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Tex Hill's story

Tex Hill: Flying Tiger
Tex Hill: Flying Tiger

(David Lee Hill and Reagan Schaupp)

This book is available at Historic Aviation for $34.95

Five or six years ago, I heard on the grapevine that Tex Hill was writing his autobiography, and I looked forward to it with great interest. Now that I have this book--a labor of love by two of his grandsons, one of whom is listed as co-author and the other as distributor--I reckon that the manuscript proved unpublishable, so the family got together and whipped it into shape. That may have been a mistake. It was a project that would have benefited from a disinterested pair of eyes.

Had those been my eyeballs, I would have urged the authors to tell their story in Tex Hill's voice. Hey, this is an autobiography! Tex is listed as primary author, "with" Reagan Schauppp--a formula that suggests that you're getting the true story from the celebrity himself, but prettied up by a collaborator. Then why is the book written in the third person, with Tex as a character instead of the narrator? (Put another way, why say he when you could have said I?)

If Hill and Schaupp had taken this course, much of what's wrong with their book would have been fallen away. If Tex Hill the memoirist says he shot down two "I-97" fighters on such a day, and that they were armed with 20 mm cannon--well, that's the way he remembered it! But if Tex Hill the historical character is shown going out and shooting down these "I-97s", and taking cannon fire in return, then we are obliged to ask what plane the authors are talking about. The Nakajima Ki-27 (later called Nate by Allied pilots) went into service in 1937, the year 2597 according to the Japanese imperial calendar, so it was known as the "Type 97 Army Fighter." It was never an I-97, and its guns consisted of two rifle-caliber machineguns--no cannon.

In the AVG chapters, I soon stopped counting the errors of fact. They are on every page--sometimes every paragraph. Martha Byrd might just as well have never written her excellent biography of Claire Chennault (he was two years younger than these authors say). I might as well not have written my history of the AVG (Kawasaki medium bombers attacked Kunming on December 20, not Sallys or Bettys, as they are interchangably called here). It's as if Christopher Shores had never written volume two of Bloody Shambles (the RAF didn't run out on the AVG at Rangoon, but stayed there a week after the AVG had left). It's as if the JAAF history by Ikuhiko Hata and Yasuho Izawa hadn't been rendered into English!

What we have, in short, is the Flying Tiger legend as it was romanticized by Russell Whelan and Robert Hotz in 1942, with a few concessions to more recent history. Notably, the hordes of Zeros supposedly shot down by the AVG are missing. But the gross exaggerations are still there: that the Tigers shot down 16 enemy fighters on April 28, not long after destroying so many planes at Chiang Mai that they "forced the Japanese to withdraw their entire air regiment for repair and replacements." In fact, the same outfit was involved in both those battles: the 64th Sentai, which never had more than 40 fighters in service, and which was able to mount an attack on British airfields the same day it had supposedly been destroyed at Chiang Mai.

On the good side, there's lots of material on the life of David Lee Hill as a boy and as an aviation cadet. ("Tex" as a nickname was bestowed on him when he went east to a military academy.) Schaupp, who evidently shares Tex's religous convictions, takes care to show how God guided his grandfather's progress through life. I also learned a lot about the friendships that Tex carried into the AVG--not only with his fellow naval aviators, but also with one of the recruiters, Skip Adair, who when Tex was growing up had dated his older sister. The book is filled out with many photographs, including several of Hill's handsome wife, Mazie.