During Army 2nd Lt. Lloyd Herbert Hughes’ last mission over the skies of Europe in World War II, he had a choice to make — abort the mission to save himself and his crew, or finish what they’d started for the cause. Hughes chose the latter, which earned him the Medal of Honor.
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.
According to the Corpus Christi Times, 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 Nov. 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 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.
According to the TSHA, 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.
Over the years, plenty of tributes have cemented in stone Hughes’ name and contributions. The former Williams Air Force Base in Arizona had a residence hall named in his honor; a dorm at Texas A&M still does.
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.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.