A PILOT OF THE FLYING TIGERS
In May 2019, the Amarillo Globe-News newspaper published an article by Dr. Ken Bridges—“a writer, historian and native Texan … who holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas.” The article is entitled, “Chennault’s Flying Tigers vital to WWII effort.” Dr. Bridges gives an excellent summary of the part that his fellow Texan, General Claire Lee Chennault, played from 1940 through 1942 in organizing and leading the First American Volunteer Group, or the Flying Tigers as they became known. In southern China going against the Japanese, the 100 American pilots were credited with shooting down nearly 300 enemy planes.
Dr. Bridges does what historians do: he focuses on the charismatic leader and the remarkable combat statistics achieved by the men he led. Dr. Bridges concludes his account by noting that Chennault’s “childhood home in Commerce [east Texas] is now noted with a historical marker”—as well it should be.
But as a novelist—not a historian—I focus on the pilots, and in particular the ones who survived and came home after the war. (Out of the original 100, how many managed to survive? Dr. Bridges doesn’t say.) And even more particular, I focus on the one pilot whom I met as a child. He was one of the Smyer brothers who grew up in Amarillo before the war. He went to China as a Flying Tiger pilot and came back afterwards with his body, especially his face, all smashed up. He came back an alcoholic, with PTSD, and no hope of leading a normal life. In fact, when I met him as an eight-year-old, he had just come home to die—literally.
Unlike Gen. Chennault’s home in Commerce, there is no historical marker noting Flying Tiger Smyer’s childhood home on West Tenth in Amarillo. Actually, the house is not even there—only a vacant lot where it used to be. And as far as I know, no historian has ever noted that there was someone from Amarillo who served in the Flying Tigers.
The first chapter of my latest novel, Nadya: The Restoration of a Flying Tiger, is autobiographical. The little boy, “Jimmy Dade,” is me. The man, “Howie Hill,” is one of the Smyer brothers—embarrassingly I don’t remember his first name … maybe “Paul.” I remember so well the day I met him. It was the first time I realized what war does to a warrior. Like Chennault, he was a hero, but no book has been written about him, and he hasn’t even merited a footnote. As far as I know, no one in Amarillo remembers him or knows anything about him. His mother, his father and his brothers are long deceased. The Air Force undoubtedly didn’t know that he had died and so it furnished no marker for his grave, wherever it might be. Again embarrassingly, I forgot to put “Flying Tiger Smyer” in my novel’s Acknowledgements, even though he was the reason I wrote the book.
I wrote the book to try to save Flying Tiger Smyer and to restore him. War had destroyed him. He came home to finish drinking himself to death, which he soon did, not too long after I met him. I have often thought about him over the last seventy years, especially when my own son began drinking himself to death, which he too eventually did.
What could have happened to save Flying Tiger Smyer from himself? When I met him, I was only a little kid, but I could clearly see what was occurring. He talked to me vividly and frankly about the war and what he had done in it, and I could see in his eyes how it had affected him. I could see that he was dying (wanted to die), and he was only in his early thirties. Flying Tiger Chennault lived to the age of 67. What could have happened to relieve my own Flying Tiger of his despair, of his nightmares and of his desire to die, so that he could have lived to be an old man like his leader?
So I imagined a love story. In the second chapter of my novel, my returning warrior tries to commit suicide by crashing his motorcycle while drunk. But he wakes up in a hospital, where he meets his “angel” … a nurse—the woman God sent to save him and restore him.
At least in my imagination and in my novel, my Flying Tiger comes home and does not die. Love saves him and restores him.