Review: The Flying Tiger: Chennault and the 14th Air Force

The Flying Tiger:
The True Story of General Claire Chennault and the 14th Air Force in China
By Jack Sampson

This book was written by a friend of Claire Chennault, and is all the better for it. 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.

A superb writer, Samson captures the essence of Chennault’s personality throughout the book, and in the process makes a few errors in nomenclature (e.g. Polikarpov E-15 vice I-15, twelve cylinder radial engines, etc.) that will have the nit-pickers up in arms. While the nit-pickers are up there 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.

The opening chapter, describing Chennault aboard the President Garfield in May, 1937, sets the mood immediately, evoking Chennault as only an intimate might. Here is this worn, forty-six year old fighter pilot, very much aware that his Air Corps career has bottomed out, on his way to China. Ostensibly, he is to act as an advisor 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, Chennault is eagerly accepted by both Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek. He, in turn, is challenged by the enormity of the task. He is eager to apply the dictums that he formulated in the Army Air Corps, but were rejected.

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 those of powerful elements in the United States. The latter ranged from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to then Major General 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 Chinese air force.
All this would change with the advent of the American Volunteer Group, which became world 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 back-stabbing political game that was forced upon Chennault will not. The author is even handed in this, pointing out Chennault’s failures as well as his successes.

The author concludes the book with an account of 14th Air Force operations and Chennault’s great success with the CAT. There is a poignant glimpse into Chennault’s last years, when, a two-pack a day victim of the 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 the superficial errors, while others will take issue with the foot-notes 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.

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