Attack against the Rumanian oil refinery at Ploesti on the 1st August 1943
In May 1942 an organisation, referred to as Halpro (after its commander Colonel Harry Halverson), was dispatched from the US with twenty four B-24s destined for China to make a morale boosting raid on Japan. The Liberators got no further than the Middle East when the plan for the attack was deferred. Halpro was directed to make an attack on Ploesti. The mission, flown from Fayid, Egypt on the night of the 11th/12th June, involved thirteen B-24s and did little if any damage. It did however alert the Germans to Allied interest and indicate the potential of the USAAF heavy bomber.
At the Casablanca Conference Roosevelt and Churchill discussed strategy once the Germans were expelled from Africa. One of the directives was for the Ninth Air Force to bomb Ploesti after completion of the Africa campaign and prior to the invasion of Sicily. The plan was called Tidal Wave. Colonel Jacob Smart was assigned to establish the bombing plan and he flew to England to enlist support. Smart was briefed that the refineries consisted of a dozen plants ringed around the city. A decision was made to bomb seven major refineries with the aircraft attacking at very low altitude.
Intelligence on Ploesti defences was poor, it was considered that there were less than a hundred anti-aircraft guns surrounding the refineries when in fact there were nearly 250, a large proportion of which were manned by Germans crews. Mizil, a Germany air base which housed over fifty Me109s, lay twenty miles east of Ploesti. A few miles east of Mizil was Zilista where nearly twenty Me110s were located. On the outskirts of Bucharest, at Pepira, there was an all Romanian air base from which IAR-80s and IAR-81s, domestic built fighters, operated.
The 44th (Eight Balls) and 93rd (Travelling Circus) Bomb Groups, from the Eighth AF, commenced low level formation training in England in May (1943) and proved that the B-24 could be flown in close formation at very low altitude.
The route planned for the mission took the B-24s north from Benghazi, Libya to a point near Corfu, where a turn would be made northeast across the Albanian mountains. On reaching a point on the Danube, the Liberators were to descent to low level and fly to the IP (initial point) at Pitesti where the trailing group would turn away to attack the refinery at Campina, twenty miles northwest of Ploesti. The main force would continue to the second IP, the town of Targoviste, where it would turn southeast to follow a rail line to the main target area, the individual group formations would then spread out, line abreast, to bomb six major refineries. It was a round trip of 2100 miles. Two 400 US gallon fuel tanks were to be carried in the bomb bay of each machine.
The 44th and 93rd Bomb Groups moved to North Africa in June where they joined the 98th (Pyramiders) and 376th (Liberandos) Bomb Groups of the Ninth AF. The 389th (Sky Scorpions) Bomb Group, a new group from the US, joined them a few days later. All groups conducted operations in support of the Allied invasion of Sicily but on the 20th July began intensive training for the raid on Ploesti.
A few weeks before Tidal Wave took place an RAF Squadron Leader called George C. Barwell arrived at Benghazi. He was an air gunnery specialist who had put his theories to the test in many night battles over Germany. Barwell was assigned to the RAF base at Benghazi, known as Berka Two, as a gunnery instructor. The field was surrounded by the five Liberator bases and Barwell was drawn to the B-24s. General Uzal Ent asked Barwell to help his gunners. When it was decided to send the Sky Scorpions to attack a German air base at Maleme, Barwell volunteered to be the top turret gunner in the last aircraft. On the bomb run the Liberators were attacked by Me109s. Barwell’s guns remained silent as he stood in the top turret with a chronometer and note pad, recording incidents that would prove instructive later. When a fighter made a direct approach towards Barwell’s turret he gave it an economical squirt and it broke up. Barwell continued to fly mission after mission.
The R-1830 radials that powered the Liberators normally had a life of 300 hours, in the desert conditions experienced at Benghazi they were good for 60 hours. The minimum 2300 mile trip to Ploesti required new engine performance. The Liner ‘Mauretania’ delivered 300 new engines two days before the mission, they were all fitted in time.
On Sunday morning the 1st August 1943, 178 Liberators stood ready for take-off for operation ‘Tidal Wave’. Each plane carried 3100 gallons of fuel and a 4300 bomb load. The crews consisted of 1763 American servicemen, one Canadian (Sergeant Blase Dillman flight engineer on ‘Daisy Mae’) and one Englishman (George Barwell) who flew as top turret gunner to Norman Appold.
During the wait prior to take-off the pilot of ‘Thundermug’ fell ill. His co-pilot Flight Officer Russell Longnecker took over with another Flight Officer, Donald K (‘Deacon’) Jones, joining the crew as co-pilot. Neither pilot had ever flown a loaded B-24 off the runway. The senior officer aboard was now Second Lieutenant William M Schrampf, the twenty three year old bombadier.
At Berka Two, the lead plane of the mission, Brian Woolley Falvelle’s ‘Wingo-Wango’, carrying the mission route navigator, Lieutenant Robert W. Wilson, started the long and dangerous take-off. From the five bases, at two minute intervals, the B-24s got airborne and rose to join the five formations circling at 2000 feet. One of the last ships to leave the ground, Robert J. Nespor’s ‘Kickapoo’, loaned by the Circus to the Pyramiders, had an engine failure shortly after take-off. ‘Kickapoo’ banked, a wing hit a ferroconcrete telegraph pole. The B-24 crashed and burned, there were two survivors.
The 177 B-24s departed the Libyan coast with the with the twenty eight Liberators of the 376th BG in the lead. The thirty seven B-24s of the 93rd BG followed the 376th aircraft. Next were the forty six Liberators belonging to the 98th BG, this group was led by Colonel John ‘Killer’ Kane.
The B-24s of the other two Eighth AF groups, the thirty seven machines of the 44th led by Colonel Leon Johnson and the twenty nine aircraft belonging to the 389th BG led by Colonel Jack Wood, brought up the rear. The bomber stream flew at between 2000 and 4000 feet, to minimize strain on the heavily loaded Liberators, across the Mediterranean.
The Germans knew immediately that the force was up from Benghazi. A Signals Interception Battalion based at Athens had broken the allied code and was reading Ninth Air Force transmissions.
An hour out some of the Liberators started to experience problems. In all ten aircraft aborted, seven of them from the Pyramiders (98th BG).
Three hours out landfall at Corfu was imminent. Suddenly ‘Wingo-Wango’ carring the lead navigator began to stagger, dipping down and nosing up until its nose rose higher and higher. When virtually standing on its tail it slid on its back and dived straight in to the sea. Flavell’s wingman, Guy Iovine, left the formation hoping to drop rafts to survivors but then could not climb back into formation. He turned back for Africa taking with him the deputy route navigator. William Wright, the navigator in Lieutenant John Palm’s ‘Brewery Wagon’, suddenly became the route navigator.
Heavy cumulus clouds were encountered between 10000 and 15000 feet. The mission leader, Colonel Compton leading the 376th, climbed above them. Colonel Kane with the 44th and 389th in trail flew beneath the clouds. There were now two distinct group formations, the 376th followed by the 93rd in one formation and the 98th followed by the 44th and 389th in the other. The leading groups (376th and 93rd) reached the Danube well in advance of the other three. The separation was further increased by the 98th mistaking one of the following groups that emerged from cloud as part of the leading element and circling until the mistake was realized. By this time the 376th and 93rd were well on their way to the first IP (town of Pitesti).
When they reached Pitesti, as planned, they reduced their attitude to 500 feet and flew to the second IP at Floresti. When about halfway between the first IP and second IP Colonel Compton, mission leader for the 376th and flying in ‘Teggie Ann’, broke radio silence and ordered the turn towards the target although the lone leading Liberator, ‘Brewery wagon’, flown by Lieutenant Palm was continuing ahead. A rail track leading south had been mistakenly identified by the crew of ‘Teggie Ann’. The 93rd followed the 376th but many pilots, alerted by their navigators, broke radio silence and called ‘wrong turn’. The leading bomber of the 93rd, Col Addison Baker and his pilot Major John Jerstad flying in ‘Hell’s Wrench’ corrected the error but the 376th leaders made no effort to do the same. Col Baker turned the 93rd east towards Ploesti.
As the 93rd aircraft ran up the twenty mile, five minute corridor to Ploesti, they were assaulted by 20mm, 37mm, 88mm and 105mm shells. The Liberator gunners fought it out with the enemy flak gunners. ‘Euroclydon’ flown by Enoch Porter was the first B-24 to be shot down. ‘Hell’s Wrench’ and ‘Utah man’, flying on her port side, held course together. ‘Utah man’ was hit in the left aileron. ‘Hell’s Wrench’ struck a balloon cable, received a direct hit in the nose and was also hit in the wing, wing root and cockpit. The command ship was three minutes from bomb release and on fire. The bombs were jettisoned but ‘Hell’s Wrench’ continued to lead the force over the target. Just before she reached the target she took another direct hit, staggered up to three hundred feet, fell out of the sky and crashed in to a field. None of the crew survived.
The bombs from ‘Utah man’ hit the Colombia Aquila refinery (target White Five) as did those from ‘Thundermug’, ‘Ball of fire Jr’ and ‘Tupelo Lass’. The B-24 flown by William E Meehan fell into a sliding burning heap. The Charles Merrill crew got through in ‘Thar She Blows’. Another Liberator, ‘Jose Carioca’, became completely enveloped in flames after it received a hit in the bomb bay tanks. When it reached the target it was completely enveloped in flames. ‘Jose Carioca’ drove through a building, came through with no wings and came to a halt when the fuselage penetrated another refinery building. The B-24 flown by Roy C Hurns fell out of the sky only Jack Reed the left waist gunner survived. The crew of ‘Valiant Virgin’ put their bombs in to the cracking plant and came through to survive.
As the two main 93rd columns crossed their target out to the right, the other twelve 93rd Liberators led by Ramsey Potts approached the Astra Ramana refinery. Potts in ‘Duchess’ with ‘Jersey Bounce’ and ‘Lucky’ by his side led the B-24s across the refinery. Flak severely damaged the tail unit of ‘Pudgy’. The crumpled burning ship crash landed. When ‘Jersey Bounce’ arrived over the refinery she had already had her nose removed by flak. She then lost No 4 engine, received damage in the cockpit area and had No 1 engine catch fire. She ended up in an open field ablaze. Beyond the target ‘Honky Tonk Gal’ was mortally wounded and attempted a tricycle landing in a wheat field, a wing tip clipped the earth and the plane ground looped. Another B-24, ‘Tuft’, came out flying with defunct oxygen and electrical systems, a shell hole in the bomb bay tank and severed control cables. The last 93rd plane to cross the target was ‘Ready and Willing’ which stayed low but still had five of its crew wounded.
‘Utah Man’ left Ploesti with petrol pouring out of a wing tank. Colonel George S Brown, flying ‘Quennie’, now in command, picked up some of his ships on the outskirts of Ploesti. Of the thirty nine 93rd planes that had taken off, thirty four had reached the target. Now there were fifteen B-24s left.
Unfortunately the 93rd had attacked from the southeast and bombed targets for which other groups had been briefed.
When ‘Teggie Ann’ took the 376th Liberators on the wrong turn, Lieutenant John Palm and his co-pilot William Love in ‘Brewery Wagon’, together with all the rest of the Liberandos Liberators followed. When Palm’s navigator stated that the turn was all wrong ‘Brewery wagon’ alone headed east. Initially the B-24 flew through a rain squall then emerged in to sunlight and rose over a hill. In the distance appeared the stacks and stills of Ploesti.
As ‘Brewery Wagon’ neared the plant a well timed 88mm shell burst in the nose killing the navigator and bombardier. The explosion also destroyed an engine and set two others alight. Both pilots fought to control the plane despite the fact that Palm’s right leg was badly damaged. The bomb load was jettisoned and ‘Brewery Wagon’ came to earth. Love and the flight engineer carried Palm out of the wreckage. Four gunners and radioman Harold Block also emerged from the remains of ‘Brewery Wagon’.
With the navigational error was realized General Ent went on the command radio, acknowledged the error and turned the formation north towards Ploesti. As they neared the plant the formation experienced a great deal of anti-aircraft fire. The 376th leaders abandoned the mission, most of the 376th pilots veered away from the flak. Major Norman Appold with Squadron Leader Barwell in the top turret radioed his section that he was going in, four planes followed him. The five planes arrived at Concordia Vega, Target White Two. Their bombs destroyed two fifths of the refining capacity.
Of the twenty six 376th planes that reached the Ploesti area only ‘Brewery Wagon’ was shot down.
As Appold’s five Liberators left Target White Two the remnants of Ramsey Potts B-24s flew below them. At the same time the 98th and 44th aircraft flew above them. Sixteen of the 44th Liberators, led by Leon Johnson’s (flying as co-pilot in ‘Suzy-Q’) were heading for White Five (Columbia Aquila refinery) whilst the remaining twenty one ships belonging to the 44th, led by James Posey, were flying towards Blue Target, the Creditul Minier refinery. The forty one 98th Liberators, led by Colonel John Kane were bound for the Astro Romana refinery, White Four Target.
As the sixteen B-24s led by ‘Suzy-Q’ approached White Five they realized the target had already been attacked. They proceeded on despite the fact that they were flying parallel to a flak train that opened fire. ‘Suzy-Q’ bombed her target, she was flanked by ‘Bewitching Witch’ and ‘Scrappy II’ both of whom hit the target and came out flying. The second wave, led by ‘Buzzin Bear’, dropped their bombs on the target. The B-24 to the right of ‘Buzzin Bear’ had been shot up by a Ju88 that in turn had been shot down by the top turret and rear gunners in ‘Buzzin Bera’. The third wave was led by ‘Lil Aber’ who came away from the target with three damaged engines and flight controls shot way. Forty miles from the target she could no longer fly, the flight engineer was killed during the crash landing. The fourth wave was led by ‘K for King’ who emerged from the target with bits missing and engine problems. The B-24 to his right, flown by Thomas E. Scrivner, was ablaze and slid in to a wheat field where it exploded, none of the crew survived. The rear gunner in the Liberator to his left, ‘Sad Sack II’, was killed before ‘Sad Sack II’ bombed the target. A few minutes after it left the target ‘Sad Sack II’ was attacked by Me109s. She ended up crashing in a corn field. The last wave consisted of four ships; ‘Porky II’, to her left a B-24 flown by Charles Hughes, to her right a bright orange ship flown by George Winger and a Liberator called ‘F for Freddie’. ‘Porky II’ had two engines set alight and was attacked by fighters. She was left burning in a corn field. The orange ship had its extra fuel tanks set alight and crashed, only two gunners survived. The other two machines flew away from Pleosti. Of the sixteen B-24s that had commenced the attack on White Five, five had been lost. The combined force of Leon Johnson’s and Addison Baker’s attacks resulted in the Colombia Aquila refinery being out of production for eleven months.
The twenty one ships belonging to the 44th that were led by Colonel James T. Posey, approached Blue Target, the isolated Creditul Minier refinery. Posey’s ship ‘V for Victory’ was flown by John H. Diehl. On Posey’s right was a B-24 flown by Eunice M. Shannon and Robert Lehnhausen’s ‘Flak Alley’, flown by David W. Alexander, was positioned on his left. The second wave was led by a B-24 flown by Reginald Phillips and Walter Bunker. Holding the central position was a Liberator flown by George R. Jansen. Another second wave aircraft was ‘D for Dog’ flown by William D. Hughes. The third wave of machines was led by a B-24 flown by W.H Strong. The fourth wave leader was James C. McAtee. The bomb placements resulted in the refinery being redundant for the rest of the war. None of the twenty one aircraft was lost over the refinery. Once the Liberators entered the air space the other side of the refinery they were met by fighters and more flak.
The last B-24 away from Blue Target, pilot Elmer H. Reinhart, had part of a wing missing. As it fell behind it was attacked by fighters, eighty miles from Ploesti, the Reinhart crew abandoned their ship. One other Liberator, a machine from the first wave over the Creditul Minier refinery flown by Rowland Houston, also fell prey to enemy fighters. No one escaped from the Houston aircraft.
Colonel John Kane, at the controls of ‘Hail Columbia’, took the first wave of nine of the forty one 98th Liberators planes towards the Astro Romana refinery, White Four Target. As the Liberators moved towards the refinery they also flew parallel to the same flak train that had opened fire on the sixteen 44th Liberators that had been led by Leon Johnson. The 98th machines suffered the same assault experienced by ‘Suzy-Q’ and the other Johnson ships. As the 98th B-24s came close to the target they could see that it was burning from the attack by the twelve 93rd Liberators led by Ramsey Potts.
As the 98th and 44th left the target area the 389th attacked the Campina refinery.
A total of 54 of the 178 Liberators who took off were lost, 39 in action. Of the seven briefed targets two were not hit at all, one showed slight damage, one was damaged to an extent that production was not resumed for a few weeks and the other three (two hit by the 44th and one hit by the 389th) were totally destroyed. There was no immediate follow up raid. In the spring of the following year fourteen high level missions, spread over three months, all but extinguished oil production at Ploesti. During these fourteen raids 174 B-17s and B-24s and their crews were lost.
376th BG: Liberandos:
Scheduled to bomb the Romana Americana plant (White One). Lead by Colonel K.K. Compton. 29 aircraft. Base Berka Two.
‘Teggie Ann’: Flag ship carrying K K Compton, General Uzal Ent
Brewery Wagon pilot Lieutenant John Palm, co-pilot William Love, navigator William Wright, flight engineer Alec Rockinson, radioman Harold Block. Gunners Austin Chastain, Clay Snyder, William Thomson and Dallas Robertson survived.
93rd BG: Traveling Circus:
Scheduled to strike the Concordia Vega refinery (White Two). Led by Colonel Addison Baker. 39 aircraft. Base at Terria.
Addison Baker’s co-pilot was Major John Jerstad, aircraft was ‘Hell’s Wench’
‘Utah Man’ – Loren Koon (co-pilot), Harold Steiner (radio operator), Stanley Wertz (Navigator), Ralph Cummings (bombardier), Paul Johnson (tail gunner)
‘Thundermug’ – pilot Russell Longnecker, Deacon Jones (co-pilot), Willie Schrampf (bombardier)
Enoch Porter pilot of ‘Euroclydon’. Gunners Jack Reed and James Vest bailed out safely
Earl C Hurd pilot of ‘Tarfu’, co-pilot Joseph Clements
Colonel George S Brown in ‘Quennie’
‘Ball of fire Jr’ - Joseph Tate
‘Tupelo Lass’ co-pilot K O Dessert, top turret gunner Ben Kuroki
B-24 flown by William E Meehan
Charles Merrill pilot of ‘Thar She Blows’
‘Jose Carioca’ flown by Nicholas Stampolis and Ivan Canfield
B-24 flown by Roy C Hurns, Jack Reed (left waist gunner), Arnold Holden (top turret gunner), Michael Doka (tail gunner), John Shufritz (right waist gunner)
‘Liberty Lad’, John J Hayes (flight engineer)
‘Valiant Virgin’ pilot Russell D DeMont, Robert C Murray (co-pilot). Landed back at Benghazi with an hours fuel left in the tanks after flying home alone.
Section B of the 93rd detailed to bomb Standard Petrol Block and Unirea Sperantza units (White Three). Led by Ramsey Potts
Ramsey Potts in ‘Duchess’
‘Jersey Bounce’, pilot Worthy A Long, John Lockhart (co-pilot), Sergeant Havens killed, Norman C Adams (bombardier) and David Lipton (navigator) wounded. Both pilots and the bombardier escaped. Norman Adams went back in to the blazing wreck and pulled out Maurice Peterson from the waist.
Flak severely damaged the tail unit of ‘Pudgy’ which was flown by Milton W Telser and Wilmar H C Bassett. The crumpled burning ship crash landed. The two pilots, observer Willard R Beunmont and two gunners, Robet Locjy and Francis Doll survived.
‘Honky Tonk Gal’ pilot Hubert K Womble.
‘Exterminator’ pilot Hugh Roper
‘Let Er’ Rip’ pilot Vic Olliffe
‘Ready and Willing’ pilot Packy Roche, William Doerner (gunner), Fred Anderson (Flight engineer), Colonel Beightol (observer)
98th BG: Pyramiders
Scheduled to take out the Astra Romana plant (White Four). This was the priority target. Led by Colonel John Kane. 47 aircraft. Base Lete.
‘Kickapoo’ crashed on take-off. Another five did not reach the target area. Of the forty one who reach the target area, five are damaged before reaching the target and fifteen aircraft were shot down over the target.
44th BG: Eight Balls:
Base Benina Main. 37 ‘green’ ships. Scheduled to destroy the Colombia Aquila refinery (White Five). Led by Colonel Leon Johnson. 37 aircraft. Base Benina Main.
‘Suzy-Q’ Pilot Major William Brandon, Leon Johnson co-pilot .
‘Buzzin Bear’ pilot Cameron, co-pilot William C. Dabney
B-24 pilot Charlie Porter Henderson, navigator Robert S. Schminke, gunner James R. Porter, top turret gunner Harold Cooper, rear gunner C.H. Confer, bombardier John R. Huddle and radio man John Dayberry
‘Lil Aber’ pilot Worden L. Weaver, co-pilot Robert R. Synder, navigator Walter M. Sorenson, bombardier Lloyd W. Reese, radioman Jesee W. Hinley. William J. Schettler, flight engineer killed.
‘K for King’ pilot Robert E. Miller, co-pilot Dexter L. Hodge, bombardier Robert Edwards, flight engineer Willaim J. Murphy, tail gunner C.J. Ducote and gunner Daniel Rowland
Liberator pilot Thomas E. Scrivner. None of the crew survived
‘Sad Sack II’ pilot Henry A. Lasco, co-pilot Joseph A. Kill, navigator Harry W. Stenborn, bombardier Dale R. Scriven, top turret Leonard L. Raspotnik, radioman Joseph Spivey, port waist gunner Charles Decrevel, starboard waist gunner Al Shaffer. Rear gunner Thomas M. Wood was killed
‘Porky II’ pilot Rowland M. Gentry, top turret E.C. Light, starboard waist gunner Charles T. Bridges.
B-24 pilot Charles Hughes, co-pilot Sylvester S. Hunn, waist gunners Stanley G. Nalipa, Robert L. Albine.
B-24 pilot George Winger. Only gunners Michael J. Cicon and Bernard Traudt survived
‘F for Freddie’ pilot Robert Felber
‘V for Victory’. Lead ship for James Posey. Pilot John H. Diehl, navigator Robert J. Stine, bombardier Howard R. Klekar. Waist gunner Truitt Williams killed during the run in to the target.
B-24 flown by Eunice M. Shannon and Robert Lehnhausen.
‘Flak Alley’ pilot David W. Alexander
B-24 flown by Rowland Houston, top gunner Walter B. Schoer, rear gunner M. L. Spears. Shot down by enemy fighters. No crew member survived.
Led by B-24 flown by Reginald Phillips and Walter Bunker
Liberator flown by George R. Jansen, bombardier George Guilford
‘D for Dog’ pilot William D. Hughes, bombardier George E. Hulpiau
Led by B-24 flown by W.H Strong
Leader James C. McAtee, tail gunner Jon R. Edwards
‘Princess’ radioman Norman Kiefer
‘Mister Five by Five’ pilots Frank O. Slough and Raymond J. Lacombe
Last B-24 away from Blue Target with part of a wing missing. Pilot Elmer H. Reinhart, rear gunner George Van Son, waist gunners Alfred A. Mash and Robert Wolf, radioman Russell Huntley, flight engineer Frank D. Garrett. Attacked by fighters, eighty miles from Ploesti ship abandoned
Of the sixteen planes that reach Ploesti, three were damaged before reaching the target area and five were shot down over the target area
Johnson’s deputy, James Posey detailed to bomb the Creditul Minier plant (Blue Target) located five miles south of the white targets at a town called Brazi.
65 miles short of the first IP B-24 carrying the Charles Whitlock crew lost their No 1 engine. They were unable to keep up consequently turned south for Cyprus. Over Bulgaria they lost No 4 but made it to Cyprus.
21 Liberators reach Ploesti
389th BG: Sky Scorpions
Scheduled to bomb the Steaua Romana refinery (Red Target) situated eighteen miles north of Ploesti. Led by Colonel Jack Wood. 26 aircraft. Base Berka Four
Lindley P. Hussey in ‘Lil Joe’ lost 800 gallons though a faulty hose connection to the bomb bay tank but proceeded on to Ploesti.
From Philip Ardery, pilot with the 389th BG
... we turned south again. This time we were going down the right valley. My squadron was to be the second over the target. Ahead of the lead element of my squadron - that is, the three ships in my immediate formation - were six airplanes. We saw them spacing themselves the way they had been briefed. We slowed up. The first three ships headed straight down the valley, letting down fast to hit the deck as quickly as possible. The second element of three turned to the left for a few seconds and then turned to the right to come in from the briefed angle. We spaced ourselves for a straight-in run over the same course as the last three ships. The bombs we carried were fused to allow sufficient delay so that all our ships could get over the target before the first bombs began to blowing up ... We were very close behind the second flight of three ships. As their bombs were dropped we were on the run-in. There in the center of the target was the big boiler house, just as in the pictures we had seen. As the first ships approached the target we could see them flying through a mass of ground fire. It was mostly coming from ground placed 20mm automatic weapons and it was as thick as hail. The first ships dropped their bombs squarely on the boiler house and immediately a series of explosions took place. They weren’t the explosions of thousand pound bombs but of boilers blowing up and fires of split-open fire-banks touching off the volatile gases of the cracking plant. Bits of the roof of the chimney blew up, lifting to a level above the height of the chimneys and the flames leaped high above the debris. The second three ships went over coming in from the left and dropped partly on the boiler house and partly on the cracking plant beyond. More explosions and higher flames. Already the flames were leaping higher than our approach.
We had gauged ourselves to clear the tallest chimney in the plant by a few feet. Now there was a mass of flame and black smoke reaching much higher and there were intermittent explosions lighting up the black pall ... We found ourselves running a gauntlet of tracers and cannon fire of all types that made us despair of ever covering those last few yards to the point where we could let the bombs go. The anti-aircraft defenses were literally throwing up a curtain of steel. From the target grew the column of flames, smoke and explosions that we were heading straight into it ... I looked out to the right for a moment and saw a sheet of raw gasoline trailing Pete’s left wing (Lt Peter Hughes). He stuck right in formation with us. He must have known he was hit hard because the gas was coming out in such volume that it blinded the waist gunners in his ship from our view. Poor Pete! ... He was holding his ship in formation to drop his bombs on the target, knowing that if he didn’t pull up he would have to fly through a solid room of fire with a tremendous stream of gasoline gushing from his ship ... As we were going in to the furnace, I said a quick prayer.
During those moments I didn’t think that I could possibly come out alive and I knew Pete couldn’t. Bombs were away. Everything was black for a few seconds. We must have cleared the chimneys by inches. We must have, for we kept flying - and as we passed over the boiler house another explosion kicked our tail high and our nose down. Ed (Fowble, co-pilot) pulled back on the wheel and the Lib leveled out, almost clipping the top off houses. We were through the impenetrable wall, but what of Pete? I looked out right. Still he was there in close formation but he was on fire all around his left wing where it joined the fuselage. I could feel the tears come into my eyes and my throat clog up. Then I saw Pete pull up and out of formation. His bombs were laid squarely on the target along with ours.
With his mission accomplished he was making a valiant attempt to kill his excess speed and set the ship down in a little river valley south of the own before the whole business blew up. He was going about 210 mph and had to slow up to about 110 to get the ship down. He was gliding along without power, as it seemed, slowing up and pulling off to the right in the direction of the moderately flat valley. Pete was fighting now to save himself and his men. He was too low for any of them to jump ... Slowly the ship lost speed and began to settle in a glide that looked like it might come to a reasonably good crash landing. But flames were spreading furiously all over the left side of the ship. I could see it plainly, as it was on my side. Now it would touch down - but just before it did the left wing came off. The flames had been too much and had literally burnt the wing off. The heavy ship cart-wheeled and a great flower of flame and smoke appeared just ahead of the point where last we had see the bomber ...
My attention was drawn back to the task of self-preservation ... Our ships flying south were meeting other Liberators flying north that had attacked targets in the region south of ours. The sky was a bedlam of bombers flying in all directions, some actually on fire, many with smoking engines, some with great gaping holes in them or huge chunks of wing or rudder gone. Many were so riddled that it was obvious their insides must have presented starkly tragic pictures of men dead and dying ...
By this time, with my missions accomplished, I had at last come to the point of being frightened for my own safety. Earlier I had reconciled myself to the probability that I would not return and I was willing to stick by that decision. When it seemed to me there was slight hope of returning from a mission - as there had been at the beginning of this one - I didn’t worry much. When it appeared I had past the point of greatest danger and therefore stood a good chance to make it, I began to sweat it out in earnest ...
We had a semblance of a formation now, though I could only count five ships that had regrouped out of our original formation of thirty two ... Late that afternoon a great gaggle of Liberators struggled to get over the mountains separating them from home ... We saw many enemy fighters but had only a few half-hearted attacks on our formation. Why should they attack us? We had a pretty good defensive unit. The sky was full of dying airplanes that were severely crippled ... We got by simply because there were many easier targets. Our ship touched down at Bengasi just as it was getting completely dark. It was thirteen and half hours since take-off. A hurried inspection proved we were hit many times but again we were lucky enough to have the hits where we could take them.
(Phillip Ardery wrote a citation for Pete Hughes for the Congressional Medal of Honor. The War Department approved the recommendation.)
Text from Ploesti (Duggan/Stewart) and Bomber Pilot (Phillip Ardery)