Chennault, Claire Lee (1893–1958)

By: James W. Pohl

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: November 28, 2015

Claire Lee Chennault, aviator and air force general, son of John Stonewall Jackson and Jessie (Lee) Chennault, was born on September 6, 1893, in Commerce, Texas. He was a descendant of eighteenth-century Huguenot immigrants, related to Sam Houston paternally and to Robert E. Lee maternally. At the age of one month he moved with his family to Gilbert, Louisiana. His mother died when he was five. He attended Louisiana State University and graduated from Louisiana State Normal College. On Christmas Day 1911 he married Nell Thompson; they had eight children. The marriage ended in divorce in 1946. Chennault married Anna Chan on December 2, 1947, and they had two children.

He taught in various southern towns, including Athens, Louisiana; Biloxi, Mississippi; and Louisville, Kentucky. With the American entry into World War I, he was commissioned a first lieutenant and became a flight instructor. From 1919 to 1923 he was with the border patrol; from 1923 to 1926 he served with the Hawaiian Pursuit Squadron; and from 1930 to 1936 he was a member of the United States Pursuit Development Board and leader of the Air Corps Exhibition Group ("Three Men on a Flying Trapeze"). Deafness and disagreements with his superiors over tactics forced his retirement in 1937. In the same year he became advisor to Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Air Force. In 1941 he organized the American Volunteer Group (Flying Tigers) in China. In March 1943 Chennault was promoted to major general and to command of the Fourteenth Air Force. His tour was marked by conflicts with the theater commander, Lt. Gen. Joseph Stilwell. Chennault was retired against his will in July 1945, as the defensive tactics he favored were regarded as obsolete by air corps strategists. He then organized and was chairman of the board of Civil Air Transport. He maintained homes in Taipei, Taiwan, and near Monroe, Louisiana.

He was the author of an autobiography and several works on fighter tactics. Among his many decorations were the Distinguished Flying Cross with cluster; Army and Navy Air Medal with cluster; Chinese Army, Navy, and Air Force Medal; Commander of the British Empire; Legion of Honor; Croix de Guerre with Palm; and Chevalier Polonia Restituta. He died of cancer on July 27, 1958, at the Ochsner Foundation Hospital in New Orleans and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Monuments were erected to him in Taipei, on the grounds of the Louisiana State Capitol at Baton Rouge, and at Chennault Air Force Base, Lake Charles, Louisiana. A state historical marker was placed at his birthplace in Commerce, Texas, in 1968. On October 14, 2015, in a collaborative effort with Texas A&M University-Commerce, a second marker at the site was dedicated in two translations of Mandarin. It is the first state historical marker in Texas in Chinese.

Keith Ayling, Old Leatherface of the Flying Tigers: The Story of General Chennault (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1945). Martha Byrd, Chennault: Giving Wings to the Tiger (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1987). Anna Chennault, Chennault and His Flying Tigers (New York: Eriksson, 1963). Anna Chennault, A Thousand Springs: The Biography of a Marriage (New York: Eriksson, 1962). Claire Lee Chennault, Way of a Fighter: The Memoirs of Claire Lee Chennault (New York: Putnam, 1949). New York Times, July 28, 1958. Otha Spencer, Flying the Hump: Memories of an Air War (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1992). Time, August 4, 1958. Barbara W. Tuchman, Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911–45 (New York: Macmillan, 1970). U.S. Air Force Historical Division, The Army Air Forces in World War II, ed. Wesley Frank Craven and James Lea Cate (7 vols., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948–58).

Time Periods:
  • World War II

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

James W. Pohl, “Chennault, Claire Lee,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 07, 2022,

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November 28, 2015