Bill Hipple, 74; Press Agent With a Flair

Times Staff Writer

William (Bill) Hipple, adventurer, war correspondent, prankster and press agent from a simpler, less pretentious era, died Friday at Cedars Sinai Medical Center.

The 74-year-old raconteur, who died of the complications of cancer, had retired in 1979 as director of public relations for the Western division of American Airlines. That ended a storied career that took him into some of the world’s most interesting battles, including several of his own.

For nearly five decades he cut a legendary swath through journalism, initially as a reporter in Tacoma, Wash., for United Press, where he traded baseball tickets for haircuts and tuxedos so he could crash the many social events to which he was not invited.


Poses as Rum Buyer

From there he went to the East Coast for United Press and the old Trans-Radio Press. He soon tired of the workaday world and flagged passage on a liner to Cuba. There, with only $50 and a borrowed dinner jacket, he managed to pose as a potential rum buyer until his nonexistent credit and his masquerade were exposed simultaneously. He was given a single Cuban dollar and unceremoniously thrown off the island.

As a youth he had learned a few tap dancing steps, and next convinced a Key West, Fla., bar owner to hire him as an entertainer. Years later, Milt Woodard of the old Chicago Sun would recall how his boyhood friend soon found that he was spending $1.50 at the club’s bar each day but earning only $1.25 as a “featured act.”

Hipple left “show business” and returned to Trans-Radio Press for a short hitch in Europe before sailing to Honolulu and a job greeting cruise ships for the Honolulu Star Bulletin. He was on Oahu when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and quickly left the islands to begin working as a war correspondent for the Associated Press and Newsweek magazine.

He landed with American forces on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Guam and Bougainville. Before war’s end he had flown over Manila in a dive bomber and over Tokyo in a Superfortress. But the most interesting stories came on the ground.

Suggests a Picture

On Iwo Jima he had run into a fellow Associated Press colleague, photographer Joe Rosenthal, who had heard that an American flag was to be raised on Mt. Suribachi but was wondering whether it was worth the climb. Hipple said he was not going to bother but suggested to Rosenthal that it might make a picture.

The resulting photograph of a few weary Marines staggering to raise a gigantic flag atop the war-battered mountain made Rosenthal’s name synonymous with wartime photography. On a copy of that famous picture Rosenthal wrote his thanks to Hipple “for taking me in hand and making it possible to make such a great picture of fighting men.”

On Guadalcanal, Hipple chided a fellow correspondent for taking so many notes, telling him that he would never need them all. The other fellow, Richard Tregaskis, ignored the advice, and later those notes became the basis for “Guadalcanal Diary,” a best-selling account of the battle that later was made into a hugely successful film.

Then there was his diplomatic caper.

With Newsweek, Hipple had landed interviews with the two biggest names in the Pacific Theater of War, Adm. Chester W. Nimitz and Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur.

Called to White House

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt heard that one correspondent had talked to both of his top Pacific commanders (who were always at pains not to talk to each other), Hipple was summoned to the White House to relate to his President what the two might have said of their sometimes-strained relationship.

After the war, Hipple became northern European director of public relations for American Overseas Airlines, and when those routes were sold to Pan American Airways, he joined American Airlines, first in Dallas and then in Los Angeles.

After he retired from American, he formed his own public relations firm in Beverly Hills.

Survivors include his wife, Lilli, and a son, William Jr. A funeral service will be held at 3 p.m. Thursday at Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills.