CHENNAULT by Jack Samson


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General Claire Lee Chennault belied the Fitzgeraldian theory that American lives lack second acts. Samson, however, offers a drab account of the legendary warrior's last 20 years, one that suffers by comparison with more inclusive and dramatic readings like Duane Schultz's The Maverick War (p. 844). Recruited by Chiang Kai-shek in 1937 to create an air corps for the Nationalist Chinese (already at war with Japan), the retired Army fighter pilot (then 46) went on to lead the so-called American Volunteer Group. Better known as the Flying Tigers, AVG mercenaries performed valiantly and effectively before being drafted into the US military in mid-1942. While Chennault subsequently took charge of Allied air forces in China, he feuded constantly with his CBI theater commander, Vinegar Joe Stilwell, and was back home for VJ Day. After the war, Chennault returned to China, where his ties to the Generalissimo proved helpful in founding Civil Air Transport, a passenger/cargo carrier financed largely by the CIA. Little more than a figurehead chairman toward the end, he died in a stateside hospital during the summer of 1958. While Samson knew Chennault (on active duty with the 14th Air Force in China and as a PR man for CAT), he fails to bring his subject to life. Instead of capitalizing on personal knowledge, for example, he settles for dry recaps of mission reports or archival material. Missing, moreover, are briefings on Chennault's frustrating Army career that could put his later accomplishments as a pioneering tactician in perspective. Nor does Samson satisfactorily explain what kept this hard-drinking womanizer (with a wife and eight kids in Louisiana) soldiering-on in the service of a distant, divided land. All in all, then: a bobtailed biography that veers far off course, losing its airman hero in a cloud of dusty detail.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1987
Publisher: Doubleday