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Roland Sperry 'fesses up

[Several years ago, the late R.T. Smith came across Roland Sperry selling his fabulous Flying Tiger yarn at an air show, and he outed the imposter in Air Classics magazine, August 1990. R.T. generously hid the man's name behind the monicker Captain Incredible, which allowed Sperry to continue the charade. What's puzzling about his book is that it reads like a juvenile novel--Sperry is forced down and spends some time on the run in China with the help of two Chinese boys--as if he knew that he couldn't have faked up a real story of the USAAF Flying Tigers without it being spotted as a phoney. -- Dan Ford]

Story by SUSAN BESZE WALLACE / The Orange County Register

He earned a Purple Heart. But he felt he needed more.

So Roland C. Sperry, a World War II veteran with a solid military record, fabricated a heroic one.

A gregarious speaker at yacht club, high school or military functions at least once a month, he always brought the book he had written and news of the next airshow he was to emcee. His resume, as thick as his Texas drawl, awed audiences:

Member of the elite Flying Tigers. Fighter pilot who downed four Japanese aircraft and twice survived being shot down behind enemy lines. Decorated captain, awarded the equivalent of 12 Air Medals and seven Distinguished Flying Crosses, among others.

This week, after months of inquiry by The Orange County Register, Sperry admitted that he's been living a lie. One he profited from. One that veterans say cheapened their service.

He never piloted a military plane. There were no downed fighters. He wasn't an officer. His book — "I was a fighter pilot, a Flying Tiger. There were guys who'd give their eye teeth for my job, with good reason" — is all fiction.

"I don't know why I did it," said Sperry, who turned 77 on Friday. "I'm ashamed. I should have stopped it, so help me God."

He had accepted an invitation to speak at the Memorial Day cemetery service of Newport Harbor VFW Post 219, one of dozens of communities he duped.

Sperry owned up to his lies in an interview at the Huntington Beach car dealership where he's worked seven years in customer service. In November, he was interviewed there as well — in an office blanketed with memorabilia — for a Register Veterans Day story about preserving memories. A commissioned print of a plane he never flew no longer hangs behind him.

"It wasn't done to take away from what other people did," he said. "I didn't look at it as promoting me, but history and anyone tied to flying."

Reaction to his admission fell into two categories: local friends who were dumbfounded, and those a little farther away who were surprised only that he had owned up.

"I am numb," said Joe Criazo, a Huntington Beach resident and Air Force jet mechanic who befriended Sperry and introduced him to Post 219. Sperry told him he was having financial troubles and brought books to sell to the group. Criazo and his wife cared so much for Sperry that they attended a Museum of Flying air show he emceed, and invited him to a Blue Angels show with a group of friends.

"He had 'em captivated in my van. He knew people. He signed autographs," Criazo said. "This is too big, too huge to comprehend. I'm really, really sad."

Several of the original Flying Tigers — a 300-member air force that worked with the Chinese to defend their country and at the same time advanced American aerial-combat tactics — have met Sperry at air shows. They thought he was among those who claim the Flying Tiger distinction but actually flew with other squadrons. When their research showed he wasn't even a pilot, they were floored. After they asked him to leave the Flying Tigers Association, they thought he would stop.

He's been selling books for a decade, the first one published, the second self-printed.

In the foreword to "China Through the Eyes of a Tiger," a picture of a handsome man in a cockpit is displayed atop a paragraph that states, "I flew 150 combat sorties in the P-51 Mustang." On the photo, Sperry has written "To Mother ...," and signed his name.

The picture is of a now-deceased pilot, not Sperry.

Sperry also recanted being a graduate of the University of Texas, Austin, though he was born in Texas in 1922. He says he has three children who live in the Dallas area. His second wife, Enola, died three years ago of heart-valve problems that, he says, depleted bank accounts and have him still working at 77.

He lives in an apartment, but is quite at home being the center of attention. He often punctuates his rapid-fire speech with "hon," and reroutes a conversation so often you need a map to escape. These traits made him a character, said those who heard him speak.

"What a charade. What a rat. I'm incredulous," said Air Force pilot and Vietnam veteran Art Hood, who heard Sperry speak at one of at least two Huntington Harbour Yacht Club luncheons.

"It was all about his experiences ... being shot down ... the Chinese kids who helped save him," Hood said. "Oh, did he ever wear his leather jacket. Everybody ate it up. They were enthralled."

Hood remembers being surprised that someone who had been through so much talked so openly.

Sperry rubbed his eyes as he said that just this past Wednesday, he had attended another Yacht Club luncheon to hear another veteran speak.

"Everything done was done to compliment the veterans. I just think so highly of them. I wanted to be a career man," Sperry said. "I am totally heartbroken. I'm sorry for everything that's happened."

Jane and Larry Bledsoe of Ontario are quite sorry, too.

They were introduced to Sperry when he was narrating an air show and later commissioned two paintings to commemorate his heroics and to sell in their aviation art gallery in Upland. They spent thousands on the prints, and their debut banquets, and on air time for Sperry's "Aviation Showcase" radio show. He never came through with promised sponsors to reimburse them.

"He's probably the best air-show narrator I've ever heard," Larry Bledsoe said. "Great stage presence, he keeps the audience entertained, and no lull."

"The women fall all over him, and the men are drawn to him, too," Jane Bledsoe said. "It's just so amazing to me that someone that capable and that talented would waste himself like this."

Ironically, Sperry introduced the Bledsoes to some original Flying Tigers before anyone knew the full extent of his embellishments. And it was that connection that alerted them — though they were already wary because of the sour financial investment they'd made in their friend.

"He dishonors people by saying he accomplished what they did," Larry Bledsoe said. "He is living off their honor."

Sperry has long been an aviation aficionado and calls himself "a Sunday pilot." He actually did serve in the war as a staff sergeant, as a gunner, and records show he received a Purple Heart for a hand wound. He also received the Air Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, Good Conduct Medal and Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal. When asked if those accomplishments alone were something to be proud of, he sat silent.

Sperry's resume, which he taped inside the books he sold, also included a record-setting cross-country speed run in a P-51 Mustang— a run that never happened.

A year ago, Sperry was invited to speak at a high school military awards dinner in Pasadena.

"He didn't do any damage. He said things the kids needed to hear. ... Work hard, don't give up, hang in there. He wore his leather jacket. He brought books to sell," said aerospace instructor and retired Air Force Maj. Charles Phill. Sperry had also spoken to one of Phill's military groups.

Phill was a Vietnam veteran who evacuated "broken bodies and broken spirits" from the field.

"I wouldn't want anyone claiming that," he said of Sperry's lies. "We need some real heroes today real badly."

Sperry said that adding resume entries "seemed to be opening doors." He said it didn't enter his mind that someone would check his records. He said he would refund every $15 paid for his paperback. He said he had been truthful to car customers — though in November he said customers were often given a tour of his office. He said he'd never sought counseling and didn't think he needed to.

"I'm on track with God. I know what He expects," Sperry said. "I've been praying about this."

Bill Frank, supervisor of the social-work staff at Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Long Beach, said some vets embellish service records for the financial benefits they may receive if they've been greatly traumatized. Others do it for the reward of looking bigger in the eyes of others, a deep-seated self-esteem issue.

"Can a guy like that be helped in a support group? He might seduce the group," Frank said. "You have to wonder at 77 if someone is going to change."

Susan Houston, a clinical psychologist at the veterans hospital, said Sperry could have a strain of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by a sense of guilt that he didn't do more in the war.

"He may want to make what he did more, not so much for others' approval, but for his own well-being," Houston said.

Sperry couldn't say. He did say he felt depressed and "wanted to go to sleep and not wake up," though he said he would never consider suicide because it's a sin.

Many people Sperry lied to call the situation pathetic and would be satisfied with an apology and a promise to stop lying. Criazo, who was prepared to anonymously help the strapped Sperry with rent before the revelation, says he hopes that Sperry feels relief.

"I've forgiven him. ... This is not the end, but the beginning of a new season in his life," Criazo said. "There are important morals and principles for all of us to learn from this, not just Roland."

Others are less willing to forgive.

"He was so glib," said Flying Tiger squadron leader Tex Hill, 84, of San Antonio. "We had people killed, and what he's done is a disservice to the memory of those people, and those still alive."

"We wanted to hammer him and we might still (sue him). ... I hope he doesn't show his face again."

Sperry said he doesn't know what life might have in store for him after this, but he pledged "no more" lies. "I want it over," he said.

The Newport Harbor VFW post is looking for another Memorial Day speaker to pay tribute to those who died, someone who's done what Sperry said he did.

"This man had so much talent to get publicity for himself," said Newport Harbor VFW post Cmdr. Nita Ullman. "It's a shame he didn't use it to get veterans the support and the things they really need."