Hite brothers, from Earth, Texas, were valiant in the nation's wars
By RAY WESTBROOK | Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Texas | Published: September 23, 2013
LUBBOCK, Texas — The Hite brothers were soldiers when the nation needed them most.
Robert, who was a co-pilot for one of Gen. Jimmy Doolittle’s B-25 bombers that avenged Pearl Harbor, is six years older than Kenneth, a pilot who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
They grew up at Earth in a farm family of five.
Col. Kenneth Hite, now a resident of Lubbock, recalls that when his father passed away in 1941, Lt. Col. Robert Hite, now of Nashville, Tenn., was in the Air Force, his sister married a Navy aviator, and the family home went from five to two in a single year.
He had become a farmer while a junior in high school.
But World War II was in the universal daily thought of the nation, and on the day Kenneth Hite became 18, he was standing at the recruiting office before they opened for business.
By that time, there was an abundance of pilots. Despite becoming an aviation cadet, there were no slots available in flying school.
The military would have been remiss, though, if it had not resorted to his experience sheet. In the past, Hite had worked for a couple of owners of theaters, one of whom was Joe Bryant at the Midway Theater in Lubbock.
It was an easy choice for the U.S. Army Air Corps:
“They had me run a picture show booth — that’s what I did at Roswell.”
He didn’t get to fly in World War II, but made up for it in Korea and Vietnam as a fighter pilot.
While World War II was continuing, Hite’s brother had been reported missing in action since April 18, 1942. Doolittle had sent a letter to the family to that effect. At the time, it wasn’t known whether he was alive.
Then, a British reporter saw a Japanese magazine that featured a picture of an airman with visor cap, blindfolded, being led away by a Japanese soldier on each side. It was sent to London, then to “Time” magazine for a cover picture.
The blindfolded airman was Robert L. — the name Kenneth uses to refer to his brother.
The family only knew that he was alive when the picture was made.
Kenneth Hite has heard his brother’s account of the Doolittle raid, and his research has filled in some of the details.
“It was an almost impossible task in an impossible amount of time,” Kenneth Hite said of the first launching of bombers from the deck of an aircraft carrier.
The attack on Japan was cleared — and urged — by those at the highest levels of U.S. government, including President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for the morale of the nation.
The planes were launched at about 8:30 a.m., and were striking targets in the Tokyo area at noon. After the attack, the plan was to fly to the nationalist controlled portions of China and land at friendly air bases.
“That was the plan,” Hite said. “The plan sets forces in place. The execution is hardly ever like the plan.”
According to Hite, the planes arrived over China after dark, and there also was an undercast. They couldn’t see where to land and simply flew until the fuel was gone, then bailed out.
His brother’s crew was captured in a Japanese-occupied portion of China, and taken to Tokyo for interrogation. Given the brutality of the Japanese military at the time, interrogation was a word meaning torture.
The methods included bamboo splinters driven under the fingernails.
At some point in the interrogation, Robert L., who smoked, reached instinctively to his shirt pocket for a cigarette. A Japanese officer drew a sword and brought it down forcefully on top of his head, turning the blade at the last split-second to the flat side instead of the edge, injuring but not killing him.
The plane’s pilot, Lt. W.G. Farrow and gunner Sgt. H.A. Spatz, were executed, along with the pilot of another plane, Lt. D.E. Hallmark.
All had been sentenced to death, though Lt. Robert L. Hite, Lt. G. Barr. and Cpl. J. DeShazer, received commutation of their sentences to life in prison. They were shipped back to Shanghai for imprisonment.
The men, in prison for 40 months, were given scant rations of rice and fish heads that were so inadequate they suffered beriberi, a disease causing cardiovascular abnormalities.
“Bob Meder’s illness got so bad that he died,” Hite said of his brother’s roommate.
“Robert L. was certainly prepared to do the same. They had all written to the prison camp commander, a letter, and asked for a Bible. They knew there were missionaries in the area from their intelligence.”
Surprisingly, their request was granted.
“The prison camp commander gave them a Bible. They all had a turn at it and read it, and believed. If they weren’t Christian, they became Christian.”
With only a few weeks remaining in World War II, paratroopers landed and took them out of the prison.
Robert L. weighed 80 pounds, according to Hite.
“After he got out of service, all of the public saw these guys as national heroes,” Hite said.
Kenneth’s own career in the Air Force spanned 31 years, and he was flying fighter planes in time for the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
Hite, a former student at the U.S. Military Academy, said, “Everybody who graduated from West Point expected to head to Korea. There were a lot of people out of the class of 1950 that had already lost their lives. We knew we were going to head that way too.’
He flew an F-86. “It was fighter-versus-fighter kind of thing. That was your job. You weren’t hitting ground targets, your object was to shoot down Mig-15s — Russian made and in many cases, Russian flown.”
In a brief air battle near the Yalu River, he fired into a Mig at 2,000 feet, and could see fire, but took only a damage instead of a kill because the enemy plane wasn’t visible when it likely crashed.
In the Vietnam War, during 1966 and 1967, his job was to bomb targets in North Vietnam.
“Our mission was solely to drop bombs over North Vietnam, north of the DMZ. It was one of the toughest air defense systems that the Air Force has ever fought in. They had Russian Mig-17s, 19s, and 21s. I was flying the F-105 single seat.”
He said, “I remember one mission with another air base. Each wing had 16 aircraft. The target was an ammo depot and rail yard. I was leading that, the first man in. Before I rolled in, I said, ‘Dear Lord, if it’s my day, please don’t let me fall too far.’
“That stands out in my mind. That’s the only time I said a prayer up there in combat.”
He said, “The flak was really black — 85mm or 100mm — it was sudden. We had a mid-air collision of two aircraft. One spun out. You’re in close and the flak’s over there, and this pilot was a new pilot and he was thinking how to avoid that, and he ran into his leader and he spun out, but was able to recover.”
Other targets were also hit.
“It was a mission that required a double refueling. The targets were the road and infrastructure out near Haiphong, the harbor where everybody brought their supplies by water.”
Hite retired from the service in 1979.
His brother, Robert L., has been invited to a final reunion of the four remaining Jimmy Doolittle Raiders in November at the national Air Force Museum in Ohio.
According to Hite, his brother won’t be able to make it to the reunion because of his medical condition. He said he has undergone a seven-bypass heart surgery.
Kenneth, who talked to Robert’s son, said he plans to go see his brother soon.
“He doesn’t have Alzheimer’s, but he did develop a case of atherosclerosis. He said he still recognizes me.”
According to Kenneth, Robert L. has always been the big brother.
“He was my idol. Never did we ever have a scrap or argument or if we had a disagreement, before the sun went down, one of us would be on the phone and have a prayer.”