General Claire Lee Chennault, A Vintage Vignette

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General Claire Lee Chennault
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
September 1, 2010

It began with a call from Martha Mahaffey of Madison. She told me that her aunt had related stories of a pretty Whitworth girl from Madison in the 1940s marrying Claire Lee Chennault of China's Flying Tigers fame from World War II (see on-line Wikipedia). Martha's thought was that I should write a story about the connection, but she had no details other than that Chennault was stationed at Redstone Arsenal at the time. It didn't seem to fit what I recalled of Chennault, specifically that the General should have been in China and not at Redstone Arsenal. Furthermore, early history of the arsenal did not include service as an airbase for the Army Air Corps in which Chennault flew. Still, I promised Martha that I would look into it.

After a cursory check of websites about General Chennault, I was sure that there was no way that he could have married a Whitworth here. In fact, historical accounts of Chennault stated that he was born in Texas in 1893 and had two wives. The first was Nellie Thompson. They married in 1911 in Winnsboro, Louisiana, and had eight children before their divorce in 1946. In 1947 Chennault married Chen “Anna” Xiangmei in Shanghai, China, by whom he had two more children before his death from lung cancer in 1958. His age when Redstone Arsenal began operations plus the two known wives (neither of which was a Whitworth) during his lifetime from age 18 through his passing at age 65, seemed to totally refute the possibility Chennault being truly married to a Madison woman. However, to finish my investigation, I also checked on-line Madison County Records Center data for any Chennault marriage to a Whitworth. There indeed is a record for Charles L. Chennault marrying Mary “Allyn” Whitworth here, November 18, 1941. Newspapers of the time included the marriage notice, but no mention was made of a Flying Tigers connection.

The marriage record gave validity to the family linkage. Still, it didn't “fit” that General Chennault would commit bigamy late in life five years before divorcing his first wife. Additionally, Allyne Whitworth was born in 1923, a classmate of my friend Percy Keel. They graduated from Madison High School in 1942, and Allyne submitted her abridged autobiography from her residence in Daphne (near Mobile) for the 1992 class reunion booklet. She related that she had married Charles L. “Cheunault” in 1941 according to the typed version. Since the on-line marriage record shows the spelling as Chennault, it is likely that the local typist of the submitted autobiography misinterpreted the handwriting of the first “n” as a “u”. Allyne further wrote that Charles had served in the Air Force 21 years, retiring in 1964 and dying in March 1967. This suggests that Charles was in the Army at Redstone in 1941 and did not enter the Air Force until 1943.

Allyne was a daughter of Harvey (“Pete”) Whitworth and his wife Lucille Smith. The family was enumerated in 1930 living beside Luke Landers along Brown's Ferry Road in Madison, near today's Landers Road. Harvey was a son of John David Whitworth and his wife Emma Virginia Tribble. Their family was the subject of a Vintage Vignette in 2007. On-line research shows that General Chennault had a son named Charles Lee Chennault as his third child, born in 1918 and died in Mobile March 1967, thus confirming the Madison connection to the Flying Tigers.

My own childhood was spent north of Natchez, Mississippi, on a farm a few miles east of the Mississippi River and about 25 miles from both Waterproof and Ferriday, Louisiana. These two Louisiana towns are where the Chennault family lived when the General was not in China or Texas. Some of his descendants still are there. Websites report that they frequently fished in Lake St. John between the towns, as did my dad and I. The research for this article reminded me of my youthful interfaces with former Ferriday residents Mickey Gilley and Jerry Lee Lewis, who “hung out” there with their friend Jimmy Swaggert (see Wikipedia for all three). It is truly a small world.

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