Battle-wise Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, knew that in taking the Gilbert Islands the U.S. had taken a short step toward Tokyo. The Admiral was proud of that step, but he could see beyond the islands. At his first press conference in nearly a year, he told Honolulu correspondents: "My opinion is that Japan will be defeated from China . . . China with here reservoir of personnel and the possibility of airfields in easy striking distance of Japan is one of the steps along the road."
The General Listens.To Major General Claire Lee Chennault, perhaps more than to any other man, Admiral's statement made excellent sense, held out a promise. Strangled by a Japanese land-sea blockade, General Chennault and his Fourteenth Air Force are operating at the end of a thin, 16,000-mile supply line, the longest in the world. A southeast China port through which can flow thousands of tons of needed war materiel from the U.S. is Claire Chennault's key to decisive victory. Only the Navy, knifing through the Gilberts toward Truk, and northward to Wake and Guam, while General Douglas MacArthur pushes toward the Philippines, could open such a port. Last week the full realization of his hopes was not exactly near, but it seemed nearer than it ever had before. Much of the Pacific, and perhaps Malaya, must be cleared before the Navy, even in overwhelming force, can open and sustain Chennault's cherished entry through the China coast. But the Navy has recognized his need and his potentialities. The Army must give him more planes, lick terrific problems of air supply before he can do his utmost within unopened China. But the Army, like the Navy, has at last recognized Chennault and China. To show what he could do, the Fourteenth's commander last week sent his fighter-escorted, medium-range B-25 bombers racing over Shinchiku airdrome on Formosa off the east coast of China (see). The fact that medium-range B-25s and fighters could reach Formosa reminded observers that the Chinese had long since built advance airdromes in eastern China, in the hope that they someday would be used against Tokyo.
The Hawk.It is Claire Chennault's face that stops a man, meeting him for the first time. The skin is burnt and leather-beaten by the sun to a permanent brown, cut and scarred by razor-sharp lines that drop perpendicularly about his mouth. About the eyes sky-strain has woven a lacework of crow's feet. Within this network, two coal-black eyes brood and smolder. Said an artist assigned to do a portrait of the General: "That man has the face of a hawk." The hawk face is not a cruel face. Rather, it expresses a tension bred of Chennault's whole mature life. A Louisiana cotton planter's son, he worked his way through college, taught in a country school. In World War I he enlisted as a private, got a commission at an officers' training camp, transferred from the infantry into aviation. Discharged in April 1920 (he did not go overseas), Chennault returned to his cotton plantation in the Louisiana delta. Several months later he was back in the Army, a first lieutenant in the Air Corps.
B-24 & P-40s IN CHINA Some day . . .
Chennault was a pursuit pilot with ideas. His famed stunt team (the "Three Men on a Flying Trapeze") thrilled air-meet crowds. But its purpose was serious: to impress on the Air Corps the value of precision pursuit operation. The conservative Air Corps command paid little or no attention to these and other Chennault ideas. Russian military observers offered him $10,000 a year to go to Russia as military adviser and pursuit instructor. He turned the offer down, stuck with Billy Mitchell and a few other pioneers through years of frustration and discouragement. Finally, in 1937, the Army retired him when he was 56 - officially, because of his partial deafness. Major Chennault told a friend: "I'm glad to get out [of the Air Corps]. They're still running it with the old 1917-18 ideas." That same year the dark, determined Louisianan went to Shanghai and became Chiang Kai-shek's air adviser. "Why," he had growled, "should I worry my brains out when I can prove my theories somewhere else?" In a few months, the Japs almost wiped out his infant air force, but Chennault did not regret his move of noticeably pine for the U.S. Air Corps. He proved his theories, and the Pacific war brought the first sweet taste of public recognition. During the Burma campaign and after he withdrew to China and the long blockade, his pilots and his tactics wrote a never-to-be-forgotten record across the skies of Asia. Every agency of the U.S. Government had fought his efforts to organize the American Volunteer Group; its achievements - and his - are now a part of American glory. On April 15, 1942, he was called back to active duty in the U.S. Army and on July 4, with the rank of brigadier general, took over command of the Fourteenth's predecessor, the starveling China Air Task Force. He wanted to retain A.V.G. as an independent striking force, but Washington told him to get into the Army - or else. "I don't want to be a general," Chennault sighed, "but I can't fight without planes." For a while he almost had to fight without them anyway: in the summer and fall of 1942 his bomber force sometimes averaged five B-25s, his fighter force was down to 20 P-40s, and for months he never had more than 80 planes fit for combat.
The Tigers."We beat the Zeros without P-40s; but if we had Zeros and the Japs P-40s, we would change our tactics and still beat them," Chennault has said. Not boasting, but with the assurance of experience and of deep, intelligent study, Chennault taught his early pilots to minimize the P-40's disadvantages and utilize its advantages: greater fire power, heavier armor for pilot and fuel, sturdier construction, a much higher diving speed. He also insisted on using a tight, flexible and economical two-plane formation. He discouraged dog-fighting by individual pilots. Essence of his teaching: hit hard, hit precisely, hit as a team. When the U.S.A.A.F. in China was in its infancy, Chennault personally conducted operations from the ground, throwing flights into the air at the exact time and place for perfect interception of Jap forces. With more bombers and fighters now, he concentrates on overall tactics, shifting his planes in a pattern as intricate as a ballet. The Japanese, hitting back from their Formosa, Hankow, Canton and Indo-China bases, have learned much from their two years of combat with Chennault. They parry with similar dexterity. Both sides move a limited number swiftly about, trying to penetrate undefended bases, catch unprotected bombers and smother the antagonist with a temporary superiority of numbers. It is a fluid, unrelenting game, fought with courage and skill. A complete master of mobility, Chennault ducks and weaves with his air force until he gets at least equality in numbers in a given area, and then throws everything he has at the Japs. He stays awake nights planning new tactics, or studying combat reports to search for Jap weaknesses. The next morning he will be at his well-worn maps talking about what he could do here and there if he had a few more planes.
After six years in China, Chennault is as American as a baseball bat. His eyes narrowed and cheeks twitching, he can discuss the quickest way to kill in battle and the next moment, leaning back in his chair and puffing contentedly on his pipe, tell of his longing to return to Louisiana and shoot ducks. He talks incessantly about his family of eight children, is openly proud of the fact that five of his six boys are in service. His ever-present companion is a dachshund, Joe, a veteran of the China air lanes. He like to dig in his garden, pitch for the headquarters' softball team. His indoor game: poker.
The Fourteenthhas grown in the past six months. Where Chennault once had a few score planes, he now has a few - a very few - hundreds. His force includes four-engined, long-range B-24 bombers, P-38 fighters. By the standards of more prosperous theaters, its facilities are few and primitive. But major bases have been leveled, graded and embellished with revetments and repair shops - in view of supply difficulties, a miraculous achievement. Personnel is well housed, clothed, fed. No longer does Chennault himself operate from mud-and-bamboo headquarters, but from a spic-&-span, map-covered, easy-chaired, well-carpeted office in the heart of a new compound. No longer does he doze in the sun, waiting for his bombers' return and planning where next to hit the Japs. Most of the administrative detail is in the hands of neat-minded, hard-working Brigadier General Edgar Glenn, Chief of Staff, an old friend who once (in 1922) served with Lieut. Chennault under one Major Spaatz, now Lieut. General "Tooey" Spaatz of the Mediterranean. Chennault has lavished great personal affection and care upon a group of key young men: Colonel Clinton ("Casey") Vincent, 29, commander of the forward echelon; David L. ("Tex") Hill, formerly an A.V.G. ace, now a lieutenant colonel, commander of the forward fighters; Lieut. Colonel Morris F. Taber, 30, commander of the destructive front-line medium bombers which can eat away at enemy shipping.
Tigers in a Cage.But the irking constraint that has shaped Chennault still remains. He is essentially a man of offense, and in China, Allied strategy dictates a mission of defense. His job is to give the Chinese armies air support, to bomb strategic points whenever possible and to keep nibbling at Japanese air strength. The Fourteenth is still confined by geography and tactical limitations. It operates chiefly in the vast pocket of Central China south of the Yangtze, hedged in on the north and south by the two great Jap bases at Hankow and Canton. Its fighters and bombers provide an air umbrella of limited scope when the Jap in Central China and along the Salween front of western Yunnan stabs at the tough, resilient Chinese lines. But the Fourteenth has a consolation of sorts: its men know that they are contributing to a much greater show. Every ship sunk and every plane shot down by Chennault's men lessens the Jap potential in more active theaters of war. A young colonel of the Fourteenth commented: "We're a thorn in their side. We aren't serious but we hurt. The Japs are like boxers: if they take off their gloves to dig out the torn, somebody is going to bop them right smack in the face." Supply problems alone will hold down the Fourteenth for bitter months to come. A 400-plane bomber force in China, operating efficiently, would consume nearly 70,000 tons a month of gasoline, bombs and ammunition. One hundred fighters would consume some 5,000 tons more. Tons of replacement parts, anti-aircraft ammunition, food and supplies for air and ground crews would be required. By air alone - the only means now available - such a force could be maintained only by prodigious effort and a bigger fleet of transports than China has yet seen. Even if Burma is reopened, the Burma Road's previous top capacity of 15,000 tons a month would hardly wet the bucket. That is why Chennault dreams of a seaport near his operational bases. In the meantime he and his ground-minded chief, "Uncle Joe" Stilwell, have to fight amongst themselves - and with their Chinese friends - for every foot of air-cargo space. (One drain on this space: bales of paper money which inflated China has to import). Airdrome runways are built by coolie-hand. At the main base three Americans direct thousands of Chinese laborers in the constant process of reconstruction and repair. Asphalt and concrete runways are practically unknown; most of the strips are paved with mud, hand-poured and bound with crushed rock. On a very few fields the Fourteenth has strips of the Chinese version of asphalt, made of tung oil, resin, sand and hand-chipped rock.
East v. West.Serious interracial friction might have come to China with U.S. pilots and groundmen. That it did not was due in part to Claire Chennault. He insisted on having waiters and houseboys who spoke English in the barracks, to minimize language friction. Striking a Chinese, carrying arms on visits to nearby towns, promiscuous firing of arms were made court-martial offenses. Pilots were forbidden to "buzz" airfields; the diving planes frightened the Chinese laborers.
CHENNAULT AT BAT He can wait.
The misery of China's peasants, filth, disease, widespread begging, shocked raw young Americans. Their own discomforts - the mud, the lack of women, the food - rubbed them rawer still. They heard ugly stories - of Lend-Lease material being stored for use after the war instead of against the Jap, of hoarding and profiteering by merchants, of smuggling from India and trade with the Japanese, of excessive tax burdens on the peasants. Chennault - and Stilwell - mitigated much of the consequent ill-feeling. Patiently, Chennault explained to his airmen the reasons for China's backwardness, her efforts to raise living standards, how Japan's blockade had almost wrecked China's military and civil economy. The friendliness of Chinese peasants and youngsters, obvious efforts by the official class to make the Americans welcome, the patience and sturdy good humor of the airdrome coolies also helped. All is not sweetness-&-light today, but many Americans have acquired some of Claire Chennault's understanding of their Chinese hosts and allies. Chennault has also imparted some of his faith in Chinese airmen. There is a training school for Chinese flyers in India, and its graduates return to Chennault. Although they operate chiefly in separate, locally defensive units, a few Chinese flyers are integrated into the Fourteenth. The best of them have proved to be reliable and hard-hitting in battle, and are now accepted by most of the Americans. The Chinese return Chennault's affection. Bandits once stole all the aviation gasoline at an air base; two Services of Supply men spent a month trying to recover the fuel. Finally a coolie was told that Chennault needed the gasoline. Before daybreak next day there was the clatter of drums of gas being rolled up the highway. By dawn all of the drums had been returned. It is almost certain that Chennault will not remain with the U.S. Army after the war. There is every possibility that he will be the Generalissimo's air adviser, civil and military, in postwar China. He virtually controls the Chinese Air Force. For these personal reasons - and, above all, for their incalculable service to China - Chennault and his Tigers are so many sky dragons to the Chinese. In Chinese lore, the dragon is an admirable beast.
Tiger at the Crouch.Many men - including men who have served under him - call Chennault a genius. But an Army colonel who was with him in China said: "I get irritated when I hear people calling Chennault a genius. He isn't. A genius would probably go mad out there. He is a particularly cool, level-headed man with an immense store of common sense, who knows his business and keeps his head when things go wrong." Now the General has only one ambition, to beat Japan. He well knew that Roosevelt, Churchill, the Gissimo meant when they said this week that "serious and prolonged operations" would be necessary. Chennault's hatred of the Jap is deep and fierce. He broods over his hard task, listens sympathetically when his officers say: "The way to kill flies is to pour gasoline on maggots where they breed. Fly-swatter stuff isn't going to win the war." Chennault knows that maggots breed within the great cities of Japan, and that the only place from which they may now be reached is China. But he smiles his hawk's smile and says: "I've been sitting here taking it for six years, and I guess I'll just keep taking it until I can give it back."
Originally published in
December 6, 1943
Adapted by Carl W. Weidenburner. Portions copyright 1943, Time, Inc.