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The Flying Tiger: The True Story of General Claire Chennault and the U.S. 14th Air Force in China by Jack Samson, Lyons Press, Guilford, Conn., 2005, $16.95.

The Flying Tiger was written by a friend of Claire Chennault, and is all the better for it. A superb writer, Jack Samson is a veteran foreign correspondent who served with Chennault in China, and subsequently with the famous Civil Air Transport (CAT) airline that Chennault directed after the war.

Samson captures the essence of Chennault’s personality throughout the book, and in the process makes a few technical errors in nomenclature (e.g., Polikarpov E-15 vs. I-15, 12-cylinder radial engines, etc.) that may have hardcore enthusiasts up in arms. While the nitpickers are up there, however, they should stop and think: Not everything depends upon the rivet count. Chennault was a larger-than-life character, and he deserves the literary treatment that only a gifted author such as Samson can provide.

Samson’s opening chapter, describing Chennault aboard the liner President Garfield in May 1937, immediately sets the mood, portraying him as only an intimate can. Here is this worn, 46-year-old fighter pilot, very much aware that his U.S. Army Air Corps career has bottomed out, on his way to China. Ostensibly, he is to act as an adviser to the Chinese Aeronautical Commission. In reality, it is a three-month trial period. If it proves mutually satisfactory to Chennault and to the Chinese, he is to be given the task of completely revitalizing the small, inexperienced, ill-trained Chinese air force.

Fortunately for both China and the United States, Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek eagerly accept Chennault. He, in turn, is challenged by the enormity of the task. He is eager to apply dictums he formulated that had been rejected by the U.S. Army Air Corps.

Up to this turning point in his life, Chennault had been either apolitical or impolitic. Now he was thrust into an immensely sensitive situation, where the politics involved not only those of China, but also powerful elements in the United States. The latter ranged from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to then Maj. Gen. Henry H. Arnold, and spanned the aviation industry as well.

It is the measure of the man that Chennault met most of his political challenges even as he attempted the impossible task of breathing life into the moribund Chinese air force. For a variety of reasons—the Chinese concept of “face,” the poor training they had received in the past from Italian instructors, and not least endemic corruption—he was not able to create a viable air arm.

All this would change with the advent of the American Volunteer Group, which became famous as the Flying Tigers. Samson’s treatment of the AVG in combat covers ground that will be familiar to many readers, but his insightful depiction of the backstabbing political game that was forced upon Chennault will not. The author is evenhanded in this, pointing out Chennault’s failures as well as his successes.

The author concludes The Flying Tiger with an account of Fourteenth Air Force operations and Chennault’s great success with the CAT. There is a poignant glimpse into the cigarette-addicted Chennault’s last years, when, a two-pack-a-day victim of lung cancer, his health declined until his death at the age of 67 in 1958.

This book will be controversial. Some will criticize it for superficial errors, while others will take issue with the footnotes and the bibliography. But in truth a great character, a great fighter like Claire Chennault deserves a book like this, one that paints him larger than life, as his friends saw him. The greatest testimony to Chennault, of course, is the reverence in which he is held by those who served under him. They will like this book.


Originally published in the September 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here

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