The FFA Flyboys of World War II (6/14/2019)

Three weeks ago, in honor of Memorial Day, we featured former FFA members who gave their lives in service to their country. Last week we remembered former FFA members who had been involved with D-Day. This week we recognize FFA members who were the flyboys of the war.

The Doolittle Raid

American officially entered World War II on December 8, 1941, two days after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. In January of 1942, the military started working on a plan to bomb Japan. The military wanted to bomb Japanese industrial centers and Tokyo, in order to create physical and psychological damage (Doolittle Raid, N.D.).

The initial plan was to have U.S. bombers take off and return to aircraft carriers. After some trial tests, it was discovered that taking off was relatively easy but landing back on an aircraft carrier was next to impossible for a B-25 bomber. Eventually, it was decided to add additional fuel tanks and bombs and remove as much unnecessary equipment as possible from the B-25 bombers. Then the plan was to have the planes fly on to China after the bombing run and land there. This was a very risky and dangerous mission as the planes would be facing Japanese defenses, both planes, ships, and anti-aircraft guns and then land in unfamiliar territory.

USS Hornet with the 16 Bombers Ready to Launch

Volunteers were recruited to fly on what became known as the Doolittle Raid because it was led by Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle. The volunteers were not told exactly what they were volunteering for. Three former FFA members volunteered for the mission. The raid commenced on April 18, 1942. However, the aircraft carrier had been spotted by the Japanese and the 16 planes had to launch 10 hours earlier and 170 miles farther out from their targets than had been planned. This would create fuel problems at the end of the mission. None of the pilots had ever taken off from an aircraft carrier.

The raid was successful. After dropping their bombs, they headed to a landing area in China but because of weather and running low on fuel (they had been in the air 13 hours) they were forced to either crash land in China or bail out over the sea. One bomber landed in Russia after completing its mission because it was running low on fuel. Of the 80 crew members (5 per plane), 77 initially survived. The Chinese people helped the crew members survive and escape.

Doolittle was in the first plane and led the attack. Even though he was not a FFA member (he grew up in Nome, Alaska), he experienced what some FFA members have experienced. When he parachuted out of his plane, he landed in a big pile of dung.

The 2nd plane was piloted by 1st Lt. Travis Hoover, a former FFA member from Polytechnic High School in Riverside, California. After completing its mission, the plane made a wheels up crash-landing in a soft rice paddy near Ningbo, China. The crew was uninjured and walked for three days before encountering friendly local fighters who helped the crew get out of China. Hoover flew 72 more missions during the war in England, North African and Italy. He attained the rank of Colonel and retired from the military in 1968. He died in 2004 at the age of 86 (80 Brave Men). The pictures below are of the young and older Travis Hoover.

The third plane, “Whisky Pete” (named after a pony the pilot rode when he was little boy), was piloted by 1st Lt. Robert M. Gray, a former FFA member from Killen, Texas. As a FFA member he showed sheep and cattle, milked cows and chopped wood for the old cast iron stove at home.

As the plane he was piloting was running out of fuel over China, he ordered the crew to bail out. He waited until the last minute to jump. The local farmers helped him and his crew escape.

Gray remained in the China-Burma-India Theater after the Tokyo Raid. He was killed in action on October 18, 1942 while on a combat mission over India (80 Brave Men).

Robert Gray

Gray Air Force base (now Gray Army Airfield) near Killeen, Texas was named for him. I grew up about 30 miles from this base in Central Texas and my father helped construct the base. I never knew it was named after an FFA member until I started working on this Footnote. I also learned he had been a student at Tarleton State, my alma mater. Robert Mitchum played Gray in the movie “30 Seconds over Tokyo.”

Bert M. Jordan was the Engineer-Gunner on the 4th plane. He has been a FFA member in Oklahoma. Shortly after takeoff, he discovered the gun turret was not working. This left only one functioning gun on the bomber, a .30 caliber nose-gun. The plane also developed a fuel leak. When the plane was jumped by four Japanese fighter planes, the pilot ordered the bombs to be dumped in Tokyo Bay before racing to China where the crew bailed out over land when the fuel was gone.

Bert remained in the Army for the duration of World War II and then served in the Korean War and Vietnam conflict as an aircraft maintenance technician. He died in 2001 at the age of 82 (80 Brave Men).

The Doolittle Raid was an important milestone in the War. It proved the Japanese were not invicibile and they could be attackedd. It was a psychological victory for the allies. Dootlittle was later promoted to General. The fact that three former FFA members volunteered for such a dangerous mission and were on the first four planes, piloting two of them, speaks volumes about their character and dedication.

The Utah Farm Boy who Flew for the British

Chesley (Pete) Peterson grew up on a farm near Santaquin, Utah and attended school at Payson where he was in the FFA. His interest in flying started when an old airplane made a forced landing on the family farm when he was 9 years old. He was also fascinated with the flying barnstormers of the era. Peterson enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corp when he was 19 but it was discovered he had forged his birth certificate adding a few months to meet the age limit to get in, he was honorably discharged. Not to be deterred from flying, Peterson traveled to England where he joined the Royal Air Force’s Eagle Squadron, a group of foreign volunteers.

He is credited with the destruction of 9 enemy aircraft in aerial combat while flying with the RAAF and probably shot down nine more. After two years of fighting for the British, the Eagle Squadron was transferred to the U.S. Army Air Corp when America entered WWII. He came into the U. S. Air Corp as a colonel at the age of 23, the youngest full Colonel in the U. S. Army Air Corp history. During the war his plane went down twice and he once spent 20 hours in the water on one occasion. He had more than 1,000 hours of combat duty and flew on 150 operational missions. He was the first American fighter pilot to win both the United States Distinguished Service Cross and Britain’s Distinguished Service Order. After the War he commanded various bases in the U.S. and abroad. He retired in 1970 as a U.S. Air Force Major General.


The Ogden Standard-Examiner newspaper named Peterson as Utah’s number 1 hero of World War II. A short video about him can be found at He died in 1990 at the age of 69.

Pete Peterson

Roy Martin – From Cowboy to Bomber Pilot

Roy was from Cotulla, Texas and was the first National FFA Officer from Texas (1936-37). He attended Texas A&M and graduated with a degree in Agriculture Science in 1940. While in college he was a member of the meat judging teams and won state and international competitions.

Upon graduation from Texas A&M he was commissioned as a 2nd Lt. in the Infantry. When he reported for active duty, he entered a pilot training program and was then stationed in England.

He piloted the famous ‘Boomerang’ Liberty (a B-24 bomber) on fifty-three missions over enemy territory. The “Boomerang”’ is credited with dropping a third of a million pounds of explosives and shooting down 12 fighters. He led a famous low-level raid on oil refineries in Ploesti, Romania and returned with cornstalks clinging to the bomb bay. Roy made the rank of Lieutenant Colonel at the age of 24 and became operations officer of the oldest Liberator group in the European Theater (FFA Convention Proceedings, 1946).

Roy was released from active duty in 1946 and returned to Cotulla to join his father and brother in a cattle breeding operation for Brahman cattle. He was appointed the secretary of the Pan American Zebu Association and traveled extensively appraising, registering and judging bos indicus cattle for more than 30 years. He was also one of the founders of the San Antonio Livestock Exposition. He died in 2010 at the age of 91.

Alpha Fowler, Jr. – The Movie Star

Alpha A. “Sonny” Fowler, Jr. served as President of the Georgia FFA in 1938-39 He played the lead character in the movie – The Greenhand. He attended the University of Georgia. Details about his military service are somewhat scant. He was stationed in Italy. We do know he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal and was a veteran of 17 combat missions. While piloting a B-17 Flying Fortress over enemy territory his plane was hit and the two fuel tanks were punctured putting two engines out of operation, but he was able to bring the plane and crew down safely (Distinguished Flying Cross, 1945).

After the war he served in the Georgia Air National Gaurd and attained the rank of Brigadier General. Mr Fowler was an eight-term member of the Georgia General Assembly, President of the Georgia Poultry Federation and Adjutant General for the state of Georgia. He died in 2003 at the age of 83.

Concluding Remarks

We know that FFA members at the time of World War II knew how to drive tractors. Who would think they also could fly airplanes? But they did. They showed leadership on the ground and in the air. They exemplified the FFA Motto of Learning to Do, Doing to Learn, Earning to Live, Living to Serve.


80 Brave Men.

Alpha Fowler.

Bryant, David A. (2017, April 15). The Doolittle Raid: Killeen pilot part of boosting troop morale in WWII. Killen Daily Herald. Retrieved from

Chesley Gordon Peterson.

Distinguished Flying Cross (1945, March). The Agricultural Education Magazine. Vol. 17. No. 9.

Doolittle Raid.

FFA Convention Proceedings, 1946.

Roy Martin.

Utah’s Top Ace Missing on African Flight. The Ogden Standard-Examiner. May 11, 1947.