Robert Lowell Hite was a United States Army Air Forces pilot, who participated in the Doolittle Raid of Japan during World War II. He was born in Odell, Texas, on March 3, 1920, the son of Robert Parks Hite and Lena Dorothea (Attaway) Hite. The Hite family called young Robert by his middle name Lowell. The family had its roots in Georgia where they practiced farming. In Texas, the Hites lived and farmed for a time near Vernon until they moved to Earth in the Texas Panhandle in 1934. While living in Vernon, Lowell, his brother Ken, and father visited the Vernon Airport and flew in a Ford Tri-Motor plane, an early transport aircraft. This event sparked Lowell’s early interest in aviation. In Earth, his father purchased land that had once been a part of the XIT Ranch. The Hites grew cotton, corn, grain sorghum, and raised horses and cattle. In the 1930s the Hite family, consisting of Robert, Lena, sons Lowell and Ken, and daughter Hazel, experienced hardship with the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. At times, the youngsters wore wet bandannas around their faces to prevent breathing dust. Living like pioneers in poverty conditions, the Hites worked with horses and mules, lived off the land, and made their own clothing. In spite of the difficulties, the family managed to improve their condition by building a new house with running water, and purchasing a tractor.
Lowell Hite graduated from Spring Lake High School (now Spring Lake-Earth High School) in 1937. After high school, he studied agriculture at West Texas State Teachers College in Canyon (now West Texas A&M University), but, with an endorsement from his congressman George Herman Mahon, Hite made the decision to leave school as the nation prepared for World War II and enlisted in the Aviation Cadet Program of the U. S. Army Air Corps at Lubbock, Texas, on September 9, 1940. After completing officer training and flight school in California, on May 29, 1941, Robert Lowell Hite was commissioned a second lieutenant and awarded his wings in the Army Air Corps, which, effective March 9. 1942, and as part of a reorganization of the War Department, would be merged into the U. S. Army Air Forces.
During the next year, Hite experienced a number of personal and professional setbacks. In July 1941 he returned to Texas to attend his father’s funeral. Lieutenant Hite was assigned to the Eighty-ninth Reconnaissance Squadron of the 17th Bombardment Group at Pendleton Field in Oregon when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. In February 1942 Hite volunteered and was accepted for a secret mission that involved an air raid on the Japanese homeland. Under the leadership of Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle and his deputy Lt. Col. John Hilger, the volunteers trained on B-25 Mitchell bombers at Eglin Field in Florida for a month. At Eglin Field, Hite trained as a pilot with his own crew. Unfortunately, after the transfer of the bombers and the volunteers to the West Coast, his crew and plane were bumped from the mission after it was determined that only sixteen bombers could fit on the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. Crushed by the decision, Hite made his case to the other pilots that he would accept any spot on any crew to take part in the mission. Displeased with his own co-pilot, Lt. William Farrow asked Hite to join his crew.
The Doolittle Raid commenced on April 18, 1942. Twenty-two-year-old Lieutenant Hite was assigned as the co-pilot of crew sixteen. In fact, Hite had rejected offers up to $500 from other trained airmen who wanted to take part in the mission. Named by the crew the Bat Out of Hell, the bomber was the last one to take off from the Hornet. Although the plan was to start once the Hornet reached a point 500 miles from Japan, the operation was moved up after the aircraft carrier and its escorts were spotted by a Japanese picket ship, and the bombers were more than a hundred miles farther from their targets. By 9:15 A. M. fifteen bombers had successfully launched from the flight deck and began their journey. Because of the rain, rough seas, and heavy winds, a seaman slipped and fell into the left propeller cutting off his left arm at the shoulder. One heavy gust of wind almost pushed the last bomber off the aircraft carrier. A few minutes later, the Bat Out of Hell lifted off the Hornet and proceeded toward Japan.
As the last of the bombers to reach Japan, the Bat Out of Hell proceeded toward its targets—an aircraft factory and an oil storage facility in the city of Nagoya. After releasing their four incendiary bombs, the aircraft circled to view the fires and then headed west for the coast of China. The bombs found their targets but inflicted minor damage. As expected, the sixteen bombers ran low on fuel which made a successful landing in China impossible. One aircraft landed in the Soviet Union, but the other planes experienced crash landings and bailouts that resulted in three deaths. Of the eighty airmen that took part in the Doolittle Raid most were rescued by Chinese and moved to safe zones. Bailing out of the Bat Out of Hell, the entire crew managed to land on Chinese soil that was occupied by the Japanese. After landing in a rice paddy, Hite was one of eight aviators captured by the Japanese.
Taken prisoner by Japanese forces, Lieutenant Hite spent the rest of World War II as a prisoner of war. Since April 18, 1942, he was listed as missing in action. His mother had received a letter from Jimmy Doolittle that indicated that her son’s fate was unknown. The Hite family only learned that he was alive after a photo emerged of a blindfolded Robert Hite being led by his Japanese captors became public.
Viewed as war criminals by the Japanese, the eight captured Americans were subjected to torture, starvation, disease, and other acts of brutality. First taken to Japan where they underwent water torture and interrogation, the prisoners were then returned to China for their imprisonment. The Japanese kept Hite in solitary confinement for thirty-eight of the forty months he was imprisoned. Of the eight aviators that were captured, three, including two members of Hite’s crew (pilot William Farrow and gunner Harold Spatz) were executed by a firing squad. Another prisoner died from illness. Rations were few and consisted of rice and fish heads.
Surprisingly, the prisoners were given the King James Bible after they had requested a copy from the prison commander. Read by each of the prisoners, the Bible provided comfort to the Americans during their ordeal. Stricken with dysentery, Hite credited his survival as “God’s miracle.” Raised as a Baptist, Hite later stated: “We were no longer afraid” and “we no longer had the hatred.” With the surrender of Japan, the prisoners were liberated on August 20, 1945. Having lost about 100 pounds during his captivity, Hite weighted about eighty pounds at the time of his liberation.
With the end of the war, Hite returned to the United States and sought to recover from his ordeal. Having been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster, Hite was welcomed home as a war hero. In 1946 Hite met and married Portia Faires Wallace—a union that brought him happiness and two children. After spending some time recovering at Walter Reed Army Hospital, Hite remained on active duty until September 30, 1947. Introduced to the hotel industry by his father-in-law, Hite decided to embark on a new career as a civilian.
Robert Hite remained identified for his military service for the rest of his life and attended the annual Doolittle reunions and related functions. He also served as a role model for his young brother Ken who had a distinguished military career in the United States Air Force and retired as a colonel. At the outbreak of the Korean War, Robert Hite was recalled to active duty and trained pilots both stateside and in Morocco. On November 7, 1955, he was relieved from active duty and returned to the Air Force Reserve. He retired from the Air Force Reserve as a lieutenant colonel in 1969. As a civilian, he worked in Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, and operated a number of hotels. Hite with his wife and two children lived in both Camden, Arkansas, and Enid, Oklahoma. A person with strong Christian convictions, he became associated with Gideons International, a group known for providing free copies of the Bible. Because of the toil his body took as a prisoner of war, Hite, at the age of fifty-one, retired from the hotel industry.
Robert Lowell Hite died of heart failure on March 29, 2015, in Nashville, Tennessee. He was ninety-five. With his death, only two members of the Doolittle Raid, Richard Cole and David Thatcher had outlived him. He was survived by his son Wallace Hite, daughter Catherine Landers, his brother Kenneth, and sister Hazel. Hite’s wife of more than fifty years, Portia Wallace, died in 1999. After the death of his first wife, Hite married Dorothea “Dottie” Fitzhugh, the widow of fellow Doolittle Raider William Fitzhugh, in 2000. Dottie Hite passed away in 2012. Lt. Col. Robert Lowell Hite was buried with military honors at Memorial Park Cemetery in Camden, Arkansas. He is an inductee in both the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame and the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame.