By Allie Burks
The Commerce Journal
Texas’ first historical marker completely in a foreign language will be located in Commerce.
The marker will be identical to the plaque at 1501 Monroe Street marking Gen. Claire Chennault’s birthplace, but will be in Chinese characters. Gen. Claire Chennault was a Commerce-born air strategist who is legendary for his genius aerial combat in the China-Burma-India Theater of World War II.
At the request of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, in 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt allowed Chennault to recruit a group of volunteer airmen to defend China against the Japanese, forming the American Volunteer Group (AVG), later called “The Flying Tigers.” With tiger-shark teeth painted on the nose of their P-40 airplanes, the AVG changed the momentum of the war. The group disbanded on July 4, 1942, and in 1943, Chennault was placed in command of the 14th Air Force. He retired in 1945 and died in 1958. Chennault’s unorthodox concepts of air tactics helped his tiny band destroy 539 enemy aircrafts while losing only 90 themselves.
A date will be decided on for the placing of the marker once it is completed. Wyman Williams, director of development for the College of Business and Entrepreneurship at Texas A&M University-Commerce, is working with Dr. James Conrad, who served 37 years as head of special collections and archivist for the university, to make the plaque a reality. The Texas Historical Commission has approved the marker and the Chinese student organization is working on the translation.
Inspiration for the translated plaque came when Williams and Conrad met a Chinese-American acupuncturist and his wife who came from Dallas to visit the current marker.
“This man who came out from Dallas was a fan of Chennault and had some original photos and artifacts,” Dr. Conrad said. “He came to the library and talked with Wyman who got me involved and while we were talking, the acupuncturist’s wife proposed the idea of making another plaque in Chinese characters next to the current marker.”
China and Taiwan have a great appreciation for Chennault and have many museums and memorials honoring him.
“Claire Chennault is a hero in China and Tawain for the advantage that was given by the formation of the flying tigers,” Williams said. “I was made aware of his popularity in Taiwan and China in recent months and think its important to show that in this area, starting with our own university. There will eventually be several things developed within the next year that will celebrate Claire Chennault but there are no dates set.”
These recent efforts to promote Chennault’s association with Commerce will, when complete, fulfill the dream of Otha C. Spencer. Spencer, who passed away last year, was professor emeritus of journalism at A&M-Commerce and served in World War II. He served in the Air Force in the China-Burma-India Theater in 1945 and flew supplies over the Hump (the eastern end of the Himalayas). He felt it was important to promote Chennault’s association with Commerce.
“I knew Otha Spencer when I first started working in the library back in 1996. He spent the last 10 years of his life worked on promoting Claire Chennault,” Conrad said. “He had talked about collecting enough money to erect a statue of Claire in front of city hall and had started working on a book.”
The three-panel photo exhibit Spencer prepared is in the Commerce Public Library ready to be displayed once more in celebration.
“In a way part of [Spencer’s] dream is being fulfilled,” Conrad said. “That people know that Claire Chennault has an association with Commerce and that millions of Chinese honor his memory.”