David Lee “Tex” Hill was a World War II fighter pilot and combat ace who served with the legendary American Volunteer Group (AVG), better known as the Flying Tigers. Hill, the youngest of four children, was born on July 13, 1915, at Kwangju, Korea, to Dr. Pierre Bernard Hill and Ella Hill, Presbyterian missionaries. The Hills returned to the United States when David was fifteen months old, and after living in Virginia and then Kentucky, in 1921 the family settled in San Antonio, Texas, where Dr. Hill served as the minister of First Presbyterian Church. The family also spent part of their summers at a church member’s home in Hunt, Texas. As a small child, Hill was impressed by seeing cadets from Kelly Field and had a memorable and influential experience when he and a friend got to ride in a biplane at Winburn Field in San Antonio. Young David also enjoyed building kites and model airplanes. He attended Travis Elementary and graduated from San Antonio Academy in 1928.
Hill studied at McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he excelled at boxing and won the Tennessee Middleweight Championship in 1934; he graduated that same year. While attending school in Chattanooga, he acquired the nickname “Tex” that was to remain with him the remainder of his life. After a short time at the Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College, he transferred to Austin College in Sherman, Texas. Shortly after his graduation from Austin College in 1938, David joined the United States Navy as an aviator, earning his wings at Pensacola in November 1939 with the rank of ensign.
Hill’s assignments as a naval aviator were aboard the USS Saratoga flying the Douglas TBD-1 Devastator torpedo bomber in the Pacific Fleet; then he transferred to the USS Ranger and flew the Vought SB2U Vindicator dive bomber with the Atlantic Fleet. He also had a short stint on the USS Yorktown. During a recruiting tour of U.S. Navy bases in March 1941, retired Navy Commander Rutledge Irvine met Hill at Norfolk, Virginia, and encouraged him to join the AVG in China. Irvine explained that the AVG’s mission would be to defend the Burma Road, the supply line for the besieged Chinese government, from Japanese attack. Hill was offered $600 per month as a wingman—three times his Navy pay—plus an unofficial bonus of $500 for each Japanese plane he brought down. Irvine explained the reasons for the attractive pay—they would fly covertly for the Chinese Air Force, would be greatly outnumbered by the Japanese, and the United States government would deny any knowledge of the AVG if their mission became public. Despite the obvious risks, the opportunity for adventure, higher pay, and glory proved irresistible to Hill. He resigned his commission with the U.S. Navy, was issued a fake passport indicating he was a Texas rancher, and shipped out of San Francisco aboard the Dutch passenger liner Bloemfontein. He eventually arrived in Rangoon, Burma, on September 15, 1941.
Hill spent the next few months in Burma and became familiar with the aircraft he would fly, the Curtiss P-40B Tomahawk, under the tutelage of his new commander, Col. Claire Chennault. Hill downed his first Japanese plane (and then a second plane) during his maiden combat mission on January 3, 1942; a strike against a Japanese airfield at Tak, Thailand. Within three weeks of entering combat, Hill was an ace with victories over six Japanese aircraft. The exploits of the Flying Tigers, as well as Tex Hill, became well-known back home due to coverage by a Life magazine reporter who was present at their base during their earliest missions. Hollywood produced the movie Flying Tigers in 1942. The film’s main star, John Wayne, later told Tex Hill that he had patterned his character after him. Hill assumed leadership of the Second Flight Squadron on March 24, 1942, and went on to become a double ace with a total of 12.25 victories with the Flying Tigers before they were officially deactivated on July 4, 1942. His greatest contribution may have been the attack on the Japanese at the Salween River Gorge on May 7, 1942, which effectively halted their advance into western China.
Hill was one of five pilots from the AVG who remained in China after the group was deactivated. He accepted command of the Seventy-fifth Fighter Squadron, part of the Twenty-third Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Corps, with the rank of major. Hill scored additional victories while leading his unit on bombing forays and attacks on Japanese shipping. In December 1942, while recovering from malaria, Hill returned to the United States, was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and given command of the Proving Ground Group at Eglin Field in the Florida panhandle. It was during this time, while on a trip home to visit his family in Texas, that he met Mazie Sale at the First Presbyterian Church in Victoria where his brother was preaching a serman. After a courtship of thirteen days, Hill married her on March 27, 1943. They had four children.
By November 1943 Hill returned to China to take command of the Twenty-third Fighter Group and on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1943, led a raid on the Shinchiku Airfield on Formosa, the first strike on Japanese territory since the Doolittle raid of April 18, 1942. Hill flew the North American P-51 Mustang, an aircraft he had test-flown at Eglin, and became the first American pilot to down a Japanese aircraft while flying the Mustang. The raid left forty-three Japanese bombers burned on the ground and fifteen enemy aircraft shot down during aerial combat.
Hill returned to the United States in November 1944 as a triple ace with 18.25 confirmed kills while logging more than 3,500 hours flight time and 150 combat missions over Burma, India, and China. He was soon made commander of the 412th Fighter Group, the first U.S. Army Air Force fighter group equipped with jet aircraft, in Bakersfield, California. In 1946 Hill left active duty and he and his wife settled at Mountain Home, Texas, on a 1,600-acre ranch that Hill had purchased while on leave in early 1943. However, he soon accepted command of the Fifty-eighth Fighter Wing, Texas Air National Guard; he became the youngest brigadier general in the guard’s history. Eventually the Hills moved to San Antonio to the Terrell Hills area. After the Korean War, Hill returned to active duty and commanded the 8707th Flying Training Group and 433d Troop Carrier Group out of Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio. In 1957 he resigned his regular commission but remained in the reserves.
Hill retired from military service in 1968 with the distinction of having served in the United States Navy, the Republic of China Air Force, the United States Army Air Force, and the Air National Guard. In private life, Hill became involved in ranching, mining, and the Texas oil industry. He is credited with drilling more than 100 oil wells in the state of Texas during his career. He remained active in a number of flying organizations, including the American Fighter Aces Association and the Flying Tigers Association, where he was an active organizer and participant in annual Flying Tigers reunions throughout his life. He also became National Vice-Commander of the Order of the Daedalians and was a Thirty-third degree Mason.
San Antonio Academy honored Hill with its Humanitarian Award in 1995. In 1997 Hill became an inaugural inductee of the Confederate Air Force’s (now Commemorative Air Force) American Combat Airmen Hall of Fame in Midland, Texas. He received the Lloyd Nolen Lifetime Achievement in Aviation Award in 1998, and in 1999 he was inducted into the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame at the Lone Star Flight Museum in Galveston, Texas. Hill received the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002 for his aerial combat in the China Theatre on October 25, 1942. Hill was also the recipient of the Silver Star, four Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Legion of Merit, the British Distinguished Flying Cross, and numerous Chinese combat decorations. In 2002 the Civil Air Patrol Squadron in San Marcos, Texas, was renamed the David Lee “Tex” Hill Composite Squadron. In 2006 he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio, joining an elite group of less than 200 aviators and astronauts who had received that honor. The Commemorative Air Force restored a P-40N Warhawk which was named the Tex Hill P-40 in his honor. David Lee “Tex” Hill died on Thursday, October 11, 2007, at the age of ninety-two, at his home in Terrell Hills, Texas, and was buried at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, San Antonio, Texas, with full military honors.