On Second Lieutenant Lloyd Herbert Hughes’ last mission over European skies during World War II, he had a choice to make: abandon the mission to save himself and his crew, or finish what they had started for the cause. Hughes chose the latter, earning him the Medal of Honor.
Hughes was born on July 12, 1921 in Alexandria, Louisiana to Lloyd Sr. and Mildred Hughes. In 1923, however, his father was irrelevant, so his mother moved them both to Texas. She started working for the Postal Service, remarried, and had four more sons. The family moved around the state for a bit but eventually settled in Corpus Christi.
Hughes, nicknamed Pete, went to Refugio High School, where he captained its football and basketball teams. After graduation, he went to Corpus Christi Junior College but transferred to A&M College of Texas (now Texas A&M University), where he studied petroleum engineering and served as a member of the Corps of Cadets. According to the Texas State Historical Association, he quit school in early December 1941 so he could help care for his family because his stepfather was in poor health.
According to the Corpus Christi Times, Hughes also worked in an oilfield in Corpus Christi before enlisting in the Army Air Corps in January 1942 as an air cadet. On November 10, 1942, two days after he married his girlfriend, Hazel Dean Ewing, he received his pilot’s wings.
Hughes earned his commission as a second lieutenant in 1943. He served briefly in a few places across the states before being sent to North Africa in June 1943 with the 9th Air Force’s 564th Bombardment Squadron, 389th Bombardment Group. He took part in four combat missions in Italy and Romania before the fateful flight that earned him the Medal of Honor.
On August 1, 1943, Hughes was part of Operation Tidal Wave. Nearly 180 B-24 Liberator bombers were tasked with flying for 18 hours on a 2,400 mile round trip mission to Ploiesti, Romania. Their objective: to destroy an oil refinery which was one of the most important of the Nazis.
The 22-year-old was piloting “Ole Kickapoo”, one of the B-24s flying at the tail of the formation. This placement meant that by the time they reached the target area, the enemy was clearly aware of their presence. Hughes had to fly through intense anti-aircraft fire and dense balloon barrages, which were strategically placed to deny low-level airspace to enemy aircraft.
Before Hughes’ plane could reach the target, it had suffered heavy damage, including a ruptured fuel tank that sent fuel leaking from its bomb bay and left wing. Hughes had time to crash-land in several nearby grain fields, but he was focused on completing the mission. Instead, he set his sights on the refinery, which was already on fire from burning oil tanks and other damage from the first wave of bombs.
Hughes knew the consequences of flying a plane leaking gas into a blaze, but in his mind, the mission came first. Instead of making that forced landing or aborting the mission, he didn’t hesitate to fly into a wall of fire about 30 feet above the ground.
The aircraft emerged from the area, having successfully dropped bombs on its target, but its wing was on fire. Only then did Hughes attempt to force a landing. Unfortunately, the plane was too damaged to be saved; it crashed and was consumed by flames.
Of the 10 crew on the plane, Hughes and six others died instantly. An eighth died two days later, while the remaining two men were taken prisoner until the end of the war.
Despite the loss, reports indicate that the area targeted by Hughes and the other bombers was so badly damaged that it did not resume production for the rest of the war.
By sacrificing his life for the mission, Hughes earned the Medal of Honor. It was returned to his widow in a ceremony at Kelly Field in San Antonio on April 19, 1944. Four other men who took part in Operation Tidal Wave – Colonel Leon Johnson, Colonel John Kane, Lt. Colonel Addison Baker and Major John Jerstad – also received the highest national award for bravery that day.
According to the TSHA, Hughes’ body was first buried in Romania, but was brought back to the United States in 1950 and reinterred at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio.
Over the years, numerous tributes have cemented Hughes’ name and contributions. The former Williams Air Force Base in Arizona had a residence named in his honor; a dorm at Texas A&M still does.
The Young Pilot Medal is on display at the Sam Houston Sanders Corps of Cadets Center, a museum on the campus of Texas A&M University. There is also a double exhibit at the Memorial Student Center on the same College Station campus, where a portrait of Hughes still hangs.
Editor’s Note: Medal of Honor Monday highlights Medal of Honor recipients who have won the U.S. Army’s highest medal of bravery.