Bridges: Hite helped America strike back in Doolittle's Raid


The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 horrified the American people. More than 2,000 people were killed in the attack that wrecked much of the navy’s Pacific Fleet. America wanted to strike back hard to tell Japan that America would not be defeated. In spring 1942, America got that chance with Doolittle’s Raid, a feat helped in part by a number of Texas natives, including pilot Robert L. Hite. 

Doolittle’s Raid was named for Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, who devised a plan to strike back at the heart of Japan to avenge their attack on Pearl Harbor. Doolittle commanded a squadron of 16 B-25 bombers in a surprise raid on Tokyo and other Japanese cities. Word of the impending raid had quietly spread among pilots who jumped at the chance to strike back at Japan. Hite had repeated a story for years that men were offering him up to $500 to take his place. He turned them all down, a patriot determined to do his duty. On April 18, 1942, they lifted off from the crowded deck of the USS Hornet, aiming for targets 800 miles away. The daring raid was later adapted into the famous 1944 film "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" starring Spencer Tracy.  

While the bombing did little long-term damage to the Japanese war machine, the attack humiliated them.  They pulled several fighter squadrons from forward positions to protect Tokyo from further attacks. As the war raged on, this prevented these units form responding to American offensives as Allied forces slowly retook the Pacific region. Americans were thrilled at the success of the raid.  

Of the 80 men on 16 bombers for the mission, 13 were from Texas, including Robert L. Hite. Other Texans included Thadd H. Blanton of Archer City, a co-pilot, Kenneth E. Reddy of Bowie, also a co-pilot, and John A. Hilger of Sherman, a pilot. 

Hite was the son of cotton farmers outside Odell, Texas, in 1920.  He briefly attended West Texas State Teachers College before enlisting in the army in 1940. He wanted to serve as a pilot but flunked the first physical.  In spite of this setback, he gained his certification as an Army Air Force pilot the next year. 

Hite’s crew hit a fuel depot and a factory in Nagoya. Of the aircraft, only one landed safely in Allied territory. The remainder were either shot down or crash-landed in Japanese-occupied China. Hite‘s crew was captured and spent the remainder of the war in a POW camp and tortured for the next three years. 

After the war ended, he continued to serve. He married his first wife Portia in 1946, with whom he had a son and a daughter. He briefly left the service but returned during the Korean War era before retiring as a lieutenant colonel. In 1955, Hite moved his family to Arkansas where he took a job as manager of a hotel.  Here in 1961, he hosted a convention of Doolittle Raid veterans. He went on to manage a series of hotels before his retirement in 1984.

In the years since the war as the World War II generation faded away, their importance to the freedom of the world and appreciation for what these soldiers accomplished grew. 

The Doolittle Raiders were presented many honors, and Hite himself was inducted into the Texas Aviation Halls of Fame at the Lone Star Flight Museum in Galveston. By March 2015, Hite was one of just three men left alive from the legendary 1942 raid.  A White House ceremony was planned for April to honor him and his comrades with the Congressional Gold Medal.

Days before the ceremony, Hite died at the age of 95. He was buried with full military honors and surrounded by family, friends, and a host of well-wishers.

Dr. Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Bridges can be reached by email at drkenbridges@gmail.com.