To North Africa and Hell
The following is a chapter from an upcoming book by Luc Dewez.
(all copyrights reserved, no reproductions permitted)
On May 29th, 1943, Lieutenants Richard A. Larson and Wayne H. Middleton chalked on their first mission after a raid over La Pallice, France. This 506th squadron crew was flying in Timb-A-A-Ah. When they got their airplane in the ZOI, they had a discussion as to what kind of nose art to paint on the airplane. Nineteen years old tail gunner, S/Sgt. Steven F. Bugyie, had done a lot of tree cutting. “So I suggested that they paint a bomb in flight with the call that wood cutters use when a tree is falling. That is how our ship got its name. After La Pallice, these missions were going to be a piece of cake.”
A piece of cake, he thought! Seven months in the ETO, thirty-two missions (including 9 diversions), had claimed their toll on the original 27 planes and crews of the 44th Bomb Group.
Statistically, the group was no more a combat unit. The butcher bill was 25 planes, the bloody palm going to the 67th Squadron, which was more than wiped out: 10 planes on 9! Then the 68th and the 66th, they had lost 7 and 6 ships respectively. Even the pups, the brand new 506th Squadron, had been blooded.
It was considered to have the B-24s do night bombing with the RAF. Shrouds were installed on the turbo superchargers of some aircraft to reduce the glow. First Lt. Richard D. Butler and a few others were sent to a RAF base to fly a night mission. “I flew in the right seat of a Lancaster. The target was Düsseldorf. It was a very scary experience as all firing was very visible in the dark. Tracers burned and flak explosions were like big balls of fire. It looked like the whole sky was lighted up.”
Then the 44th BG shifted from high altitude bombing to low-level formation. First as individual ships, then as elements of three, later in formations, at low level, the crews learned the techniques of flying at low altitude for the purpose of bombing.
Lieutenant William R. Cameron wanted his ship to be called the Golden Bear after the symbol of the State of California, but only his assistant engineer, Roy Winter, and him were from that State. "As we were practicing low-level flying - referred to as “buzzing” - in a true democratic manner, we compromised and agreed to call her the Buzzin Bear."
Picture 1 - America's Flying Youth - William Cameron crew - Courtesy of William Cameron.
Front: William Cameron (P), William Dabney (CP), Jim DeVinney (B)
Back: Jerry Sparks (RO), Jerry Grett (WG), Gola Gibbey (E), LeRoy Winter (AE), Ernie McCabe (WG), Frank Maruszewski (TG).
One of the new arrivals, 1st Lt. Shelby L. Irby experienced a huge rush of alarm: “I heard the sudden roar of a B-24 overhead at tree-top level, as I was walking to the Officers' Club. At the time, I chalked-it off as some foolish pilot doing a dangerous ‘buzz-job’ on the O-Club.”
It was a big thrill for the young airmen to fly just above the treetops. They flew so low over the fields that British “Land Army” girls hit the dirt and frightened cows ran frantically with their tail flying straight out behind them. Some of the farmers were complaining that the US airplanes were scaring their cows and chickens so bad they were not producing much milk or laying many eggs.
One day, S/Sgt. Sergeant Robert Reasoner waved to the people of a train on an elevated track.
After a few weeks of low-level training, the planes left, one by one,. Left on their first step to the unknown, an airfield in southern England.
The crews had been told to take their Class A woolen uniforms but they played safe and took both woolen and khaki. First Lieutenant Robert J. Stine Jr., already a battle-seasoned veteran, thought they were probably going to fly low level attacks on submarine pens or possibly some special mission over France or Germany. Rumors flew far and wide as to the ultimate destination. Was it Russia, Norway (to sink the German battleship Tirpitz), or perhaps the Far East?
The second leg of their journey was from England in a low level flight over the Atlantic for six hours until they went over the Strait of Gibraltar and passed by the mighty Rock. They landed at La Senia Field, Oran, Algeria. After a brief stay, the group took-off for its new home far away from England - Benina Main airfield, near Benghazi, in Libya.
Two groups, also flying Liberators from England, the 93rd and the 389th BGs, were also transferred to North Africa. While the 93rd was a battle-hardened unit, the 389th BG was fresh from the USA and had not flown a single combat mission. These three 8th Air Force outfits reinforced the two B-24 BGs (the 98th and the 376th BGs of the IX Bomber Command) already flying in the Mediterranean Theater. The airplanes of the latter groups were dust colored, almost pink, and were easily distinguished from the England-based B-24s in their olive drab dress.
Their stay in the desert was an adventure in a new world, surrounded by new "friends." There were locusts everywhere, on the tents and even all over the mosquito nets inside the tents. One man, sitting on a stool outside his tent, filled an abandoned German petrol can with them without moving from his seat.
Desert sand becomes very hot in direct sunlight; locusts know it too. Thousands of them gathered in the shade of the B-24s. Every night men had to check beds carefully for all kinds of pests. After sundown, the desert cooled rapidly and got a little chilly at night. The scorpions and the centipedes also knew this. Before putting on shoes in the morning, one had better dump out what might have crawled into them during the night.
Picture 2 – Staff Sergeant Steve Bugyie and his new home – Courtesy of Steve Bugyie
Some did their best to improve their condition. Technical Sergeant Harry R. Snead built a shower from the frame of an Italian airplane and an empty drum.
Staff Sergeant Frank Paliga bunked in an old shot up Italian airplane.
"I hung my cot from the ceiling with airplane cable. The sides were open and I enjoyed the cool nights. We were warned about eating Arabs grapes and watermelon but did it anyway.”
They filled an airplane with the fruit, flew it up to a freezing altitude to chill it, and back on the ground, they could enjoy cold watermelon. As a result of eating the fruits, the crew had a bad case of the trots.
The wind blew the sand and it penetrated everywhere, including the food. But, S/Sgt. Clarence W. Strandberg learned to eat around it.
"I was always hungry so it always tasted good, even the ‘Sand on a Shingle.’ We were told never to eat fruits that the Arabs tried to sell you because it was fertilized with human manure and would give you diarrhea."
First Lieutenant Edwin H. Heyer bought eggs from an Arab while the man's wife washed his clothes in exchange for cigarettes.
Water was precious. Each man got a gallon of treated water per day.
To conserve it, all six in S/Sgt. Hubert J. Womack's tent contributed an equal amount of water which was put into a helmet. Then they drew straws to see who washed his face first. The sixth guy washed in left-over soapsuds and dirty water.
The clothes were washed in 100-octane gasoline. One time Hubert Womack had to dress before his gear was completely dry and, as a result was blistered all over.
Some men learned to create their own sources of amusement. One was the fight between scorpions and long centipedes. They caught them and put them together in a circle and watched them fight.
On July 2, the 44th Bomb Group flew to bomb Lecce airdrome, in the heel of the Italian boot. First Lieutenant Robert E. Peterson was flying his first mission with Major Thomas R. Cramer, who, as was his usual procedure, flew as co-pilot to offer his experience to the new crew. The original copilot, Lt. Raymond E. Hamlyn, was left on the base. Between the Italian coast and the target, one Me-109 came up from below and hit the ship in several locations. Smoke was coming out of the left wing. The Liberator turned over on its back and started down in large circles. None of the crew bailed out.
Flying right waist in Timb-A-A-Ah, S/Sgt. Steven F. Bugye saw a Macchi 202 shoot down a B-24 in another group.
"It passed under our group from a great distance. I gave the enemy fighter a long deflection shot. It seemed to make him go out of control. I received a 'no-kill' as no one else had reported the possible hit."
Miss Virginia, a 68th Squadron aircraft, was damaged over the target by flak hits and ran short of fuel on the return across the Mediterranean Sea. Radio operator, John M. Cole, sent several SOS messages in Morse code then held his transmitter key down so air-sea rescue could locate them.
The ship broke into three pieces when it struck the water. Copilot 2nd Lt. Robert J. Lehnhausen was thrown completely through the windshield. He swam back to the stricken craft and released a life raft. Seeing that some men had difficulty with the second raft, he swam to it and found that a rope securing the raft had become fouled in the wreckage. All efforts to disentangle the rope failed and Lt. Lehnhausen, fearing that the sinking airplane would drag the raft and the injured men under, he managed to chew the rope in two, releasing the raft!
This was the first mission Lt. Lehnhausen and his crew flew out of the Libyan desert.
"The six of us who survived were picked up by a British mine layer, which was on a mission of transporting Montgomery's staff from Alexandria to Malta. They had picked up our radio transmission. We were hospitalized on Malta in a British general hospital."
More than these first losses, the sand became the greatest source of concerns, not only for the men, but also for the machines. The sand cut down the engine hours to about 1/4 of the time they were allowed in England. Sand was also all over the .50 caliber machine guns. They had to be oiled but that attracted even more sand. All these problems kept the ground crews busy, as well as some of the flying personnel. Sergeant Steven Bugye helped the ground crew check Timb-A-A-Ah and replaced a left-hand inboard fuel cell. Most of the work was done in the morning or in the evening, as it was too hot during the day.
Long T-shirts and boots soon became very popular, not only on the Mediterranean beaches, but on Benina Main airfield: they were the identifying clothes for dysentery. And many races for the “barrels” took place. The barrels were big empty oil drums used as desert lilies.
Picture 3 - Where runs for the barrels took place - Courtesy of Steve Bugyie
Second Lieutenant Joseph E. Milliner was among the many racers.
“The race for the barrels was at times amusing, the loser veering off toward another barrel, only to lose that race also. A lot of crews were having trouble keeping a full crew. New assignments took places daily."
There were a few exceptions. First Lieutenant George P. Martin watched over his men closely. Most of them stayed fairly healthy even if they all had a touch of the bug.
Between July 5th and July 15th, the Flying Eight Balls put the cross-hair of their Norden bombsights on targets in Messina, Gerbini, Catania, Reggio Di Calabria, Crotone, and Foggia. The objectives were to gain air superiority and cut enemy's supply lines to prepare and then support the invasion of Sicily. The shortest round trip was 1000 miles over-water, a 7-hour mission, and up to a 1600-mile flight to Foggia. Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited (CAVU) conditions prevailed and those missions cost the 44th BG no losses.
On the afternoon of July the 16th, the 44th was briefed on its target for the next day - Naples.
Picture 4 - Briefing room in the MTO – Courtesy of Will Lundy
That evening, Lt. William R. Cameron and a few of his friends went to see a movie.
“The ‘theatre’ consisted of a platform set up on a small hill and upon which they had a screen. We sat on metal boxes which were the containers in which the fins for the 500 pound bombs were shipped. The star-studded desert sky made our ceiling - probably the most beautiful theatre ceiling under which I've ever been. Jack LaRue was one of the actors. As the story came to a climax, the camera focused on a motto that hung on the wall in one of the scenes. It was the old saying, ‘See Naples and Die.’ It was a rather chilling coincidence, we thought.”
Airborne the next day, Lt. Cameron flew Buzzin’ Bear in its usual position behind Major Howard Moore in Suzy-Q.
“We had a seventh airplane (Lady Fifinella, 1st Lt. Griffin) flying under our two flights of three aircraft each. This was a most vulnerable position, as the fighters could attack the low aircraft, staying away from our upper guns on the higher planes. As we neared Naples, we became aware that it would be a bit more lively than the usual missions over Italy. There was more flak and more fighters, both of which we would much rather have done without.”
Over the target, bombardier 2nd Lt. Charles L. Rouser felt Lady Fifinella was hit by flak.
“Our controls were damaged. Approximately a dozen fighters – 4 or 5 Italians and the rest Germans – finished off our plane, setting #2 and # 3 engines on fire. Immediately after bailing out, I saw the wing of the plane hurtle past me, and then the plane itself spun past on the way to earth. I was the first one captured by the Italians, both civilians and military, and given pretty rough treatment.”
Pilot Curtis S. Griffin and waist gunner S/Sgt. Gordon J. Greattinger had both been wounded and did not get out of the plane. Italian soldiers killed copilot 2nd Lt. Joseph H. Potter as he hit the ground. More fortunate though badly hurt while landing, Radio Operator David G. Harrington, had a broken right hip. Another man hit the top of a fence post with his face and was terribly lacerated.”
In Buzzin’ Bear, Cameron’s gunners blasted away at fighters and wrote themselves their own little bit of glory.
“The fighters pursued, but did not attack us again. Our #3 engine cowling had a gaping hole in it, and all four engine cylinder head temperatures were running dangerously high, and two generators were out. The oil pressure on #3 went so low that I finally had to shut down that engine, an invitation to a turkey shoot to the German and Italian pilots.”
With number three feathered, Buzzin’ Bear slowly fell behind the formation until finally she was out of sight.
Despite the loss of two more Liberators, some of the battle-seasoned men were expecting to finish their tour in the Mediterranean Theater. The missions were “easier” due to the fact the planes spent less time over land. Furthermore, between missions, the crews had a lot of free time. There was a constant flow of Army trucks going into Benghazi. Sergeant Clarence Strandberg caught rides into town with his buddies and spent time just bumming around. Some went swimming in the Mediterranean Sea. Sergeant Hubert Womack tried to wash his hair, but the soap wouldn’t rinse out in the salt water. It dried stiff as a board.
When Lt. Shelby Irby stood down, he normally saw an outdoor movie or sat outside a while to talk before hitting the bunk.
"After breakfast in the morning, the crew showed up at our parked aircraft to check it over, clean guns, etc. When the sun got hot enough, we headed back for lunch, then took cover in the tent - with side curtains up for ventilation - reading a book or writing letters home."
Lieutenant Charles E. Hughes had chess lessons in daytime and astronomy lessons from navigators at night under an unbelievably clear sky.
On July 18th, a lonely B-24 landed at Benina Main airfield: Buzzin’ Bear was back from the twilight zone. Yesterday, flying alone on gas fumes, they had tried to reach Malta but ended up at Comiso airfield, Sicily, just a few miles from the front lines! Eager to leave the danger zone, the crew marched back and forth a hundredth times between a British fuel storage area and their ship, passing each six-gallon container up to engineer Gola G. Gibbey, standing on top of the wing.
At about 11 P.M., they roared down the runway and again took up a heading for Malta. Except for the pilots, the hungry, thirsty and bone weary crew, and its passenger, an Army Lieutenant Colonel, consoled themselves with wine, the only available beverage in Sicily. This time they made it successfully to Malta, after much singing and shooting, their own tracers streaming out into the night.
Some of the enlisted men elected to sleep in Buzzin' Bear (to clear morning headaches with the oxygen mask?.) Radio operator Gerald A. Sparks fell unnoticed from the truck and slept in the grass at his exact landing spot until next morning. Bombardier “Gentleman Jim” James F. DeVinney was his normal, happy-go-lucky self. And copilot William C. Dabney Jr. ended up in a hospital with food, clean sheet, adrenaline and NURSES!
More modestly, Bill Cameron and the others fell asleep in the chairs of a clubroom. In the morning, due to the scarcity of food, Buzzin' Bear and her crew fled from Malta across the remaining miles of the Mediterranean to Benghazi. There, Lieutenant Cameron soon found out that no one indicated any particular concern, except a: “Where in the hell have you been!,” from Major Howard Moore, the 67th squadron commanding officer.
On the 19th of July, the 44th was on its way to bomb Rome's marshalling yards, led by Lt. William Cameron in Suzy-Q. The pilot was happy to find the lead ship was in good shape despite the unusual landing she had undergone the day before (all four engines had stopped, causing Major Moore to land several hundred yards short of the runway.) Cameron’s ship, Buzzin’ Bear, was keeping her ground crew busy (as well a few of her flight crew) with four engines to change.
“We had been briefed extensively on our target. Under no circumstances were we to bomb unless we were certain that we could hit this area without any possibility of errant bombs. A few Italian fighters made half-hearted attacks. Jackson Hall was with us as the Group Command Pilot, flying in the co-pilot seat. On the way home we lost an engine quite suddenly. But a few minutes later I finally figured out that Jackson had accidentally nudged the number four engine ignition switch with his knee. That was about the only excitement on the entire mission.”
While this raid was taking place, Robert Lehnhausen was still in a British hospital in Malta.
"I was visited by a Lt. Col. from the Air Force who was on duty at an advanced base on a small island off Malta. He asked us: 'Did you people come here to bomb the Romanian oil fields?' I was startled, I had no knowledge of what our ultimate target would be. I told him I did not know."
The rumors were coming to a focus. While on rest and recuperation leave in Cairo, Lieutenant Herbert M. Light heard a conversation in a bar between two RAF officers.
"They were talking about 'your liberators were going to bomb oil fields in Rumania.' Replacement crew members coming from England had already told me that prostitutes in London said their target would be the Rumanian oil fields."
Lieutenant Joseph Milliner was playing poker and drinking beer when he heard about Ploesti.
"The rumormongers were having a field day concerning the next target. Then the name Ploesti popped up. That had to be it."
After the Rome raid, the 44th was back to low-level practice flying and bombing.
Lieutenant William Cameron had completed his combat tour but was reluctant to miss out on it.
"Furthermore, the crew of the Buzzin' Bear didn't want to go with a new pilot. As an additional incentive, I was thoroughly enjoying the low-level flying. We used to visit the British antiaircraft gunners around the airstrip at Benghazi when other aircraft were practicing their low-level formations. We would ask them: ‘What aircraft would you shoot at?’ They all would invariably say: ‘The highest aircraft.’
(So) we kept seeing how low we could fly, achieving the ultimate when Frank Maruzewski, our tail gunner, reported that we had knocked down a herder's small tent - undoubtedly by the wash of our four propellers.”
As had Lt. Cameron, navigator Lt. Robert Stine had also completed his 25 missions (started in October 1942). Though, Stine continued to train with his crew.
"On one practice flight we were firing our guns at wrecked military vehicles in the battlefield east of our airfield. We set off some abandoned ammunition which severely damaged the auxiliary power unit in one of the B-24 aircraft in the flight."
"We also struck a large vulture. The impact sounded like a 20-mm canon shell. The vulture hit in the center of the nose compartment just about knee high. Lieutenant Howard R. Klekar, the bombardier, was in the nose section with me. Both our legs had small bits of bone slightly embedded in the skin but no serious injuries resulted. Bits of the bird went all the way past the nose landing gear into the bomb bay. The odor was extremely unpleasant but didn't last long with the air rushing in through the hole in the nose section at 200 plus MPH.”
On July 25th, a lonely Liberator landed at Benina Main after logging 8 hours 30 minutes flying time. Navigator 2nd Lt. Charles W. Titkemeyer was back with the 44th BG. He experienced his first supper in the desert: Spam, bread and a terrible warm, reclaimed salt water.
“It tasted like it just came from a horse. We unloaded our plane and they took it away from us. That was the third ship we had lost that way. They ought to make a ferry crew out of us if they were going to keep taking our plane from us as soon as we get to the battle area. We got to our proper site and began putting up our tent. We had quite a time getting it up for we were pretty green. Major Hodges helped us a lot. Darkness caught up with us before we finished. We put up our cots and slept that way on a hard army cot. The next day, we finished putting up our tent and moved our baggage in. In the afternoon, we got on a truck and went to a swimming hole beyond Benghazi. The place where we swam was within a stone’s throw of the Mediterranean and was separated from it only by a bar of sand. The water was not as salty. On the way home, we passed through the main part of Benghazi. That city was certainly a wreck. Every building was full of bullet holes or was completely wrecked. They must had a terrible hand battle there. As we passed through the town, we went through a large crowd of people who were excitedly listening to a rabble-rouser. They were cheering madly and yelling in their peculiar language. I saw many very small donkeys pulling huge carts or carrying a man and much baggage. I didn’t see how they can carry so much. Also saw many camels meandering across the desert.”
On Wednesday the 28th, Lt. Charles Titkemeyer wrote in his diary.
"One of the most important raids in history is to take place very soon. Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin's Aide planned this raid at Casablanca. For the past seven months, military strategists have worked and planned on this mission. The target has been attacked twice before - once by Americans and once by the Russians but everyone failed. This is a very, very important mission and I hope to be on it."
When Lt. Robert Lehnhausen rejoined the 44th BG on July 29th, he found that Ploesti was their ultimate target!
"Horror (which I kept to myself), I realized that people many miles distant had knowledge of our purpose. My wonderment was how many more people knew this, and did the enemy know.”
Lieutenant Titkemeyer noted that: “the target that is so important is the Romanian town of Ploesti where the oil refineries, cracking plants and distillation units are located. These oil producing plants produce one-third of all the fuel used by the Axis. The 30th, we spent the day studying the target area and the course to the target in order that there shall be no slip-ups . We saw a movie showing all targets and places of importance."
Saturday 31st, the 44th BG joined the 93rd, 98th, 376th and 389th BGs for a final practice mission. Altogether, they bombed and strafed the mock target areas that had been set up in the desert for that purpose.
During the full formation low-level run in, Lt. Shelby Irby's eyes suddenly glued on a man riding a camel, frantically urging it to run out of the bomber pathway.
"Upon climbing to 400 feet, bombing the dummy target, then hugging earth; I saw the practice bomb strike the sandy surface and bounce back into the air, almost to our level as we dived for our earth-hugging escape.”
After the full-dress rehearsal, Major General Lewis H. Brereton, commander of the Ninth Air Force, addressed the crews of the 44th and the 98th BGs in the desert theatre. Lieutenant Edwin Heyer had never seen so many medals as were on all the top brass.
According to field order number 58, “the 9th USAF will attack and destroy the seven principal oil refineries in the Ploesti area on 1 August 1943 using seven target forces in a minimum altitude attack for the purpose of denying the enemy the use of the petroleum products processed in that area.”
Annex 1: route to and from the target.
General Brereton briefed the crews stating that even if the total force were lost in the accomplishment of this operation, if they achieved their objective, the mission would have been worthwhile. The war would be over by Christmas. Lieutenant Robert Lehnhausen found it was a very brutal approach to a mission which already had many factors of fear connected to it.
Lieutenant Herbert Light thought the message was dumb, stupid, and ignorant.
"It didn't mean much to me but one could hear a pin drop when he spoke - so it must have meant something to some."
Hubert Womack felt scared enough already. Harry Snead saw that even some of the high-ranking officers looked a little startled at that remark. Sergeant Clarence Strandberg thought that if it would be shorten the war it was worth the risk.
"Besides, if all went well, I would only have five more missions to complete before I could go back to the States."
Large-scale models of the targets were set up in the intelligence shack of the group so that the crews might better study their assigned targets. Staff Sergeant Mark A. Morris was impressed with the amount of information given to all.
"Other briefings were often broken at some point and enlisted men and officers were given separate briefings. However this mission was approached differently. The ever-present but seldom mentioned dangers of any air raid were emphasized. All was presented in a manner which left no doubt of the importance placed on the success of this raid."
Lieutenant Robert Lehnhausen heard that this particular day was selected because the bulk of the crews manning the defenses of Ploesti were Romanian natives.
"The 31st of July was some sort of national holiday. It was figured that the raid being Sunday, and the prior day being a holiday the celebration would have taken such a toll that a good many of the defenders would not be on the job."
After the briefing, Capt. Tom W. Holmes, the squadron's operations officer, informed Lt. Lehnhausen that he would probably have to fly the mission.
"But in view of the fact that I had just returned from a rather hazardous experience, he desired that I do this on a volunteer basis. I told him I had no desire to volunteer for this mission but would fly if I was ordered."
"Instead of flying with Lt. Phillips, who had a very fine combat record, I was detailed to fly with Lt. Shannon whose history with the squadron was one of sloppy formation flying. It was a crew that had joined our squadron just a few weeks before and had done all their flying in the Middle-Eastern theater. However, I was ordered to fly with Shannon's crew, and was told that it was my job to keep this crew in formation."
"The young man that I replaced was a boy by the name of George P. Hersh, who quite amazingly, was engaged to be married to a young woman who worked with my fiancée. He was not a native of Peoria, but had met this girl at some distant point. They had become engaged to be married. He did not fly because he had a case of Karachi Krud."
Sergeant Steven Bugye made arrangements with the Chaplain for confession that night.
Staff Sergeant James A. Brittain wrote his mother a farewell letter.
To divert thoughts of less pleasant circumstances, Mark Morris planned his wardrobe.
"Flight crewmen's pride and joy were A-2 flight jackets. Mine was one size too small as that was all they had when mine was issued. I would wear it for this low level ride. My light flying suit, normally worn under the heavy gear would instead be worn overall. In fact, I would wear my best sun tan uniform, however; no tie. I reasoned also that a steel helmet might look nice in view of the expected ground fire."
“I decided to wear my leather Natal boots, which I had inherited from a less fortunate crewman. I spit polished them. If we did go down I would walk out and join the Chetniks for awhile."
"Briefers had informed us that if we were forced down, and if we were able to make our way to the border, we could join up with the Yugoslavian forces of Tito or Mihaďlovitch. Either would take us and later try to get us to the coast for eventual pick-up by small craft. We were briefed on where and when to meet and given escape kits containing among other things, silk maps of the area.
Staff Sergeant James E. Caillier and his friends stopped playing cards at 10:00 PM, knowing they had to get up early.
Some of Sgt. Harry Snead's crew got their beer ration and went to the Saturday night movie to celebrate his birthday.
"The pilot said I made my 20th year. We had a good time while trying to hide our true feelings. I didn't get much sleep that night."
As early as 02:00 AM on Sunday, the First of August, people began to stir. Some had not slept a wink. Others had walked part of the night in T-shirt and boots. Lieutenant Charles Hughes had had his usual pre-mission night of unrest.
Joseph Milliner was up at 04:00. He dressed quickly then headed to the mess hall, which was already half full. He glanced around.
“Most of the men ate quietly. They seemed well aware this might be their last breakfast. I ate slowly and tried to observe the veterans, most of these guys had been together for a long time.”
Sergeant Steven Bugye never ate breakfast on mission day.
"I was too familiar with gut shot deer, and knew what a bullet could do to a belly full of food.”
In the planes, the gunners wiped off the sand of the desert, mounted their.50s, and checked the ammunition - 7000 rounds per ship. To pass time, Mark Morris and his friends assisted the ordnance men to load the bombs in Old Crow. Morris discussed the presence of the huge extra fuel tanks also mounted in the bomb bays.
"A. G. Kearns and I were given boxes of incendiaries to carry. We were instructed to manually throw these out upon hearing bombardier Joe Young's announcement 'bombs away.' He didn't indicate whether they should be thrown one at a time, and I didn't ask.”
"Our officers called us aside and we gathered under the wing of the Old Crow. MacAtee and McCash handed A.G. and me each a 1st Lt. bar and briefly explained that if we had a big problem we could claim that rank . Only I knew how much that gesture meant to me."
Orders called for a crew of only nine, not the usual ten. The tunnel or hatch gun position had to be unmanned because of the weight restrictions for the very long flight and the very low altitude of the attack. Furthermore, the ground speed would cancel the effectiveness of a single hand-aimed .50 cal. machine gun.
In Heaven Can Wait, radio operator T/Sgt. Donald V. Chase saw the four gunners drawing straws to determine which one would remain.
“Young waist gunner Ralph Knox drew the ‘unlucky’ straw. He complained and cursed. Feeling abandoned, he withdrew from the rest of the crew, not to speak until just before take-off, when, woefully, he wished us luck.”
“There wasn't much reason to stash aboard beer or extra water for the Ploesti run; we wouldn't fly high enough to chill it. But one of the ground men fastened a canteen in the already crammed bomb bay. ‘Just for luck, okay?’ He punctuated his words with the universal, jabbing thumbs-up salute.”
In Hag Mag The Mothball Queen's top turret, engineer Harry Snead ritually kissed his two .50s.
"I wore a plaster ring with a four leaf clover in it which I hooked on my A2 jacket on every flight. I also believed God was our third pilot.”
Snead must be right. One time during the training, they were flying low element and were forced down by prop wash. They just tore off the belly antenna. The previous owners of Hag Mag The Mothball Queen could not say so much, the crew was shot down on its first raid in another plane.
When the ship taxied out, Snead saw S/Sgt. Robert Pierce, their belly gunner. He was standing with the crew chief. He tried to go on another plane but wasn't needed.
On Natchez Belle (Marguerite), S/Sgt. Nick B. Smith wasn't feeling very well so the "belly" gunner, S/Sgt. Clarence H. Rothrock, took his place and became right waist gunner. Engineer T/Sgt. William J. Schettler had a bad case of dysentery but still went on the raid.
As the newest man on the Bunker crew, William D. Middelbrook was left behind. So belly gunner S/Sgt. Warren K. Kooken stood up as a waist gunner. The name of their ship, Earthquake McGoon, came from the name of an unsavory comic strip character in the Li'l Abner comic strip done by Al Capp. Lieutenant Richard Butler's sister-in-law asked Mr. Capp if they could use this name. Al Capp sent back a letter granting permission.
"Unfortunately, we never got the full name or the likeness of the character of the plane - just Earthquake.
“I received a telegram from my wife that I was the father of a beautiful baby girl. I salvaged a couple of pieces of armor plate from some wrecked German aircraft and put them under the pilot and co-pilot seats.”
In Calaban, the armor plate behind the waist position was removed as it kept as much ordnance bouncing inside as it kept out. The crew helped to load the bombs and ammunition, pulled the props through, and went through the routine checks. They left behind the dog that got on at Land’s End on their way to Shipdham. Tail gunner Hubert Womack had taken the door off his turret to ensure a quick exit.
In Lil' Abner, tail gunner S/Sgt. Frank J. Suponcic also took his tail turret’s doors off so he had enough room to wear a backpack parachute.
Tail gunner S/Sgt. Robert J. Reasoner also wore a back pack after the chest pack he stored behind his turret was hit by a .30 cal. bullet on the Kiel raid in May. Their original ship, Margaret Ann, named after 1st Lt. George R. Jansen’s wife, had been badly shot up. The crew received a new plane, promptly christened Margaret Ann II.
As a heavy bomber pilot, Lt. Robert Lehnhausen did not have the opportunity of firing at the opposition! But this time, he would. Armament people installed forward firing guns in the nose section of Lt. Shannon's aircraft, and a firing mechanism was rigged up to the co-pilot's steering column.
On Timb-A-A-Ah, the crew helped the ground crew load the bomb bay tank and bombs. Sergeant Steven Bugye took over the tail turret and the tail gunner stayed on the ground.
"The pilot became sick at the last minute, and Lt. Larson took his place. We took our little dog with us. We had picked up Eight Ball in a hangar in Ireland in May. At that time, we had no idea what kind of dog he was." They learned later that he was a black terrier.
Joseph Milliner replaced a copilot lost to the "run for barrels.”
“I had flown with this crew before and knew all its members. Charlie Henderson, the plane commander, better known as ‘Punchy,’ was a big-rawboned Texan in his middle twenties. He had been an outstanding football player at a west Texas State College. He muscled the big plane like a Piper Cub.”
As Old Crow taxied out, the nose wheel tire went flat. It was promptly repaired on the spot.
As the other ships took off, smoke rose from a B-24 from another bomb group that had crashed. Thoughts of sabotage flashed in some minds. In the nose of Victory Ship, bombardier Klekar and navigator Stine discussed the possibility that a pin securing the fuse on one of the bombs may have fallen out or something of that nature had happened. Howard Klekar immediately rushed to the bomb bay to check the bombs to be sure that all was in order.
The Felber crew was still on the ground because of trouble with Lady Luck. They had trouble getting one engine started, the 'put-put' caught fire. (This auxiliary generator supplied initial power for the hydraulic pump and engine start.) After much effort, they finally took off, late and far behind the group. They finally caught up and filled a spot in the formation.
During the long trip to the target, Sgt. Clarence Strandberg read his New Testament and left himself in the Lord's care. While Capt. Walter I. Bunker was flying his 30 minute shift, copilot Lt. Richard Butler was reading favorite passages of his copy of The New Testament.
Annex 2: the 5 BGs flew in trail over occupied Europe.
Others were busy with less philosophical concerns. Lieutenant Charles Hughes left the wheel frequently for dysentery relief trips to Flossie Flirt’s bomb bays. Lieutenant Shelby Irby carried a heavy bath towel to cope with bug strikes. In Old Crow, the GIs also afflicted navigator Lt. David E. McCash. He went to the "toilet," spreading a map on the floor, relieving himself on it, and then folding it up and disposing of it out the little inspection hole next to the nose wheel.
The groups started their climb to clear the Transylvanian Alps. Lieutenant Robert Lehnhausen saw that the build-up in cumulus clouds seemed to separate the bomb groups as they took their northeasterly course.
The people who had chosen light coveralls nearly froze when the ships went over the mountains. In Helen B Happy, Lt. Shelby Irby tightened formation as sharp mountain peaks extended into the cloud deck.
"We flew in and out of clouds while threading through mountain passes; soon struggling to maintain visibility with sharp mountains on each side. It became a 'rat-race,' until finally we got through the highest pass and in the clear. The danger of running into one another was my biggest concern."
Then the 44th BG dropped down and leveled off at 3,000 feet, heading to the town of Pitesti. Over the Danube, barges caught the attention of Sgt. Clarence Strandberg.
"As we flew over the brown muddy looking river I was reminded of the poem that said the Danube only looked blue to those people who are really in love."
In Heaven Can Wait, fuel transfer problems caused 1st Lt. Charles A. Withlock to shut down number one engine and feather the propeller. They became Tail-end Charlie, eating everyone's prop wash. Then number four engine lost power and their ship fell farther back. Some 125 miles short of the oil complex, near Craiova, Rumania, they had to abort the mission. Navigator 2nd Lt. Robert A. Ricks gave a course heading to the nearest friendly landing field, Cyprus, some five flying hours distant. Flying southbound, Heaven Can Wait recrossed the Danube River at a point where people were wading and swimming. The crew dumped the bombs farther down river, they didn't want to hurt the civilians.
At the final Initial Point (Floresti), the 44th BG split in two formations. The 68th and 506th squadrons (20 planes) took off for the most southerly target, called Blue Target, leaving the 66th and 67th squadrons (16 planes) heading to White Five: the Columbia-Aquila Romana refinery.
Annex 3: the 4 BGs split at the final IP, Floresti, to attack their respective targets.
The 389th BG made its attack on Red Target on its own.
In 4-Q-2, co-pilot Joseph Milliner picked up his binoculars and tried to identify the last turning point, Floresti.
“Before I could find it, my eyes fell on the burning tanks. Sighting the railroad leading into the burning tanks, I knew immediately that this was our target, and pointed this out to Charlie. He just set his jaw a bit firmer, but otherwise, did not change expression. I was highly pissed off. Someone had 'goofed' things up. At this point, Charlie told me to put on the flak jacket, a metal helmet, and a pair of goggles that appeared out of nowhere, explaining that in case he got hit to grab the controls immediately. I felt a bit silly dressed in this monkey suit.”
In the lead ship, pilot Maj. William H. Brandon, seeing that White Five was burning fiercely, looked inquiringly at Col. Leon W. Johnson. The group CO, anticipating Brandon's question, said in his mild but authoritative voice –“Harold, you're on target” and Suzy Q plunged into the burning inferno black as night.
Picture 5 – Target White V – 2nd element coming in – Courtesy of Will Lundy
Two-hundred-and-fifty feet over the refinery, Buzzin’ Bear led the second element of three ships between two pillars of blazing oil. When the ships came out of the smoke, Lt. William Cameron remembered the British antiaircraft gunners at Benghazi and dove so sharply that the waist gunners were thrown off their feet. He leveled off low enough to see clearly the faces of a number of anti-aircraft gunners. Buzzin’ Bear skidded around in her turn, her wings level and just above the ground.
4-Q-2’s copilot Joseph Milliner thought the leader was nuts and looked at his pilot to see if he was going to follow, and follow he did.
“Passing over a burning oil tank with the bomb bay doors open, the heat rushing from it threw the B-24 into the air at a much higher altitude. This didn't seem to phase Charlie. It was still pitch black all around us. He pushed the nose of the big bird down and hitting a clearing, but we found ourselves under the leader, our nose in his bomb bay. We both kicked right rudder and slid out from under the lead ship."
"I glanced to the left and saw at least a dozen pink ships bearing down on us. Charlie saw them too and did a hell of a job missing them."
In Calaban’s tail turret, Sgt. Hubert J. Womack saw an oil storage tank lift off the ground as it exploded. For the first time also, he saw flak tower gunners trying to shot DOWN at them!
“I saw an aircraft coming down on us right in the target area. It looked like both inboard engines were on fire. We just barely got out from under him. He turned over and went into the ground. After the target, German fighters lined up with a B-24. I couldn’t shoot without risking hitting the B-24."
First Lieutenant Worden L. Weaver was leading the third element in Lil'Abner with Flaherty and Jones flying respectively left and right wing. Just before the target, waist gunner James Brittain saw that they had lost the right inboard engine.
"Sergeant. Breedlove, left waist gunner, helped to dispose of the incendiaries, regardless of effectiveness. Over the target we were tossed about due to turbulence, exploding time delayed bombs, and other bombers flying incorrect patterns. Our plane had suffered considerable damage and the fighter planes were circling like a bunch of buzzards. During this time bombardier Lt. Reese had joined us in the waist and was assisting me in feeding my .50."
Tail gunner Sgt. Frank Suponcic had his steel helmet and parachute on. He was hit with flak from the front and rear.
"My safety glass was shattered. The hydraulics system was shot out and I was knocked out of the tail turret. Upon finding myself on the floor the whole tail end started to burn and I tried to put it out. Someone handed me a fire extinguisher that faded and so I started to put it out with my hands. I went back and radio operator Jessy Hineley gave me first aid; I was wounded in the back side, arm, and buttocks. Everything was very hectic."
"Waist gunner Jim Brittain started to yell at the pilot to get this damn thing down on the ground. Then he yelled to get up against the bulkhead. When we hit, everything seemed to roll over. I witnessed death with everything dark and gas burning all over. I figured this was the end and my past was all creeping up in my mind then someone shouted there was a hole which looked about 20 miles away and daylight, we all started for it. The first out were bombardier Reese and radio operator Hineley, Breedlove, Brittain and myself were next. I was trapped in the hole with my parachute straps and flames all over. Brittain couldn’t get out till I got my straps off. I finally broke loose and Jim Brittain came out after me and we ran into a cornfield."
First out of the rear, Hineley and Reese went to the front of the plane where pilot Lt. Weaver, copilot 2nd Lt. Robert R. Snyder, and navigator 2nd Lt. Walter M. Sorenson were trapped. The navigator had attempted to evacuate through the left cockpit window with his parachute harness on and was stuck there, blocking the two others. Hineley and Reese pulled them out and saved their lives although all three had suffered burns. Sergeant Schettler, the engineer, died when the top turret tumbled into the bomb bay on impact.
In Fascinatin' Witch, engineer T/Sgt. William J. Murphy Jr. had problems transferring the fuel and had to do it manually but didn't get it all until after target. Fire extinguishers were used after bomb bay tanks were drained. The ship hit a balloon cable but maintained 260 mph.
Major Dexter Hodge saw Thomas Scrivner’s ship over the target. Scrappy II’s right wing was on fire. He crashed just past the target.
Pilot Charles Hughes saw pink ships in close proximity when he left the target. Suddenly, tracer bullets went directly under the aircraft from the rear. The pilot climbed slightly and skidded Flossie Flirt to avoid continuing fire. Shells went through the wings but without exploding. Other shells exploded in the waist area, wounding the gunners. Small caliber shell went through the top turret but the engineer escaped unscathed.
Lieutenants Irby and Oakley flew Helen B Happy in the diamond position in the last element led by Gentry in Porky II. Upon climbing to his assigned altitude, Irby searched for his specific target; a low building joining the refinery.
"I could see the target area, but it was on fire and plumes of smoke rose from surrounding areas. Crew members stood by a bellied in B-24, waving at us as we roared overhead, 400 feet above. A huge shaft of fire and smoke billowed up from the target area and we were heading straight for it. An element of three pink B-24s crossed our path (from my left) some 100 feet below, as I searched for our assigned specific target in the burning inferno at 2 o-clock below. A B-24 to my right suddenly pulled straight up into a stall. Some crewmembers bailed out. Gentry was flying right in front of me. I could see Buck Leisinger (Gentry's tail turret gunner and my grade-school friend) as he wheeled his turret around to fire on attacking fighters. Their ship caught fire, at first only a small blaze in #2 engine; but after burning in a confined space momentarily, it spread simultaneously all over the plane. Their plane crashed into trees below, taking Buck and the rest of the crew to their grave of flame."
Picture 6 - Three ships' element just leaving target – Courtesy of Will Lundy
Meanwhile, four waves of five planes (68th and 506th Sqds), each wave formed in a widely spread “M”, were heading to Blue Target: the Creditul Minier refinery at Brazy.
Leading the first wave was Victory Ship with Col. James T. Posey and an old-hand pilot, Capt. John J. Diehl Jr. At the end of the left branch of the “M,” 1st Lt. David W. Alexander and Homer Gentry were flying Flak Alley on Diehl’s left wing. On Diehl’s right-hand side, Satan's Hellcat, with Capt. Rowland B. Houston and Louis V. Girard behind the controls. Sam, as his fellow officers called Houston, had volunteered for this mission even though he had completed his tour. On top of the right branch of the “M” was Wing And A Prayer, skippered by Capt. Tom Holmes and 2nd Lt. Donald E. Fribley. Tom Holmes had put himself in the left seat to complete this crew.
In the nose of the lead ship, navigator Robert Stine was firing his nose gun at the flak batteries.
“Directly ahead of us there was what appeared to be a haystack that suddenly collapsed revealing an anti-aircraft gun. We were over the battery before they could fire any rounds at us.”
"Waist gunner Sgt. Truitt H. Williams was critically injured by small arms fire. Some consideration was given to putting a parachute on him and dropping him near a city so that he could get immediate medical attention. He died before any action could be taken."
Lieutenants Shannon and Lehnhausen wheeled Natchez Belle (Marguerite) toward the IP and then started the bomb run. The copilot was surprised to meet the direct fire of 88-millimeter guns.
“This was most terrifying. We had only a few hundred feet of altitude. After making the turn and starting our let-down to ground level, we observed a B-24 on the ground. The big old bird was laying over on its right wing tip obviously in good condition. It was not burning. The crew was scrambling out of it. Out of the right waist window a fellow was emerging without a stitch of clothing, the balance of the crew members were all waving as we proceeded onward. Our aircraft was flying as fast as it could. We had the throttle shoved to the wall: 245 miles per hour . We ran into bombers going the other way, apparently from the 376th group.”
Standing behind the pilots, Sgt. Clarence Strandberg was looking directly ahead and could see many haystacks and bunkers open up to reveal gunnery crews at the ready with all kind of guns.
“Our formation was flying parallel to the railroad tracks that went directly to the oil refinery. As we came abreast of a freight train on the tracks, the boxcar sides suddenly collapsed revealing more gunnery crews just waiting for us . Our top turret gunner, T/Sgt. Slattery, was spinning around and firing continuously so that the floor of the radio compartment was covered with spent shell casings that made it difficult to stand or move about. I went to the front part of the catwalk and pushed the lever that opened the bomb bay.”
Natchez Belle (Marguerite) cleared the smokestack of a powerhouse and encountered small arms and 37-millimeter fire from a flak tower. The plane was in a slight bank and the limit switches of their top turret had temporarily halted the fire. The pilots made a slight course correction that permitted the top turret guns to open fire. The top turret gunner, T/Sgt. Dennis E. Slattery, was able to get a burst at the gunners on the flak tower, pitching them out onto the ground.
Copilot Robert Lehnhausen pressed the firing mechanism of the forward fixed gun but after the first round was fired the gun jammed.
"Then the rise to proper bombing altitude took place. It was possible to see the bombs from Capt. Holmes ship drop, run through the brick blast walls, which had been constructed around the power plant, and deliver themselves right into the building proper.”
“At this moment, to our left, the 66th and 67th squadrons were catching a tremendous amount of fire (over White Five target). Immediately after dropping our bombs we could see that a B-24 pulled directly upward. He was burning in the cockpit area, the ship went perpendicular to the ground. When this airplane gained about 200-300 feet of altitude it fell off on one wing. Three gunners got out of the waist of this ship, one had his parachute open and foul on the tail section.”
Sergeant Clarence Strandberg was sitting on the catwalk, with his legs hanging down.
“I felt like I could touch the ground with my feet as it went by in a blur. As we gained altitude, bombardier 2nd Lt. Elwood E. Collins released our three delayed action bombs weighing 1,000 pounds each. I saw one of our bombs roll and bounce end over end and crash right through the wall of a brick building. We were flying so low the fighter pilots seemed confused. Two of them dove on our formation and in their eagerness misjudged their altitude and crashed into the ground."
Acting as observer in Avenger, Lt. Raymond Hamlyn also saw a German aircraft misjudging its altitude and flying into the ground. Since the loss of his pilot and crew one month before, Hamlyn had been alone in his tent, waiting to chalk up a mission. And this was it.
In the nose of Lemon Drop, bombardier Herbert Light Jr. was flying an eventful 25th and last mission.
“Navigator Carol O. Haworth and I fired our guns at every military target we could see. I saw bodies flying out of the towers and batteries after being hit by .50 caliber bullets.”
In Margaret Ann II, T/Sgt. George W. Guilford toggled three 1,000 lb GP bombs with one-hour delay tail fuse. They fell short and skipped into the target, a boiler house.
Earthquake McGoon hit a balloon cable over the target. It knocked out #3 engine and cut into the wing before it broke. As low as they were, Lt. Richard Butler saw one attacking Me-109 go under them and make it safely.
Hag Mag The Mothball Queen's engineer, Sgt. Harry Snead, had some problems after his top turret was hit by a 20-mm in one of the ammunition cases.
"It seemed odd to shoot at men on platforms instead of aircraft as we had been trained. I saw several B-24's belly landing and some more burning in the air. Coming off target we were hit from the rear by about 12 Me-109s flying in pairs. One of them raked the plane in front of us. He caught fire and went down. When we passed over, B-24 and fighter were both on the ground, burning. Men in the nose said it was Capt. Houston. Our formation was then broken up by a B-24 drifting over us, burning badly. Our plane went low so fighters couldn't get us from under the unprotected belly. We flew down a dried up riverbed. We were so low I looked out of the top turret at our wing tips, which were about level with the riverbanks. A few miles away we saw a formation of our planes and joined them for better protection."
After the bomb drop, Timb-A-A-Ah was attacked at six o'clock by a Me-110. Tail gunner Steven Bugye opened up with his .50 caliber.
"The 110 went into the ground as he was at a very low level already. Shortly thereafter we flew over a B-24 that had belly landed. The crew was all lined up in front of the left wing. As we flew over I screamed 'Burn the airplane.'"
In Old Crow's nose, navigator David McCash saw Germans soldiers huddled up against a wall, leaving their anti-aircraft gun unmanned.
"One German soldier was racing toward a small building when the walls all folded out - all guns on the right side of our formation began shooting and the running gunner flopped down just a few steps away from the gun. As we left the target turning right, a plane from another group ahead of us went straight up, fell off on one wing and crashed - no one was seen parachuting out."
Waist gunner Mark Morris lifted the box of incendiaries and balanced it precariously on the edge of the waist window.
"Suddenly there was a lot of flak and a surprising amount of tracer fire. It seemed that bombs were already exploding and billowing smoke was visible at numerous spots on the ground. We were very low and flew right through some smoke. I recall mentally comparing it for a brief second to a fireworks display which I had witnessed, as a child at Soldiers Field in Chicago on one 4th of July. We were literally bouncing along. I did my best to stay upright firing the caliber 50 with my left hand and balancing the box of incendiaries with my right. I knew I was being very inaccurate. I was just raking the area in the general direction of the incoming fire. At one point, we raised up over some stacks and immediately dropped to ground level again. I was becoming very apprehensive about holding on to those incendiaries. They were at chest level and there was an awful lot of junk coming at us. Oh God! Isn't Joe Young ever going to say 'bombs away.' After what seemed an eternity, I sensed the ship lighten and gave a big lurch. I saw that our left wing man was in real trouble. He had been snuggled up very close. This aircraft suddenly rolled to almost 45 degrees. It veered behind us and disappeared. I subconsciously noted the large identification letter on the vertical stabilizer: a 'Q.'
"The roll was so sudden that I thought that he may have gotten caught in our propwash. I took a quick look over my shoulder and saw that A.G. was rid of his box. I just released my grip on mine. I had already edged it as far out the window as I dared. Just then another battery of flak guns came into view. Oh boy, chance to get even! I saw the gunner huddled and cut loose again with both hands on the .50 and raked the position as we raced over and started into a turn."
"One attacking fighter just dove into the ground. At some point we flew over a B-24 that rested at the end of a long furrow on the ground. It had a "W" on the tail. I was surprised to see crew members standing on the wing and waving."
In Lady Luck's top turret, T/Sgt. John T. Altman shot a gunner squarely in the middle and he catapulted off the gun platform.
Navigator Lt. Charles Titkemeyer saw the plane just ahead of Lady Luck going down in flames.
"Another plane directly behind us went straight up and then fell off into a spin and broke into a million pieces. We raised up just high enough to clear the buildings, dropped our bombs in the doorway of our target and dropped back to ground level. As we ‘hit the deck’ the speedometer registered 240 miles per hour. I looked to the left of us and saw the great horde of Liberators swarming over the town like locusts. There was almost a complete wall of bullets flying everywhere in the air. Smoke was pouring out of the town. One plane went head-on into a tall smokestack. That was the end of both plane and stack. Then we swooped low over the ground and streaked out of the terrible flak as fast as we could go. By this time, fighters had descended on us and we had to fight our way through them."
Ruth Less was the last over the target and didn't drop its bombs. James Caillier saw rolling balls of fire.
"At first I could not tell what they were. Then I knew they were B-24s hitting the ground and rolling. I shot down an Me-109 when he jumped a hedge while chasing us. I also saw a lady in red. We got hit on the hub and flak was thrown back into the supercharger. I asked permission from Lt. Frank Slough to increase the supercharger from a red line of 48 to 52 in. of mercury."
Navigator Robert Stine saw 12 Me-109s and several unidentified twin-engine aircraft circling the formation and attacking crippled B-24s. One Me-110 flew behind Margaret Ann II and tail gunner Sgt. Robert Reasoner gave him a short burst. The German fighter turned off without getting in firing range.
A flight of fighters hit 4-Q-2 and blew the nose off, wounding the navigator (Robert Schminke) and bombardier (John Hundle.) The rush of air blew Joseph Milliner’s pant legs up to above his knees. The copilot was sure he was hit, but no blood, no hit.
Lieutenant William Cameron was keeping Buzzin’ Bear on the deck, spoiling flak gunners’ aim.
“Two or three German fighters flew alongside or above us. I was frantic trying to get our gunners to shoot at them, but our tail guns were out, and the other gunners were concentrating on the fighters trying to get at us from the rear.”
Shaking the fighters off his tail, Cameron flew between two tall trees, and once pulled up over some poor farmer plowing in a field behind a pair of oxen.
In Helen B Happy, Lt. Oakley took over the controls for a short time as they left the target area. They zigzagged as best they could without dipping a wing into the ground. A 37-mm explosive shell hit just behind the waist window armor plate, injuring both waist gunners. Fighter aircraft attacked from the rear. Guns were blazing away.
Then bombardier Lt. Joseph Tomashosky informed pilot Lt. Shelby Irby over the intercom that their bombs were still there.
“Our element scattered, the fighters eventually broke off, and we started looking for a target of opportunity. We made a run on a bridge from an altitude of some 500 to 700 feet. I had my eyes glued on a man running to get off the bridge as we were on our bombing run. I got a lot of consolation knowing that we were carrying delayed action bombs; our bombs having a one hour delay."
Picture 7 - On the deck, leaving the target on fire – Courtesy of Will Lundy
After leaving the target area, Natchez Belle (Marguerite) scrambled into a seven-ship formation. They encountered a few bursts of flak from one gun somewhere in Greece. While they were gaining altitude for the mountain crossing, they passed a plane that was obviously in trouble. Sergeant Clarence Strandberg saw the crew throwing everything that was loose overboard, including their .50 caliber machine guns.
“For now they were concerned about getting enough altitude to clear the mountains. If they made it over, they could worry later about any fighters they might encounter along the Italian coast.”
In Old Crow, Sgt. Mark Morris realized that they had been steadily gaining altitude.
"As we approached the mountains of Greece, we saw some flak come up. Not really close enough to be of any great concern but we sure didn't need that. Navigator MacAsh informed MacAtee of the best course for home. Mike Davis, flight engineer, reported fuel conditions and transfer valve settings. We were still climbing and I began to realize I was very, very cold. My teeth were chattering and my disdained heavy clothing was still on the ground in Libya."
Some biplanes attacked Earthquake McGoon but ineffectively.
On Hag Mag The Mothball Queen, the crew had a dicey moment when they passed close to a fighter field before they cleared the coast.
Heaven Can Wait had overflow Bulgaria, the Aegean Sea and skirted west of Turkey. Twenty minutes from the Cyprus coast #4 engine quit entirely. At 500 feet and still dropping, pilot Whitlock turned and asked if Sgt. Donald Chase was set up for a distress call.
"Yes, Sir.” He replied. “I knuckled out repeated SOS Morse signals, giving our code and holding the transmitter key down for 15 to 20 seconds so air-sea rescue could home in on us. Meanwhile, the crew threw out clothing, radio tuning units, ammunition and canteens to lighten our load so we could make landfall. The coast loomed and, luckily, we were lined up to land on the East-West runway. I fired red flares to ward off pattern aircraft. It was a good landing.”
Because of their dwindling fuel reserves, 4-Q-2, Calaban (down to two engines), and Fascinatin' Witch were heading to Malta.
While Old Crow flew across the Mediterranean, the crew began assessing damage. Everyone was OK and everything seemed to be in working order. Occasional queries concerning the possible fate of their wing mates prompted a burst of chatter. Waist gunner Mark Morris had seen six B-24s go down.
"I looked at the time. The hands on my new watch were stopped. I had purchased it in Benghazi a few days ago. I reasoned that must show the exact time that I had dropped the incendiaries and went to work seriously with the caliber 50. That action had blown the main spring but it was worth it! Turning to A.G., I pointed to my watch and yelled in his ear to explain. After second thoughts I removed it, caught A.G.'s attention again by feigning a toss. He nodded yes and I just tossed it into the sea, a gesture of elation at survival and freedom from care at the moment. Damn thing couldn't have been fixed anyway, in Africa."
About 50 miles from Africa, 1st Lt. Reginald L. Carpenter had to ditch the pink ship he "borrowed" from the 98th BG. Walter L. Brown and Frederick W. Durand were unable to escape the wreckage and went down with the airplane.
Lieutenants Jansen and Whitaker put down Margaret Ann II at Benina Main airfield, Libya, after 13 hours and 5 minutes in the air. None of the crew was wounded and the plane had only slight damage.
As Old Crow neared the base, waist gunner Mark Morris heard radio operator Norman Kiefer reporting that the IFF wasn't working. It had apparently been blown apart over the target, while the bomb bay doors were still open. Morris added another small prayer.
"Please put us down safely.”
Although Earthquake McGoon's # 3 engine was out and they were very low on fuel, Capt. Bunker and Lt. Butler had to wait for damaged aircraft to be moved so they could land.
Natchez Belle (Marguerite) landed after 13 hours and 20 minutes in the wild blue yonder. Clarence Strandberg was very tired and hungry.
"But I was very thankful to God that our crew and plane were safely home. Out over the Mediterranean Sea, we had passed a plane with a feathered propeller. I also observed a plane burning on the water."
For Suzy Q’s waist gunner, Sgt. Frank Paliga, it had been almost a continuous prayer all the way to the target and back, to keep them safe and return them home. It was the first mission for Sgt. Thomas C. Ray, the top turret gunner, who started his tour on a high tone.
Sergeant Robert Pierce was waiting with the crew chief at the dispersal point when Hag Mag The Mothball Queen landed with two wounded on board - waist gunners Edward N. Whitman and John F. Johnson.
Lady Luck reached Benina Main just 13 hours and 30 minutes after they had taken off. The only damages were a radio antenna shot off and a dent in the right wing when the ship clipped the top out of a small tree.
The crews that made it back to their field went to the briefing room and were interrogated by Intelligence. They were then debriefed and went to the mess hall.
The next day, the 44th BG stood down and the airmen had no other duty than to lay on their cots, happy to be back. Steven Bugye didn't know how the other men felt after this mission, but he had the shakes.
Picture 8 – Gunners (66th Sqd.) relaxing after Ploesti – Courtesy of Will Lundy
Before this mission, Hubert Womack was keeping a diary. After Ploesti, he decided he wasn’t going to get through the war alive, so he quit writing it.
The raid didn't have the same effect on Charles Titkemeyer, he kept going with his own diary.
"August 2. Today, we spent resting and listening for news of our buddies who failed to return. Two more planes were contacted who had landed at Malta and Cyprus."
Of our squadron, the 66th, only four of the nine planes returned. The others, Gentry, Hughes, Winger, Scrivener and Lasco failed to return. Three of these were seen, as they were shot down over the target but the other two are just missing. The 98th group was almost entirely wiped out. Search parties were sent out to comb the Mediterranean for any who may have run out of fuel. We carried 3100 gallons each and that was just enough with which to make the trip. In the afternoon, funeral services were conducted for 10 men who died on the way home from wounds in battle."
The survivors went through the belongings of the missing and sent them to their families. Titkemeyer "swiped" a membership card to the Knightsbridge Studio Club from Lt. Scrivener.
Meanwhile, the crew of Heaven Can Wait was waiting on the island of Cyprus to go back to Libya. Engineer, T/Sgt. Charlton H. Holtz, and RAF personnel had remedied the fuel transfer and oil problems in two days. But then, pilot Whitlock came down with an intestinal disorder and they couldn't leave.
British infantrymen befriended Donald Chase and the four other NCOs of the crew.
"They provided lorry transportation to their mountain rest camp. There we met scores of Gurkha soldiers. Born in the foothills of the Himalayas and fighting for the Crown, they, with their sword-like kukri knifes, had created panic among German Afrika Korps men, beheading rather than shooting, as they stealthily penetrated the Axis battle lines. They were barrel-chested, short, somber and visually impressive as combatants."
"Each morning the Gurkhas would serve us tea before we got out of our cots. Naturally, as they served, we thanked them for the extra service. After two or three mornings they returned our signs of respect with tight smiles and, retreating, bowed to us. We were glad they were fighting with the allies."
"Whitlock regained his strength and our week-long hiatus ended as we flew over the British encampment at low altitude and rocked our wings in salute to our kind hosts. Just before we left Cyprus the U.K. troops presented us with a ceremonial Kukri. Somehow I became custodian of the curved ten-inch blade in a beautifully wooden-engraved, silver-banded handle."
"We landed in Egypt and for two days we toured Cairo, checking back at our hotel late in the morning and again in the afternoon awaiting word from Group HQ as to our disposition. Orders received, we boarded a C-47 and flew back to our Libyan base, never to see Heaven Can Wait again. At base we learned that nine of our Group's 37 A/C were lost to enemy action or fell into the sea. Two others, forced land in neutral Turkey, were interned for the war."
Annex 4: Ploesti mission as executed by the various Bomb Groups.