THE TRUE STORY OF THE HEROIC ATTACK ON HITLER'S OIL SUPPLY
"We were dragged through the mouth of hell."
"We knew it was a disaster and knew that in the flames
shooting up from those refineries we might he burned to death. But we went right
"It was the worst catastrophe
in the history of the Army Air Corps. It wasn't a raid, it was a full-scale
"If you do your job right, it
is worth it, even if you lose every plane."
PLANNED BY WINSTON CHURCHILL, authorized by Dwight D. Eisenhower, and executed by five specially trained American bomber units, the attack on the oil refineries of Ploesti, Romania, was among the most daring and dangerous missions of World War II. If the raid succeeded, the Nazi war machine would suffer a devastating blow. On August 1, 1943, nearly two hundred B-24 bombers flew from Benghazi, North Africa, with directions to descend on Ploesti at treetop level, bomb the refineries, and return. The low-level bombers could evade enemy radar and were thought to be more difficult to shoot down. But despite warnings that a German heavy flak train had been moved into the area and that the secrecy of their mission had been compromised, the bombers were sent out. Minutes from the target, one of the commanders made a wrong turn, leading the formations away from Ploesti. Recovering from this mistake, most of the bombers relocated the refineries, but the mission was doomed.
The ensuing air-ground battle claimed dozens of the bombers, and many of those that survived the ordeal were forced to ditch in the ocean or in remote areas due to lack of fuel or structural damage.
In Into the Fire: Ploesti, The Most Fateful Mission of World War II, Duane Schultz re-creates this great battle, combining original research and interviews with survivors in order to capture the tension, drama, and heroics of the warring sides. More Medals of Honor were awarded for this mission than any other aerial combat enterprise in the history of the United States. But the medals are bittersweet testimony to the courage of the 1,726 young men who risked all on a fateful attempt to cut off the Nazi supply of "black gold."
DUANE SCHULTZ is author of many books, including The Most Glorious Fourth: Vicksburg and Gettysburg, Over the Earth I Come: The Great Sioux Uprising of 1862, and The Last Battle Station: The Saga of the U.S.S. Houston.
Artwork: Front, The Sandman, a B-24D of the 98th Bombardment Group "Pyramiders" piloted by Lt. Robert W. Sternfels, emerges from the smoke and fires of the bombed Astra-Romana refinery. Taken as a mirror image by an automatic camera in a nearby bomber, it is an iconic photograph of World War II. Back, A weary survivor of Operation Tidal Wave enters the debriefing tent. (U.S. Air Force)
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Prologue: Frozen in Time
PART I. THE PLAN
PROLOGUE: FROZEN IN TIME
"He looked like Clark Gable, could talk his way into or out of virtually anything, and loved to wear his cowboy boots and pearl-handled revolvers into battle." That was how a Wichita, Kansas, newspaper described 1st Lt. Gilbert B. Hadley when he was buried in 1997, 54 years after he died in the cockpit of his airplane. His boots and pearl-handled revolvers were found in the plane with him, ghostly remnants of another time and place, another world.
Hadley was a member of the "Greatest Generation," though probably he would not have thought of himself that way. He was too much of a hell-raiser to have such grand thoughts, certainly not on the day he died in 1943. A flamboyant, rowdy 22-year-old pilot of B-24s from Arkansas City, Kansas, Gib liked to have a good time and to fly his lumbering four-engine bomber like it was a fighter plane.
He joined the army a month before the attack on Pearl Harbor, after completing two years at the local junior college. The family could not afford to send him away to college for a four-year degree, so he did what so many other boys did in his circumstances. He joined the army and was intelligent enough to be accepted for pilot training. The Army Air Corps sent him to flying schools in the area and he took delight in flying low over his house and the homes of friends, seeming to barely miss the rooftops. He attempted the maneuver in single-engine trainers and, later, in B-24s, frightening everybody but himself.
Gib named his plane Hadley's Harem, because he liked to think he had a way with the ladies, and he was also popular with the men who flew with him. He wanted to be one of the guys, not standoffish with the enlisted members of his crew the way some officers were. "He chewed us out for saluting him," remembered Staff Sgt. Leroy Newton from Monrovia, California, a 19-year-old at the time of the raid. "He let us fly the plane when it was in the air and nothing was happening. He was a budding legend happening right under our feet. There wasn't a thing we wouldn't have done for him."
Sergeant Newton was one of the lucky members of Hadley's Harem. He survived the crash that August evening that took Gib Hadley's life and that of his co-pilot, 22-year-old 2nd Lt. James Lindsay, from Gilmer, Texas. Newton survived the war, and tried not to think much about Hadley's Harem and Gib and the horrors of that terrible day in 1943. He put them out of his mind for 50 years until 1993, when he learned there would be a reunion of the men who flew with him on the famous mission to the Ploesti oil fields of Romania.
Newton went to the 50th reunion, the first such gathering he attended. He was amazed to see a photograph of himself and the six other survivors of Hadley's Harem on a beach in Turkey surrounded by more than a dozen armed men. The picture brought back a flood of memories. He decided to go back, to stand on that beach again and try to find whatever might be left of the plane. "The seven of us really owed our lives to him," Newton said of Gib Hadley. "It's miraculous he could fly the thing that far. [He and co-pilot Lindsay] gave me a good 50 years on my life, and I feel this was a good payback."
Newton went to Turkey in 1994 and walked the beaches for miles, looking for anything familiar to identify the spot where they came ashore. He knew there was no chance of finding the plane until he found the right beach, but he did not recognize anything. On the last day of his trip a local newspaper reporter interviewed him and published a story about the airplane that had crashed off the coast five decades before and the wounded Americans who had straggled ashore. By the time the article appeared, Newton had returned home, disappointed that his search had been fruitless.
A short time later he received a letter from a Turkish diver who had read about him. The diver wrote that he had discovered the aircraft back in 1972 while filming underwater for a documentary about turtles. Newton was skeptical but decided to go back one more time. The diver took him directly to Hadley's Harem, lying 750 feet offshore in 90 feet of water, broken in three pieces.
The remains of the pilots were in the cockpit, along with a pair of cowboy boots and two pearl-handled revolvers. The bodies were retrieved, positively identified through DNA analyses, and returned to the United States for burial with full military honors.
The B-24's forward section, including the cockpit, was raised, cleaned, and put on display in the Rahmi M. Koc Museum in Istanbul, where it remains as the only survivor of the 177 planes that took off from Benghazi in Northern Africa early on the morning of August 1, 1943.
The other bombers live only in memories, photographs, and the imagination of those of us who look back with wonder, admiration, and gratitude for what those men endured and the terrible price they paid. "I tell you," wrote Lt. John McCormick, pilot of Vagabond King, after the mission was over, "there wasn't a man among us who will ever be the same."
The battle over Ploesti's skies on August 1, 1943, lasted 27 minutes from the time the first bomb was dropped until the last one fell and the surviving planes turned south to head home. Of the 177 Liberators assigned to the mission, 54 had been lost by day's end. Only 93 returned to base, and 60 of those were so badly damaged they never flew again. Of the others, 19 landed at Allied airfields such as Cyprus, 7 in Turkey, and 3, including Hadley's Harem, crashed into the sea. The remainder crashed in and around Ploesti.
One of the bombardment group commanders described the mission as the "worst catastrophe in the history of the Army Air Corps." A 1999 research report prepared for the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama concluded that the mission to Ploesti was "one of the bloodiest and most heroic missions of all time." One of the crewmen who was shot down referred to it as "the greatest ground-air battle ever fought."
The casualties were staggering. Of the 1,726 airmen on the mission, 532 were killed, captured, interned, or listed as missing in action. In addition, 440 of those who returned to Benghazi were wounded, some so severely they never returned to active service.
More decorations and awards for bravery under fire were bestowed on the men who attacked Ploesti than for any other mission in the history of American aerial combat. All received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Five Medals of Honor were awarded to the Ploesti airmen, more than for any other mission; three of the medals were given posthumously.
A U.S. Marine Corps combat pilot wrote in 1993 that the raid was "a watershed event in the history of aerial warfare," carried out against one of the most heavily defended targets in the world. It was also the first and last large-scale bombing raid carried out at such a low altitude. The planes flew at tree-top level, making it impossible for the crews of ships damaged over the target area to bail out. Most of those men burned to death before their planes crashed, and many planes were flaming coffins by the time they plowed into the ground.
The sacrifice was horrendous, the battle a nightmare of exploding fuel tanks, shrapnel shearing off limbs, and unparalleled bravery as pilots flew through sheets of flames caused by bombs dropped by earlier waves of B-24s. But the planners, cursed by the survivors, believed that no cost was too great to destroy the Ploesti refineries.
Without oil, the officials reasoned, German planes and tanks would grind to a halt. Destroying the refineries would end the war. It was that simple, the planners said, and had it succeeded, the cost in lives and planes would have seemed more bearable in light of the far greater number of lives saved by shortening the war.
Sadly, that was not to be. Intelligence about the Ploesti defenses was misleading at best, woefully inadequate, and downright wrong. The bomb groups became separated as some took a wrong turn before they reached the target, so three refineries were not hit at all. Most of those that were bombed were repaired quickly. Other refineries, which had not been in operation, were easily activated. Within weeks, "Ploesti was producing at a higher rate than before the raid."
Leroy Newton returned to Ploesti in 1997 and found lingering reminders of the bombing.
What else remains of the heroism and sacrifice—a few towers that once held guns? The nose section and cockpit of Hadley's Harem in a museum? No, that's not all. There are also the men. Those who survived the mission to Ploesti moved on with their lives, but singular sights and sounds, images and feelings remained with them until they died, memories that highlighted and focused their recollection of the historic mission.
It is by collecting and assembling those memories and images that what we call history is compiled and written, out of the past, from images frozen in time. We cannot allow these memories to disappear; they continue to haunt us many decades later. Images and scenes such as these.
"Look, there's another one," a waist gunner wrote. "The flak got him bad. Burning near the bomb bay doors. Trying to climb. Look at him climb. Burning and climbing. There goes a chute. Look at the guy's face. He can't believe it. Two more chutes. No, they can't make it... all those planes, all those guys burning to death."
A stricken Liberator scraped along the ground with the fuselage buckling under the pressure while the crew braced themselves as best they could and hung on. "Two pieces of metal began to squeeze my head in a vice-tight grip," the navigator wrote. "Tighter and tighter they pressed as I slipped into darkness. For one brief moment, a mental picture of my father flashed before me. I felt no pain, just a numb feeling of weightlessness making me giddy.'This isn't such a bad way to die,' I thought."
"When we got there it was just like an inferno, it was hot as hell. Over the target, when I saw all those planes go down, I just got a don't-give-a-shit attitude and didn't care if we went down or not. Be out of the war and all its misery."
"Near the refinery a house was on fire, burning in the upper story. A man with shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbow, carrying a small child in one arm and sheltering a woman with the other, ran towards the burning building. The child had long brown hair; the woman an attractive figure. I have always hoped that they survived."
The ship was called Sad Sack II, and it lived up to its name. Even before it reached the target it was damaged by flak that killed the rear gunner, knocked out one engine and riddled the plane with holes. Then both waist gunners were seriously wounded. Sad Sack II flew straight on through a raging column of fire and was attacked by a German fighter. The tail of the ship was hit, making it hard to control. The fighter spun around and attacked head on, shooting the pilot in the face and wounding the copilot. Flak exploded in the nose, killing the navigator.
Sad Sack II was burning, torn apart by continuing gunfire. The pilot lay crumpled over the controls with flames consuming his legs. The copilot's legs were broken. The plane was no more than a pile of twisted metal that tore across a cornfield and shuddered to a halt.
Another aircrew waved at the men in the neighboring plane as they passed over the target just as flak exploded in its bomb bay. Gasoline poured out of the ruptured bomb-bay tank, setting the length of the plane on fire. "It was a horrible sight," one of the onlookers in the first plane recalled, "watching the burning plane and knowing that the men in there were fighting for their lives and there was nothing we could do to help." No one bailed out.
A copilot, who had survived many missions, went crazy from the terror and had to be manhandled out of his seat. The navigator dragged him aft and sat on him to keep him from running amok. An airman jumped from another plane that was enveloped in flames. His parachute opened and he drifted so close to another ship that the crew clearly saw his charred legs. They could only imagine his pain.
In another plane a crewman bailed out when the pilot managed to pull their burning ship up to an altitude of 300 feet. He was the only crew member to escape. His parachute opened, but he was so low when he jumped that he was badly injured when he hit the ground. "I don't know how I made it," he said. "I wish I had ridden her to the ground and died with the five men who didn't have the guts to jump."
An 88-mm German shell exploded directly in the nose of a B-24, killing the bombardier and the navigator. The explosion wrecked one engine, set fire to two others, and caused the plane to turn almost upside down. The pilot fought to get it back under control but had trouble with the rudder pedal. "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."
A 20-mm shell from a German fighter plane tore off the American pilot's head. The bombardier pulled the body away from the controls while the copilot struggled to keep the ship level. One engine was dead, five other crew members were wounded, and gas was leaking from the bomb bay tank. The bombardier stuffed his flight jacket into the gas tank's gap and tried to cover the pilot as best he could.
Another B-24 took a hit in the bomb bay, opening a large hole in the gas tank. Fuel streamed out through the open bomb bay doors, soaking the plane's underbelly. The gas was so thick that men in an adjacent plane could no longer see the waist gunner. One spark would have been enough to set the plane ablaze.
The ship ahead dropped its bombs on one of the refinery's boilers, which exploded upward, sending a huge column of flame directly in the path of the plane with the gas leak. The pilot faced a quick choice: stay on course and bomb his assigned target, which meant that his plane would certainly catch on fire, or take evasive action to avoid the flames and drop his bombs elsewhere.
The navigator of a nearby plane watched; he knew his friend Pete was the pilot. "My stomach turned over. Poor Pete! Fine, conscientious boy, with a young wife waiting for him at home. He was holding formation to bomb, flying into a solid room of fire, with gasoline gushing from his ship. Why do men do such things?"
Pete made his choice and hit the target, but the plane was a flying torch, on fire from nose to tail. He headed for a dry creek bed and managed to maintain control, but a wingtip struck the bank of the creek. The ship cartwheeled end over end, leaving a spiraling, flaming trail of debris.
Many of those who managed to bail out of their crippled planes were horribly wounded.
In one case, Romanian peasants reportedly killed an American pilot to put him out of his misery after his parachute failed to open and he was still alive after he hit the ground. Triage points were established around the refineries and the city. A school in Ploesti was a collection point for thirty American flyers who lay "burned and broken, naked and dying." A flak battery barracks was used as another aid station where several other Americans were laid out, unconscious. All were beyond medical help and were being administered morphine to ease their deaths.
The last of the planes to return to the base in North Africa landed in the evening. The survivors "tumbled out of their ships, furious at their leaders for what had happened. Others were in tears. The wounded were stoic, exhausted, or unconscious. The dead could show no emotion as they were pulled out of the bombers, sometimes in pieces."
Chaplain James Patterson, nicknamed "Chappie," met each plane in his group as it landed. He knelt over a wounded man who had just been removed from his plane through the waist gunners open hatch.
"I made it back from Ploesti, Chappie," the man said. "See you later." A moment after that he was dead. Patterson covered his face with a blanket while one of the gunners watched. The man lit a cigarette, held up the match up, and watched the flame flicker and die.
"Is life like that, Chappie?"
"Yes, Sergeant," Patterson said, "life is like that."
Captain Robert Adlen did not go on the Ploesti mission but his plane did, along with all the men in his squadron. They had become like brothers. Adlen had completed his tour of duty but volunteered for the mission anyway. He was grounded a few days before with a bad case of dysentery. He waited for the planes to return and recorded his thoughts in his diary.
"Our squadron is no more.
"I hope the price was worth it.
"It's so dead and silent, and the club is like it never was before. [It's] empty.
"Now I'm the only one living in the tent."