Robert L. Hite, an Army Air Forces aviator who was captured by the Japanese and imprisoned for 40 months after flying in the Doolittle raid of 1942, the nowcelebrated mission that invigorated American morale early in World War II, died March 29 at a nursing facility in Nashville. He was 95.
He had Alzheimer’s disease and heart ailments, said his son, R. Wallace Hite.
Mr. Hite, who retired as an Air Force lieutenant colonel, was a 22-year-old second lieutenant when he departed for what would be one of the most dramatic early offensives of the second world war.
The date was April 18, 1942, not yet five months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The United States had waged battle with the Japanese throughout the Pacific but had not yet launched a strike on the enemy’s home islands.
Tapped to lead that mission was then-Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, a gutsy test pilot who would receive the Medal of Honor for his valor in the raid now known by his name. He was joined by 79 volunteers. Among them was Mr. Hite.
“I would have gone as bombardier, rear gunner, nose gunner,” Mr. Hite said in an oral history cited by James M. Scott in his forthcoming book, “Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid that Avenged Pearl Harbor.” “I would have gone in any position to be on that raid,” said Mr. Hite.
Organized into five-member crews on 16 bombers, the men departed from the Hornet, an aircraft carrier hundreds of miles off the coast of Japan. The raid, a daylight strike on military and industrial targets in Tokyo and other key locations, would not wreak momentous military damage but would hearten the home front and presage U.S. victories to come.
Mr. Hite was a co-pilot on the B-25 dubbed “Bat Out of Hell,” the last bomber to take off from the carrier. After completing their missions, the bombers were scheduled to land in a safe section of China — a plan that was upended when they encountered foul weather and darkness.
All 16 planes were lost in the course of the mission. Mr. Hite and other aviators were forced to bail out over enemy-occupied China. Eight men, including Mr. Hite, were captured by the Japanese. Three were executed; the other five received life sentences after what was described as a sham court-martial. For more than three years in POW camps in China, they endured interrogation, beatings, disease and starvation.
“For them, the war wasn’t . . . this one mission,” Scott said in an interview. “For them, this one mission became the war.”
One prisoner died in captivity. Mr. Hite was reduced to 88 pounds, according to Scott’s book.
“We had just come out of a full American life with all kinds of goodies,” Mr. Hite said in the oral history, “good food, good life, and suddenly we were in a solitary cell and were being harassed, slapped and kicked. Our rations were meager, and we just wondered if the world was going to hold together.”
The prisoners spent much of their captivity in solitary confinement. “We had nothing to read, no one to talk to, nothing to write with,” he and his crew’s bombardier, Jacob DeShazer, told an interviewer after the war. “Torture isn’t limited to physical punishment. Solitary confinement in a filthy little cell can be more horrible than even the most fiendish physical torments.”
Their ordeal continued until Aug. 20, 1945, two weeks after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and days after the announcement of the Japanese surrender. A guard came to the prisoners and invited them to bathe.
“The war is over,” their captor said. “You can return to your own country.”
In the oral history, Mr. Hite recalled his feeling at the time.
“I think I was just sort of frightened of people,” he said. “We had been in that solitary confinement so long that I don’t know whether we wanted to see anybody or not.”
Robert Lowell Hite, the son of a farmer and a homemaker, was born in Odell, Tex., on March 3, 1920. He was studying agriculture when World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, his son said, and he joined the Army the next year.
Mr. Hite received military decorations including the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart and was stationed in Casablanca during the Korean War before retiring from active duty in the mid-1950s.
The Doolittle raiders — only two of whom now survive — are scheduled to receive the Congressional Gold Medal in April. Mr. Hite was the group’s last surviving prisoner of war.
His wife of more than 50 years, the former Portia Wallace, died in 1999. After her death, he was married to Dottie Fitzhugh Hite, the widow of William Fitzhugh, another Doolittle raider. She also predeceased him.
Mr. Hite’s survivors include two children from his first marriage, Catherine Landers of Hot Springs Village, Ark., and R. Wallace Hite of Nashville; a brother; a sister; five grandchildren; seven great-grandchildren; and two great-great-grandchildren. A son from his first marriage, Kennith Hite, died at birth.
One of the few concessions granted to Mr. Hite during his captivity was a King James version of the Bible. When the volume arrived, Mr. Hite said, he felt like a “man being in the desert and finding a cool pool.”
After his military service, he entered the hospitality industry and managed several Holiday Inn hotels. He belonged to Gideons International, a missionary group that places Bibles in hotel rooms for travelers.