It was April 1942 — four months after the devastating attack against Pearl Harbor and, so far, the U.S. military was not faring very well against the Imperial Japanese.
Morale was bad and needed to turn in order to bolster U.S. troops, so a daring plan was formed: Fly B-25 Mitchell bombers off of Naval aircraft carriers and show both the enemy and American troops that no place was out of U.S. reach.
The Army turned to U.S. Army Air Force pilot Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle to plan and lead the operation against the Japanese home islands. One of the hand-picked pilots chosen to fly the 16 participating aircraft was Killeen native Capt. Robert “Bob” Manning Gray.
On Tuesday, the 75th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid, Killeen Mayor Jose Segarra will proclaim Bob Gray Day at a ceremony at Killeen-Fort Hood Regional Airport.
The tradition of proclaiming April 18 as Bob Gray Day stretches back to R.T. Polk, Killeen’s 18th mayor, who served from 1935 to 1943, according to a City of Killeen news release. Polk first proclaimed Bob Gray Day in 1943 and ordered that for the duration of time, “flags will fly from every socket and flag pole in the community, and the day will be set aside permanently as the memorial to a brave heart that winged its way into the very vitals of enemy territory and destroyed military objectives that were calculated to bring harm and destruction to our great country.”
Gray’s legacy lives on today 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.
WHO WAS ROBERT GRAY?
But who was Robert Gray, and why was he so important to the community?
“(Gray) graduated from Killeen High School in 1937, in what later became the Avenue D Elementary School and is now the home of some city government offices (City Hall),” said Mark Philliber, Gray’s nephew. “He played on the high school football team as a receiver. His nickname was ‘Bullet Bob’ because of his quickness.”
Philliber said from what he heard growing up, it sounded like Gray’s childhood was very happy. He was a bit of a prankster at school, but in a fun-loving way.
“He was very well liked and popular. One of our very good friends who was the same age as Bob and graduated with him, always remembered the time when some boys were making light of her and how Bob stepped in and quickly put an end to it,” he said.
Philliber’s mother, Marjorie Evelyn (Gray) Philliber, was Gray’s only sibling.
“Killeen was a small farming and railroad town prior to the war. The population was about 1,200 before Camp Hood was established in January 1942, everyone knew everyone and everything about each other,” Mark Philliber said. “In a town that small, that couldn’t help but be the case. Bob’s grandparents, going back to the late 1870s, I believe, lived in two adjacent farms on Cowhouse Creek near Elijah — on what is now Fort Hood — so all of the families in this area knew each other going a long way back.”
Gray’s first cousin, James Freddie “Fred” Page, remembers attending his cousin’s high school graduation.
“His life was going to school in Killeen, raising sheep and cattle for agricultural shows, milking the cows (and) chopping wood for the old cast iron stove to keep the house warm,” Page said. “He did have a Pinto pony that he named ‘Whisky Pete.’ He and best friend, ‘Screwdriver’ Arnold and others formed a band and played for dances, mainly south of Belton, in the area where the Czechs lived.”
Page’s daughter, Noralyn Ripps, added that Gray would later name his B-25 bomber after his horse.
“He attended Texas A&M but was later transferred to John Tarleton College in Stephenville,” Page recalled. “He became an officer in the ROTC at that school. The next thing I know, he was in Dallas at Love Field taking advanced flying lessons. This was in 1939 or 1940. The next thing I remember was that he was in Kelly Field in San Antonio (after joining the Army Air Corps).”
Mark Philliber said that before the raid, Gray was part of a bomber group stationed in Pendleton, Ore., and then Tacoma, Wash., flying B-25s in anti-submarine patrols off the coast before transferring to Florida to begin training for the raid.
When Gray was flying back to the West Coast after his training in Florida, he decided to make a little trip through Killeen, Page said.
“The boys had been encouraged to practice low-level flight. Bob came down the old Nolanville Hill road that was being rebuilt, and was so low that I was told the construction crew jumped off their machines and headed into the bar ditch,” Page said.
“Bob then flew down Avenue D going west and flew over the high school building, and everyone there asked who that could be — and Mr. Peebles said it could be no one except ‘Bob Gray.’ The editor of the Killeen Herald, Pat Taylor, told me that he could see Bob grinning as he flew so low.”
Unable to land because of strong winds, Gray took off, wagged his wings and flew off.
“He was trying to say goodbye to his parents and friends. This was the last time anyone saw him,” Page said.
After the raid, Gray piloted B-25 bombers and P-40 Warhawk fighters against Japanese targets in Burma and China.
PLANE GOES DOWN
On Oct. 18, 1942 — six months after the raid — Gray’s plane went down on a mission. The family knew nothing about the Tokyo raid until it was announced over the radio and posted in the Killeen newspaper after it was over, Page said.
“The only thing I remember was that the War Department sent a telegram that he had been killed (in India), when his aircraft crashed into the Himalaya mountains,” he said.
Even before Gray’s death, his family was proud of him becoming a bomber pilot and serving his country, Mark Philliber added. “The raid only made them that much prouder, and very grateful that he survived it. He wrote them often after the raid when he was stationed in Eastern India and was flying missions against Japanese forces in Burma.”
Gray’s death not only caused the city to mourn, but galvanized his sister Marjorie — a nurse at Parkland Hospital in Dallas — to join the Army.
“I’ve no doubt that Bob’s service played a role in (my mother’s) desire to also want to take an active part in the war effort ,” Mark Philliber said. “Her Army field hospital unit was shipped to North Africa in support of (Gen. George) Patton’s forces during the campaign against Rommel’s forces. After victory in North Africa, Sicily was the next stop for Patton’s forces. And from there, the first landings in Italy at Anzio, which was very heavily defended by the Germans, resulting in high American casualties.”
Page said he later learned that Marjorie went to Florida, where the Doolittle Raiders were training, while she was on military leave. Somehow or the other, her brother managed to get her into a pair of coveralls and a cap and on board his plane.
He then took her on a practice mission somewhere without anyone knowing — except for his crew, Page said.
Gray’s father, J. Marvin Gray, later served as the mayor of Killeen from 1947 to 1949.
ROBERT GRAY ARMY AIRFIELD
On Oct. 1, 1951, Gray Air Force Base was officially established in what is now known as West Fort Hood. The base was transferred to the Army in 1963 and redesignated Robert Gray Army Airfield, according to a 2012 Herald report. It became an official part of Fort Hood in 1969.
“From what I understand, everyone was more than proud that a young man from this small, relatively unknown town had been a part of something so important to the country at that very early, critical stage of the war,” Mark Philliber said. “(It was) just four months after Pearl Harbor, especially being the first successful strike at Japan itself. Up to that point, the Allies had been suffering setback after setback and defeat against Japan, so the raid became a turning point; both militarily — setting the stage for the Battle of Midway about six weeks later — and in the confidence and mood of the country, which had been sagging up to that point.”
DOOLITTLE RAID TIMELINE
Jan. 2, 1942 — U.S. Army Air Force pilot Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle begins planning air raid against Japan at the U.S. Army Air Forces Headquarters.
April 1, 1942 — Sixteen modified B-25 bombers are lifted onto the USS Hornet and lashed to the flight deck at Naval Air Station Alameda, Calif.
April 2, 1942 — USS Hornet departs Naval Air Station Alameda near San Francisco with Doolittle and his 16 Army B-25 bombers on board.
April 11, 1942 — USS Thresher, an American submarine, provides a weather report on Tokyo for the Doolittle Raiders.
April 17, 1942 — The task force carrying the Doolittle Raiders refuels approximately 1,000 miles from Tokyo.
April 18, 1942 — Sixteen B-25 bombers launch from USS Hornet to attack Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Kobe, Osaka, Nagoya and other targets in the Japanese home islands at about 1200 hours. Most of the bombers would fly on to crash land in, or bail out over, China, while one landed in Russia and the crew were interned by the Soviets, who had a non-aggression treaty in place with Japan. Capt. Robert Gray was the pilot in the third bomber to launch for Tokyo.
April 21, 1942 — A large number of Japanese warships are dispatched in search for the carriers that launched the Doolittle Raiders.
April 25, 1942 — Troops of the Japanese 22nd Infantry Division begin a search in Zhejiang and Jiangxi Provinces on the Chinese coast, burning down and massacring entire villages suspected of assisting the Doolittle Raiders.
April 21, 1943 — President Franklin D. Roosevelt makes the official announcement regarding the Japanese execution of downed American airmen who participated in the Doolittle Raid.
Source: World War II Database, ww2db.com
THIRTEEN TEXANS PARTICIPATED IN DOOLITTLE TOKYO RAID
Thad Blanton, Archer City. Copilot Crew #9; after the Tokyo raid, remained in the Chinese-Burma-India Theater and escaped enemy territory after a plane crash in Burma.
William N. Fitzhugh, Galveston. Co-Pilot Crew#2; after the Tokyo Raid, remained in the Chinese-Burma-India Theater until June 1943.
Robert M. Gray, Killeen. Pilot Crew #2; after the Tokyo raid, remained in the Chinese-Burma-India Theater, killed in action Oct. 18, 1942, while on a combat mission.
Nolan A. Herndon, Greenville. Bombardier-Navigator Crew #8; interned in Russia after the Tokyo raid for 13 months.
Dean E. Hallmark, Robert Lee. Pilot Crew #6; captured by the Japanese after the Tokyo raid, he was executed on Oct. 15, 1942, while in prison.
John A. Hilger, Sherman. Pilot Crew #14; after the Tokyo raid, remained in the Chinese-Burma-India Theater.
Robert L. Hite, Odell. Copilot Crew #16; captured by the Japanese after the Tokyo raid, imprisoned and tortured for 40 months. He was liberated on Aug. 20, 1945, by American troops.
Edgar E. McElroy, Ennis. Pilot Crew #13; after the Tokyo raid, remained in Chinese-Burma-India Theater until June 1943.
James M. Parker, Livingston. Copilot Crew #9; after the Tokyo raid, served in North Africa as pilot of light bombardier aircraft until December 1943.
Douglas V. Radney, Mineola. Engineer/Gunner Crew #2; after the Tokyo raid, remained in Chinese-Burma-India Theater until September 1942 and subsequently completed pilot training.
Kenneth E. Reddy, Bowie. Copilot Crew #11; returned to the U.S. after the Tokyo raid and was killed in a plane accident near Little Rock, Ark., Sept. 3, 1942.
Rodney Ross “Hoss” Wilder, Taylor. Copilot Crew #5; after the Tokyo raid, served as Bombardment Squadron commander in England, North Africa, Italy and Corsica. He returned to the U.S. in May 1944.
Lucian N. Youngblood, Pampa. Copilot Crew 4; after the Tokyo raid, remained in Chinese-Burma-India Theater until May 1943, assigned to bases in South Carolina, New York and Kansas the remainder of the war.
Several Raiders later moved to Texas after the war.
The remaining survivor of the 80 brave men, known as the Tokyo Doolittle Raiders, retired Col. Richard E. Cole, Copilot Crew #1, (Doolittle’s copilot), lives in Comfort.
Cole will be 102 years old in September and is expected to be present at the 75th Anniversary of the Doolittle Tokyo Raid celebration in Dayton, Ohio, at the United States Air Force Museum April 17-18.
On March 6, the Texas State Senate honored Cole and the 13 Texas Raiders with a proclamation honoring the 75th Anniversary of the raid.
Compiled by Robert Parker of Huntsville