Coming Back is Secondary
Behind both the Liberandos and the Flying Circus, which had followed the lead group when it made the wrong turn at Targoviste, a lone B-24 was attacking Ploesti from the west. Piloting Brewery Wagon, First Lieutenant John Palm chose not to turn southeast at Targoviste when Compton gave the order. Convinced the turn was in error, by the time shouts of "Mistake!" echoed in the headsets of the bombers, Brewery Wagon was approaching Ploesti alone from the west. The sole target of the guns below, the Liberator took a direct hit on its Plexiglas nose killing the navigator and bombardier.
With one engine destroyed and two on fire Lieutenant Palm struggled to keep his bomber on course, determined to make his bombs count. "Tramping on the pedals was like fighting a bucking horse," he recalled. "I was not getting much pressure on the right pedal. I reached down. My right leg below the knee was hanging from a shred of flesh."
Palm jettisoned his bombs just west of the city to try and fight his way home, even as a German Messerschmitt raked deadly fire from tail to the bomber's shattered nose. Brewery Wagon went down in a field southwest of Ploesti, where Palm's copilot and engineer carried him out of danger. His war over, the courageous pilot was imprisoned by the Germans. (Palm's leg was subsequently amputated. When he was repatriated, however, his handicap could not keep him from flying. A successful businessman for decades after the war, he piloted his private jet for years until his death in 1993.)
2:50 P.M. (Ploesti Time)
Directly behind Compton's Liberandos when they made their errant turn at Targoviste was Lieutenant Colonel Addison Baker's Flying Circus. Five of Baker's B-24s had been forced to turn back during the flight to Romania, leaving thirty-two Liberators to strike the two briefed targets, Concordia Vega (2) north of the city and Unirea Orion (3) east of Ploesti while the Liberandos hit Romana Americana (1) located between the two.
Piloting Hell's Wench with his volunteer co-pilot John Jerstad, Baker sensed the error of the lead formation's turn at Targoviste, but turned with them anyway to maintain formation. Because of the radio-silence being maintained, Baker could not know for sure if the turn had been made in error or if General Ent had made a last-minute change in the tactical approach for the bomb run.
Flying at a high rate of speed toward Bucharest and only yards above the ground, it was difficult to detect any landmarks. Passing south of the target city however, Baker looked to his left and noted smoke rising into the sky from distant refineries. It was time to make a critical decision, and the combat-savvy commander of the Circus understood what he had to do.
"There was no doubt about his decision," recalled Lieutenant Russell Longnecker who was flying Thundermug in the formation behind Baker. "He maneuvered our group more eloquently than if he had radio contact with each of us. He turned left ninety degrees. We all turned with him. Ploesti was off there to the left and we were going straight into it and we were going fast."
93rd Bomb Group
Ltc. Addison Baker
Maj. John Jerstad
Baker's sudden decision split the attacking forced into two groups moving in opposite directions. Twenty-six B-24s under Colonel Compton (Liberandos) were still flying southeast towards Bucharest while Baker's thirty-two bombers wheeled off into the northeast to attack Ploesti. A controller in General Gerstenberg's command post in the city noted, "It's a simultaneous attack on Bucharest and Ploesti! Damned cleverly done. They send planes to tie up fighters at Bucharest while the main force hits Ploesti."
Ironically, despite the compounding misfortunes and errors that plagued the seven waves of American bombers in Operation Tidal Wave, the American airmen would respond with such courage and initiative that the German surprise would turn into utter amazement. Conduct of the broken raid was accomplished so incredibly that, on the ground, enemy forces assumed the raid had been planned that way.
Baker's thirty-two Liberators executed a text-book turn towards target, forming tightly into three waves only fifty feet above the fields of hay and corn below. To Baker's right (east) was Lieutenant Colonel George Brown's formation, and further east Major Ramsay Potts lined up his ten bombers for their own run. Initially, Potts had been briefed to attack Unirea Orion (Target White 3) while the rest of the Flying Circus attacked Concordia Vega (Target White 2) further north. The planned approach from the northwest had been plotted because Intelligence reports indicated General Gerstenberg would likely expect any potential attack as coming from over the Black Sea (as Halpro had done), and place his heaviest defenses south and east of the city. It was directly into those heavy defenses that Baker now led his airmen.
At 230-250 miles per hour it only took Baker's formation five minutes to traverse the fields below to the target city, but those five minutes were deadly. Below the bombers and often level with them because of the lowness of the approach, innocent-looking haystacks dissolved to reveal hidden enemy gunners. Top turret gunners accustomed to firing upwards to thwart attacks from enemy fighters found themselves trying to force the angle of their big 50-caliber machine guns downward into ground forces. It was an air/ground battle unlike anything American airmen had ever encountered.
Short-fused anti-aircraft fire filled the landscape at point-blank range while scores of barrage balloons were raised, and in many cases lowered, over Ploesti to snag the wings of the incoming raiders. The running battle damaged nearly every one of Baker's inbound bombers; several of them falling to earth before reaching the city. It was obvious that the battered Liberators could never survive the full breadth of the city to the assigned target. Noting the high smoke stacks of the Columbia Aquila refinery (Target White 5) in the distance, Addison Baker homed in on it. Columbia Aquila was the briefed target of Colonel Johnson's 44th Bomb Group, but no sign of the Eight Balls or Colonel Kane's Pyramidiers ahead of them, had been seen since takeoff.
Hell's Wench was still three minutes from Columbia Aquila when John Jerstad felt a tug at the wing of the lead bomber as it snagged a balloon cable. Both he and Colonel Baker fought the controls to remain on course, then struggled to correct when the cable parted while ripping away sections of wing. Simultaneously, the enemy gunners below scored with a direct hit on the nose of the lead bomber with a massive 88 round, shattering Plexiglas and killing the bombardier.
Hell's Wench immediately took three more hits, one puncturing the right wing fuel tank to release a stream of burning aviation gasoline and another puncturing the Tokyo tanks inside to engulf the fuselage with flame. One crewman managed to leap out through the nose wheel hatch and following pilots saw his parachute open as they zipped past. Meanwhile, Hell's Wench somehow managed to roar onward towards the twin stacks of the refinery.
Two minutes from target Baker's plane was a flying inferno but the intrepid pilot and his co-pilot somehow managed to remain on course. Still beyond the city, an open field lay between them and the target that would have afforded ample opportunity for a controlled crash-landing, but Baker never wavered. The two leaders jettisoned their bombs to enable them to remain airborne, then set to the task of leadership they had promised when Baker briefed his men with the words, "I'm going to take you to this one if my plane falls apart."
Even as the massive twin-stacks of Columbia Aquila loomed in his shattered cockpit window, Baker felt Hell's Wench shudder beneath another direct hit. Flying as navigator for Captain Raymond Walker in Queenie a short distance behind, Lieutenant Carl Barthel recalled,
"Baker had been burning for about three minutes. The right wing began to drop. I don't see how anyone could have been alive in that cockpit, but someone kept her leading the force on between the refinery stacks. Baker was a powerful man, but one man could not have held the ship on the climb she took beyond the stacks."
Baker and Jerstad tried to climb, but only after leading their men directly over the target. Hell's Wench struggled to get up to 300 feet where burning crew members were seen tumbling out in a desperate attempt to parachute to earth. Meanwhile Utah Man, the sole surviving bomber in the first wave, dropped the first bombs of Tidal Wave on the massive refinery below.
Baker and Jerstad remained in the cockpit but their efforts were futile. Shortly after the bodies of their crew were seen exiting the Hell's Wench, the tangled wreckage of their Liberator fell over on its flaming right wing. In the plummet back to earth she missing the parallel bomber Queenie by only a few feet. That bomber was piloted by Lieutenant Colonel George Brown, bringing in the second wave. "Flames hid everything in the cockpit," he marveled as he remembered the leadership of Addison Baker and his volunteer co-pilot. "Baker went down after he flew his ship to pieces to get us over the target."
None of the crew of Hell's Wench survived, including the man who had leaped from the nose wheel before reaching the target.
While the surviving bombers of Baker and Brown's flights were turning the Columbia Aquila refinery into an inferno, Major Ramsay Pott's "B Force" flight of twelve Liberators were approaching Astra Romana (Target White 4). Pott's briefed target was Unirea Speranta (Target White 3), interlaced with the Standard (Oil Company of America) Petrol Block, further east of his position.
Major Pott's new route of approach from the southwest put the huge Astra Romana plant, the largest oil-producer in Europe and the primary objective of Tidal Wave, between his inbound bombers and their assigned target. Smoke from the fires at nearby Columbia Aquila masked the southern approach to Ploesti, and a curtain of anti-aircraft fire erupted all around and just above the target. The former economics professor who had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Carolina only two years earlier, fearlessly led his bombers into the inferno.
Storage tanks erupted to add the flying shrapnel of their metal tanks to the maelstrom, and tank tops whipped through the air like flying Frisbees, capable of cutting a bomber in half. Bombs fell as determined pilots held their course and bombardiers refused to take their eyes off targets only feet below. Many of the bombs were set with delayed fuses to allow the bombers to pass before they exploded, but many detonated prematurely. Despite the fact that few landed where they could do much damage to the massive Astra Romana refinery plant itself, Pott's wave engaged numerous enemy ground positions and turned the plant into a scene of deadly confusion. Added to the danger was the volcanic eruption of the smaller storage tanks beyond the plant, ignited by incendiaries tossed out by the Liberator crews.
In less than ten minutes the 32 bombers of Addison Baker's Traveling Circus struck at two targets and flooded the south side of Ploesti with smoke and flame. Nineteen surviving aircraft were still flying northeast over the city, their bomb bays empty, in a desperate effort to turn west and escape the hell below to return home. The withdrawing and badly-battered force was suddenly confronted with a new danger. The errant Liberandos had corrected their course and were now approaching Ploesti from the opposite direction, on a collision course with the Flying Circus.
3:00 P.M. (Ploesti Time)
Colonel Compton's Liberandos were flying southeast at heights of 5-10 feet above the rolling farmlands of Romania, when the Orthodox church spires of the Bucharest appeared in their cockpit windows. After conferring with Compton, General Ent broke radio silence to order the correction, turning the lead flight back north. The mission commander knew that his bombers were no longer lined up to cross the city from the west and attack the assigned target of Romana Americana (Target White 1). He and Compton again conferred and decided to lead the twenty-six remaining Liberators in an attack on Astra Romana (Target White 4) south of the city.
Flying east of the complex, Astra Romana vanished quickly on the left to reveal the city of Ploesti and the running battle of the Traveling Circus survivors as they struggled to turn and escape. The ferocity of the enemy ground fire and the obvious devastation to the west convinced General Ent that, with the Germans, now fully alert and their battle stations heavily manned, the mission was irreparably broken. When the formation was just south of Romana Americana, ironically the Liberandos' briefed target, Ent ordered the formation to break off and strike targets of opportunity. Most of the formation veered east beyond the heaviest enemy ground fire, dropping their bombs on smaller storage facilities in the plains beyond the refineries before circling through the foothills north of Ploesti to escape westward.
Major Norman Appold was one of the few who chose a more direct route. With four Liberandos behind, he was over Romana Americana before he realized the target was there. Winging over to make a tight westward turn he found Concordia Vega directly in his sights. Radioing the four pilots following he shouted, "Let's tuck in now. Stay with me and keep close."
As Appold's attacking force came in at roof-top level from the northeast, on the other side of Concordia Vega he could see the green shapes of Colonel Pott's Traveling Circus "B Force" flying into his windshield at 250 miles per hour. Beyond his window on the right, co-pilot Edward Duffy saw the missing formation of John Kane's Pyramidiers for the first time. Thirty-nine Liberators, what remained of the 47-bomber force that was the largest formation assigned to the Ploesti mission, were flying into the smoke-shrouded battle area on their assigned route from the north. More than fifty bombers, each with a wingspan of more than 100-feet, were now converging on a collision course over Ploesti at a combined speed in excess of 500 miles per hour.
Undeterred by the imminent disaster, Appold dropped lower to skip-bomb his 1,000-pound Reich-wreckers into Concordia Vega while the four pilots behind him followed suit. Powerful explosions shook the sky and threw the bombers around in the air like leaves in the wind while deadly-accurate explosives destroyed more than 40% of the refinery. There was no time for congratulations--every man was busy trying to avoid collision with Pott's men as they fought their way out of the city, and the onrushing wave of Pyramidiers.
On the ground below, General Gerstenberg watched the three flights weaving delicately at top-speed in the confined and flak-filled space over Ploesti. He shook his head in amazement at the tactical prowess of the American attack, never realizing that the airmen were improvising after their plans for a single-formation, two-minute orderly assault by five waves, had fallen apart.
3:05 P.M. (Ploesti Time)
Towering smoke from fires and explosions ignited by the Liberandos and Flying Circus was hard to miss even from a distance, and as John Kane entered the fray from the foothills northwest of the city he knew that there would be no surprise advantage to protect his men from deadly ground fire. Heedless of the added danger, his lead bomber Hail Columbia forged ahead.
At Floresti Kane held his bearing until his formation of thirty-nine Pyramidiers crossed the railroad tracks, then turned south on the briefed approach to Target White 4, Astra Romana. He was surprised to see flames rising from his target, which had already been bombed by the resourceful Major Potts. He was not aware that little damage had been done, and continued on course to destroy Europe's largest-producer of oil, the target that had eluded Halpro's bombs a year earlier.
Behind Kane came Leon Johnson's Eight Balls with the group commander in the left seat of Major William Brandon's Suzie Q. Fifteen B-24s followed Johnson to the railroad tracks where the formation turned south, parallel to John Kane's force opposite the twin lines that revealed a train moving south between them. While Johnson's men set their sights on the now-burning target at Columbia Aquila, the remaining twenty-one Liberators under command of Johnson's deputy , Lieutenant Colonel James Posey, turned south further back to attack the refinery at Brazi, Target Blue.
Ahead of the inbound flights the pilots witnessed the desperate withdrawal of broken and flaming Liberators that had survived the first attacks. In the distance the ground was littered with charred and still-burning ruins of American bombers. At the extremely low approach, crewmen could see the blackened and burning bodies of their fallen comrades, many racing desperately for cover to avoid capture.
The sky was filled with tracers and heavy flak, making the flight a desperate race. A reasonable man had every excuse in the face what lay ahead, to abort and turn back. Neither commander who led his bombers into Ploesti on Black Sunday considered the easy alternative.
Without warning, the skies turned even deadlier. The sides of the train traveling between the two airborne columns suddenly fell away as German gunners tracked the bombers to right and left. The specially outfitted gun-train had been dispatched by General Gerstenberg during early stages of alert, and now it began taking a heavy toll on the nearby, low-flying Liberators.
98th Bomb Group
44th Bomb Group
Col. John Kane
Col. Leon Johnson
The crack German gunners on General Gerstenberg's gun train wreaked havoc in the ranks of the incoming flights on either side. Metal wings sprouted holes, smoke churned from Liberator engines, and flames roared through the determined columns approaching their targets in five waves. Leading the first wave on either side were the swashbuckling commanders of the respective groups, determined not to order their men into battle without first paving the way at the risk of their own lives.
Killer Kane had mounted nose guns in Hail Columbia that could be charged by the navigator and fired from the pilot's seat. Running hard and low into a barrage of enemy fire, Kane pulled the trigger. "Col. Kane controlled them (the guns)," recalled his navigator Norm Whalen. "He used them up. The deafening roar of three of them going off at once in the confined space of the nose of a B-24 is hard to describe. Then, all of a sudden, it stopped. Col. Kane hollered down to us, 'What happened?' He thought we would reload the guns, but he'd used up all the ammo. There was none left." In a minute and a half Kane had unloaded nearly 2,500 rounds on the enemy positions.
As the two lines of bomber waves roared onward into Ploesti, Axis fighters entered the fracas, some still chasing retreating Liberandos and Flying Circus survivors. Leon Johnson watched three of his bombers take devastating hits en route to target, while a dozen other determined but shot-up Liberators stayed in line behind their leader. In the distance Johnson could see a series explosions walking across the Columbia Aquila refinery in testament to the dogged determination of Addison Baker and his first flight of Flying Circus bombers. Huge clouds of smoke and flame belched into the sky like out-of-control volcanoes, making low-level flight to drop a second round of bombs nearly suicidal. "Shall we turn back," asked Major Brandon as he fought the controls of Suzie Q?
"William, you are on target," Johnson replied calmly.
Johnson and his first wave of Eight Balls dove into the pall of smoke, fire, and brilliant explosions as fearlessly has they had dove into the cloud cover over Greece that had delayed their flight. The volatile air buffeted them between high smoke stacks like a ping pong ball, but the pilots held their course while their gunners raked nearby flak towers and machine gun positions. Through it all, bombardiers with nerves of steel remained glued to their crude bomb sites. Tons of American bombs fell from the B-24s to add their own carnage to the rubble left by Addison Baker's Flying Circus.
By mission standards, a 100%-mission achievement meant that the bombed refinery was put out of action for six months. Though not totally destroyed, thanks to the men of the two different bomb groups, Columbia Aquila was out of service for eleven months. In addition to thirteen Flying Circus bombers lost in accomplishing that feat, Colonel Johnson lost seven of his bombers in action over the target. Two more crashed while trying to return home.
As John Kane's Pyramidiers roared past the devastation at Columbia Aquila to hit the big Astra Romana Refinery a few miles east, it was impossible to tune out the heavy price the other three bomb groups had paid for their success. Less than twenty-four hours earlier he had noted while briefing his men, "It would take an entire army a year to fight its way up here and smash this target (Ploesti.) We are going to do it in a couple of minutes with less than two thousand men!"
Because of the broken formation the battle was now nearly fifteen minutes old with the primary mission target, though belching smoke and fire, still relatively undamaged. Inside the target area the mid-day sun was blackened out and debris filled the airspace from the ground to more than 1,000 feet. "I didn't think I was going to live through it," Whalen recalled. "I knew I was going to die in the anti-aircraft fire, in the flames shooting up from the refineries, from the bombs exploding from the groups that had been there before us and had dropped bombs indiscriminately.
"His (Colonel Kane's) life was at stake, the lives of everybody in the 98th Bomb Group were at stake. But he made the choice for all of us. We were there to bomb the target, and he didn't flinch. It was like the Charge of the Light Brigade. We knew it was a disaster, and that in the flames shooting up from those refineries, we might be burned to death. But we went right in, and that was where Col. Kane spoke and acted on behalf of all of us."
Amazingly Hail Columbia pushed through the smoke and explosions, through the machine gun and anti-aircraft fire, through a deadly tangle of barrage balloon cables, weathering a myriad of other dangers to emerge on the other side. The bomber's metal hide was punctured by bullet holes too numerous to count, and it had been hit more than twenty times by anti-aircraft fire. Despite such heavy damage, Hail Columbia was still airborne and winged over to head for home.
Behind Kane came his remaining four waves, running the same fierce gauntlet to drop their bombs with deadly effect. Among the last was Sandman, piloted by First Lieutenant Robert Sternfels. A photo taken of his battered Liberator, climbing hard to barely clear the smoke stacks of Astra Romania after dropping its bombs, would become the trademark photo of the mission so often thereafter associated with the deadly low-level mission against Ploesti. Eighteen Pyramidiers were lost in action, the heaviest toll of the raid, but Astra Romana, Europe's heaviest-producing refinery, suffered 50% destruction.
3:15 P.M. (Ploesti Time)
Johnson's "A Force" of the Eight Balls and John Kane's Pyramidiers emerged from their smoke-shrouded targets on the south side of Ploesti while the remainder of Johnson's bombers, the Eight Ball "B Force" neared its own. Their route south from the final I.P. at Floresti put their flight path three miles west of the city, beyond many of the major defensive positions. As they approached Brazi however, they were met by a withering hail of anti-aircraft and machine gun fire.
Twenty minutes earlier when Colonel Addison Baker had broken away from Compton's lead force to attack Ploesti, his Flying Circus had over-flown the very refinery Lieutenant Colonel Posey's twenty-one Liberators now targeted. The gunners around the Creditul Minier were well-prepared. It was these very guns that had taken such a heavy toll Addison Baker and his men, and the Axis gunners were eager for more.
Posey's Eight Balls executed their precision bombing on eleven pin-point targets in four waves, the valiant gunners raking enemy gun positions as 1,000 pound bombs hurtled into key buildings and boiler houses. "We were too low to miss," recalled bombardier George Hulpiau flying in D for Dog in the second wave assault. "We were five feet above the target." (The bombs were fitted with delayed action fuses to prevent them from exploding on impact only feet below the Liberator dropping them.)
Enemy fire was as heavy as it had been earlier and most of the bombers took multiple strikes. Posey's lead ship V for Victory, piloted by Captain John Diehl, took a direct hit from a 37-mm ground gun that tore away part of the bomber's tail and killed gunner Truett Williams. Similar damage was wreaked upon other bombers in the four waves, but in a manner that may well have validated Colonel Smart's original concept for the low-level mission, Target Blue suffered 100% damage beneath the bombs of twenty-one airships, without the loss of a single aircraft over target. Diehl climbed to 250 feet to clear the smokestacks, then dropped back down to low-level flight with the other pilots following. "We left at a very low level," he recalled. "People ask me what I mean by low level. I point out that on the antennas on the bottom of my airplane I brought back sunflowers and something that looked suspiciously like grass."
Around Ploesti, four of the six assigned targets were awash in flame. Meanwhile, delayed action bombs continued to explode. A large force of heavily damaged Liberators struggled south and west of the city to establish some kind of formation for the flight home. Scores of German ME-109s and Romanian IAR-80s and 81s kept the B-24 gunners busy as they did their best to exact revenge for the smoldering ruins behind.
Nearly simultaneously to Posey's strike on Target Blue south of Ploesti, the factory-fresh bombers of the recently arrived 389th Bomb Group were turning into their approach on the refinery at Campina. The young pilots and crews, most of whom had only limited combat experience after a half-dozen or fewer missions in support of Operation Husky, found their assigned target after some slight confusion in the foothills of the Transylvanian Alps.
Colonel Jack Wood's Sky Scorpions had been assigned "tail-end Charlie" in the formation that flew from Benghazi to Romania that morning, not because they were new and untested, but because their target was eighteen miles north of the other targets. The new Liberators had a little more range than the older bombers, and on this particular mission that extra advantage was critical to the secondary mission of getting home safely. Wood's men were eager to prove themselves to their experienced counterparts, and were determined to make a good showing. (Nine Sky Scorpion crews volunteered to fly 44th BG aircraft needing crews, and did so in the formation led by John Kane.)
389th Bomb Group
2nd Lt. Lloyd Pete Herbert Hughes
Flying his B-24 in the second wave into Target Red was 22-year-old Second Lieutenant Lloyd Pete Herbert Hughes. Born in Alexandria, Rapides Parish, Louisiana, he spent his high school years in Refugio, Texas, and graduated from Refugio High school in 1939, just a few months before he turned 19. After graduation he moved with his mother, Mildred Mae RAINEY Hughes Jordan and step-father, John Raymond Jordan, to Corpus Christi, Texas. He attended Texas A & M for a short time but left college at the end of a semester because his step-father had become ill and the family needed him back at home. On January 28, 1942, he enlisted as an aviation cadet in San Antonio and, two days before earning his wings on November 10, he married his San Antonio sweetheart Hazel Dean Ewing.
There was little time for the newly weds to celebrate. Six months later Lieutenant Hughes was with the 389th Bomb Group when it was sent to England, and followed when it was temporarily transferred to Benghazi in support of Operation Husky and Operation Tidal Wave. The likeable young man was called "Pete" by his friends. The Ploesti raid was his fifth mission.
Flying into Romania behind Leon Johnson, the Sky Scorpions initially became confused when the flights parted for their separate attacks. Colonel Wood's inbound route on a path north of Floresti afforded few prominent ground features. Initially the formation began its approach down a valley which looked for the most part like scores of other such valley's in the Alpine foothills. The errant Sky Scorpions were actually headed away from their target and flying into Ploesti before Colonel Wood realized the mistake and executed a sharp turn in his lead bomber. The B-24s behind him followed to get into proper position for the bomb run. A few minutes later Wood's twenty-nine Liberators began entering their small target area at 205 miles per hour, fifty feet above the ground.
As the bombers neared the town alert enemy gunners filled the sky with deadly flak. Approaching targets only 30 feet above ground, machine gun fire was equally deadly, matched only by the courage and determination of Colonel Wood's young gunners. One Liberator, suffering extreme damage as it dropped its bombs, crashed just beyond the refinery killing all but the top turret gunner. While the stricken bomber burned on the ground, Staff Sergeant Zerrill Steen remained at his post to fire at enemy positions until his ammo was expended. Only then did he break through the Plexiglas bubble to race for safety. (Captured and interned as a P.O.W., Steen was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross while still listed as missing in action.)
Pete Hughes' bomber was raked with enemy bullets and took repeated hits from anti-aircraft fire. Holes sprouted in his left wing tanks as he was approaching target, spewing a steady stream of aviation fuel behind him. Two separate holes in the Tokyo tanks in his bomb bay left a similar trail of volatile spray.
Recognizing the danger, at least one of his nearby comrades reportedly broke radio silence to warn the young pilot from Texas to abort the bomb run and bail out. At the time, however, the aircraft was too low to the ground for anyone to bail out.
"This damage was inflicted at a time prior to reaching the target when Lieutenant Hughes could have made a forced landing in any of the grain fields readily available at the time," notes his subsequent Medal of Honor citation. "The target area was blazing with burning oil tanks and damaged refinery installations from which flames leaped high above the bombing level of the formation. With full knowledge of the consequences of entering this blazing inferno when his airplane was profusely leaking gasoline in two separate locations, Lieutenant Hughes, motivated only by his high conception of duty which called for the destruction of his assigned target at any cost, did not elect to make a forced landing or turn back from the attack. Instead, rather than jeopardize the formation and the success of the attack, he unhesitatingly entered the blazing area and dropped his bomb load with great precision."
As Hughes swept low over the burning refinery to add his bombs to those dropped by the men ahead of him, the intense fire reached out to ignite the trailing fuel mist from the B-24's wing and belly. Quickly the hot mass engulfed the fuselage as flames sprouted from the top turret and waist gun windows. Hughes knew there was no saving his aircraft, but had held his course long enough to preserve the integrity of the formation and to drop his bombs. With fire consuming his Liberator he headed for the dry Prahova riverbed in an effort to make an emergency, wheels-up landing. He almost made it. The unexpected appearance of a bridge forced him to pull up and then his bomber was falling over and cart wheeling into a spectacular death dance.
Second Lieutenant Hughes died in the cockpit, along with five of his crew. Amazingly two Staff Sergeants, Tail Gunner Thomas A. Hoff and Right Waist Gunner Edmund H. Smith, survived, along with badly injured Second Lieutenants John A. McLoughlin and Sidney A. Pear. Bombadier McLoughlin died two days later in a Romanian hospital and Navigator Pear died on August 6th. Hoff and Smith survived only to be interned as prisoners of war.)
Fighting to Get Home
Four of Colonel Wood's Sky Scorpions were lost in the highly successful raid on Target Red. By mission standards, the Steaua Romana refinery suffered 100% destruction, and indeed it would not resume production for six years--long after the war ended. Mission accomplished, the badly battered Sky Scorpions headed south-southwest to try and meet up with the other four withdrawing groups.
The battle was not yet over and fierce fighter/bomber battles raged in the fields and foothills southwest of Ploesti. Two more Scorpions were lost but amazingly, twenty of the original twenty-nine bombers managed to return to Benghazi.
The returning Liberators struggled through the flashing passes of enemy fighters, smoke streaming from dead engines and gunners silenced because all ammunition had been expended. In Hail Columbia, low on fuel and with one engine out, John Kane asked his navigator where the nearest Allied base was. Whalen advised that the nearest friendly landing strip was an R.A.F. air base on Cyprus, 900 miles distant. The navigator began plotting the route, doglegging over Greece to avoid neutral Turkish airspace. "To Hell with Turkish neutrality--I want a direct course to Cypress," Kane shouted.
In all, seven Liberators went down or were forced to land in Turkey where the crews were interned. Struggling along behind Hail Columbia in the desperate race home, Hadley's Harem nearly made it but fell out and crashed into the sea just off the Turkish coast. The crew swam to shore where they were surrounded by Turkish fishermen. The following morning a British sea-borne rescue team found the men and, in one of those ironic twists of near-comedy not uncommon during the horror of war, was permitted to return to Cypress with the crew. The British skipper had advised the Turks that, since the bomber had gone down at sea instead over land, the crew were "shipwrecked mariners" who, under international law, could be recovered by the rescue team.
Colonel Compton's Liberandos were the most fortunate. One bomber had been lost over target and another went down in Turkey trying to get home. The remaining twenty-three bombers all made it back to Benghazi. Colonel Baker's Traveling Circus was not so fortunate. One third of the thirty-two bombers that reached Ploesti went down over the target or in the fields beyond as they tried to return home. Two landed in Turkey and four at other bases. Only fifteen made it back to Benghazi.
Losses for the Pyramidiers were staggering, eighteen lost to anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighters over and around Ploesti. Kane himself crash-landed in Cypress, though he and his crew walked away relatively unscathed. Only nine of the forty-seven Pyramidier Liberators that departed Benghazi on the morning of August 1 returned safely home.
Seven of Colonel Johnson's B-24s littered the streets and fields of Ploesti, and two crews were interred in Turkey. Only twenty-two of his thirty-nine Eight Ball crews reached Benghazi.
In all, of the 163 bombers from the five bomb groups that reached their target, only 89 made it back to Benghazi. (The following day only thirty-three of these were pronounced "fit to fly.") Casualties for the 1,726-man force that had flown into hell were heart-rending. Nearly a third of the crews failed to return with more than 300 known dead and 140 captured. Of those who did come home, more than 440 were wounded.
The smoke and flame of burning oil lit the night skies of Ploesti and General Gerstenberg marveled at the American strike. In less than half-an-hour the Axis had lost 40% of its critical oil production. Though devastating, he understood that it could have been worse. He was also acutely aware that while the bombs had been falling over Ploesti that day, the Allies had painted a bulls eye over his domain. He was certain they would be back.
Axis Sally, perhaps, best summed up the mission in her propaganda broadcast out of Berlin:
"Good show, Brereton....
But you lost too many!"....