b. 12/07/1921 Alexandria, Louisiana. d. 01/08/1943 Ploesti, Romania.
DATE OF MOH ACTION: 01/08/1943 Ploesti, Romania.
Hughes was born on July 12, 1921, in Alexandria, Louisiana, to Lloyd Sr. and Mildred Hughes. By 1923, however, his father was out of the picture, so his mother moved the two of them to Texas. She started working for the postal service, remarried and had four more sons. The family moved around the state a bit but eventually settled in Corpus Christi.
Hughes, who was nicknamed Pete, went to Refugio High School, where he was captain of his 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 was a member of the Corps of Cadets. According to the Texas State Historical Association, he left school in early December 1941 so he could help take care of his family, as his stepfather was in poor health.
Hughes also worked at an oil field in Corpus Christi before he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in January 1942 as an aviation 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 at a few locations across the states before being sent to North Africa in June 1943 with the 564th Bombardment Squadron, 389th Bombardment Group of the 9th Air Force. He took part in four combat missions in Italy and Romania before the fateful flight that earned him the Medal of Honor.
On Aug. 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 roundtrip mission to Ploiesti, Romania. Their goal: to destroy an oil refinery that was one of the Nazi’s largest.
The 22-year-old was piloting “Ole Kickapoo,” one of the B-24s flying at the tail end of the formation. That 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 antiaircraft fire and dense balloon barrages, which were strategically placed to deny low-level airspace to enemy aircraft.
Before Hughes’ aircraft could reach the target, it had suffered heavy damage, including a gas tank rupture that sent fuel streaming from its bomb bay and left wing. Hughes had time to make a forced landing in several nearby grain fields, but he was focused on completing the mission. Instead, he set his sights on the refinery, which was already blazing with fire due to burning oil tanks and other damage from the initial wave of bombs.
Hughes knew the consequences of flying a gas-leaking plane into an inferno, 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 plane emerged from the area, having successfully dropped bombs on its target, but its wing was on fire. Only then did Hughes try to force a landing. Unfortunately, the aircraft was too damaged to be saved; it crashed and was consumed by flames.
Of the aircraft’s 10 crew members, Hughes and six others died immediately. An eighth died two days later, while the two remaining men were taken prisoner until the war’s end.
Despite the loss, reports indicated that the area Hughes and the other bombers targeted was so heavily damaged that it didn’t resume production for the rest of the war.
By sacrificing his life for the mission, Hughes earned the Medal of Honor. It was given to his widow during a ceremony at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas on April 19, 1944. Four other men who took part in Operation Tidal Wave — Col. Leon Johnson, Col. John Kane, Lt. Col. Addison Baker and Maj. John Jerstad — also received the nation’s highest honor for valor that day.
Hughes’ body was initially buried in Romania, but he was brought back to the U.S. in 1950 and reinterred at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio. The young pilot’s medal is on display at the Sam Houston Sanders Corps of Cadets Center, a museum on the campus of Texas A&M University. There’s also a duplicate on display at the Memorial Student Center at the same College Station campus, where a portrait of Hughes still hangs.
For conspicuous gallantry in action and intrepidity at risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. On 1 August 1943, 2d Lt. Hughes served in the capacity of pilot of a heavy bombardment aircraft participating in a long and hazardous minimum-altitude attack against the Axis oil refineries of Ploesti, Rumania, launched from the northern shores of Africa. Flying in the last formation to attack the target, he arrived in the target area after previous flights had thoroughly alerted the enemy defenses. Approaching the target through intense and accurate antiaircraft fire and dense balloon barrages at dangerously low altitude, his plane received several direct hits from both large and small caliber antiaircraft guns which seriously damaged his aircraft, causing sheets of escaping gasoline to stream from the bomb bay and from the left wing. This damage was inflicted at a time prior to reaching the target when 2d Lt. Hughes could have made a forced landing in any of the grain fields readily available at the time. The target area was blazing with burning oil tanks and damaged refinery installations from which flames leaped high above the bombing level of the formation. With full knowledge of the consequences of entering this blazing inferno when his airplane was profusely leaking gasoline in two separate locations, 2d Lt. Hughes, motivated only by his high conception of duty which called for the destruction of his assigned target at any cost, did not elect to make a forced landing or turn back from the attack. Instead, rather than jeopardize the formation and the success of the attack, he unhesitatingly entered the blazing area and dropped his bomb load with great precision. After successfully bombing the objective, his aircraft emerged from the conflagration with the left wing aflame. Only then did he attempt a forced landing, but because of the advanced stage of the fire enveloping his aircraft the plane crashed and was consumed. By 2d Lt. Hughes’ heroic decision to complete his mission regardless of the consequences, in utter disregard of his own life, and by his gallant and valorous execution of this decision, he has rendered a service to our country in the defeat of our enemies which will everlastingly be outstanding in the annals of our nation’s history.
BURIAL LOCATION: FORT SAM HOUSTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS.
SECTION U, GRAVE 53.
LOCATION OF MEDAL:
SAM HOUSTON SANDERS CORPS OF CADETS CENTER, TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY, COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS.
MEMORIAL STUDENT CENTER, TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY (DUPLICATE MEDAL), COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS.