All available participants in the recent “Doolittle Raid” on Japan, including half of the dozen native Texans, were honored at the White House on June 25, 1941.
Nothing better describes American morale in the weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor than that old West Texas saying “lower than a snake’s belly.” No one was more acutely aware of that fact than President Franklin Roosevelt, who insisted immediate retaliatory action be taken.
Jimmy Doolittle, a 45-year-old lieutenant colonel, devised a plan that would have been dismissed out of hand under any other circumstances. If the Navy could get him close enough to the Japanese Home Islands, he would launch 16 B-25’s from the deck of an aircraft carrier on a one-way bombing mission of Tokyo and nearby cities.
Doolittle figured the medium range bombers would have just enough fuel to reach friendly territory on the Chinese mainland not occupied by the Japanese. Once there, the 80 crewmen (five per plane) could be secretly spirited out of the country by resistance fighters and ordinary peasants.
On April 18, 1942, the six-ship task force was spotted by a Japanese picket boat that radioed the sighting before being sunk. Doolittle and the captain of the carrier Hornet agreed the “go” order had to be given 10 hours and 170 nautical miles ahead of schedule.
First into the air was Doolittle’s B-25 followed by the only bomber that carried two Texans: Lt. William N. Fitzhugh, co-pilot, and Douglas V. Radney, engineer-gunner. Born in Temple, Fitzhugh was a graduate of Galveston’s Ball High and the University of Texas, while Radney hailed from Mineola and had gone to school in Mexia.
Crew No. 2 had no trouble finding its targets in the daylight or a safe place to land in the dark — a rice paddy. Linking up with their escorts within hours, the two Texans and their three crewmates made it out of China without so much as a scratch.
Things did not go as smoothly for the third plane, the “Whisky Pete” piloted by Lt. Robert Manning Gray of Killeen. Flying on fumes and blinded by thick clouds, he had no choice but to order the crew to bail out not knowing what awaited them down below.
Gray landed on the side of a hill a few feet from the edge of a steep precipice. The unlucky gunner came to earth even closer to the cliff, lost his footing and plunged to his death becoming the first of three fatalities.
Like many of the Doolittle Raiders, Gray stayed in the so-called “China-Burman-India Theater.” Six months later, he was killed in action at the age of 23. The airfield at Fort Hood was renamed in his memory.
Co-pilot Lucian Nevelon Youngblood of Pampa was the co-pilot of the fourth bomber to clear the deck of the Hornet. He survived the raid along with the rest of the crew only to perish in a plane crash in the Mexican mountains west of Big Bend five months after the surrender of Japan.
Rodney Ross “Hoss” Wilder of Taylor attended UT and Southwestern University before enlisting in November 1940. The co-pilot of Crew No. 5 spent the rest of the war in Europe and rose to the rank of colonel before his discharge in 1947.
The eighth B-25 experienced engine problems before take-off that persisted on the flight to Tokyo and resulted in heavier than normal fuel consumption. With no chance of reaching the Chinese mainland, the pilot turned north toward the Soviet Union.
Instead of sending the Americans on their way with a full tank, the officially neutral Russians confiscated the aircraft and interned the crew that included bombardier-navigator Nolan Anderson Herndon of Greenville. But in May 1943, their obliging hosts arranged for an “escape” to British-controlled Iran.
Crews No. 9, 11, 12 and 13 each contained a single Texan. They were, in order: 1) co-pilot James M. Parker Jr. of Houston and a Texas Aggie; 2) co-pilot Kenneth E. Reddy of Bowie, victim of a stateside crash five months after the raid; 3) co-pilot Thadd Harrison Blanton of Archer City, who made a career of the military retiring in 1961; and 4) pilot Edgar E. McElroy of Ennis, who did the same, retiring in 1962.
John A. Hilger of Sherman was another Aggie and at 33 the oldest Texan on the raid. The pilot of Crew #14 served on the staff of Admiral Chester A. Nimitz for the last year and a half of WWII and retired in 1966 as a brigadier general.
That leaves Robert L. Hite of Odell, co-pilot of the 16th bomber. Hite and his crewmates parachuted right into the enemy’s clutches. Two with a third captive were executed as war criminals, and the other three POW’s were not freed until August 1945.
Hite was the last living Texan, when he passed away in 2015 at 95. He was survived at the time by two raiders, but as of April 2019 they too are gone.
Rarely mentioned but important to understand is the price the Chinese paid for their part in the Doolittle Raid. The Japanese executed everybody remotely suspected of aiding the American aviators going so far as to annihilate entire villages. The estimated death toll was a quarter of a million men, women and children.