Today is Bob Gray Day. If you’re new to the Fort Hood area, you may have absolutely no idea who Bob Gray is. But to the people of Killeen, he is a World War II legend whose name will always be remembered.
On this day in 1942 — a mere four months after the devastating Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — the U.S. military was struggling to turn the tide against the Imperial Japanese. Morale was bad. So, the Army turned to U.S. Army Air Force pilot Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle to plan and lead an operation against the Japanese home islands by flying B-25 Mitchell bombers off of Naval aircraft carriers, what would come to be known as the Doolittle Raid.
One of the hand-picked pilots chosen to fly the 16 participating aircraft was Killeen native Capt. Robert “Bob” Manning Gray.
Gray was a 1937 graduate of Killeen High School. According to family members, he was a bit of a prankster growing up, but he was a popular kid who was known to stand up for others when needed. After heading off to college and deciding he wanted to learn how to fly, by 1940 he was officially a bomber pilot in the Army Air Corps, what would later become the U.S. Air Force.
A popular story details how Gray once decided to fly through Killeen on his way to the West Coast after training in Florida. He flew down Avenue D low enough to cause road construction crew to jump off their machines and into the ditches to avoid getting hit. The wind at the time was too strong for Gray to land, so he wagged his wings and flew off.
Prior to being chosen for the Doolittle Raid, Gray was flying B-25s in anti-submarine patrols off the West Coast. After surviving the raid, he continued to fly missions against the Japanese in Burma and China. Six months after the raid, right after being promoted to captain, he was killed when his plane went down in the Himalaya mountains during a mission.
When the citizens of Killeen learned of the heroism of one of its favored sons — they didn’t find out about his participation in the Doolittle Raid until after learning of his death — the mayor at the time proclaimed on the one-year anniversary of the raid that April 18 would forever be known as Bob Gray Day.
Today, Gray’s legacy lives on in downtown Killeen with Gray Street, at Killeen-Fort Hood Regional Airport with a historic display and bronze statue and on Fort Hood at Robert Gray Army Airfield. So lift your glasses and toast to the name of a local hero who was willing to strike fear into the hearts of the enemy at a time when hope was so desperately needed.
David A. BRYANT is an Army retiree and a military journalist for the Killeen Daily Herald. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 254-501-7554.