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Chennault and the US military, 1917-1958

With interruptions, Claire Lee Chennault served in the US military from 1917 until he died in 1958. 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. (They're actually images, but I find it easier to think of them as pages.) A tip of the virtual hat to Bill and Richard Chennault, his grandson and great-grandson from his 1914 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, many of them not duplicated in the NARA file.

Chennault joins the Army

a page from Chennault's first physical 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 bogus birth date of September 1890, three years before the fact. (The military finally corrected the record in 1958.) With his Army application in front of me, I now think this might have been his occasion for tweaking the year of his birth: if he seemed three years older, people would be less likely to marvel at his remarkably swift ascent from schoolboy to teacher-principal.

In his application, Chennault claimed that he'd become "principal and athletic director" of Winnsboro High in 1912 at the age of 22. (Winsboro was 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 who actually had a connection with Winnsboro High, as the valedictorian and only graduate in its Class of 1911. (There were other students, but none had met the newly stringent Louisiana standard for competing 12th grade.)

Chennault's own first teaching job was apparently at an ungraded one-room school in September 1910, its location nowhere identified. Chennault turned 17 that month. ("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.") In the spring of 1911, he visited Winnsboro High, where his uncle Nelson taught, and where he first feasted his eyes on young Nell Thompson. They married at Christmas that year. By 1913 they were living in Kilbourne, a town near the Arkansas border, where Chennault was apparently the first principal of the new Kilbourne high school. A year later, he took over the handsome new consolidated high school in Delhi, which was where his career in education came to an end. None of this appears on his application for officer training.

Under "Mental Training," Chennault listed six months' study at Willy's Business College in 1916, and also that he'd been principal of a business college in Biloxi, Mississippi -- presumably the same institution. This may well have been the case, since that was just after he had absconded with young Anna Mae Griffin, a student at Delhi High. Thereafter, his movements understandly became obscure. In that time before broadcast radio or even a true national newspaper, leaving his home state effectively gave him a new start in life, especially if someone like Uncle Nelson in Winnsboro was prepared to give him a plausible c.v.

Chennault also claimed experience as the "assistant physical director" at a YMCA in Louisville, Kentucky, and more currently 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 the summer of 1917 with Nell and their three children. Anna Mae and her son, born in New Orleans, had since moved to Texas, where she worked as a nurse and apparently never saw Chennault again.

When it came to his health, Chennault conceded only that he had suffered from "malarial fever" in 1910-1912. He was listed as weighing 151 pounds, standing 5 feet 9.5 inches tall, missing one tooth, and judged Normal in all respects, with the conclusion: "he has no mental or physical defect disqualifying him from service in the United States Army." He was duly admitted as an officer candiate at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, on September 24, 1917.

Flying Tigers

First Lieutenant Chennault

Under the pressure of the First World War, a few months of officer training apparently served as the equivalent of the usual entry grade of second lieutenant, for in November 1917 Chennault was commissioned as an first lieutenant of Infantry, with serial number O-10090. He was sent to Camp Travis near Galveston, Texas, "for instruction," and in January 1918 to Kelly Field outside San Antonio, where the Signal Corps trained pilots for its newfangled Aviation Section. Chennault's duty was "athletic officer" for the flight cadets, but he famously took bootleg flying lessons on his own account. In May 1918, he went to Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York, to be adjutant (personnel officer) of the 4th Aero Squadron, presumably a support unit, and in October to Langley Field in Virginia. There Chennault was felled for two weeks by what was called the "Spanish flu," though more likely it originated in China. That effectively meant he couldn't serve overseas in the war, and he celebrated the Armistice back at Kelly Field, where he was finally given his chance to train as a pilot, and where he also had an operation for hemorrhoids in April 1919.

The first formal physical exam I can find in Chennault's records is from February 1922, signed by no less a personage than Major Carl Spatz, who (with an additional a in his surname) as the four-star General "Tooey" Spaatz would become the first chief of the independent United States Air Force. First Lieutenant Chennault was then 28, though the Army belived him to be 31, with four years' service behind him. (He was mustered out for a time after the war, but recalled when the National Defense Act of 1920 made the Air Service a distinct Army branch rather than part of the Signal Corps. He was assigned to the 1st Pursuit Group at Ellington Field, Texas.

Lieutenant Chennault weighed in at 157 pounds, with 20/20 eyesight and hearing, his pulse a bit high at 76 beats a minute, blood pressure 116/70, and rated "normal" or "good" in every respect. Though he was a pilot in his own right, according to his biographer Martha Byrd he had accumulated only 63 hours of flight time -- scarcely enough to be "current" as a civilian pilot, never mind in the cockpit of the Boeing MB-3 biplane that was then the mainstay of American fighter squadrons. Probably he was assigned to a staff position.

Not until 1923 did an Army medical form give an assessment of Chennault's appearance: "Erect, slight, good conformity, good musculature, no deformities. Skin: Normal except scars on face from impetago [sic] and acne vulgaris, non-disfiguring. (Treatment advised.)" He was then stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, patrolling the Rio Grande River in an effort to stop illegal immigration. He also performed in air shows intended to boost the image of Army aviation.

In 1924, the 31-year-old Chennault was in Hawaii with his family, a fighter pilot again, and soon given command of the 19th Pursuit Squadron, where he began to develop his theories of formation flying and concentration of firepower to intercept and destroy enemy bombers. And for the first time, his annual physical provided a waist measurement: a commendably slender 29 inches. At 145 pounds, he'd lost some weight; that, like his trim figure, probably owed much to his addiction to Camel cigarettes. (When asked about such matters, Chennault admitted to smoking 12-15 cigarettes a day, when he actually consumed three or even four packs. As for liquor, he confessed to taking the "occasional" drink, which was probably an equal understatement.)

By 1925, he'd lost another tooth, and more significantly he was becoming hard of hearing -- "probably incident to flying duty," the medical officer wrote, "and a waiver has been requested from the W.D." The War Department waiver would allow him to fly "with helmet and pads" (I have no idea of what the pads entailed). His deafness was no doubt the penalty for flying in the open-cockpit MB-3 fighter, with the roar of a 300-horsepower engine and the rush of cold air at speeds of up to 140 miles per hour. "Measles in childhood" had been added to his medical history; there was some deterioation in his near vision; and note was taken of a deviated septum with "ample breathing space." Chennault was also treated that year for bronchitis, an ailment that in 1919 had felled him for six days and would contnue to afflict him in future years.

Chennault and the Army Air Corps

"The years in Hawaii were Chennault's happiest time in the service," according to Martha Byrd's biography. He "enjoyed command and set his own style for it: he was on the same side as his men," doing his best to provide them with decent rations and a recreational building of their own. (Byrd p27) By October 1926 he had logged 1,353 hours of flying time, begun to develop a theory of aerial combat against enemy bombers, and gained a sense of geopolitics during a war scare the previous year. He concluded his Hawaiian tour at the Luke Field "unit school," where he taught a course on pursuit organization and operations.

The Air Service of the 1920s was a "combatant arm" of the US Army, like the infantry or artillery, and with the same mission: to help win a land war. Its role was to drop bombs, scout for the artillery, and if necessary shoot down any enemy planes that interfered with these duties -- much the same mission that had guided the Aviation Section during the First World War. For many veterans of that conflict, notably General Billy Mitchell, this was a gross misunderstanding of what air power could and should do. Mitchell argued that the air arm should be entirely independent, like Britain's Royal Air Force, coequal with the ground and naval services. With some justification, the US Army and Navy disagreed, and the politicians as usual came up with a compromise: the Army Air Corps of 1926-1941. The new legislation came with a larger budget and a considerable increase in aircraft, but otherwise punted the argument into the future.

Chennault returned to the mainland that summer, assigned to the new Air Corps Training Center at Brooks Field, San Antonio, as an instructor and eventually its chief check pilot, the man who washed out the 50 percent of aviation cadets who didn't have the right stuff for an Army pilot. "His face had begun to acquire the leathery texture and deep lines of the open-cockpit pilot," wrote Martha Byrd; "with his piercing black eyes and a small, fierce mustache, he could strike fear into the hearts of the insecure." (p30-31) While at San Antonio, the Chennaults acquired their first radio, a piano, and their eighth child. The captain's only significant medical adventure was a bout of tonsilitis, which according to the wisdom of the time hospitalized him for an operation to remove the offending tonsils. There were of course the usual days lost to flu and bronchitis.

His first promotion came in April 1929, after twelve years in grade. He was 35 years old. Captain Chennault's next duty station was the Air Corps Tactical School at Langley Field, Virginia, where junior officers were groomed for higher command. He impressed his commanding officer: Major (later major general) John Curry in June 1931 gave Chennault high marks for his first year at the Tactical School, describing him as an "intelligent, industrious, pleasant, clear thinking, able officer." Equally to the point, Curry rated him as an "exceptionably able pilot and air leader," competent to command an Air Corps group "in peace and in war." (An American air group comprised three combat squadrons, plus headquarters and support staff, to a total of 60-100 planes and upwards of 500 officers and enlisted men.) Under "Remarks," however, Curry noted that Chennault's "deafness makes it difficult for him to understand oral orders or ordinary conversation," a considerable handicap for a peacetime army officer.

To be continued.

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