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Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault

Maj. Gen. Claire L. Chennault. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Maj. Gen. Claire L. Chennault. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Claire Chennault led the famed Flying Tigers and the U.S. 14th Air Force against the Japanese in China and Burma during World War II. He was a charismatic airpower theorist and a controversial leader who at times disagreed with official doctrine and his superiors.

Chennault learned to fly in the Army after World War I, and became the U.S. Army Air Corps' chief of pursuit training in the 1930s. He believed strongly in the value of fighter aircraft, and his theory of "defensive pursuit" argued that fighters could destroy attacking bombers. Chennault openly disagreed with his superiors, who believed bombers would be unstoppable in future wars. By 1937 poor health and disputes with top commanders led Chennault to retire from the Army.

Quickly, though, he joined a small group of American civilians training Chinese airmen in their battle against Japan. Chennault later helped persuade President Franklin Roosevelt to send American aircraft and volunteer pilots to assist China a few months before the United States was at war.

Chennault's "1st American Volunteer Group" (AVG) -- better known as the Flying Tigers -- began training in the summer of 1941, and they fought the Japanese for six months after Pearl Harbor. As the U.S. Army Air Forces absorbed the AVG in 1942, Chennault rejoined the Army. He became a major general and commanded the AVG's successor, the 14th Air Force, until almost the end of the war. In this influential post, he dealt personally with Chinese head of state Chiang Kai-shek and President Roosevelt.

Chennault disagreed, however, with rival commanders about strategy in Asia. Disputes with authority eventually forced him to give up his command and leave China near the end of the war. The Chinese, though, regarded Chennault as a hero because of his leadership and personal commitment to China.

Chennault returned to China in 1946 as a civilian to manage the Civil Air Transport Company, an airline that assisted the Nationalist Chinese against the Communists. Claire Chennault died in 1958 with the honorary grade of lieutenant general. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

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