(This article has been updated from the print edition.)
Robert Hitchcock, a Benicia resident who served on 32 missions over Europe during World War II, died in his sleep Jan. 30. He was 94.
Hitchcock was born in Concord in 1923. His cousin was Jimmy Doolittle, the Alameda-born aviator and Reserve officer known for leading a 1942 air raid on Japan four months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Hitchcock was enlisted in the war effort in 1942 through his local draft board. He was trained as part of a 10-member team to become skilled in radio operations, including understanding Morse Code. He was also trained in semaphore signaling at schools in Chicago and Sioux Falls, S.D. and even learned how to operate a 40-caliber machine gun as even radio operators needed to be trained in using weapons.
Hitchcock’s first seven missions were aboard a B-17 bomber. His job involved jamming the radio frequencies of Axis forces to prevent enemy messages from going through, kept the names of U.S. bombers from being identified and often purposely supplied them with incorrect information as German soldiers were hoping to pick up radio broadcasts about missions. He was later trained in radio countermeasure operations at the Royal Air Force school in Oulton, England where he served as a signal scrambler. In 1944, the radar jamming group was disbanded as the Germans were becoming aware of the Americans’ countermeasure strategies, and Hitchcock’s group was returned to the B-17.
Hitchcock said at a ceremony in 2013 that he was never injured in his 32 missions but that he did have at least three close calls. In one of these incidents, which he recalled in a presentation at Liberty High School last year, the plane’s bomb bay doors had opened and all the bombs were released, except for one that had clung to the doors due to extremely cold weather.
“I called the bombardier and said ‘Don’t close the doors! We’ve got a bomb on board!’” he said.
Hitchcock was able to dispose of the bomb, although the army wire had gone up his sleeve and, as he put it, took away his Air Corps watch.
In another incident, the plane had crashed on a territory in Eastern Belgium which had been claimed that day by the Allies. The plane was close to colliding with a P-47, but a left tire on the B-17 had been shot out, which caused the left wing to hit the ground, rotate 180 degrees and prevent the two planes from colliding.
“That flat tire really saved us,” he remarked in 2017.
Hitchcock was honored in a victory parade in Paris in 1945. Following the war, he was honored with five air medals plus additional medals for other campaigns. Hitchcock was also offered an increase after the war but instead opted to become a civilian. He returned to a B-17, this time as an aerial photographer with the planes equipped with cameras instead of weapons. He moved to Concord with his wife Joyce where they raised three sons. He worked in refineries in the region before retiring and moving to Benicia.
In 2013, Hitchcock and three other veterans were recipients of the Legion d’honneur, the highest distinction awarded by France to recognize those who helped liberate that country from German forces. In recent years, Hitchcock has been actively involved at events honoring veterans and served as Grand Marshal at the 2016 Torchlight Parade. He also would share his war stories at events and even in person. Following a World War II singalong event held at the Capitol in 2016, local author Donnell Rubay said she and her husband Jon Van Landschoot had been talking to Hitchcock when a young man walked by and noticed Hitchcock’s license plate frame which identified him as a World War II Air Force veteran.
“It turns out the young man was a current member of the Air Force, a pilot of those big cargo planes that fly out of Travis to Iraq and other places,” Rubay said. “He was thrilled to meet Bob (and) so excited to connect with the history of the Air Force that the young man himself was now a part of.”
A service for Hitchcock will be held at 11:30 a.m. Friday, April 6 at Sacramento Valley National Cemetery in Dixon followed by a celebration of life at Benicia Veteran’s Memorial Hall, located at 1150 First St., at approximately 1:30 p.m.