Dianne and I were sitting in Tiananmen Square, having just arrived in May of 2011 to finish the adoption of our daughter Ms. M. I looked up at the big portrait of Mao, and noticed a flag hanging next to China’s. “Whose flag is that?,” I wondered. I looked it up later. It was the flag of Myanmar (formerly Burma). “Lovely,” I thought. “A pariah state is in town on an official visit.”
Truth is, Burma was rapidly shedding its pariah state status in 2011. Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Prize-winning Burmese dissident imprisoned during my days as a student at Austin College in the early 1990s, was released from house arrest in 2010. That same year, the ruling Burmese military began a slow crawl towards political liberalization at home and diplomatic normalization with its Asian neighbors. The future looked bright for Burma at the time.
The future was not bright at all for Burma when Austin College Kangaroo Tex Hill arrived in late 1940. Hill, a 1938 graduate and member of Phi Sigma Alpha, had enlisted with the Navy on the same day as his Austin College graduation. For nearly three years he trained as a Navy pilot, becoming one of the best in the country. When Chinese premier Chiang Kai-Shek requested American assistance in Burma against the Empire of Japan, President Roosevelt countered with an idea. He’d ask a group of his best “Top Gun” pilots to quietly resign their commissions and volunteer to serve in Burma. Hill was approached, and the American Volunteer Group (AVG) of “Flying Tigers” fame was born.
Hill and the AVG landed in British-occupied Burma in September of 1940 and set up shop at Mingaladon, an air base just outside of the capital Yangon (formerly Rangoon). For over a year, they trained in Rangoon for the inevitable conflict with the expanding Empire of Japan. That day came on December 20th, 1941, when the AVG took off from Burma and intercepted ten bombers headed to unleash terror on civilians in the city of Kunming. The impact of the AVG’s actions just weeks after Pearl Harbor was so profound that Tokyo changed its strategy. Tex Hill and the AVG would be rooted out by way of a land invasion of Burma. Tex Hill and the AVG spent Christmas Day of 1941 engaging Japanese fighters in the “Defense of Rangoon.”
The well-known movie “Bridge over the River Kwai” tells the (mostly fictional) story of the Thailand/Burma conflict between the Empire of Japan on one side against the Burmese and their temporary British allies on the other. As that fight raged on the ground, Tex Hill and his AVG contemporaries were flying one mission after another in Burma against invading Japanese targets. Because of revolutionary aviation tactics adopted by the AVG, most of those engagements resulted in clear American victories.
In spite of success in the air however, resistance was no match for Japanese might on the ground. Rangoon fell in March 1942, forcing the AVG to retreat north into China. The Japanese soon followed, arriving near the border at the Salween river. There was a very real fear that a successful invasion of China would force a surrender, end the conflict in the west, and allow Tokyo to divert resources to the war effort in the Pacific. With the strong support of Chiang Kai-Shek, the AVG planned an attack in May of 1942 to stop the Empire of Japan at the Burmese border. The Battle of the Salween Gorge, which witnessed Tex Hill flying one sortie after another, proved decisive.
From “Tex Hill: Flying Tiger”:
“During the course of the Second World War, the Allied nations won a handful of key victories on which the course of history hinged: the Americans at Midway, the British at El Alamein, the Russians at Stalingrad. The Salween Gorge attack was indisputably just such a victory for the Allies. There was no effective resistance between the 56th Division and Kunming, and little from there to Chongqing. China’s fate depended upon stopping the drive of the [Japanese] Red Dragons, for the great nation was already hard-pressed to the point of exhaustion. They would doubtless have been forced to surrender upon the loss of either of these cities.”
Later, Winston Churchill himself would speak of the importance of the AVG in Burma up to and including the Salween:
“The victories they have won in the air over the paddy fields of Burma may well prove comparable in character, if not in scope, with those won over the orchards and hop fields of Kent in the Battle of Britain.”
I’m working on a second Austin College book, a collection of stories from Austin College history. The tale of Austin College Distinguished Alumnus David Lee “Tex” Hill will be a part of this book. You can read his story, including his Burma adventure, on the Roo Tales blog today. See the comments. What’s my draft title of this second book? As of now, it is: “Roo Tales: Stories from the Oldest Little College in Texas.” That may need some work.
It’s been a very rough week for the Burmese. A military coup has reversed the very limited democratic gains since Dianne & I saw the Myanmar flag flying at Tiananmen Square. Aung San Suu Kyi, who disgracefully denied the Rohingya genocide and Burmese military abuses in her bid for greater power, has been “rewarded” with a sullied reputation and no power at all. The coup began when the Burmese military closed Mingaladon International Airport, located on the same spot as the air base used by Tex Hill and the AVG 80 years ago. It’s been 30 years since my student years at Austin College saw the beginning of these political difficulties “Beyond Rangoon,” defined by the eras of Aung San Suu Kyi & the Burmese Military.
Despite the many post WW2 Asian success stories in this Asian Century, Myanmar simply refuses to be one of them. It’s a shame. But bad news is something we Austin College International Studies folks have long learned to accept. Because it’s a world full of humans, it’s a world full of both happiness and misery. When life becomes nasty, brutish, & short, perhaps it’s best to just cope with an unpleasant reality like those fellas on the ground in Burma did. By singing a catchy little Bridge over the River Kwai tune, while a Roo flew overhead.