A quiet, unassuming mother and grandmother, you’d never suspect she was a player in foreign relations with world superpower China. That’s precisely why Nell Calloway is the Bayou Icon for July.
article by Michael DeVault | photography by Brad Arender
In 1937, an American moved to China for a job. The Chinese government had given him good reason to make the move: $1,000 a month for three months’ work, this at a time when the United States was still recovering from the Great Depression.
At the time, that was an unheard of sum of money. In today’s dollars, the three-month contract would be worth more than $50,000, hardly a small sum for such a brief stint. The man’s job was relatively simple. Examine the defensive and offensive capabilities of China’s air force and report to Soong Mai-ling, Madame Chiang.
Perhaps it was the brevity of the contract–just three months–or the possibility of securing financial stability for her family that led Nell Thompson Chennault to acquiesce to her husband’s absence from their northeastern Louisiana home. But acquiesce she did, and it was a decision that would alter the course of history.
“I was very close to my grandmother. She was an inspiration to me,” said her granddaughter, Nell Calloway. “Here was a woman who had seen her husband and four of her six sons go off to war.”
After all, this wasn’t Claire Chennault’s first foray into global conflict. He had served in World War I, in the Army Air Corps as a signal pilot. By 1937, Calloway’s grandmother, with whom she shares first names, was a professional at running a household. This time, though, it was a bit different.
“She had to create the life for the three remaining children for a husband who was off, in another country, fighting a war for another land,” Calloway said. Chennault was in China not as an officer in the U.S. military, but as an advisor, and it was supposed to be a brief contract. As it had time and again, though, history got in the way of Chennault’s plans.
In July of 1937, war erupted between China and Japan, and Chennault found himself catapulted to the post of chief aviation advisor to Chiang Kai-shek, chairman of the Chinese Military Council and future president. The Sino-Japanese War raged until 1941, when it became part of the larger global conflict, World War II and gave birth to one of the greatest air squadrons in military history, the Flying Tigers.
Shortly after Dec. 7, 1941, Claire Chennault–now a colonel in the Army Air Corps–dispatched his Flying Tigers to strike the war’s first acknowledged blow against the Japanese in the wake of Pearl Harbor. By the end of the war, Chennault was a Major General and had appeared on the cover of Time.
He was also elevated to the revered status of hero among the Chinese people, a population that tends to bestow near godlike status on its heroes. It’s no surprise, then, that his granddaughter is walking through the Monroe Regional Airport with the head of Xinhua, the largest news agency in China.
After all, earlier this year when she visited China for the opening of a museum honoring her grandfather and the Flying Tigers, Calloway was the honored guest of Vice Premier Liu Yandong. That she’s a player on the international stage and such a revered figure in China is no surprise to the man that hired her, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne.
“She’s unquestionably one of the best hires I’ve ever made,” Dardenne told BayouLife. He recalled his first meetings with her, when she was on the board of the Selman Field Aviation Museum.
Dardenne tapped her to lead the military museum, but after he did a bit of housekeeping. As Secretary of State, Dardenne was tasked with managing the state’s extensive historical museum system. He knew the system needed work, but one of the steps was a no-brainer. “When I became Secretary of State, the museum in Monroe had not taken shape. The first thing I did was rename it after Gen. Chennault.”
That move proved a defining moment. Not only did it refocus attention on the inchoate museum efforts at Selman Field, it galvanized a volunteer corps around a singular identity and allowed them to press forward, with Calloway leading the charge. A longtime volunteer at the museum, Calloway nevertheless is lighthearted about Dardenne’s selection.
“So many people think I’m here just because of the legacy,” she said. “I laughingly tell people all the time that, when Jay asked me to be director, it wasn’t due to any directorial skills. It was bloodline.”
Dardenne tells it differently.
“You could just tell she was a voice of reason and had great plans and visions for what that museum could be,” he said. In the intervening years, the museum expanded both in size–they nearly tripled exhibition space and constructed a massive hangar for aircraft restoration–and collections. The Chennault Aviation and Military History Museum has become a repository for military history and memorabilia for the families of hundreds of veterans of this nation’s wars.
For Dardenne, tapping Calloway to lead a museum named for her grandfather made perfect sense. An obstetrics nurse by training and a homemaker, she had been volunteering there since 2000, when Nita Brinson recommended including a Chennault room at the Selman Field Museum. From the moment she started her volunteer efforts at the museum, Calloway was hooked.
“I remember telling my husband, while I was working, that I wish I had more time to volunteer at the museum,” she said. “I knew if I ever didn’t have to work, I’d really like to do that. Little did I realize that it would be a life-changing experience for me.”
From those first days as a volunteer to an influential presence within China, Calloway’s trajectory has gone almost vertical. In addition to meeting with officials from the U.S. federal and Chinese national governments, Calloway is a frequent speaker on U.S.-Chinese relations. Dardenne likens her to an ambassador for northeastern Louisiana, and he frequently points out that Calloway “plays on a much larger stage” than her colleagues at similar museums.
In addition to preserving history and improving relations between the U.S. and Chinese peoples, Calloway’s work has real-world implications close to home, not too far from where her grandmother raised a family on Lake St. John. After all, it’s not just government officials who want to get close to the granddaughter of the Flying Tigers. It’s the businessmen.
Her status opens many doors, doors through which often walk the leaders of some of China’s biggest industries. They come seeking not only a closer connection with Calloway, but to also improve the stature of their firms through business relationships with her home town. It’s a dynamic that may at first seem outlandish to those who don’t understand Chinese culture. With just a little exploration, though, the relationships begin to make sense.
“The fact that she is the granddaughter of the general gives her instant standing and instant credibility with the Chinese people,” Dardenne said. “In a way, it makes her a folk hero throughout China.”
That stature is something Dardenne is confident will eventually bear fruit for northeastern Louisiana in the form of economic development. And he’s not talking just about tourism, of which there is already a considerable amount. On any given day, Chinese tourists can be seen with cameras, studying every display in the museum.
Instead, Dardenne said Calloway recognizes that the individuals coming to the museum also bring with them the notions of maintaining ties to the general’s home and family. Business ties.
“She understands the potential this has, potential to be bigger than just the museum,” Dardenne said. For her part, Calloway sees the future of Sino-U.S. relations through the lens of family connections. But she hasn’t always recognized the possibilities, which she said began to solidify in 2002, when Calloway first traveled to China with her mother.
“We went to China having no clue what to expect when we got there,” she said. “The things we have been taught here in the U.S. about China I found were very different from experiencing the true China.”
What we see as reverence towards individuals, Chinese see as respect toward their heroes and the sacrifices they made. Chinese students are educated about the actions of their elders, going back for generations, in such a manner that the stories of those individuals become engrained in the students. “That gave me a whole new appreciation not just for China, but also for our history, here, with all wars,” Calloway said.
Returning to the states after that trip, Calloway vowed to approach her work at the museum in the same fashion. Calloway frequently reiterates the museum’s mission to preserver history for the past, present and future. And that begins with school tours, which Calloway frequently leads herself.
“The kids we get in here, so many of them, they don’t have a clue about the history of our country,” Calloway said. While leading visiting classes, Calloway delivers quizzes.
“I ask them questions, and so few of them know the answers to the questions,” Calloway said. “We’re able to tell them what a veteran is, about some of the wars we’ve fought in the past and the conflicts we’re now engaged in. The one thing they get when I finish talking to them is that they need to pay attention to what these men and women have done, because who is it going to be up to in the future to continue our fight for freedom? I’ve even had first graders say, ‘Us.'”
Beyond the patriotic imagery, of which there is plenty, and beyond the impressive array of weaponry, models and uniforms, the museum has at its heart a patriotism, pure and unshallow, that at once explains the value of freedom and the price that freedom sometimes exacts. Displays of Nazi and Japanese government articles from the pre-World War II era underscore the fragility of the notion of freedom.
“We’re going to lose our freedoms if we don’t grow a society that’s willing to fight for them,” Calloway said. “That’s one of the paramount things we do at the museum, is to instill in the children to be proud of our military and what they’ve done for us.”
Calloway possesses the unique qualities of a diplomat that allow her to transition seamlessly from talk of war to the commonalities that drive peace, a lesson she’s learned through her interactions with individuals in China. While protecting freedoms can mean military actions, Calloway notes diplomacy plays a role as well, and diplomacy requires recognizing what unites different cultures.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, a major milestone. While historians debate the reasons why, they agree on one fact: that World War II marked the end, at least temporarily, of a particular kind of warfare.
In fact, the Chennault Aviation and Military Museum is as much a chronical of that changing nature of war as it is a tribute to the men and women who fought those wars. From soldiers who served in World War I, through the still ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the museum bears witness to the constantly evolving ideas of war.
Looking at the world stage from the inside out, Calloway recognizes the potential benefits and dangers of current global political situations. “Future peace becomes more secure through friendship,” Calloway said.
To that end, in early June, Calloway hosted representatives from the three largest news agencies in China. They traveled to Monroe to visit the museum and to discuss opportunities to grow the relationship between the museum and China. Calloway recognizes the importance of such ties.
“The relationship between China and the U.S. is the most important relationship in the world today,” she said. “We’re the No. 1 and No. 2 superpowers, and you can argue about which is which.”
Indeed, China is the only nation on earth that matches the U.S. in economic power, cultural influence, trade clout and military might. Only through a deeper understanding of the competing and common interests of the people of both nations can peace endure. Yet, almost paradoxically, Americans tend to think of foreign relations in terms of political movements, while the Chinese views are more personal. For the sake of economic security and peace, friendships between the two powers must be forged.
“The only way we can accomplish this is person-to-person, and helping Americans to see that China welcomes a relationship with us, on a people-to-people basis, avoiding politics,” Calloway said.
One small part of fostering this deeper understanding is a new bilingual Chinese-American exhibit at the museum. Focusing on the important contributions of the Chinese people to World War II, the exhibit is centered around Chennault’s memoirs, published in 1949, about his time in China up until the time he returned in 1937 to recruit the Flying Tigers.
“The commonality that we have, that China, Taiwan, and the U.S. all agree on, is that Gen. Chennault provided a great service to help the Chinese people and the Americans.”
Chennault’s book closes with a quote, in which the general expresses his hope that the Flying Tigers symbol will remain “as long as it is needed,” a reminder of the sacrifices and successes that came through unity.
“What that says to me is that we fought together in a war, and we changed our history coming together,” Calloway said. “We need now to come together to make a future, a better future, together.”
Calloway was eight years old when her grandfather died in 1958. She remembers him fondly as a grandfather who didn’t tell stories but, instead, listened to her stories. “I remember sitting on his lap, and I remember him asking questions about my life,” she said. On long walks through the vegetable garden, he would point out this blossom or that fruit, though they knew better than to touch anything. “He just had that special feeling a grandfather’s supposed to have.”
Service runs deep in the Chennault family. Not only did Gen. Chennault serve bravely and tirelessly up until his death–he was promoted to Lt. General just days before he succumbed to cancer. His son, Calloways’ father, was the lone survivor of a B-29 crash that killed eleven of his flight team. Perhaps it is no wonder that Calloway became a nurse, providing service and comfort to those in need, something she’s continuing today.
Chinese relations aside, Calloway has a separate crusade, and this one is as much about the future as anything she is attempting to accomplish with China.
“We have 22 soldiers a day committing suicide. We have to do something to address that,” she states bluntly. Veterans and active duty personnel alike are taking their own lives in record numbers. Calloway hopes the museum can play a small role in turning the tide on military suicides.
“They’ve got to feel as if someone really does appreciate all they’ve sacrificed and all they’ve done,” she said. Yet, the Chennault Aviation and Military History Museum finds itself amidst a transition into an uncertain future.
At the end of June, it was set to become an independent, community museum. “We will be severed from the Secretary of State,” Calloway said. “So now, we’re going to depend on the community to support us.”
Calloway is confident that the museum bearing her grandfather’s name and showcasing so much of our nation’s history will persevere through the challenges, continuing to serve as a connection to our long, storied history, the present conflicts and as a reminder that the sacrifices that make freedom possible continue today. That includes veterans struggling after service, too.
“What does it say to our soldiers and our veterans if we close a military museum?” Calloway asked, a challenge to a community that must, ultimately, decide whether it will preserve the legacies of service members. “They need our support now, more than ever, and their families need that support, too.”