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Chenault Freedom Trees
This Christmas season, as in recent years past, the Monroe-West Monroe Christmas Trail of Lights Festival began with the annual lighting of the Freedom Trees at the Chennault Aviation and Military Museum.
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Gen. Charles Chenault and the Flying Tigers.
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It’s Christmas Day, but there are no festive wreaths, no happy carolers, no Christmas lights lining the streets for one of Northeast Louisiana’s favorite sons. He’d been away from the Bayou State for four years, halfway around the world from the one room schoolhouse in Athens where he taught after graduating from Louisiana Normal School before enlisting to serve in the Great War for the fledgling Army Air Corps.
Much had changed since he had landed on these foreign shores. He was a fighter and he had come to fight, but the war was no longer between two foreign powers. The United States had officially been dragged into it when Pearl Harbor Naval Base, near his favorite Army Air Corps duty station, had been ravaged by air and naval forces of Imperial Japan. Two and a half weeks later U.S. forces in the Philippines were hit. Scores of planes on the ground were destroyed, leaving his 60 castoff P-40 Warhawks, piloted by volunteers — technically, civilian mercenaries — as the most formidable American air presence in Asia and the Pacific.
It’s impossible to know exactly what the namesake of the Chennault Aviation & Military Museum was doing or thinking that Christmas Day. Claire Lee Chennault was in Kunming with his 1st and 2nd Squadrons, having recently moved them there while the 3rd Squadron — the “Hell’s Angels” Squadron — of his American Volunteer Group was almost 1,000 miles to the southwest in the thick of trying to defend Rangoon from a Japanese assault. His thoughts were likely with them as folks back home in Louisiana canceled Christmas celebrations and lined up at recruiting stations.
The Imperial Japanese Army Air Force had been fighting continually for five years against Chinese, Soviet, French, British and Dutch forces and had yet to be bested — a fact that could not have escaped Chennault’s attention. What’s more, the Japanese bombers involved in the assault on Rangoon were accompanied by the famed 64th Sentai, which had never been beaten, flying Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa “Oscar” fighters, which had never been shot down.
It had the potential to add up to a very unmerry Christmas. Instead, Chennault’s pilots, who the American media had christened “The Flying Tigers,” shot down between 14 and 17 Japanese planes, including two Oscars, and killed an estimated 90 Japanese military personnel en route to handing the 64th Sentai their first defeat and giving the United States its first victory in World War II, a much needed moral victory for a nation still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Rangoon would eventually fall to Japanese forces the following March, but Chennault would continue to fight on, spending three more Christmases in China before retiring as a Major General in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He would later return to China to help Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Chinese in their struggle against Mao Zedong’s communist forces.
As we celebrate the Christmas season in Monroe this year with thousands of lights, parades and festive musical entertainment, we couldn’t be further removed from that difficult Christmas Day halfway around the world in 1941. Still, it’s just as important today to honor men and women like General Chennault who have served or are serving our country. In a very real way, we owe them for our freedom to celebrate the holidays.
This Christmas season, as in recent years past, the Monroe-West Monroe Christmas Trail of Lights Festival began with the annual lighting of the Freedom Trees at the Chennault Aviation and Military Museum. The trees will continue to be on display for the duration of the festival. Those who would like to honor a service member or veteran can do so by donating a photo, patch or ribbons. Donated items are displayed as ornaments on the Freedom Trees.
By Scott Rutherford