During World War II, a Texas-born Army Air Corps commander oversaw a group of U.S. pilots known as the "Flying Tigers" who helped push Axis Japanese invaders out of China.
Lt. Gen. Claire Lee Chennault and his volunteer squadrons of Navy, Marine and Army servicemen trained Chinese pilots and helped protect people in the region from mass killings, experimentation and war camps.
Fifty-seven years after his death and 70 years after the war, Chennault will be honored with a sign at the site of his birthplace in Commerce, northeast of Dallas. It will be the first Texas historical marker in Mandarin Chinese and the only marker, among the state’s more than 16,000, that is not in English or in Spanish, according to the Texas Historical Commission.
“This is an important piece of history for all of us,” said Chennault’s granddaughter Nell Calloway, director of the Chennault Aviation & Military Museum in Monroe, Louisiana, where her grandfather grew up.
Many Americans, she said, do not know or appreciate what happened in the war outside of Europe. She said the marker is a way to help teach that history.
Calloway is expected to attend the marker’s unveiling Wednesday morning outside a house three blocks north of Texas A&M University-Commerce. The 1920s home — which sits on the same site as Chennault's first house — already has an English-language marker commemorating Chennault.
Commerce Mayor John Ballotti and Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp are scheduled to speak at the dedication ceremony.
Sharp said he made it a mission to be at the event because when he was a Texas A&M University student, his Corps of Cadets squadron was named the "Savage Six Flying Tigers" in honor of Chennault.
“I think all of us who came out of that outfit internalized the commitment to service that he represented," Sharp said.
Ben Jang, faculty advisor for the Chinese Student Association at Texas A&M University-Commerce, said Chennault's story is well known in China and Taiwan.
In China, there are multiple memorials honoring Chennault and his “Flying Tigers” for their service, including a Flying Tiger Memorial Museum in Zhijiang, in central China's Hunan province.
In the United States, the group is recognized in numerous museums, exhibits and films, such as the 1942 movie “Flying Tigers,” starring John Wayne.
Wyman Williams, director of development at Texas A&M University-Commerce, chairs the committee that worked on creating the new translated marker. He said the idea to have the marker in Chinese came after a couple who visited the marker suggested it.
Williams said the marker will have text summarizing Chennault’s accomplishments in both simplified Mandarin, which is spoken in China, and the traditional Mandarin spoken in Taiwan.
“Our goal is to educate and invite anyone who speaks Mandarin to the birthplace of someone that they have a great deal of respect for,” Williams said.
The original English marker was placed at Chennault’s birthplace in 1968 after then-Texas A&M University-Commerce photojournalism professor Otha Spencer campaigned for it. Spencer, who died in 2012, was a pilot who supported Chennault’s World War II campaign by flying in supplies over the Himalayan Mountains from India. He detailed his missions in his 1992 memoir “Flying the Hump: Memories of an Air War."
Chennault and his “Flying Tigers” are recognized for having one of the best flying records in U.S. military history, bringing down many more planes than they lost as the first American Volunteer Group. Their name comes from the teeth of sharks painted on the fronts of their planes that locals misidentified as tiger stripes.
Tingxiu Wang, a mathematics professor at Texas A&M University-Commerce who is from China, said having Chennault recognized in the city, especially in Mandarin Chinese, makes him proud.
“It’s a very good thing to brag [about] for Commerce” Wang said. “When I go to China and talk about Commerce, I would say, 'Maybe you have not heard about Commerce, but you know Chennault, and that is where he was born.'”
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