The Maverick War

In July, 1941, five months before Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved a plan that would send American airmen in American planes on a bombing mission over Tokyo. The planes would fly out of China and would be identified as Chinese army aircraft. That the mission never occurred was neither Roosevelt’s fault nor that of the intrepid and unorthodox former army captain who talked him into it -- Claire Chennault. By the end of World War II, Chennault was a folk hero in the United States, a legend in China, and an irritant to the military establishment whose rules he violated to such dramatic and generally good effect; he was finally sent home, shortly before the Japanese surrender in August, 1945. His departure took place eight years after he arrived in China as a retired captain initially retained for three months by the Chinese to tell them what their air force needed to do to stop the Japanese.

Everything about Chennault’s career seems romantically larger than life. Early in his flying career, he toured the United States as the leader of a three-man aerial-acrobatic team, one of whose tricks included doing multiple loops tied wing-to-wing with twenty-foot lengths of rope. Late in the war, as a reinstated but still mercurial officer commanding the Fourteenth Air Force, he persuaded Roosevelt that he could emulate General William Tecumseh Sherman’s notorious march through Georgia if only he had the proper support. He got the support, but the Japanese routed Chiang Kai-shek’s corrupt and incompetent army, and Chennault’s legion of enemies and critics finally saw the chance to get rid of him.

Before this debacle, though, Chennault had created the American Volunteer Group more familiarly known as the Flying Tigers, which included such men as Greg (later “Pappy”) Boyington, Charlie Bond, and dozens of others--self-described mercenaries and “wild men,” civilians who were constantly threatening to quit but who stayed long enough to prevent the total destruction of Chiang’s forces by the Japanese. The portraits of the characters, the politics, and the war are vivid and lively, and the author makes a persuasive case for the ultimate contribution of Chennault and his men.