By Aleea Slappy

He was a leather faced Texan- a great American aviator, known for his unorthodox ideas about fighter tactics and a cantankerous relationship with his superiors in the US Air Force. He was also a leader – a wise and humble man that led by inspiration. He was the man that led the 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG) in China to victory. Although they only lasted six months in China, in that short time, the AVG shot down 286 enemy planes under the leadership of that one man- General Claire Lee Chennault.

In the early days of July 1937 on the Marco Polo Bridge, eight miles west of Beijing, Japanese troops were performing a nighttime marching drill. During the drill shots rang out, allegedly fired by a small band of Chinese insurgents. As a result, the Japanese troops threatened to forcefully enter the town of Wanping and begin an invasion of China. They had already conquered Manchuria and planned to use it as a launching base for their troops.

Months earlier, in April 1937, before Japan entered into war with China, Claire Chennault retired from the US Army. Madame Chiang Kai-shek asked Chennault if he would accept a three-month contract to survey the Chinese Air Force at a salary of $1,000 per month plus expenses. China provided Chennault with air and motor transportation; an interpreter and permission to test fly any of the planes in the Chinese Air Force.

“Even before China, he was a great aviator,” said Chennault’s widow, Anna Chennault, who met General Chennault at the age of 20 while working as a reporter in China. Claire Chennault learned to fly in the army after WWI. He was born Sept. 1893 in Commerce, Texas but he spent most of his childhood in Louisiana. Chennault graduated from college at Louisiana Normal School and became a teacher. Upon the entry of the United States into World War I, Chennault enlisted in the Army. He was commissioned as first lieutenant in the Infantry Reserve following Officers Training Camp at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana.

Chennault’s theories on military aviation, while advanced, were unlike any previously used, earning him the nickname “Radical Chennault.” In the 1930’s he was given the position of U.S. Army Air Corps Chief of Pursuit Training. Although Chennault was very active, he suffered from health problems. Often ill with bronchitis, his flight surgeons ordered that he be grounded and no longer fly. In Feb. 1937 the Army suggested that Chennault retire with his rank of captain. Two months later, on April 30th, Chennault retired from the US Army Air Corps. The following day he left from Louisiana to San Francisco and was soon en route to China.

The Chinese, prior to Chennault’s arrival, were able to offer little organized resistance against Japan. While speaking at a gathering of China’s leaders, Chiang Kai-shek complained that the only way for China to maintain peace was to allow the Japanese troops to come on Chinese soil whenever they wanted and to allow the Japanese to shoot at the Chinese without the Chinese shooting back.