MONROE, La. (WVUE) - The Flying Tigers were a symbol of U.S. air combat in the Pacific in WWII. But, they got their start as a group of volunteer American pilots, flying for the Chinese to fight against a Japanese invasion. Their commander was Claire Chennault, who grew up in north Louisiana.
Nell Calloway is the director of a museum in Monroe that tells the story of Chennault and the Flying Tigers.
“The war broke out a little more than five weeks after he arrived. And in 1937, you have a Louisiana farm boy who was put in charge as chief air adviser of the Chinese air force,” Calloway said.
Calloway is also Lieutenant General Claire Chennault’s granddaughter, who now runs the Chennault Military Museum in Monroe
“The actual American volunteer group Flying Tigers saw their very first action December 20th, 1941 when they shot down nine of 10 Japanese bombers over Kunming, China," Calloway explained.
Chennault was a strong proponent of fighter aircraft, believing that they were vital for escorting the larger bombers. And, his Flying Tigers set an all-time combat record.
“They’re credited was shooting down 299 Japanese airplanes confirmed, about that many unconfirmed, and they only lost 12 with their own,” Calloway said.
The museum is housed in one of the few remaining buildings from Selman Field, which was a one-stop training school for military pilots. The only one of its kind in the U.S. during World War II.
“When you enlisted as a person, you came to the navigation school here in Monroe, Louisiana, and you could leave with your wings. So we graduated 15,000 navigators,” Calloway said.
Today, the museum has a collection of more than 11,000 military artifacts.
Some items were captured in battle, donated by families, along with letters and personal accounts from the front lines. Visitors also see how Chennault’s team developed an early warning system for the Chinese and how they were supplied air.
J.V. Vinyard flew military transport planes over the Himalaya mountains from India to China, delivering supplies to the American fighter group. It was known as “flying the hump.”
“Knowing that we could fly over everything, then they started 24-hour-a-day operation. Flying day and night in all weather,” Vinyard recalled. “I made 87 round-trips, which means that was 174 times across.”
It was a treacherous flight with little room for pilot error, mechanical failure or bad weather.
“We lost quite a few airplanes. We’d lost 690 aircraft, actually. And we lost 1,314 crew members, and they’re still 81 aircraft over there that never been found,” Vinyard said.
And, the museum also tells a lesser known story from World War II, when volunteer American pilots were siding with China, and defending its people against the horrors of an invasion by Japanese armed forces.
The Chennault Military Museum is located near the Monroe airport, and is open for tours Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, check out their website here.