoChennault, Claire Lee,&rdquo Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 29, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/chennault-claire-lee.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and &ldquoFair Use&rdquo for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Military History Book Reviews

The US Army's Chief of Staff was so hostile to Chennault, and so petty, that the American who had fought the Japanese the longest, since 1937, wasn't invited to attend the surrender ceremony on the USS Missouri. He had been squeezed out of command in China only a few months prior by Marshall and was not allowed to finish the job. As one Air Force general asked on the deck of the Missouri, "where's Chennault?" He was in a doghouse built by over-rated and vindictive superiors.

In early 1949, the Red Chinese were rapidly advancing and the Nationalists were on the run. At this critical moment, retired General Claire Lee Channault published his magnificent memoirs Way of the Fighter. I am sure that it's no accident that this important historical primary document is a "rare book" that can't be purchased for less the one-hundred dollars. Of course, there are several first-rate biographies of Chennault available. But, it's a great pity that Chennault's book isn't readily available. It is largely devoted his legendary military career and is also his answer to many detractors and smear merchants.

Chennault joined the US Army Air Service with America's declaration of war in 1917. He finagled his way into the pilot training program. However, he didn't see any action in the First World War. After the Armistice, he remained in the newly established Army Air Corps. It was during the 1920s that Chennault created and flew with the US military's first flying demonstration group.

Chennault center with his Wingmen
It was in the 1930s at Maxwell Field's Air Force Tactical School where Chennault's hostility to the "Bomber Mafia" ended his career with the Air Corps, at least for several critical years. With the advent of the B-17, Air Corps' doctrine went whole hog with strategic bombing. Briefly, the theory argued that large formations of heavily armed bombers were unstoppable: the bomber will always get through. Chennault countered that new, fast fighters could inflict unsustainable losses on unescorted bomber formations. As he explains,

Harsh and sadly true. Even after German defeat in the Battle of Britain and the British discontinuance of daylight bombing due to extreme losses, the Bomber Mafia pressed on until the horrific slaughter of B-17s over Schweinfurt in the summer/fall of 1943.

A key part of Chennault's defensive fighter theories was the use of an early warning system. This system was based on ground observers in this pre-radar era. He also argued for sophisticated radio networks in order to facilitate information flow.

In 1937 Chennault was eased out with a medical discharge after twenty years of service. His health problems did not prevent him from flying combat and shooting down many Japanese aircraft over China (on the down-low) in his legendary Hawk 75.

Chennault began having airstrips built throughout China at strategic points. Simultaneously, he created an early warning network of ground observers who communicated by either land-line or radio. Many of these extremely brave souls operated far behind Japanese lines. Some were placed right next to enemy airfields. Chennault would often receive their reports while Japanese warplanes were still warming up on the tarmac.

The story of the Flying Tigers has been well told many times. Chennault provides an inside look on how he managed to create and train this fighter group against long odds. He provides much insight on the much neglected China Air Task Force (CATF) that replaced the Tigers in July 1942. He explains how he provided air defense over a two thousand mile front with only a handful of P-40s and B-25s. The addition of the twin engine bombers demonstrates that Chennault wasn't just a fighter guy. He wanted and needed a strike force to take the war to the enemy.

Chennault explains how the later deployment of B-29s to China was a colossal blunder that ignored logistical reality. He advocated for a balanced air force in China that could both support the Chinese Army and cut up Japanese supply lines. However, his superior Stilwell was more enamored with building roads that would prove useless to the war effort. Stilwell's contemptuous attitude towards the Chinese and neglect of the war in that country was a stupid blunder. Chennault's vociferous arguments to the contrary got him into hot water:


Civil Air Transport (CAT) was a unique airline formed in China after World War II by General Claire Lee Chennault, leader of the Flying Tigers, and Whiting Willauer of the China Defense Supplies (CDS). They purchased war surplus cargo planes, enrolled WWII veterans, and wound up with an enthusiastic, colorful group of former Flying Tiger aces and CAT airmen from the U.S. Army Air Corps, Navy and Marine Corps. Many had been highly decorated. Operating under the aegis of the China National Rehabilitation and Relief Association (CNRRA), CAT distributed food and medicine to the interior of China where roads, railways and bridges had been destroyed by Japan’s Imperial Air Force.

United Nations relief supplies overwhelmed the docks of Shanghai with no way to distribute them inland except by navigable rivers and air. When China’s Communist 8th Army besieged China’s northern cities, we delivered arms, ammo and food to the defenders and returned to Tsingtao with refugees and wounded soldiers. By the end of 1947, our first year, we had rescued 22,000 refugees and 4,500 wounded Nationalist soldiers from Communist dominated territories. Many of the reinforcements we flew north were draftees of the Nationalist China Youth Corps. They boarded our C-46s in Tsingtao carrying rifles from the First World War and parchment umbrellas. Tin drinking cups dangled from belts of hand grenades and they wore sneakers, and ever-present military police prevented the kids from deserting. We then knew that Nationalist China faced trouble, and Chennault and CAT would be drawn into China’s Civil War, and Chennault would help Chiang Kai-shek resist the spread of a Communist police state.

The other two Chinese airlines, Central Air Transport Corporation (CATC) and China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC) flew alongside us in the distribution of food and medicine, and battling the Communists, but when it became apparent that China was losing its northern cities and the Yangtze River was about to be crossed by Mao’s Eighth Army, the Chinese Board of Directors of the other two airlines defected to Beijing, eager to be first in the development of the People’s airline. In a surprise departure from Hong Kong, with their corporate officers aboard, CATC and CNAC headed north to Bejing, the newly formed capital of Red China, leaving 71 airliners of their fleet in Hong Kong where laborers furiously piled spare parts on the People’s newly acquired planes. General Chennault’s friends had warned him that the new People’s Republic had asked the Soviets for transport planes but had been denied and when he witnessed the action around the 71 airliners, our leader envisioned a paratrooper attack on Taiwan. Whiting Willauer, a brilliant admiralty lawyer, found a way to ground the planes in Britain’s Crown Colony, thus denying Red China the means of an airborne invasion.

With typical American / Chinese innovation, our WWII landing ship was converted to a sea-going aircraft maintenance and repair factory. Magnifluxing tanks with instruments for detecting hidden cracks in landing gear struts and other heavy structures were operable at sea. Machine shops, propeller repair and balancing devices, high-pressure hydraulic test lines, a carpenter shop, an air-conditioned shop for the repair of delicate aircraft instruments, a parachute loft and medical clinic were capable of going full-blast while dodging Red invaders. It had reached the safety of Taiwan with a barge full of spare parts in tow.

We provided hope to thousands of freedom-loving war refugees by flying them to Taipei. We rescued the Government’s Bank of China silver ingots. And we had precluded a brain drain by supporting doomed cities until its city fathers arranged orderly departures to the island of Taiwan, a 240-mile long island approximately 90 miles east of the China Mainland. But we had become an airline with no place to go. It was springtime, 1950. We didn’t know that another war was imminent. Chennault and Willauer sold their airline to the U.S. Government for a song. Our status as an occasional contractor to the CIA was over. CAT was now the bona fide Air Arm of the CIA, a dynamic instrument of America’s foreign policy in Asia. Legally we became employees of the U.S. Government, albeit secret. Our cover was CAT’s passenger schedule which continued, while the CIA’s covert flights appeared to be CAT’s cargo charters.

America’s stake in the Vietnam War didn’t begin as late as history books specify. It began on Christmas Day, 1950, with Operation STEM, America’s Special Technical & Economic Mission, the cover for our country’s look-see into French Indochina. The Agency’s superb officer, Al Cox, assigned this writer to Hanoi and eventually Saigon and Laos as pilot of a CAT C-47. The right seat was occupied by Max Springweiler who was equipped with the essentials required by a combo pilot-radio operator-flight engineer while airborne and mechanic while the plane was on the ground. Max, a veteran of Euasia, Lufthansa’s subsidiary in China in the 1930’s, spoke fluent French, English, and German of course. He had lots of smarts and Al Cox believed he was valuable because many of Germany’s WWII Nazi officers were practicing their professions in The French Colony. Those interesting days can be told in a later installment on our Website.

After the fall of Saigon signaled the end of the Vietnam War, CAT / Air America would return profit earned by its cover operations (its seemingly civilian airlines), and thus become the only CIA proprietary that didn’t cost the Government anything as a matter of fact it earned, for the U.S. Government, 23 million dollars.

On November 29, 1952, a few weeks before Bob Snoddy’s child was born, he and Norman Schwartz were assigned to snatch a Chinese Nationalist spy, Li Chun-ying, out of Kirin Province, Manchuria, with a new pick-up system, but it was a Red China ambush. CAT’s olive-drab C-47 was shot down. John Downey and Richard Fecteau, the CIA officers in the rear prepared to reel the spy aboard, were thrown clear of the crash and lived to serve two decades in a Chinese prison. But Bob Snoddy, WWII USN Patrol Bomber commander (Navy Air MEal, Purple heart) and Norman Schwartz, WWII U.S. Marine Corps fighter pilot (Distinguished Flying Cross among other decorations) died. More than half a century later, the U.S. Joint Prisoner of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC) retrieved a fore-arm identified as Snoddy’s and returned it to the family’s burial plot in Oregon. JPAC, to its credit, steadfastly refuses to close the case of Norman Schwartz. Two stars, representing them, are etched in the granite wall at the entrance to the CIA’s headquarters.

On May Day, 1953, CAT joined another war — the French Indochina Revolution. French President Charles De Gaulle sought American aid. President Eisenhower, reluctant to commit America to another potential ground war in Asia, loaned France six C-119 Flying Boxcars hastily painted with French Air Force insignia. When the French pleaded they lacked pilots familiar with the planes and the time to train them, Civil Air Transport, still a civilian airline bearing the Chinese Nationalist Flag, offered their civilian pilots who were not familiar with the Flying Boxcars either. In typical CAT style, they focused their attention in Ground School for two or three nights at Clark Air Base near Manila, received flight training from superb flight instructors of the USAF Training command and arrived in Hanoi on May 6, ready for action. We parachuted arms, ammo, food, and even a few Mack Trucks to scattered French forces while FAF fighter planes strafed the surrounding ground for “Flak Suppression”. But we picked up a few holes during afternoon sorties because the French fighter pilots consumed wine at lunch and napped in the afternoon. French citizens back home and their soldiers in Indochina were fed up with their never-ending Colonial war.

Our sorties ended in a few months, but almost year later the C-119 operation resumed. Unknown to French and U.S. Intelligence organizations, the Vietnamese had dismantled 37mm anti-aircraft weapons – a gift from Red China – and carried the pieces on bicycles or their backs to reassemble them in the hills which surrounded the Valley of Dien Bien Phu. They quietly watched brave French soldiers prepare for a decisive battle on the flat valley which provided an advantage for French field weapons. Attempts to send reinforcements from Haiphong were “quarter-hearted” according to journalists. While the valley fell, decimated French units retreated to surrounding outposts and CAT pilots flew through flak as thick as that in Germany’s notorious Ruhr Valley during WWII. Flak suppression was slight, nor were the French rescue helicopters apparent. When Paul Holden was wounded by flak, Wally Bufford, keeping the battle-damaged C-119 airborne, applied a tourniquet to Holden’s torn arm and got the Flying Boxcar back to Haiphong. Historian Bill Leary said Buford’s status as a civilian pilot is all that kept him from receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross. Wally was with Jim McGovern on a subsequent flight when they were shot down and crashed across the Viet border near a Lao village. Its people recovered the bodies of McGovern and Buford intact and placed them in a Buddhist tomb.

Five years later a French graves registration team discovered the wreckage and interviewed the villagers who showed them the burial place. The American military attache in Vientiane so advised and the message was passed in turn to CAT executives and the CIA. But nothing was done until Historian Bill Leary, about three decades later, found the documentation in U.S. Government archives and notified this writer who, in turn, gathered his cohorts to fight for the return of the remains. McGovern’s brother, particularly, still suffering from wounds received on D-Day, the invasion of Europe in WWII, pleaded, just get my brother’s remains to Arlington before I die. This did not occur, however. Wally’s body has not yet been found, but McGovern’s bones, positively identified by the new system of nuclear biology, were cremated and interred in one of the walls in Arlington. Had he been a member of the armed services when he died, he would have been entitled to a ground plot.

In the late 1950s Allen Pope was shot down, ejected and landed in the water with a broken leg. Sentenced to death by a Communist military court during that time, Allen stuck to the U.S. Ambassador’s assertion that he was paid by local rebels. Five years later Robert Kennedy secured his release.

By 1959, investigative journalists were peeking through holes in CAT’s cloak of secrecy. The CIA retained the original name in half of its group while naming the other half Air America. It was only a separation on paper, supported by legal documents, but the cohesion of the whole remained intact. Air crews and mechanics switched allegiances at the stroke of a scheduler’s pencil. Even our fixed-in-place secretaries received two pay checks each month half pay from CAT, the other from Air America. Mechanics were not CAT’s or Air America’s: they belonged to a still different entity, Air Asia. The legal but operationally fake documents hoodwinked the Evil Empire and even fooled a few CAT/AAM chauvinists and now a few contemporary CIA folks.

The fall of Saigon signaled the end of America’s largest and most cohesive Aerial Empire without a NAME. Just a smattering of odd-shaped jigsaw puzzle pieces with five different titles. Fitted in place, they display a haunting, magnificent masterpiece.

Felix Smith, Permanent Honorary Chairman
Civil Air Transport (CAT) Association


Chennault was twice married and had a total of ten children, eight by his first wife, the former Nell Thompson (1893–1977), an American of British ancestry, whom he met at a high school graduation ceremony and subsequently wed in Winnsboro, Louisiana, on December 24, 1911. The marriage ended in divorce in 1946, long after his service in China started. He had two daughters by his second wife, Chen Xiangmei (Anna Chennault), a young reporter for the Central News Agency whom he married on December 2, 1947. She became one of the Republic of China's chief lobbyists in Washington, D.C.

His children from the first marriage were John Stephen Chennault (1913–1977), Max Thompson Chennault (1914–2001), Charles Lee Chennault (1918–1967), Peggy Sue Chennault Lee (1919 - 2004), Claire Patterson Chennault (November 24, 1920 – October 3, 2011), [31] David Wallace Chennault (1923–1980), Robert Kenneth Chennault (1925–2006), and Rosemary Louise Chennault Simrall (September 27, 1928 – August 25, 2013). [32]

The Chennault daughters from the second marriage are Claire Anna Chennault (born 1948) and Cynthia Louise Chennault (born 1950), a professor of Chinese at the University of Florida, Gainesville. [33]

Claire P. Chennault, one of Claire Lee's sons, was a U.S. Army Air Corps and then U.S. Air Force officer from 1943 to 1966 and subsequent resident of Ferriday, Louisiana. [31]

Claire Lee Chennault

Claire Lee Chennault
1893 1958
Lieutenant General
United States Air Force
Senior Adviser Chinese Air Force Academy
Commander, Ameriean Volunteer Group, CAF
1941 1942
Commanding General, 14th Air Force, USAF
Founder, President and Chairman, CAT
Chairman, Air Asia Company Limited

Topics. This historical marker is listed in these topic lists: Air & Space &bull War, World II. A significant historical year for this entry is 1893.

Location. 32° 30.693′ N, 92° 3.273′ W. Marker is in Monroe, Louisiana, in Ouachita Parish. Marker can be reached from Kansas Lane near Central Avenue, on the right when traveling north. Touch for map. Marker is at or near this postal address: 701 Kansas Lane, Monroe LA 71212, United States of America. Touch for directions.

Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within 4 miles of this marker, measured as the crow flies. OH-6 Cayuse Helicopter (within shouting distance of this marker) Selman Field Navigator Memorial (approx. 0.6 miles away) Selman Field (approx. 0.6 miles away) The Monroe Monarchs (approx. 1.8 miles away) St. Matthew Catholic Church (approx. 3.6 miles away) Art Alley (approx. 3.7 miles away) Operation Iraqi Freedom Memorial (approx. 3.7 miles away) Fort Miro (approx. 3.7 miles away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Monroe.

More about this marker. Located on the grounds of the Chennault Aviation & Military Museum

Birth of Claire Chennault

Claire Lee Chennault was born on September 6, 1890, 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 the 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.

US #2187 FDC – Chennault Silk Cachet First Day Cover. Click image to order.

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 US to request more planes and pilots. From this meeting came the creation of the American Volunteer Group, also known as the Flying Tigers. The US promised 100 planes as well as mechanics, pilots, and aviation supplies.

Item #20108 – Commemorative cover marking Chennault’s 91st birthday. Click image to order.

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.

Item #7501641 – Set of three Chennault First Day Proof Cards. Click image to order.

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 US 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.

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