One of the first Chinese Historical Markers in United States history will be planted in Commerce.
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It didn’t seem like any day out of the ordinary on September 6, 1893 in Commerce, Texas. Two decades removed from being founded by two merchants named William Jernigan and Josiah Jackson, the small community was just beginning to truly take shape. The town was less than 10 years removed from its date of incorporation and its railroad had only been in service for six. There was no college. There were no students. But on that seemingly average day, something happened that would change the course of history for not only this small town, but also the entire world.
After his birthdate on that September day, Claire Chennault didn’t spend much of his life in Commerce; his family soon relocated to Louisiana, a state where some of his relatives still live today. Even so, the site of an old white house in Commerce, Texas still lays claim to being the birthplace of a legend, with a Texas Historical Marker standing in front to prove it. Because Claire Chennault went on in life to become one of the most revered pilots in United States Air Force history.
After earning his wings during World War I and defending the Chinese from Axis Power Japan as the commander of the famed “Flying Tigers” in World War II, Chennault would create what later became the C.I.A.-owned passenger and cargo airline Air America, worked with the Senate Joint Committee on Armed Forces and Foreign Relations, and finally promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General in the U.S. Air Force a few days before his lung cancer-related death on July 27, 1958.
Understanding his historic importance on the outcome of World War II, longtime Commerce photography professor Otha Spencer penned the book “Flying the Hump,” a book chronicling what historian Theodore White called “the most dangerous, terrifying, barbarous aerial transport run in the world,” (a run that Chennault made during WWII while engaged in deadly battles with the Japanese) and was the driving force behind the placing of the historical marker located in front of Chennault’s place of birth in 1968. Since then, Wyman Williams, longtime Commerce resident and current Director of Development at Texas A&M University-Commerce has been poring over the life of Claire Chennault and his historical significance to the town.
“Forty-seven years,” Williams says from across the table of 15 A&M-Commerce student journalists on a Thursday afternoon. “I’m persistent.”
Three years ago, Williams’ knowledge of the subject came to a head when Commerce was visited by Gwen Tary, a woman interested in seeing the marker of a Chinese hero. Gazing upon the marker alongside her husband John as Williams took pictures chronicling the event, she said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if this was in Chinese?”
“And oh my, that started a process that I never imagined,” Williams says grinning excitedly.
Interested in making Tary’s dream a reality, Williams began studying up on Mandarin Chinese, realizing that not only does the dialect have two, very partisan forms (one implies allegiance to Communism, one doesn’t), but also that if he were able to put this together, it would only be the third historical marker in Texas history to be engraved in the language.
“Finally, through a contact of a person I knew in Mount Vernon, Texas, who had a longtime business relationship with a Chinese man living in Hong Kong, by e-mail I communicated with him and asked if it would be a good idea to have on our historical marker an example of each translation,” Williams says, “And he agreed that it would. And he helped get it done. The idea was to get as close to the English wording on the original marker as possible in the two versions of Mandarin.” He pauses. “Supposedly that’s what we accomplished and when we have this ceremony and someone comes up and is horrified by what it says, I’ll be very disappointed,” he says with a raspy, joyful laugh, echoing the amount of time he’s put into the project.
Unlike this scenario, though, the ceremony Williams is discussing is not hyperbole. On October 14, 2015 a gathering will be held at the site of Chennault’s birth on Monroe Street unveiling the new historical marker. Williams has few specifics about what the event will entail, or who will even attend, but he does know that both Dr. Jones and Mayor Ballotti will speak, as will Chennault’s granddaughter Nell Calloway, who is the owner of a museum dedicated to Chennault in Louisiana.
As 3:15 approaches, Williams begins to wrap up the discussion. He goes quiet for a moment before saying, “These issues are still important today. I’m doing what Otha would’ve wanted to be done. When I was a young man, I didn’t know what drove him. Now I do.”