Files and images about the American Volunteer Group commanded by Claire Chennault. The AVG Flying Tigers defended Burma and China with their shark-faced P-40 Tomahawks in the opening months of the Pacific War, December 1941 - July 1942.

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Chennault joins the US Army

With interruptions, Claire Lee Chennault was an American military officer from 1917 until his death in 1958, and along the way he left a trail of documents that were recently scanned and made available at the National Archives. His "Official Military Personnel File" runs to 838 pages. (Well, they're actually images, but it's easier to cite them as pages.) A tip of the virtual hat to Bill and Richard Chennault, his grandson and great-grandson from his romance with Anna Mae Griffin, and to Corey Stewart at NARA's St Louis office, for leading me to this biographical treasure. I'm also working from a PDF of medical files provided by Anna Mae's great-grandson, some of them not duplicated in the NARA file.

To be sure, record-keeping a century ago was not as meticulous as today's, and the US Army had to take Chennault at his own valuation, including his birth date of September 1890, three years before the fact. (The military would finally correct it in 1958.) With his Army application in front of me, I now wonder if this was when he tweaked the year of his birth: if he was three years older, people would be less likely to wonder at his swift ascent from schoolboy to teacher-principal.

His application leads us to believe that he became "principal and athletic director" of Winnsboro High in 1912 at the age of 22. (Winsboro is located in northeastern Louisiana, about 10 miles from Chennault's home town of Gilbert. At the time, it had a population of about 2300.) In fact, Chennault turned 19 that September; he was a married man; and it was his wife, not he, who had a connection with Winnsboro High, as the valedictorian and only graduate in the class of 1911.

His own first teaching job was apparently at an ungraded one-room school in September 1910, its location nowhere identified. He was then 17. ("Claire himself," wrote his most reliable biographer, Martha Byrd, "often laughingly insisted that his most important qualifications for his first job were physical toughness and being a minor -- so he could legally subdue his unruly students by physical means.") The following spring, he visited Winnsboro High, where his uncle taught and he first feasted his eyes on young Nell Thompson. They married at Christmas 1911.

Under "Mental Training," he goes on to claim six months of study at "Willy's Business College" in 1916, and also that he was principal of a business college in Biloxi, Mississippi, which may have been the case, since that was the year following the scandal of absconding with one of his students at Delhi High in 1915, after which his movements understandly became very obscure.

Chennault also listed experience as "assistant physical director" at the YMCA in Louisville, Kentucky, and finally as an inspector at the Goodyear tire plant in Akron, Ohio. And indeed it was in Akron at 504 Gridley Avenue that he was living in 1917 with Nell and their three children. Anna Mae and her son had since moved to Texas, where she worked as a nurse and apparently never contacted Chennault again.

I'll continue this next month. Blue skies! -- Daniel Ford

A 'Special Air Unit' for China:

Flying Tigers
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Remains - A Story of the Flying Tigers

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