Lt. Col. Robert L. Hite, a lieutenant at the time, almost missed the raid because the North American B-25 Mitchell bomber he commanded would not fit on the U.S.S. Hornet. In a last-minute switch, the young pilot took the place of another bomber’s copilot and joined 79 fellow airmen on a daring raid, striking Tokyo on April 18, 1942, an attack that shook Japan’s confidence and lifted American morale battered by losses in the early days of World War II.
Hite, 95, died March 29 in Nashville, Tennessee, three weeks before two fellow survivors were to present their Congressional Gold Medal to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, 73 years to the day after they flew a mission that changed the course of the war.
Hite was among eight airmen captured by the Japanese following the bold daylight attack, having been forced to bail out over occupied territory. Three Doolittle Raiders, including the pilot and gunner of Hite’s aircraft, nicknamed “Bat Out of Hell,” were shot by a firing squad, and another died of disease. Hite was among four prisoners granted reprieve, though he recalled in an Air Force oral history account quoted by The New York Times that the survivors were told they’d be shot, also, if Japan lost the war.
“We were war criminals according to the Japanese because we had attacked their homeland,” Hite recalled, adding: “To save face, they had to designate someone responsible and execute them. So they designated the first pilots and the gunners.”
Hite spent 40 months in Japanese custody, 38 of them in solitary confinement, and his weight dropped from 180 pounds to 76 by the time he was liberated in 1945.
Hite was born in Odell, Texas, March 3, 1920, and enlisted in 1940 as an aviation cadet. He earned his Army Air Corps wings in 1941, and was eager to volunteer for the mission led by then-Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle, recalling that he turned down offers of $500 from other airmen who wanted to take his place. “I said, ‘No way,’” Hite would later recall.
Hite married Portia Wallace, who died in 1999, after returning from the war. He is survived by a son, Wallace, daughter, Catherine Landers, five grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren.
Hite was recalled to service during the Korean War, and trained pilots until 1955. In civilian life, he operated hotels in three states, retiring at 51, his son told The New York Times, “because of the wear and tear of the 40 months he was a prisoner.”
Hite is survived by two fellow Doolittle Tokyo Raiders: retired Lt. Col. Richard Cole and Staff Sgt. David Thatcher, who are expected to take part in ceremonies this month receiving their Congressional Gold Medal in Washington, D.C., April 15, then presenting it to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, on April 18, the anniversary of the attack. The raiders were honored as a group in 2012, with ceremonies that included a flyover by 20 North American B-25 Mitchells marking the seventieth anniversary of their mission.