America has a long history of heroes who were born in unremarkable circumstances and humble beginnings. Claire Lee Chennault, born on September 6, 1893, in Commerce, Texas and raised in rural Gilbert, Louisiana, was that kind of hero.
Early disappointment taught him resilience and the bayou taught him self-reliance. Chennault lost his mother at the age of eight, and then lost his stepmother at the age of 16. He began hunting and camping by himself soon after his mother died. He learned how to track his prey and conserve his resources- skills that would serve him later in war.
Chennault was too young to attend college after he graduated from high school, so his father added three years to his age so he could attend Louisiana State University. (To this day, Chennault's date of birth is often erroneously cited as 1889 or 1890.) Chennault ended up finishing his education at Northwestern State University, earning a teaching certificate. He married Nell Thompson Chennault, another school teacher, and they started a family that would eventually include eight children. Chennault held a number of education jobs, even serving as a school principal at the ripe old age of 20 (the Kilbourne School in West Carroll Parish, Louisiana.)
When the U.S. joined World War I, Chennault went into the Army with the intention of becoming a pilot. His path was met with great resistance - the Army put him on a horse instead. However, he kept trying and after three attempts, earned his wings from the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1919.
Following the war, Chennault graduated from pursuit pilot training at Ellington Field, Texas, on April 23, 1922, and remained in the service after it became the Air Corps in 1926. Chennault became the Chief of Pursuit Section at Air Corps Tactical School in the 1930s. In 1932, as a pursuit aviation instructor at Maxwell Field, Chennault re-organized the Montgomery, Alabama-based Army Air Corps aerobatic team as "Three Men on the Flying Trapeze".
However, Chennault would soon meet with rejection again. In 1937, he should have been in the prime of his career. However, his health was plagued by chronic hearing loss (from flying without ear protection) and chronic bronchitis. His career was plagued by disputes with superiors, and he was frequently passed over as unqualified for promotion. The prevailing military theory of that time was that wars of the future would be fought by bombers, not by fighters. Chennault was at his lowest point.
Then he received an invitation that would change history. China wanted Chennault to command its fledgling air force and use his innovative approach to aeronautics to repel the superior Japanese forces. He resigned from the military on April 30, 1937; he separated from the service at the rank of Captain. While his contract in China was only for three months, Chennault knew instinctively that he might soon have a larger role to play. By being in China, he would help prepare our allies against the possibilities of a great Pacific war involving the U.S. He wrote to his brother, William Chennault, about this new position:
"[The job] may amount to very little except a good paying position, but it may amount to a great deal...it is even possible that my 'feeble' efforts may influence history...I couldn't possibly pass up this opportunity for, after all, very few boys from Gilbert, LA will ever have the slightest chance to influence the history of the future years."
Chennault was correct. In the summer of 1941 he was made a brigadier general in the Chinese Air Force and put in charge of recruiting pursuit pilots for the American Volunteer Group who became famed as the Flying Tigers.
Chennault was recalled to active duty by the Army Air Force April 15, 1942 as a colonel and was promoted to brigadier general a week later. In July he became commanding general of the U.S. Air Force in China and in March 1943 was promoted to major general and named to command the 14th Air Force in China. He spent the rest of World War II in this key combat role. He came home in July 1945 for a brief assignment to Headquarters Army Air Force and he retired from the service Oct. 31, 1945.
Chennault went back to China in 1946 and stayed there until 1950 as president of Civil Air Transports. He then made his last home in Monroe, Louisiana. On July 18, 1958, the U.S. Air Force gave him the honorary grade of lieutenant general. He died nine days later, on July 27, in New Orleans.