Dancing in the Sky
To understand Claire Chennault you have to trace his roots to the backwoods of northeast Louisiana. The Chennault house was a few miles south of Gilbert, a town of just a few hundred people. Raised up several feet to protect it from the floods that plagued the flatlands, the house was a small, single-story cottage with gingerbread trim and an inviting porch in the back. It was a modest abode, but it was the pride of John Chennault, Claire's father, a cotton farmer who had built the house with his own hands in 1905 when Claire was a boy. Claire Chennault would fondly recall "roaming the oak woods and moss-draped cypress swamps of the Mississippi flood plains in northeast Louisiana." The Tensas River basin was Chennault's childhood playground—he spent time hunting and fishing by himself in the swamps. As he grew older, his father would let him go on treks for days at a time. Claire would take a fishing rod and survive on whatever he could catch, frying catfish and bream with a slab of bacon. He would live in a lean-to he built out of tree branches and sleep on a pile of leaves, and when he wanted to bathe would jump in a watering hole. He shot his first gun, a Winchester rifle, at the age of eight and soon graduated to shooting squirrels. He learned how to build a pyramid trap, a box that was held up by a twig with some oat or corn flakes as bait. He became self-reliant during this idyllic childhood, which resembled that of the hero of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
, one of his favorite books. His solitary adventures in the woods, however, may have masked a darker side of his childhood. His mother died when he was only five, and a stepmother he loved passed away a few years later. The woods were always there for him.
Chennault also had a vivid imagination that drew him to distant lands, and he dreamt of someday seeing more of the world. Although he didn't excel at school—he didn't like following instructions or sitting still—he found a collection of books at his grandfather's house about the ancient Greek and Roman wars and would spend hours transfixed by reading them. He recalled, "Although I had no idea where Greece, Carthage and Rome were, I was enthralled by the charging elephants, armored warriors and burning ships in the colored engravings of the battles of Thermopylae, Zama, Cannae and Salamis." He wanted to escape from his seemingly inevitable fate as a cotton farmer like his father, and instead become a soldier. In fact, he came from a long line of fighting men. He could trace his paternal lineage to a soldier who had fought in the American Revolution; his mother was a direct descendant of General Robert E. Lee.
In 1909 Chennault enrolled at Louisiana State University to study agriculture, the only course that was open to him based on his primary education, but quickly signed up for ROTC training. He was determined to live up to what was expected of him as a soldier. When he was ordered to stand guard over a stairway, marching back and forth with a bayoneted rifle in hand, upperclassmen poured buckets of water on him from the floor above, but as he later recalled, "I continued to walk my post, drenched to the skin." Whatever merit he may have had as a soldier, he quickly found that he couldnÕt keep up academically due to his limited primary education. He also found that despite his efforts, he struggled with attending to the minute details that characterized life in the army. He racked up forty demerits in just one month. During a dress inspection, he was caught with his trouser legs rolled up, which was against regulations. An officer yanked him front and center and yelled in his face: "Chennault, you will never make a soldier." The experience scarred Chennault, who came to feel that perhaps his lot in life was to be a cotton farmer after all. Over a break he returned home to fish, a source of comfort since his youth, and never returned to Louisiana State.
He dreaded what the future might hold. He knew cotton farming would mean "trying to eke a living . . . in a losing battle against palmetto root, bad weather, fluctuating prices, and the passing years." He'd seen the toll that life had taken on his father. The low price of cotton during the financial panic of 1907 had nearly wiped out the family's small farm, and an infestation of boll weevils could destroy an entire yearÕs crop. "The future seemed very dull indeed," Chennault recalled, and though he was "looking for bright new worlds to conquer," he couldn't seem to find in what direction they lay. That all would change on one Sunday afternoon at the state fair.
The Fifth Annual Louisiana State Fair was held in Shreveport in November 1910. It was primarily a celebration of the state's agricultural traditions, with prizes awarded for the best crops and livestock, but it also featured horse races, tightrope walkers, and concerts by a military band. At eight o'clock each night a thousand dollars' worth of fireworks lit up the skies, a spectacular performance set to the music of the "Last Days of Pompeii."
The fair was a place where Louisianans could gather to take pride in the state's history, but it also offered them a glimpse of the future with a display of some new technology. The big attraction in 1910 was a biplane. Less than seven years after the Wright Brothers' achievement at Kitty Hawk, few Americans had actually seen a plane in flight.
The local papers promoted the event, promising that the pilots would "astonish the people who visit the Fair by their daring skill in the air." The main pilot, Stanley Vaughn of Ohio, had designed his plane himself, modeling it after one constructed by Curtiss. On November 3, the second day of the fair, his biplane ascended but as it rose fifty feet above the field it suddenly plummeted to the earth, just "like a duck suddenly shot," as the Shreveport Times
described it. After the plane hit the ground, the stunned crowd ran toward it, but Vaughn "stepped out of the [plane] without a scratch, though he had received quite a jar from the fall." He vowed that he would fly again and his machine would be ready. His next performance would be on Sunday, November 6.
"Sunday was a big day at the Shreveport State Fair," the New Orleans Times-Democrat
reported. There were thousands in attendance, coming from all over Louisiana, as well as neighboring Texas and Arkansas. Claire Chennault had traveled a hundred and fifty miles from Gilbert. The Shreveport Times reported that "the sky was perfectly clear and it was just cool enough to make the exertion of sightseeing a pleasure."
As the sun began to set, Chennault and the other spectators crowded into the stands. From the tent at the edge of the field, "the whir of the engine on the aeroplane was heard, and the people soon saw the slim lines of the heavier-than-air machine roll out of the tent, and make for the center of the race course." As the craft began to roll, "eyes were strained through the dusk to see the machine, and soon outlined against the sky lighted by the setting sun, the machine arose like a mighty bird," and started to climb. After flying for a quarter mile, however, Vaughn experienced engine trouble and brought the plane down, crashing through the race-course fence. Once again he walked away unharmed.
Still, the crowd considered the flight a success—the plane had gotten off the ground. For Claire Chennault, witnessing the plane gliding overhead, even for just a few moments, was a revelation. He now saw "a new frontier" that "sowed the seed of my desire to fly," one that would shape the rest of his life. His urge was intense and immediate, but years would pass before he got his first chance to take to the sky.
Chennault finished up his studies at Louisiana State Normal and set out to become a teacher. He got a lucky break when his uncle, a respected teacher in the area, helped him get a job teaching at the one-room country schoolhouse in Athens, Louisiana. Chennault was warned that he might have to raise a fist to keep discipline among the older students in his classroom. Legend has it that on his first day of teaching he was writing on the blackboard when he felt something hit him in the back. He turned around and demanded to know which of the students had thrown an eraser at him. A boy the size of a man stood up. Chennault dismissed the class and invited the perpetrator out back, where he beat the daylights out of him. That was the end of the disciplinary problem at the Athens School. Teaching was rewarding, but Chennault couldnÕt envision himself spending years tending to the "annual crop of oversize farm boys [who] made the life of a teacher miserable and had cut the average tenure to less than a term."
At the conclusion of the 1910 school year, ChennaultÕs uncle, a principal at another school, invited him to come watch the graduation ceremony. It "was just like any other graduation, with the girls and boys in their best clothes, with the decorated rostrum, the school choir singing hymns, and the address of welcome by the best scholar." That address was delivered by a graduating senior, Nell Thompson, and Chennault was captivated by the stunning brunette. That one glimpse of beauty seared him, and he began to court her. A biographer noted that Chennault was "impressed by her independence, her lively curiosity, her quiet strength, and her cheerful spunk."
Even though they were both only eighteen, he and Nell were wed on Christmas Eve in 1911 and settled into married life. The routine didn't cure his desire to do bigger things with his life, but that desire was superseded by the need to support a family; he and Nell had their first son, John Stephen, in 1913, and their second, Max, the next year.
His growing family convinced Chennault that he had to leave Gilbert and finally take his chance to make his mark on the world. The Chennaults moved to New Orleans, the largest city in the South, where Claire Chennault earned a diploma in typing, the sort of degree that could set him up for an office job. On the side, he was working as the athletic director at the local YMCA. The physical culture movement, a fairly novel belief that men needed to be concerned with fitness and to go to the gymnasium to exercise, was sweeping the nation. That was the work that seemed to excite Chennault and he would work in a series of YMCAs in Ohio and Kentucky and eventually would become the director of the YMCA in Louisville. He embraced the virtues of physical rigor and was proud of his own strength. But working at the Y didn't pay well, even as a director. He knew heÕd need something more to support his loved ones.
In 1916, he took the train to Akron, Ohio. He showed up with a few suitcases and a trunk, one of thousands of men who poured into America's fastest-growing city looking for work. He rented the attic of a house for five dollars a week, then his family followed. It wasnÕt much, but Chennault finally found a rewarding line of work. Every morning heÕd get up and ride the trolley to the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. factory. Goodyear was known for their tires, helping to put Henry FordÕs Model Ts on the road, but in 1917 the company was hired by the U.S. Navy to make blimplike balloons that could be used to spot U-boats along the coast. Chennault signed on as an inspector on the balloon-production line, a small step closer to his dream of flying. With his salary, the family was able to upgrade to a full house, paying fifteen dollars a week rent. It was a comfortable life. He liked the work, and Nell could stay at home with their kids.
Chennault might have followed that path for years. But on May 7, 1917, a German U-boat sank the Lusitania, killing 1,198 civilians, including 128 Americans. America entered the Great War. Even though it would mean leaving his family, Chennault felt that he had to prove to himself that he could make it as a soldier. The army had sent out a request for pilots, particularly men who could operate the observation balloons that Chennault was making at Goodyear. Applicants had to be between nineteen and twenty-five years old, and the twenty-three-year-old Chennault was confident that he'd finally get his chance to fly.
But the army was looking for a certain type of man to become a pilot, one who was "energetic and forceful and of good moral character and clean habits," as a newspaper described the ideal candidate; it said, too, that he must "have a good education." Hiram Bingham, a Yale professor and an explorer who had rediscovered Machu Picchu, was in charge of recruitment. In his view a pilot should be "'an officer and a gentleman.' He must be the kind of man whose honor is never left out of consideration. . . . He must be resourceful, keen, quick, and determined." Unsurprisingly, the army believed that Ivy Leaguers made the best pilots, especially polo players and quarterbacks. Few Americans in 1917 had flown in a plane, and the army concentrated on finding the best and the brightest from the flying clubs on Ivy League campuses to serve as America's pilots in the Great War. A factory worker like Chennault didn't stand a chance. He received a cruelly blunt rejection letter that he'd remember for the rest of his life: "Applicant does not possess necessary qualifications for a successful aviator." The army believed men like Chennault, common men, were needed for the infantry, and he accepted the job he was offered. He reported for basic training at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana, one of the newly established bases where the army was turning civilians into newly commissioned officers. He spent three months there, making him one of the "90-day wonders" that filled the army's burgeoning ranks.
Though he was an infantry officer, fate showed its hand when he was ordered to a base in Texas connected to Kelly Field, where the army was training its new pilots. Chennault spent his days drilling new infantry soldiers, but would visit the field where the planes were taking off, drawn by "the roar of their motors, the harsh thrashing of their propellers and the strange rattle they made as they flew," as biographer Keith Ayling wrote. He desperately wanted to fly.
Copyright © 2018 by Sam Kleiner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.