Dr. Pierre Bernard (P.B.) Hill found his calling in Asia. The Presbyterian minister moved his family to Japanese-occupied Korea in 1910 in order to further his missionary work. There, he saw firsthand the brutality of the Japanese military regime in the early 20th century. P.B. and his wife Ella did their best to raise a family during a time of increased tension. On July 13, 1915, a son arrived. They named him David.
Korea under occupation proved to be too much difficulty for the Hills, and they eventually made their way to the Hill Country of Texas. David grew up hunting and fishing near Kerrville, and eventually acquired the nickname he would carry with him for life. Everybody called him “Tex.”
Hill attended a military high school in Tennessee, and became increasingly interested in military service. His father believed that a college degree was the best route towards becoming an officer, and had no objection when Hill decided to attend Texas A&M in 1934. The choice made sense. The Corps of Cadets at A&M was a common vehicle for students interested in a military career after graduation.
But A&M was not a good fit for Hill. While he relished his time in the Corps, Hill initially found it difficult to fully participate in cadet life while also maintaining his grades. As they began to slip his sophomore year, his family suggested an alternative.
P.B. Hill supported a military career for his son, but also valued a college education. As a member of the Austin College Board of Trustees, it was natural that he would suggest Sherman as an alternative. Tex’s older brother Sam had been a track star at Austin College (Class of ’29), before becoming a Presbyterian minister himself. Why not transfer from A&M to AC, focus on studies, graduate, and then enlist afterwards? Tex visited campus, found the quiet setting ideal, and agreed. He transferred in the fall of 1936. At AC, Hill found a home.
From “Tex Hill: Flying Tiger,” by Major (and Tex Hill grandson) Reagan Schaupp:
“It was a new lease on academic life, and Tex would never again allow circumstances to dictate his efforts. From that time, his life would be marked by intensity towards whatever task he took on. He excelled academically. An amiable manner and quick smile were still his hallmarks; and life at Austin College, although lacking the pageantry and structure of the Corps of Cadets, was enjoyable. Half-constructed buildings scattered about the campus were evidence that the school didn’t enjoy the plentiful grant money a big university would have; but a top-notch faculty ensured the education was at least as good.”
Tex improved his grades, made friends, and found that the quiet life on campus was just what the doctor ordered. He was a fixture at campus events, especially the football games.
The 1937 Kangaroos enjoyed one of their finest seasons. AC finished the season at 8-2, with only one Texas Conference loss to eventual champion Howard Payne. The team also featured Austin College’s first All-American. Center Wallace “Rock” Johnson was named to the 1937 Little All American team, a designation that would be the equivalent of NCAA D3 All-American status today. Coach Ewing Freeland’s squad gave seniors such as Tex Hill a lot of be excited about during their last season in Sherman.
Hill also decided to join a recently formed fraternity on campus that same year. Founded just four years earlier, Phi Sigma Alpha included some of AC’s finest athletes. It’s a legacy that continues to the present day. While Tex Hill was not an athlete himself, he could always be counted on to support Coach Freeland’s squad and other Kangaroo teams.
And just before the biggest game of the year, Hill’s dedication to Roo football fandom reached new heights:
“Austin College enrolled less than three hundred students; but, as any small-school alumnus knows, loyal fans care little about their school’s size. Every school has an arch-rival…though maybe not as famous as Alabama for Auburn, or the University of Texas for Texas A&M…and Austin College was no exception. Austin’s perennial “most-hated enemy” was Trinity University, located at that time in Waxahachie, Texas. As the football schedule rolled toward the two schools’ annual clash in Tex’s senior year, he felt an urge to do something big…really big…to fan the flames of the rivalry.”
Chapter 2: Waxahachie
Bonfire is a unique tradition at Texas A&M, and had proliferated to both Austin College & Trinity in the early 20th century. Tex Hill read in the papers that the latest edition of the Trinity bonfire promised to be the largest yet. Austin College students in the past had made a tradition of driving to Waxahachie to paint “Austin” or “Kangaroos” on the Trinity bonfire. Hill had bigger ideas.
“‘Look at this, fellows: Biggest Bonfire Ever at Trinity University,’ Tex read, displaying the headline to a small group of his Phi Sig buddies. He paused, smiling mischievously, ‘If you’ll help pay my way down there to Waxahachie, I’ll burn that thing down.’”
A plan was hatched. A small group of Roos led by Hill drove down to Waxahachie in the middle of the night in the days before the game. When they arrived, they quietly made their way to the open area next to Trinity’s Yoakum field. The unlit, huge bonfire was there, guarded in the cold by a small group of Trinity freshmen.
The Roos left to fill up a gallon-size coffee can with gasoline, returned to the bonfire site, and quietly crept into position. It was Hill as squadron leader, and this raid was his first of many missions.
“Be ready to go – and I mean go,” he whispered.
Hill and the group snuck their way quietly to the opposite side of the bonfire. They emptied the can of gasoline, lit a match, and dropped it.
“Aw, hell! Our bonfire!” were the only words heard by Hill as he and his accomplices sprinted back to the idling car. They were headed back to Sherman within minutes, laughing all of the way home. Trinity homecoming activities proceeded without a bonfire that year. AC handed Trinity a loss on the football field days later.
That same fall, hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the empire of Japan poured into the southern Chinese capital of Nanking. The Marco Polo Bridge incident earlier that summer in the northern Chinese capital of Beijing encouraged Tokyo to launch an invasion and occupation of the interior. Japanese troops flooded into Nanking just a few weeks after Tex Hill lit the Trinity bonfire. Over the months that followed, nearly 300,000 Chinese citizens were brutalized in the infamous “Rape of Nanking.” The second Sino-Japanese war was becoming one of the most inhumane conflicts in the world.
Hill was famous on campus for his motorcycle. A novelty for a student at the time, he rode it everywhere in Sherman. Just after the 1938 commencement ceremonies ended, Hill said his goodbyes to Austin College and hopped on his bike. He drove it directly to Naval Recruiting in Dallas and enlisted that same day. A college degree was highly favored by Naval Aviation recruiters, and Hill’s request to join Navy Flight Training was accepted. Hill then drove his bike from Texas to Pensacola, Florida to begin his service. He’d have to eventually give up the bike though; this Roo was gonna fly.
After 18 months of intensive Navy instruction, Tex Hill earned his wings from Pensacola Naval Flight Training in November 1939. The next month, he was assigned to the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Saratoga. Hill’s service was fairly routine for much of 1940. From his perch on the Saratoga, he watched the world around him fall apart. While the U.S. was still not at war, Hill suspected the conflict would eventually swallow America as well. It would, and Tex Hill would be right in the middle of it.
Chapter 3: Bloemfontein
The Japanese occupation of eastern China in 1937 was motivated by a desire to create a Tokyo “breadbasket” for the war effort. Chinese agricultural would fuel hungry soldiers backed by a Japanese populace on a wartime footing. The occupation stretched as far west as Hunan province, the most fertile in China. But Japanese expansion had stalled west of Hunan after the government of Republic of China relocated to its wartime capital of Chongqing.
The Chongqing government was led by Chairman Chiang Kai-shek, and his efforts to repel the Japanese were going poorly. With the Chinese on their heels, General Tojo had his forces embark on a strategy to bombard western China cities into submission. Because China had no air force, Japanese bombers leveled Chinese cities at will. Chongqing and Chengdu learned to live with this terror on a daily basis. On June 5th, 1940, yet another Japanese bombing of Chongqing lead to a stampede leaving 4,000 civilians dead.
Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in the southwest, suffered the most of all. Kunming lay on the Old Burma Road, the only land link between western China and British occupied Burma. The Chinese government was supplied by the Allies via the Burma Road, which allowed the fight to continue. Japan’s bombardment targeted civilian areas, part of a strategy designed to encourage surrender, begin full occupation, and free up Japanese resources for the war effort in the Pacific.
Chiang Kai-Shek had a huge problem. For China to avoid surrender, the bombardments had to be confronted. The chairman had no air force and no pilots; but he did have friends in Washington. Chiang dispatched his ambassador to D.C. for discussions with President Franklin Roosevelt. Could the Americans establish a presence in western China and fight the Japanese in the air on behalf of the Chinese?
Members of FDR’s administration argued against any involvement for the US; after all, the country was still not at war. But FDR suspected that war would eventually come, and worked out a deal. UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill would sell British P-40 fighters to China, and the U.S. would incentive some of its best Navy pilots to secretly decommission and volunteer for this new Chinese Air Force. If captured or killed, the United States government would deny any knowledge of their activities. The group officially became known as the American Volunteer Group (AVG). They’re more famously known as the “Flying Tigers.”
Chairman Chiang needed someone to command the AVG, and settled on an old American aviator and Lt. General named Claire Chennault. Chennault was convinced that the fight in the air could be won with revolutionary flying tactics. Before WW2, fighters commonly engaged the enemy from behind. Chennault’s big insight was that success rates were much higher when fights were engaged from above. By starting high, flying low, strafing, and then climbing again, enemy planes had few alternatives to defend themselves. The tactic was commonly referred to as “Dive-Squirt-Pass-Run.” Chennault also (correctly) assumed that the Japanese would be unlikely to adopt this strategy in return, because of a dedication to outdated tactics and a culture of rigidity.
With the arrival of the P-40 fighters, Chennault had the aircraft he needed to defend Chinese cities. But these new flying tactics were incredibly difficult to master. He needed the best pilots in the States to carry them out. The recruitment effort began in earnest during the summer of 1940.
Tex Hill was one of a select few quietly approached by his commanding officer with an interesting proposition. At the time, he was back in Norfolk. Would he consider an honorable decommission to volunteer for an emerging Chinese Air Force? For Hill, the decision was an easy one. He had become one of the most elite pilots in the Navy, and was growing bored with inaction while the world was on fire. Also, he had grown up in Korea under Japanese occupation, and had a soft spot for Asian communities enduring Tokyo domination. Finally, Chiang Kai-Shek was paying the volunteers an attractive sum. A decision to say yes would be dangerous, but the combat pay was appealing.
In late 1940, Hill made his way to Los Angeles, where he and the other American volunteers departed and watched California fade from view. Aboard the Dutch ship M.V. Bloemfontein, they began the long, circuitous journey to British-occupied Burma. The voyage took them south to New Zealand, in order to avoid Japanese contact. After 53 days at sea, they finally arrived in September of 1940, where they were greeted by Chennault. Their Asia adventure had begun.
Chapter 4: Mingaladon
The AVG immediately began the work of setting up bases in Toungoo (central Burma) and Mingaladon (southern Burma, not far from Rangoon). The AVG was on the payroll of the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO), contracted by the Republic of China to defend the country against the Japanese.
For most of 1941, they trained in Burma with their P-40s, practicing the tactics preached by Chennault. It soon became clear that Tex Hill would be Chennault’s right hand man. Ironically, Chennault himself was born and raised in Commerce, TX. For a brief period during World War 2, the three men most tasked with preventing the fall of China were Chiang Kai-Shek and two guys from Hunt and Grayson counties.
The Japanese eventually learned of the AVG’s presence in Burma, but did nothing to change their strategy of bombardment into submission. The Japanese Air Force highly underestimated the impact that these expert pilots using new tactics would have, and also suspected that they would have no desire to engage at all. Their suspicions seemed to be confirmed throughout 1941, as the near daily bombing runs over Kunming and Chongqing were unchallenged by the AVG. But the Flying Tigers were just preparing for the right day to strike. That day was projected to come sometime around the end of 1941. That’s exactly when America’s fragile peace with Japan came to an abrupt end.
The AVG greeted the news of the December 7th, 1941 attack at Pearl Harbor with a sense of horror but also relief. There would no longer be any need to camouflage their American identities. The country was at war with the Empire of Japan, and the AVG would soon be taking a part in it.
The years after Pearl Harbor were difficult ones for the Allies. Unprepared for war, the Japanese followed up the attack by occupying Singapore, defeating the US at Wake, driving the Americans out of the Philippines, and advancing east into the Pacific theatre. The tide of the war did not begin to definitively turn until 1943; most Americans spent 1942 looking for any sign of good news.
Americans took heart with news of the Doolittle Raids in April 1942. Determined to strike the Japanese home islands and raise morale back home, FDR ordered a bombing raid on Tokyo. Unable to return safely, the pilots would abandon their planes over mainland China and seek refuge among the local populace. While many pilots did not survive the raid or were captured by occupying Japanese forces, a number were also safely protected by Chinese allies and returned back home. This cooperation between Chinese civilians and American military personnel would be seen over and over again in the relationship between the AVG pilots and their Chinese allies on the ground.
But well before the Doolittle Raids, America was already striking back. The first AVG attack on Japanese bombardment was moved up because of Pearl Harbor, and the outfit patiently awaited the next flight of bombers headed to Kunming. Those bombers took off on December 20th, 1941, less than two weeks after the country’s entry into war. The AVG scrambled and headed to intercept the ten bombers intent on unleashing yet another humanitarian disaster on the Chinese residents of that city. Those bombers never arrived.
Because of overconfidence, the bombers were unprotected by fighters. The AVG arrived from above, and began their dive attacks. One after another, they were straffed and disabled. Their engines on fire, they were sent plummeting to the ground. The Americans returned to Burma without a single loss. Newspapers across the country heralded the strike, calling it the first American response to the day that would live in Infamy. The AVG followed up their December 20th defense of Kunming with another decisive victory over Japanese fighters near Rangoon five days later.
From “Tex Hill: Flying Tiger”:
“It was a dark time of the war for the United States and her allies; at the time, they were losing ground on every front around the world. Even on the day of the Christmas victory over Rangoon, the Japanese wrested control of Hong Kong from the British. The AVG’s accomplishments made for rare good news that encouraged folks back home. One Chinese newspaper described the group in glowing terms, dubbing them the ‘Flying Tigers.’ The name stuck. Within a week, stories were proliferating nationwide about the aerial deeds of the Flying Tigers; and the AVG was perfectly happy with the title. The American readership ate it up, too, eager to learn about action in the one area of the world where they were winning.”
Chapter 5: Kunming
Faced with opposition from the air, Japanese tactics changed almost immediately. The bombing runs over Chinese cities ceased, and Tokyo began to devote more energy and resources towards a conquest of Indochina and Burma on the ground. Superior Japanese forces would drive west from French occupied Vietnam to Rangoon, cut off the Burma road that ran to Kunming, and force a Chinese surrender from below. From an Allied perspective, this was simply a shift in the strategy of the war in Asia. From a Chinese civilian perspective, it was liberation.
For years, the Chinese populations in the west had endured brutal bombardments from the air designed to force surrender. Facing no opposition, the runs were frequent and merciless. Hill and the AVG personally witnessed the devastation; it was something they never got over. Because of the AVG’s insertion into the conflict, the American pilots are considered nothing less than heroes sent from the heavens. If one travels to western China and mentions that she or he is a graduate of Austin College, the home of Flying Tiger Tex Hill, the response even today will be a gratitude hard to imagine.
The change in strategy by the Japanese proved effective. The AVG had incredible success in their engagements with Japanese “zero” fighters and bombers during the Battle of Rangoon. But the British and French on the ground were no match for the Japanese forces in 1942. Indochina fell, Thailand surrendered, and the British were driven out of Burma into India. Japanese control of Rangoon and the old AVG base at Mingaladon in March 1942 effectively meant the end of the Burma Road lifeline. The AVG was forced to relocate to Kunming, China, which had to be resupplied by dangerous and infrequent flights “over the hump” of the Himalayas from India. While evacuating to Kunming, the AVG provided air cover for Chinese forces retreating back home to China.
Meanwhile, the Japanese army was moving north in Burma. Their goal was to cross into China and accomplish on the ground what they had been unable to do from the air: end Chiang Kai-Shek’s regime. Most feared that if they could reach the open plains and plateaus north of the Salween River border between Burma and China, nothing could stop them. Throughout 1942, the forces of the Empire of Japan crept closer and closer to the Salween. The AVG, now in Kunming, had to decide what to do.
Some pilots suggested a relocation. China was a lost cause, and their services were better offered in places like the Solomon and Marshall Islands. Hill and others leaned towards a defense of the country they had grown to love. Chennault was unsure. Because Chinese troops would be potentially harmed by an attack at the Salween, Chennault sent a telegram to his commanding officer Chiang Kai-Shek to seek his advice and decision on a course of action. The Chairman’s response was three words:
“Destroy the Enemy”
Chapter 6: Salween
The Salween river cuts a valley so deep between China and Burma that it is often referred to as “China’s Grand Canyon.” The Burma Road ends with a 5,000 foot drop into the river valley; an equally difficult climb up to the Chinese plateau is required. At the time, Japanese forces were chasing fleeing Chinese ground forces in northern Burma. Chennault and Hill gambled that the entire Japanese army could be trapped in the gorge if they were encouraged to chase the Chinese all the way across the border. Chinese forces would descend, cross the river, await the arrival of the Japanese, and blow the Huitong bridge crossing the river. If the overzealous Japanese made the decision to descend into the valley to rebuild the bridge and cross, they could possibly be trapped.
Chinese forces crossed the Salween, rigged explosives on the bridge, and waited. They saw Japanese troops appear at the top of the ridge and hold their position. Then, they started to head down the long and windy road to the Salween. Chinese commanders ecstatically contacted Chennault with the news, and the AVG began their attack preparations. The Chinese blew the bridge, and retreated to a safe distance. The Japanese arrived at the river and began their preparations to rebuild and cross. By early May, the positions of thousands of Japanese troops were unprotected, somewhere between the river and the ridge.
Back in Kunming, the AVG planning was over. Japanese command had made a catastrophic error. The attack of the AVG was scheduled for May 5th, 1942.
From “Tex Hill: Flying Tiger”:
“On a combat mission, it is rare to be captivated by the scenery; but this time, the pilots couldn’t help it. Squinting in the sudden glare, they surveyed the purple-crowned mountains and the winding, storybook valley that cut its way through them. Sunlight painted hillsides with rich colors, glittering off the tiny ribbon of the Salween below.”
“As they descended, details became clearer. The huge column of trucks and armored vehicles of Japan’s 56th Division trailed up from the river’s edge, all the way along the length of the looping highway to the top of the gorge, and well out onto the plateau beyond. Never had Tex seen so many Japanese soldiers at once. Here, there were hundreds of tanks and trucks, and thousands of troops, all waiting for their engineers to complete a pontoon bridge across the river below.”
It all went entirely to plan. As Hill and the AVG approached, thousands of Japanese troops, armored vehicles, and tanks were somewhere along the narrow, winding road. They had nowhere to go. In wave after wave, the AVG carried out their attack. Even indirect hits were catastrophic, as the loose soil and rock of the gorge continually gave way and tumbled onto the enemy below. Exhausted Chinese soldiers, lodged safely on the east side of the river, cheered each wave. The attack lasted three days, with the final runs executed on May 7th. The Japanese defeat was complete. Only a small contingent of soldiers survived to limp back to Rangoon. Tokyo never again attempted a land invasion into Western China for the duration of the war.
“The strike was a success unequaled by any mission the AVG had yet flown. As Tex and the others finally veered off for home, they saw the [Japanese] Red Dragon [division] survivors trying to clear the rock at the top of the gorge. They were retreating back to Burma.”
One of the most famous portraits of the AVG is of Tex Hill himself at the Battle of the Salween Gorge. The work, “Tigers in the Gorge,” was created by John D. Shaw. The river is visible in the photo, as is the blown up bridge and the destruction of Japanese forces. His fellow pilots are seen behind him, executing their runs. Hill is pulling up, already having hit his target. An Austin College Kangaroo is front and center of a portrait celebrating one of the most important battles of the war to save the world from Axis totalitarianism.
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.”
The Battle of the Salween Gorge had saved China.
Chapter 7: Hunan
The cavalry arrived in the summer of 1942.
Beaten back, Japan retreated into Burma. The US Army Air Force (USAAF) officially set up shop in Western China soon thereafter, and formed an official alliance with the Republic of China. The American Volunteer Group was no longer necessary.
The final statistics of the AVG were incredible. 229 Japanese aircraft shot down vs 12 planes lost.
The AVG was officially dissolved on July 4th, 1942 in Hengyang. Many of the AVG volunteers were recommissioned back into the US armed services; Tex Hill was one. Hill became “Major Hill”, commander of the 75th Fighter Squadron, overseeing the 51th Fighter group of the USAAF. At Hengyang, Hill was thanked personally by Chiang Kai-Shek for his service. He was awarded the “6th Order of the Cloud & Banner” at Hengyang by Madame Chiang. The award is bestowed by the Republic of China for “contributions to national security” to a non-Chinese citizen.
From “Tex Hill: Flying Tiger”:
“When the clock struck the hour of midnight, the American Volunteer Group passed into history. The Flying Tigers, and their weathered leader, had written a unique page in the annals of war. Nineteen of their pilots would never return home; but only four of them had been lost in aerial combat. Only a dozen of their trusty P-40s had been shot down; sixty-one had been lost on the ground to strafing, accidents, and demolition [in Burma].”
“For that price, they had bought for China the destruction of two hundred ninety-nine Japanese aircraft (confirmed). And far more planes than those lay strewn in the trackless jungle between Rangoon and Thailand, wrecked on the rugged hills below Paoshan, and mired at the cold bottom of the Gulf of Martaban. It was impossible, too, to estimate the effect on the spirits of the Chinese people – rising from despair to relief when Japanese bombs never fell, bullets did not kill, enemy soldiers failed to arrive. There was no measuring the strength lent to battered China by the AVG’s effort – strength that kept the nation from crumbling when things were darkest.”
With the arrival of the USAAF and the retreat of Japan back to Rangoon, the war shifted east to Hunan province.
Hunan province is the Kansas of China. Equidistant to the major ports of Shanghai and Guangzhou/Hong Kong, it’s the largest rice growing province in the country and connected to both ports by rail. The capital of Changsha sits along the Xiang river, a major tributary of the mighty Yangtze that flows to Shanghai. For the Empire of Japan, occupation of Hunan was a crucial part of their strategy to feed a growing war effort. In early 1942, Chinese general Xue Yue defended Changsha against a greater Japanese force. Xue’s victory in the First Battle for Changsha became the first great allied victory on land in the global conflict. In all, four major battles for the city occurred during the war.
For Tex Hill, the war entered a new chapter. His squadron was based out of Zhijiang, with forward bases at Hengyang, Lingling, and Kweilin. All bases were located in Hunan province, and most missions were flown east-west along the Yantgze or north-south along the Xiang. Priorities were to disrupt military and economic transports along the rivers that fed the ports of Shanghai in the east and Canton (now Guangzhou) and Hong Kong in the south.
Tex was given a command post in July 1942 because of his leadership within the AVG.
“In fact, Tex’s leadership had begun long before that day in 1942; and it had not proceeded from a title. Tex led others in the most straightforward way possible: by example. He never directed his men to perform a task he had not done; and he preferred to be in the thick of things, demonstrating exactly what he meant for others to accomplish.”
No rest for the weary. Hill would soon be back in the thick of things in a city called Changsha.
Chapter 8: Changsha
The first mission of the 23rd Fighter Group took place on July 6, 1942, not long after formation. Hill and his fellow USAAF fighters flew south to Canton, attacking Japanese military sites at the north end of the Pearl River Delta. Most of the summer and fall of 1942 was spent disrupting traffic along the Pearl River. On October 25th, 1942, the attack of the 51st at Kai Tak airbase in Hong Kong was one of the most intense of the campaign. Hill’s plane was damaged; he managed to limp home to base.
After over two years of combat, Hill was given leave for most of 1943. He headed west back to the States, avoiding the conflict by flying through India, Sub-Sarahan Africa, and the Caribbean. Back home in San Antonio, he met the love of his life, Mazie Sale. They each knew they had found the one, and also knew the war would soon be calling again. So Tex & Mazie quickly wed in the spring of 1943 and spent that summer together. In the fall, Hill was called back to China.
Most of the raids of the 23rd were along the primary rivers on the Chinese mainland. In November 1943, the USAAF had a bigger idea: a raid on a major Japanese air field on the island of Formosa (Taiwan). The distance was formidable, and the terrain was overwhelmingly hostile. It would require the cover of darkness, and radio silence. It would also have to go exactly as planned for the timing to work out. According to Hill, it was a mission that would either end in disaster or go perfectly.
Hill and his fellow pilots took off at dusk from Hunan and made their way east. Their lights and radios were off amidst an eerie quiet. Land eventually gave way to the water of the Pacific, which was replaced by the land of Formosa. As Hill approached the airfield, his eyes lit up with excitement. All of the Japanese fighters and bombers were there, sitting on the runway unprotected.
Wave after wave of fighters hit their targets as the Japanese attempted and failed to scramble. After one last pass, Hill turned west and headed for home. He looked back; the base was a total loss. Of all of Hill’s efforts, nothing surpassed the Formosa raid in terms of sheer devastation. As 1943 gave way to 1944, Hill was promoted to Colonel to command the 75th Fighter Squadron.
The Empire of Japan had attempted and failed to conquer the Hunan capital of Changsha three times. General Xue Hue’s defense of the city in the third battle of Changsha in January of 1942 had earned him the nickname of the “Patton of Asia” from Hill’s boss Claire Chennault. Desperate and frustrated, Japan put overwhelmingly resources into a fourth attempt to capture the city in 1944. The offensive would be known as “Ichi-Go”. It would occupy all of the USAAF’s efforts that year.
The goal of the Japanese was to take the capital Changsha, drive the Americans from their forward bases at Hengyang, Lingling, and Kewlein, force a retreat from Zhijiang, and finally secure the Hunan agricultural lifeline to the coasts. Ichi-Go would partially triumph in its goals; despite an heroic effort by Xue Yue and his 150,000 men, Changsha finally fell. But the campaign was a tremendous cost to Japan. The fall of Changsha in the summer of 1944 was reversed by early 1945.
On June 12th, 1944, just days after D-Day in France, Hill took off for yet another patrol of the Xiang river. He was looking for Japanese Ichi-Go targets to frustrate, and he stumbled upon one in pouring rain just outside the city of Changsha. In front of Hill on the river was a Japanese patrol boat moving troops south. Hill and his squadron opened fire, sinking the ship. Return fire, however, had damaged his own plane. The damage caused his canopy to fly open. His map flew into his face and stayed there, held by the fierce wind and rain.
Hill banked right and pulled up. Flying blind, he felt a thud and remained airborne. Hill circled back and made his way back to base. When he arrived, his fellow pilot Ted Adams was awestruck at what he saw.
“Tex got out and examined his plane in the relentless rain. There were pieces of brush caught in the P-51’s air scoop; he had come within mere inches of plowing into the riverbank. Ted Adams was aghast when he saw his commander’s plane, with missing canopy and added greenery; and almost as shocked when he looked at the sopping Tex himself, who still carried the shreds of his map. Tex strode over and put a dripping hand on the young man’s shoulder. “I’ll tell you one thing, Ted,” said Tex with a grin, “nothing keeps you on your toes like getting shot at.”
The Allies were advancing on all fronts as 1944 wound down. Hill’s time in Asia was coming to an end.
Chapter 9: San Antonio
The war was slowly drawing to a close as 1945 neared. In Europe, the Americans were making the methodical advance east to the Rhine. Japan was losing ground in the South Pacific. That winter, Iwo Jima and Okinawa would fall. The Chinese were reversing the gains of the Japanese in Hunan. In October of 1944, Hill headed back to the States for good. He had spent over three years in training or combat in Asia. One of his last acts as a colonel was to ground a number of pilots with over 100 successful missions. Tex knew the toll that combat tours could take.
After the war, Hill’s career in the US military continued. He took command of the 412th Fighter Group in 1945, where he was stationed when the war in the Pacific ended in August. In 1946, Texas Governor Coke Stevenson asked Hill to command the 136th Fighter Group of the Texas Air National Guard. There, he was promoted to Brigadier General.
After retirement, Hill and Mazie settled into the Hill Country of San Antonio alongside other veterans of World War 2. His honors were legendary: The Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters, Presidential Unit Citation with Oak Leaf Cluster, Chinese Order of the Cloud and Banner 4th, 5th and 6th grades, the Legion of Merit, and British Distinguished Flying Cross among others.
Tex Hill was honored by Austin College as a distinguished alumnus in 1996. He passed in 2007.
At the time of the dissolution of the AVG, Army leadership had little respect for the military success of the Flying Tigers. In fact, they didn’t think much of the men themselves. In their eyes, these American pilots had left the American military for some type of questionable enterprise of dubious merit. Now, the real war was on. The US Army was in town, and these flyboys needed to start over. They were given a stark choice: either accept their new (often less appealing) posts within the US Army as directed, or return to America ON THEIR OWN DIME and await a draft.
As the AVG was retired into history, the pilots received no parade and no decorations. Frustrated, many pilots made their way back to the U.S. One AVG mechanic could not afford the trip; the Chinese chipped in to help get him home. Like any bureaucracy populated by humans, the U.S. Army had made a terrible mistake. As the actual record of the AVG in the air became widely known after the war, that attitude began to slowly change as the years flew by.
The 50th anniversary of the AVG’s final flights arrived in 1992, and it just so happened that there was a World War 2 pilot in the White House who had been shot down in the Pacific. To celebrate the Flying Tigers 50 years after their efforts against the Empire of Japan, the Pentagon formally and retroactively recognized AVG pilots and mechanics as members of the U.S. military services. The success of each individual pilot was officially recorded in military logs, and the entire outfit was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for “professionalism, dedication to duty, and extraordinary heroism.”
“You took a strong stand against tyranny on behalf of the Chinese people, and your brave defense of the cause of liberty added a legendary chapter to our nation’s military history. Americans dubbed your tiny force the “Flying Tigers,” out of pride for your courage in battle and admiration for your success against a powerful enemy – and what an astounding success it was. Your brave exploits led the way to even greater victories in the Pacific Theater, and you can be rightly proud of the contributions of the Flying Tigers to the ultimate triumph of the Allied Forces in World War II. You have earned the lasting gratitude of the American people, and your sacrifices will never be forgotten.”
George H.W. Bush – April 10, 1992
Hope you enjoyed this Memorial Day Roo Tale! If you did, consider sending a dime to David Norman and JR Ohr in the comments below and help AC athletics reach its goals.
We’ll pick another Roo veteran and do it all again next May. Go Roos.
I dunno about y’all, but me? Every time I see a Roos bumper sticker on the road in Austin, I gotta track that driver down. Even if I have to cross a county line. Heck, it could be Jason Johnson. Or Holly Mace Massingill. Maybe the grandson of Tex Hill. Or the great great granddaughter of Samuel Luckett. Who are you mystery driver?
Today was the last day in the office for UT Chancellor William McRaven. We all said our goodbyes as he departs to write and teach at the LBJ School. The Chancellor wrote for one of my Tex Hill previews back on May 6th. Today was one last chance for me to say thanks. He will be missed.
My May 6th Tex Hill preview also mentioned the Dean of my graduate school at Tufts, a McRaven friend and colleague named Admiral James Stavridis. Amazingly, Dean Stavridis also announced his retirement earlier today. In Stavridis’s final message to alumni, he referenced Napoleon. In McRaven’s farewell message today to UT System staff, he inspired us one last time and referenced Brigadier General Joshua Chamberlain.
All of this pageantry by America’s top brass reminds me of my own news to report. I’d like to also take this opportunity to make a very important announcement. Today I’ll be stopping by Taco Bell on the way home from work. I’ve got a burning desire for a burrito supreme. This decision has not been taken lightly, and has been highly influenced by Kangaroo Tex Hill, who once said “Trinity Bonfire? I’ll burn that sucker down.” 🙂
Everyone deserves a parting gift, and I had one ready for the Admiral. That May 6th preview was printed and packaged for the Admiral to read and enjoy. I wrote him a note thanking him for his 3+ years at System. The printed preview also includes the Semper Fi fundraiser, which seemed to please McRaven most of all; he and his wife donate a significant amount of their time to charities for veterans.
The Tex Hill Roo Tale is well under way. Tomorrow is Chapter 5, with the first mention of the Salween.
Me: “I’m telling the Tex Hill story in daily chapters.”
McRaven: “Where are you today?”
Me: “Well, tomorrow is the Salween.”
McRaven: “Ohhhh, the good stuff.”
Yes indeed Admiral, the good stuff.
In addition to the printed preview, I also gave the Admiral a small AC gift. A Roos bumper sticker.
So come on down to Austin everybody, and help me spot some Roos bumper stickers. Who could it be? It could be Jason Johnson. Or Holly Mace Massingill. Maybe the grandson of Tex Hill. Or the great great granddaughter of Samuel Luckett.
Or who knows? Maybe America’s Admiral.
I get to write about Tex Hill in the morning, chat with William McRaven in the afternoon, and hang out with Dianne Parrish in the evening. It’s a blessed life.