Japanese aircraft destroyed on the ground by Allied planes

The bombings’ destruction cost the Japanese dozens of planes on the ground and convinced the Japanese Army to stop at the Swaleen Gorge in January 1942, and not pursue the retreating Chinese into the Yunnan Province. By the time of the Burma debacle, Chennault already had moved his base of operation and two squadrons northeast to Kunming. The loss of the Burma Road prompted Chiang to order Chennault to ensure he offered protection over the Himalaya Hump route until the 10-AAF was in a position to assume the mission. Chennault accomplished this mission in his usual offensive economy-of-force manner. His plan was to operate his air force deep in China, using the country’s depth as protection. With the limited capability to defeat the Japanese in conventional battle, Chennault attacked the Japanese when intelligence and logistics permitted it.

A decade earlier, Chennault wrote that a radio-equipped early warning detection net could guide pursuit interception of a bomber attack. On January 17, 1942, it came together over Mengzi, 75 miles from the Indo-China Border. Four AVG planes destroyed a flight of bombers that had launched their attack from Hanoi. Chennault continued moving his force around the Chinese interior and attacking the Japanese. It was hard to keep the airdromes and airplane movements secret. Chennault used this to enhance his protection through a simple but elaborate deception which caused the Japanese to overestimate his strength by a factor of ten. With the stroke of a paintbrush, Chennault’s planes changed propeller spinner colors, fin flashes, and fuselage numbers. The paintbrush, the wooden and canvas decoy (complete with a little gasoline to burn if the decoy were attacked), and the mobility of the force to marshal and then always attack from a different direction, had the Japanese convinced that they were fighting a force of equal strength to themselves. The application of this protection theory was clearly demonstrated during the bomb-free summer over Chunking.


In the spring of 1942, Chiang directed Chennault to permit no bomb to fall in the city of Chungking during the summer. Chennault defended the city with two squadrons of canvas dummies and two to three P-40s while he offensively sought the destruction of the Japanese throughout eastern and southern China. By summer’s end, no bombs had fallen on Chungking and more than 100 Japanese planes were destroyed. By the time the AVG faded into the history books they had lost one pilot for every 17 Japanese airmen killed. The Foreign Legion of the Sky’s service cost the Chinese government $3.000.000. In return, the Flying Tigers and the Allies had stymied the Japanese offensive into eastern India and eastern China, blunted the Japanese aerial offensive, and gave Chunking its first summer without being bombed in four years.


Chennault’s resources to fight with the CATF were, in many ways, reduced rather than increased when compared with the AVG’s means. The CATF inherited 47 worn-out planes from the AVG, but replacements in people and planes ran months behind schedule. In the eight months that the CATF existed, it operated on fewer tons of supplies than the weight of bombs that the 8-AAF dropped in one mission over Europe. When the CATF could put thirty fighters and half a dozen bombers aloft, it felt powerful.

The Burma Road - 滇缅公路 (Stilwell's Road) was a road linking Burma to SW China. Its terminals were Kunming, Yunnan, and Lashio, Burma. It was built while Burma was a British colony in order to convey supplies to China during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Preventing the flow of supplies on the road helped motivate the occupation of Burma by the Empire of Japan in 1942. The use of the road was restored to the Allies in 1945 after the completion of the Ledo Road. Some parts of the old road are still visible todayIn December, the CATF had 34 fighters and two days of gasoline remaining. By spring, Chennault’s means received through the Hump supply line were from 30 to 50 percent of his promised supplies. Col Robert Scott, a transport pilot prior to assuming command of the 23rd Fighter Group, discovered that in addition to the Transport Command lacking the will for the Hump mission, the priority for China‘s supplies was set by a far-off staff officer and not by those fighting in China. After dumping a planeload of worthless paper money into the jungle, Scott returned for a load of the gas and bullets that the fighters in China needed.

Chennault continued fighting for protection using his war of mobility. He controlled some missions through his mobile headquarters which could be set up in less than an hour after his DC-3 landed. He ordered five B-25s and three P-40s to stage through an airfield only five minutes flying time from the enemy lines; swarms of Chinese workmen refueled them from five-gallon cans. The planes sank a 4.000-ton freighter and started large fires that burned for three days in the dock and warehouse area. He also used this mobility when the CATF struck the important ports of Canton, China, and Haiphong, Indo-china. In six days the CATF massed for 11 missions at Japanese concentrations 800 miles apart without a combat loss. The Japanese sustained the destruction of 71 planes, three ships, and miscellaneous dock and port damage. Thus, he continued his destruction of the Japanese LOCs (Localizers). Chennault’s objective of striking the Japanese mainland, shipping, and lines of communication resulted from his determination of the Japanese weakness and his doctrine of mobility and destruction.

C-46 Curtiss Commando flying the Hump

Aerial mining of waters around Rangoon, Moulmein, Martaban, and Makpalin on the Sittang, Bangkok, and Irrawaddy Rivers started February 22, 1943. In March, during a series of concentrated attacks upon important railway bridges and main ports of entry, six P-40s knocked out the vital Mogaung Bridge, severing rail connections with Myitkyina at the time that Japanese forces were attempting to drive north from Sumprabum toward Fort Hertz. By October 1943, they had destroyed almost 65 percent of Burma‘s rail facilities and a great amount of shipping. India-based and China-based air attacks during 1943 cost the Japanese an estimated 275.000 tons of shipping and forced the enemy to rely on barges for China‘s coastal traffic and to employ larger vessels on the open seas where Allied submarines could take a heavy toll.

Yet, Chennault still did not consider that his long-planned offensive against the Japanese had begun.

14-AAFTHE 14-AAF – MARCH 10, 1943 – AUGUST 1, 1945.

Chennault’s early warning net continued to function almost flawlessly while the theater continually improved its capabilities. Maj Barclay P. Schoyer organized an Air-Ground Aid Section (AGAS) in November 1942 with the Army, the Navy, and the US Marine Corps units. The unit accounted for the rescue of 898 airmen between March 1943 and the end of the war. In addition to their search activities, the AGAS’ men collected intelligence, trained hundreds of Chinese (and missionaries) in the assistance of lost American airmen, and organized the Chinese underground.

The force protection in this theater probably out-classed any theater during the war. During the Trident Conference, Chennault proposed using a 500-plane force to defeat Japan through attacks on her shipping and mainland while the Chinese Army held the Japanese Army in China. His plan was accepted by the sovereigns but was not resourced in 1943. Similarly, the operational concept the combined UK-US Staff (CCS) worked out from 1942 to 1944 was strikingly parallel to one proposed by Chennault. The execution of the CCS plan changed from its concept and now called for routing the Japanese from Burma. Chennault determined that it would take years to drive the Japanese out of Burma and China. The Burma Campaign was a tactical success, but a strategic failure. In Burma, the Allies took two years to begin an offensive of even limited success. Yet, in two years the Allies regained the Solomons, the Gilberts, and the Aleutians, occupied the Marshalls and Papua, landed on New Britain, and were assembling for the invasion of the Admiralty Islands and Dutch New Guinea.

IllustrationFrom the Chinese viewpoint, the Burma plan had a significant risk to their position within China. They were bitter with the British for rejecting Chiang’s offer of Chinese troops in 1941-1942 as the British were losing the Burma Road. By now, Chiang learned that Chennault was correct – the Chinese army could be supported by an air bridge, so sending troops south did not make sense. Numerous Chinese delays occurred in their support of the campaign to reopen the road because of the sacrifices the campaign required to east China Offensives. Chennault determined that shipping and LOCs were Japan‘s greatest operational and strategic vulnerability. In late 1943 and early 1944, Chennault was attacking Japanese shipping, railroads, depots, and bases with his two B-25 squadrons.

Bombing Run on Japs AirfieldBy early 1944, Chennault’s destruction in Indo-China abrogated any value the region gave to the Japanese. Chennault’s conviction was that shipping was Japan’s Achilles’ heel and was the key to her destruction. He waged his anti-shipping destruction and mining campaign throughout the eastern Chinese coast and included the river barge traffic. He wrote in response to the B-29 campaign targeting Japan‘s steel industry that the effort could be significant but not decisive by itself. He argued that if Matterhorn was done simultaneously with his anti-shipping campaign, then the destruction could be decisive.

Chennault was more right than he knew and the Matterhorn planners could not have known that they had the wrong target. The 1943 Japanese steel industry was operating at a third of its capacity due to a critical shortage of ore. And the ore was not reaching Japan because of the 14-AAF steady campaign against river and coastal shipping. Chennault’s acute observations of the Japanese vulnerabilities were dovetailing with his theoretical planks to protect one’s forces, and acquire timely intelligence on the enemy then interdict, and destroy him where he is most vulnerable. In the spring of 1944 when Chennault’s offensive was logistically supported, the success of his aerial campaign precipitated the results that Stilwell predicted. Stilwell predicted that if Chennault’s campaign against the Japanese LOCs was effective that the Japanese Army would strike to destroy Chennault’s bases. Chennault’s ability to accurately assess the detection and identification parts of his theory never failed him. He discovered the build-up for and the beginning of the Japanese Ichigo Campaign in April of 1944 while the theater denied it.


When the Japanese Army finally reacted to the 14-AAF’s interdiction they rolled over the Chinese Army. The Japanese struck to establish a land bridge with their forces in Indo-China. They were successful but underestimated the capabilities of the 14-AAF. When the Japanese stuck their heads further into China, they merely presented Chennault with a greater opportunity to cut their necks as he had done during the previous summer’s rice offensives. This was demonstrated when the 14-AAF reopened the Eastern China Airfields of Suichwan and Kanchow. The units based there received support completely by air from Chihkiang. Delivery of two gallons of gas cost three gallons in the intra-theater haul. The eastern-based attacks contributed to two-thirds of the 14-AAF’s success during the three months from November 1944 through Jan 1945. The planes using these bases sank 80.000 tons of enemy shipping and damaged 178.000 tons. The destruction included over 300 enemy planes while the US lost only 15 during the 11 weeks. Later, Chennault moved the squadrons 130 miles further east toward Changting and continued the damaging strikes and mining operations. A post-war statement by Gen Takahashi, the northern Japanese Army Chief of Staff is revealing: I judge that the operations of the 14-AAF to have constituted between 60 and 75 percent of our effective opposition in China. Without the air force we could have gone anywhere we wished. By the spring of 1945, the Japanese began to fall back on the lines established before Ichigo.

In what is most likely a posed photo, pilots of the AVG, aka Flying Tigers, sprint to their Curtiss P-40Bs. The US Army Air Force leadership blundered badly by insulting a trained, combat-experienced group of pilots once America entered the warMany of Chennault’s targets were lightly defended ships, harbors, airdromes, and railroads. The 14-AAF, limited by its means and China‘s great distances, was never able to strike at the heart of the Japanese industry and war potential. Operations against major Japanese surface lines of communication constituted a strategic effort, however, in the opinion of the theater command, because they influenced the course of the war in India-Burma and in the Pacific as well as in China.
Chennault used fighters and bombers of all types against Japanese shipping. In June 1944, radar-equipped LAB (low-altitude bombardment) Liberators had remarkable success in night attacks and in daylight attacks through the overcast. The LABs were coordinated with sea sweeps off the China Coast with the 14-AAF mining missions against the harbors of Haiphong, Canton, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. The 14-AAF continually mined the Yangtze River, targeting enemy shipping. Mining of the approaches to Canton was the chief factor in stalling a Japanese drive north from Canton in the summer of 1944.

Chennault used US Naval resources to fight the Japanese by adding maritime detection stations to his early warning net, as he had espoused in his theory. He first coordinated defensive actions with Capt James McHugh (USMC), US Assistant Naval Attache since July 1937. Since that time he planned with naval officer Milton Miles, who was with Naval Group China collecting intelligence for possible landings on the Chinese Coast.

Pilot Wings & Flying Tigers PinThe Navy requested the Fourteenth’s assistance with reconnaissance over the South China Sea, the Strait of Formosa, the Indo-China Coast, and the Philippine Waters. Together, with Lt Cmd Sam Savage, Chennault established a joint detection, interception, and targeting command post – the 308th Radar Control Detachment Number 1. The only radar that the 308th Radar Control Cell used was in the belly of the LABs. The LABs conducted reconnaissance patrols for the detection of Japanese shipping and would either attack it or hand off the Japanese convoys to submarines in the South China Sea. The cooperation worked so well that the LABs were able to hand off damaged ships for the submarines to sink and, conversely, the submarines were able to hand off damaged ships for the more mobile Labs to sink.

By April 1945, the LABs rarely found any large merchant ships – Japan‘s sea LOC was cut. The Navy was so pleased with the energetic cooperation and results that they awarded Chennault the Navy’s Distinguished Service Medal. With a million-man Japanese army still in China and the Americans enjoying success in the Pacific, the WD eased its logistical burden by basing the strategic bombers in Saipan. The Joint Chiefs maintained control of the B-29 Super Fortresses. It was unimportant who controlled their targeting, but what was done with the bombers was important. Within months the bombers had made 80 Japanese cities unfit for human habitation and completed the destruction that Chennault foretold in the 1930s and with his campaign plans of 1940 and 1942.

Gen Claire Lee Chennault

Final Resting Place of Gen Claire Lee Chennault


This archive reviewed Chennault’s education, academic experience, and physical practicum with military history and theory. Over the course of a full career, Chennault developed a theory of war, operational concept, and tactical doctrine which he argued, committed to paper and defended to the detriment of his career. He finely tuned these thoughts in light of his experiences advising the Chinese during the Sino-Japanese War from 1937 to 1940. Ultimately his theory assisted the US with the prosecution of WW-2 and the uncertainty thereafter. Chennault foresaw the defeat of Japan because of his ability to transition from the theoretical to the practical employment of forces. His grounding in a tactical foundation – while questioning the utility of dogfighting at Brooks Field and experiencing the vulnerability of Ford Island, Hawaii – drove him to push the envelope to extract the most from the air arm. His theories were firmly based upon the historical precedent of centuries of warfare. When he vociferously argued for a balanced air arm and professed uncertainty as to whether the air arm alone could defeat a warring nation, he acknowledged that success in war was not a function of geographic medium (air, sea, or ground), but of broader issues such as will and morale. Chennault’s campaign plan, within his ability to control logistics, produced a campaign in line with his theory. Chennault’s theory of war aided his campaign planning and execution in the CBI Theater during WW-2. What is important to Chennault’s theory is that it offered a balanced approach that, in execution, was instrumental in Japan’s defeat. Sufficient evidence exists to show that Japan was well on the road to defeat based upon the denial of her sea lines of communication and attacks on her ability to wage war. This was Chennault’s theory of war. The use of nuclear weapons only hastened the inevitable victory.

The statue of Lieutenant General Claire Lee Chennault outside the Chennault Aviation and Military Museum


Chennault’s performance in the CBI Theater is important for two reasons. First, Gen Claire Lee Chennault’s example illustrates that a historical and tactical foundation is paramount for military officers. Lacking his academician acumen, historical foundation, and tactical background, it is difficult to imagine that Chennault could have both recognized the logical flaws in the Douhet theory and offered a logical, practical alternative. Through letters from his former wingmen, Chennault was mentally assessing China‘s predicament before his medical retirement in 1937. His experience in China, advising and fighting during 1937-1938, nurtured the operational adaption of his theory which he had penned earlier in the mid-1930s. The instructiveness of Chennault’s experience is that without a foundation in history and theory, modem soldiers may not be able to adapt to changing ways of warfare. 175 Numerous officers exhibited the capability to change their methods and techniques over the short term; however, these were not in response to warfare’s theoretical change – but rather to technological minutiae from bomber and air arm development. The ability to adapt theory is core to restructuring means and ways for the campaign. Second, Chennault’s larger donation to military professionals is his theory. We still operate within his vision.

Numerous historians credit Claire L. Chennault as the author of guerrilla and clandestine aerial warfare, the concept of an air bridge (which later sustained besieged Tempelhoff Airport Berlin), and air superiority. While his theory includes these elements, the theory is expansible to broader methods of war. His appreciation of time-distance factors is as useful in today’s space-based warfare and heightened reliance upon early detection and aerial warfare as it was sixty years ago. Chennault recognized that defensive pursuit was grounded in timely intelligence and timely orders. His detection element was the key to defensive pursuit or air superiority. It is inconceivable for us now to think of fighting without striving for command of the air. Chennault’s identification of the enemy’s strategic and operational centers of gravity offers present campaign planners models for campaign design.

He progressed far beyond the 18th and 19th-century paradigm of occupying the enemy’s capital. He correctly viewed war as the struggle of nations and societies. To win, the victor had to reduce the enemy’s accumulation and projection of power to irrelevancy. Chennault’s use of a small, highly trained force to extract victory all out of proportion to the force’s small size is his legacy. The Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), the Defense Early Warning (DEW) Line, and the Joint Targeting Board (JTB) are all descendants of Chennault’s theory. Old Leather Face would champion the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to enhance early warning and protect America.

While our current detection is largely technological and space-based, if Chennault were here, he would not forget the moral element of war. He would support our better knowing and acceptance of our neighbors, and not judge them. Chennault’s theory of war is as pertinent today as it was when he formulated it using biplanes, flying through the air with the greatest of ease as the leader of The Flying Trapeze. His lessons for the future are grounded in the present: Mistakes made in peacetime constitute the greatest danger to our national defense. It is in times of peace that we must develop our technical equipment and train our personnel. We cannot do these things after the beginning of hostilities nor can we suddenly shift from one type of vital equipment to another after the fighting starts. Our leaders in peacetime should have sufficient imagination, vision, and experience to direct technical development and personnel training upon sound lines.

Those who deny the past have no future


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