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Pilot remembered for daring WW II raid

Editor’s note: Col. Travis Hoover was born Sept. 21, 1917, at Melrose. The son of the late Fred and Elizabeth Hoover died at age 86 in Joplin, Mo., on Jan. 17.

A daring raid. Beyond daring, even. Suicidal. Yet, it changed the course of a world war, and — who knows — perhaps the course of history. Travis Hoover was one of 79 men who joined Lt. Col. James Doolittle on a bombing raid over Japan on April 18, 1942.

By early 1942, Japan had conquered Guam, Singapore and Wake Island, and had bombed the American base in Hawaii. American forces in the Philippines were about to surrender.

President Roosevelt wanted to retaliate for the Pearl Harbor raid. To do that, the military turned to a risky plan and an aviation pioneer named Jimmy Doolittle. Doolittle passed the word to some of the best B-25 crews in the country, asking for volunteers without ever telling them the details of the mission.

The plan was to launch 16 B-25s from the deck of an aircraft carrier 400 miles from the coast of Japan, bomb industrial targets, and then fly the planes into free China. But after a Japanese patrol boat spotted the carrier force and notified the air defenses of Japan, Doolittle, Hoover and the others wound up launching more than 650 miles from the coast.

Doolittle’s plane took off first, Hoover’s second. Not a single plane would have enough fuel to make it to its destination: Three of the 80 men were killed during or soon after crash landings.

One crew made it to Russia, where they were held as virtual prisoners of war. Eight men were captured by the Japanese. Doolittle actually thought the raid was a failure, and he expected a court-martial.

After successfully bombing industrial targets in Tokyo, Lt. Hoover and his crew headed toward China, knowing full well they did not have enough fuel to reach safe haven beyond the Japanese occupied China coastline and were forced to make a crash landing.

After evading the Japanese for several days, Hoover was contacted by a Chinese student aeronautical engineer. He guided Hoover’s crew inland to safety.

The effects of the raid were many. For one, it was a dramatic morale booster for America at a time when the Japanese had known few setbacks. What it did for America, it did for Japan, but in reverse.

Even though the raid did relatively little damage — Hoover’s plane dropped its bombs on a Tokyo factory — it sent a message to Japan that the island nation was vulnerable. The American public wasn’t told at the time that the raid was a dangerous carrier attack, and President Roosevelt told the pubic the bombers came from America’s secret base at Shangri La.

Hoover went on to fly B-25s, B-24s, and P-38s in Europe, experiencing many close calls in his 73 combat missions there.

Vickie Woods Hoover, married to Travis Hoover’s nephew and living in California, said Travis took care of his invalid mother for the last eight years of her life.

“That’s when we truly found out what he was made of. He was a very humble man,” she said.

Laquita Stephens, living in Clovis, is Travis Hoover’s niece.

Tommie Woods Skeen, formerly of Melrose and Vickie’s sister, said that Hoover told Tommie and her husband, Archie, that the surviving crew members of the Tokyo raid had a reunion each year, but the survivors are down to 17.

Hoover told the Skeens that since his mother lived to be over 100, and his father nearly made 100, he thought and hoped he might be one of the last to go. Hoover was buried at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, near San Antonio, Texas, with full military honors.

Don McAlavy is Curry County’s historian.