Elmer Tarbox – Texas Tech All-American, WWII Pilot, Inventor, Texas Legislator
Elmer Tarbox once said that when he made his first bombing run in a B-25, “I had a knot in my belly as big as a sweet potato. My hands shook, my palms were sweaty and I kind of wished I was back in Texas.” Despite his fear, Elmer had a successful run and would go on to fly 27 more missions against the Japanese in the China-Burma-India Theater. December 27, 1942 was to be his 28th and last mission. While returning from a run over the Salween River, and flying through a mountain pass only 100 miles from their base, Elmer’s plane was strafed by Japanese machine guns. He said, “The one that got me came through the side wall of the ship, just missing the armor plate. It tore through my thighs. It was a terrific wallop. I blacked out and Brownie (his co-pilot) took the ship in.” The bullet had struck one of the steel supports on the co-pilot seat and dropped to the floor. Brownie picked it up and later gave it to Elmer who kept it as a war souvenir. When the crew brought their B-25 back to base, they counted 89 bullet holes in it.
Elmer was born on March 7, 1916, in Bishop, Oklahoma, the son of J.E. and Emma May Tarbox. He grew up and attended school in Higgins, Texas and was the valedictorian of his 1935 class. He entered Texas Tech that year, and even though he had never played football, he played it so well at Tech that he made several all-American teams. He set several national records for passes intercepted, yardage gained from interceptions and touchdown runs with intercepted passes. His 1938 team went 10-0 before falling to St. Mary’s in the Cotton Bowl 20-13. Elmer scored both of Tech’s touchdowns. Coach Pete Cawthon had given him the name “Elmer the Great”. After graduating, he was drafted by the NFL’s Cleveland Rams but declined their offer. He also lettered in basketball and track and boxed in the off-seasons.
Elmer worked for Lubbock Auto Company for two years after graduation. He enlisted in the Army Air Force as a cadet on June 27, 1940. He received flying instruction at Love, Randolph and Brooks Fields in Texas. Upon graduation from flying school, he was transferred to Tacoma, Washington as a co-pilot in a bombardment group. In the spring of 1942 he was transferred to an airbase at Columbia, South Carolina. In June of that year, he was sent overseas as a bomber combat pilot in the China-Burma-India Theater. He mentioned that the “Japanese would bomb our base……and often.” He also noted that the Japanese Zero pilots were “gutsy and they could fly.” He and his fellow B-25’s were strafed many times during their missions and were impressed by the aerial skills of the Japanese pilots.
After being wounded, Elmer was flown to New Delhi where he spent four and one-half months in the hospital recovering. He returned to his base and was put in charge of armament and bomb site maintenance. He developed a machine gun that could be mounted in the tail section of a B-25. This had heretofore been a weak spot on that craft, and Elmer was credited with saving numerous lives as a result of his invention. He was awarded an Air Medal, a Silver Star, a Purple Heart, a Golden Eagle of China and other medals and ribbons.
Upon being discharged, Elmer was involved in numerous Lubbock businesses. One was Elmer’s Weights that he developed for athletes to use in conditioning. In 1966 he won the first of what would be five terms in the Texas State Legislature. He sponsored numerous bills, including one that funded the building of the Texas Tech Medical School and another that established the Tarbox Parkinson's Disease Institute (one of six such facilities in the world) at Texas Tech in 1972. He was a member of the board of St. John's Methodist Church in Lubbock, a president of the Texas Tech Ex-Students Association, and a member of the Texas Tech Athletic Hall of Fame. Tarbox married Maxine M. Barnett (his college sweetheart) on March 29, 1944, and they had four children. He died in Lubbock on November 2, 1987, of complications of Parkinsonism.
Larry A. Williams
Veterans Liaison Co-Chair
Texas South Plains Honor Flight Board
Special thanks to the Bill Tarbox family for their contribution to this story.