PORTLAND AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Ore. --
Seventy-five years ago, on 1 August 1943, Operation Tidal Wave took place. It was perhaps the most spectacular American bombing mission of World War II, the bold low-level air assault by over 150 B-24 Liberator heavy bombers on the Romanian oil refineries at Ploiești, which supplied Nazi Germany with about 1/3 of its petroleum supply. As such, Great Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill considered Ploiești to be, "...the taproot of German might."
In Romanian, Ploiești means “rainy place” and on that August day all kinds of things rained up from the ground and down from the skies. In World War II it was depicted in references spelled as Ploesti. This remembrance uses the modern Romanian spelling of Ploiești.
Five heavy bombardment groups took part in the raid, or rather, the battle, including two based in Benghazi, North Africa, the 98th and 376th, and three sent from England to join them in Libya on temporary duty, the 44th, 93rd and 389th. These were all of the B-24 groups then available in the European and Middle East theaters of operation.
The Consolidate B-24D Liberator was the only American long range heavy bomber then available which could reach Ploiești from the nearest air bases in North Africa. A crew of up to 10 operated the B-24, which was over 66 feet long with a 110-foot wingspan. Powered by four Pratt & Whitney R-1830s of 1,200 hp each, it had a top speed of just over 300mph with a cruise speed of 200. It could carry up to 8,000 pounds of bombs, and was equipped with nine or more .50 caliber machine guns for self-defense. With a 5,000-lb bomb load the aircraft could range up to 2,850 miles. It weighed up to 56,000-lbs when loaded.
For the Ploiești mission, around 2,100 miles from North Africa to the target and back, the B-24s were given increased fuel loads with fuel tanks placed inside their forward bomb bays to ensure a good reserve of fuel, leaving the aft bomb bay to carry the bombs, either six 500-lb bombs or four 1,000-pounders, plus some incendiary clusters to drop.
Some B-24s in the lead waves were given a pair of fixed .50 caliber machine guns fitted in the lower nose and fired by the pilot to help suppress enemy ground-based defenses. A few aircraft even carried twin-.50 caliber waist gun. All would be needed in the coming battle.
Reviewing the roster of personnel on the raid (or battle), at least 21 Oregonians took part in the mission, including 11 from Portland. Seven failed to return to base - three were killed in Action (KIA) outright, one remains Missing in Action (MIA), two became Prisoners of War (POWs) and one was interned in neutral Turkey.
The audacious plan pinpointed key elements in the individual refineries to be struck, and determined that, given the technology of the day, a low-level attack would ensure the highest chance of success in hitting these critical components, such as the boiler houses, cracking towers, etc. It was also hoped to minimize the anti-aircraft threat by reducing time of exposure to the guns on the ground, and also robbed defending fighters of airspace beneath the bombers to carry out their attacks.
The targeted oil refineries, nine in all in seven coded areas, were given code names in colors and numbers for identification, with use of the colors Red, White I through White V and Blue denoting three different geographic areas. Red was at Campina, to the north of Ploiești. White targets were in the immediate Ploiești area whilst Blue lay to the south of the city. These nine refineries produced 90% of Romanian’s oil production.
In the period before the mission, no aerial reconnaissance missions were flown so as not to tip off the enemy. But the enemy already knew Ploesti was on the Allied target list, as it was the first target attacked by US aircraft in Europe in World War II, by 13 USAAF B-24’s then-based in Egypt on a 2,600 miles mission flown on 12 June 1942. See “Redhawk Reflections on the First American Mission in Europe, 1942,” on the 142FW website at: http://www.142fw.ang.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/1211286/redhawk-reflections-on-the-first-american-mission-in-europe-1942/
The Germans assigned a resourceful commander to defend Ploiesti, Colonel Alfred Greenberg. A World War I fighter pilot who served during that war in Herman Goering’s flying unit, after the June 1942 attack and with that personal connection he got just about whatever he wished from the German Luftwaffe to defend Ploiesti.
The crews were briefed by American and British intelligence sources which estimated Ploesti was defended by less than 100 medium and heavy anti-aircraft guns. In actuality, the defenses consisted of over 250 light, medium and heavy caliber anti-aircraft guns plus innumerable small arms and machine guns – there were more than 50 88 mm cannons alone. Fighters included over 50 German Me-109 day and Me-110 night fighters plus Romanian IAR-80 fighters. These were augmented by over 100 barrage balloons (some with explosives attached to the mooring cable) and dozens upon dozens of smoke generators. Blast walls were built around critical facilities and storage tanks, which were also camouflage painted. There was a decoy facility 10 miles from Ploesti as well as another nasty mobile surprise detailed below.
The B-24 groups trained for about ten days before the mission, getting aircrews to safely fly and effectively navigate to attack at low altitude. In general the training went very well. The mission planning and preparation including the use of film, scale models of the targets, and detailed perspective drawings for navigation and target acquisition aimed at the key elements within each refinery complex. In the final rehearsal mission all groups and squadrons hit their targets within a minute’s time.
178 Liberator bombers took off for the mission, carrying over 1,700 Airmen. One B-24 turned back and crashed on an emergency landing shortly after takeoff. Some 13 others aborted the mission at various points along the route for one reason or another, mostly for mechanical issues.
Another B-24D inexplicably departed from controlled flight over the Mediterranean and crashed in the sea just before landfall over Europe. A Portland man, T/Sgt Willis G. Lutz, was the radio operator aboard this ship, “Wongo Wongo!” of the 512th Bomb Squadron, 376th Bomb Group, lost with the entire crew. Contrary to lore, this was not the lead aircraft with the group’s lead navigator for the mission as the group commander Col Keith K. Compton lead and navigated for the group, but it was a painful loss nonetheless. T/Sgt Lutz is remembered on the Tablets of the Missing in the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy. Sgt. Lutz was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with oak leaf cluster.
Enroute over the sea and then over land, the first two groups (376th and 93d) drew ahead of the following three groups (98th, 44th and 389th) due to higher engine power settings used by the lead group. By the time they reached Romania there was a 20-minute separation between them and the trailing three groups which flew at a slightly reduced power setting.
The difference in engine power settings reflected the different experience of the commanders of the two North African based units, with the lower power setting intended to reduce the strain on sand-blasted weather-beaten engines before increasing power for the bomb run – engine life in the desert was much reduced 50% even, compared to “normal” conditions in other theaters of war. Due to this unresolved difference, the plan had started to fray, as the mission was supposed to get all formations of aircraft over their assigned targets within a minute’s time, so as to maximize surprise and decrease opportunity for engagement by enemy defenses.
Then the lead group commander Col Compton made a navigational error which fractured the plan – the group was supposed to turn to the right at the third initial point (IP) preparatory for the final run along a rail line to Ploesti, but instead turned to the right at the second IP, too early, and followed a different railroad line which led to Bucharest, the capital. The early turn forced the following group, the 93d, in right echelon, to also turn right in order to avoid mid-air collision as the “pink elephants” the tawny desert camouflaged ships of the 376th, turned right across their front. The 376th leader maintained radio silence discipline despite open radio calls from other aircraft in the formation that they had turned too early.
But as things turned out, the element of surprise was lost, as German and Romanian defenders already knew the bombers were on the way, if not exactly to where, based on visual observer sightings and radar sites in the Balkans. German anti-aircraft defenses ringed Ploiesti and were concentrated to the west and south of the city, in areas they deemed to be the likely avenues of approach of any raiding Allied bomber force. The Tidal Wave plan anticipated defenses to the east and northeast, oriented toward the Soviet Union, and planned an approach from the north-northwest, but the navigational error by the lead group frustrated much of the plan.
As the original Tidal Wave plan provided for aircraft attacking out of the north, the early turn made this impossible for the first two groups to properly line up on their assigned refineries to approach their pin-point targets within the refinery complexes. This didn’t stop one 376th BG pilot though, as John Palm flying “Brewery Wagon” was chagrined at the errant turn and headed east to conduct his own attack on a refinery.
Against alerted enemy defenses Palm’s aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire and lost an engine on its approach to White V and then set upon by a German Me-109 fighter which shot up the crew and shot out two more engines. Palm was forces to jettison his bombs before reaching his target and look for a place to crash-land, a cornfield just beyond the refinery. His was the first B-24 lost to enemy action and the first to yield prisoners of war POWs).
Miles to the southwest and realizing the plan had fractured, 93rd Bomb Group commander Lt Col Addison E. Baker improvised too. Seeing Ploiești off to the left as he followed the 376th towards Bucharest, he turned his group toward the city looking for refineries to hit. He personally led the 23 B-24s for Target White II, Concordia Vega refinery, and with Maj Ramsey Potts leading nine more for Target White III, Unirea Sperantza/Standard Petrol Block refinery, but were now intent on bombing whatever refinery they could see, which were Targets White IV and IV, assigned to the 98th and 44th Bomb Groups, respectively. Unfortunately their improvised attack took them directly over a concentration of enemy defenses.
Lt Col Baker had vowed to his group that morning before takeoff that “I’m going to take you to this one if my plane falls apart.” His aircraft was hit hard by anti-aircraft fire approaching, jettisoned its bombs to stay in the air but still he held his course. He reached the target and then his stricken ship reared up and some of the crew jumped. The aircraft quickly fell off and crashed with no survivors. Lt Col Baker and co-pilot/mission planner Maj John “Jerk” Jerstad were both posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. The Traveling Circus lost 11 B-24s on the mission (with two more interned in Turkey).
Meanwhile, as the 26 B-24s of the 376th Bomb Group approached Bucharest, Col Compton finally recognized the error and flew a u-turn away from Bucharest. Approaching Ploiești from the south, he viewed the cauldron of flak and flames before him and gave up on any thoughts of getting to his assigned target, the White I, the Romana Americana refinery, and instead skirted the city in a counter-clockwise flow. General Ent gave the order to abandon the effort to hit the briefed target and instead bomb any targets of opportunity along the way. Some ships dropped on targets, others in the formation had nothing but open fields below them and eventually jettisoned their bombs before the group headed southwest and left the chaos behind.
One formation of the 376th did manage to hit a refinery target, as Maj Norman Appold was determined to hit an oil refinery and took his flight of three bombers on a course back in towards Ploiești against the refinery which turned out to be White II, a 93d target. His top turret gunner was Royal Air Force (RAF) Squadron Leader George Barwell, a gunnery expert who suppressed anti-aircraft guns well enough for the flight to hit their target and head for home. Due to his unofficial status on the mission, he was the only Airman not to receive an award for the mission. The 376th lost two aircraft on the mission, including “Wongo Wongo!” (with one more interned in Turkey).
About 20 or so minutes later, the other three bomb groups arrived in the Ploesti area as per the planned route. As the 98th and 44th flew down the rail line from the third and last initial point, they passed a steam train heading south also, which suddenly revealed itself as a flak train, one of Col Gerstenberg’s surprises. The sides of six boxcars dropped, or roofs opened up and an 88 mm and several 20 mm cannons started firing at the two bomb groups. Aerial gunners fired back and eventually knocked out the engine, though deadly damage had been done.
Looking at his target White IV ahead, Col John R. “Killer” Kane saw the Astra Romana refinery, the largest in Europe, already burning from the 93rd BG’s valiant attempt to salvage their part of the mission. Smoke from fires already started filled the sky, while delayed fuze bombs exploded on the ground, adding to the conflagration. But Kane led his group of 40 B-24s into the attack anyway. Five waves of the heavy bombers rolled across the target as smoke and flames roiled up from below, obscuring the view and making it difficult for the Pyramidiers to locate their individual targets. Kane’s ship “Hail Columbia” flew through flames which rose and roiled through the open windows of aircraft. The hairs on his left arm were singed by them as his cockpit side window was open. Col Kane was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his leadership in the chaotic situation. The Pyramidiers lost 21 planes on the mission.
S/Sgt Harry G. Baughm of Portland was the tail gunner with the Hinch crew aboard “Tagalong” in the 344th Bomb Squadron in the 98th’s first wave. Their bomber was hit by flak on the approach in the nose and waist areas and lost two engines. They bombed the target but crash landed about a mile beyond. Baughm was one of five crewmembers who was able to escape the wreck before the aircraft exploded, killing the other five. He and the other four became POWs.
Of note, the Tidal Wave Airmen who survived being shot down and became POWs were kept in Romania rather than being sent to stalags in Germany. A Romanian princess, Caterina Caradja, on whose estate one of the B-24s crash-landed, was instrumental in persuading the Romanian government to keep the captured American Airmen in Romania. In general, their treatment was notably better than it would have been in the German stalags.
S/Sgt George E. Davies of Portland was a gunner aboard Air Lobo in the Thomas crew flying “Aire Lobo” of the 345th Bomb Squadron of the 98th. His aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire before and at the target but managed to bomb before the aircraft’s left wing caught the ground and it crashed. The entire crew was killed, and Davies’ body is one of four recovered which were never identified. He is remembered on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Cemetery in Florence Italy. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters and the Purple Heart.
Slightly to the west, the 44th Bomb Group led by Col Leon W. Johnson hit White V Colombia Aquila refinery in Ploiești with 17 B-24s and another 19 B-24s of the group led by Col James T. Posey flew five miles to the south at Brazi, along the road to Bucharest to bomb the Creditul Minier refinery, the only Romanian refinery producing high octane gasoline for aircraft. The Eight Balls lost 9 planes, including 7 that attacked White V, on the mission (with two more interned in Turkey). Col Johnson was also awarded the Medal of Honor for his role in the mission.
T/Sgt William J. Schettler from Coquille, Oregon was an Engineer/top turret gunner with the Weaver crew on “Lil Abner” of the 67th Bomb Squadron, killed in action flying in the third wave over Target White V. The aircraft lost engine # 2 at the IP but the pilot decided to continue the mission on the three good engines. Hit by flak before the target, the bomber unloaded on the refinery and came off the target and was hit again, reduced to one intact engine. They made it some 30 miles away from the target and were attacked by enemy fighter planes. Schettler fought off the fighters trying to finish them off and was still firing at them when the badly damaged B-24 crash-landed in a cornfield. The impact jolted the top turret from its mounts and it fell on him and killed him. The other eight of his crew survived and became POWs. T/Sgt Schettler is buried at Plot A, Row 12, Grave 3 of the Ardennes American Cemetery in Neupre, Belgium. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with oak leaf cluster.
Sgt Jacob Gradwohl from Portland was the bombardier on the Winger crew aboard “Wing Dinger” of the 66th Bomb Squadron, and was killed in action flying in the fifth wave over Target White V. His aircraft bombed successfully but was set aflame by either flak or refinery explosions. Dense smoke filled the cockpit as the pilots pulled up in a power climb to reach a safe bail out altitude for the crew. Gradwohl and six others didn’t make it out as the aircraft reached a thousand feet, then stalled and fell off on a wing and crashed. Two gunners bailed out and survived. He is buried at Plot WALLA-VE-85-S3-34 in the Mountain View Cemetery in Walla Walla, Washington. Sgt. Gradwohl was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
S/Sgt Alfred A. Mash of Portland was a waist gunner in the Reinhart crew on the 67th Bomb Squadron’s “G.I. Gal” flying in the last of four waves over Target Blue. He became a POW as did seven others of his crew after anti-aircraft fire riddled their Liberator with holes attacking the target – the crew made it clear of the target, pilots struggling to keep their chewed up bomber going came under fighter attack which added more damage. They had to bail out of their badly damaged B-24 and into captivity about 80 miles past their target although their co-pilot was killed when his cute did not open all the way.
Farther north at Campina, the Sky Scorpions of the 389th BG led by Col Jack W. Wood attacked Target Red, the Steaua Romana refinery, with 29 B-24s. Lt. Lloyd Hughes’ bomber was damaged by anti-aircraft fire approaching the target, and fuel streamed from punctured wing and bomb bay fuel tanks. Determined to hit the target, Hughes flew on and dropped his bombs, though his B-24 caught fire from flames rising high from preceding attacks. Beyond the target he attempted to crash-land in a river bed but a wingtip caught the ground and it crashed killing Hughes and all but two aboard. Lt. Hughes was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Altogether the 389th lost four planes on the mission (plus two more interned in Turkey), but hit their target so well it was out of service for the rest of the war.
T/Sgt Harold M. Thompson of Medford was the flight engineer with the James crew in the group’s 565th Bomb Squadron, and his un-named aircraft, in the last wave of attackers at the tail end of the Tidal Wave trail, was short of fuel and so diverted with another thirsty bird to Gazi Emir Airfield near Izmir, Turkey, where he was interned with the other nine members of his crew. A total of seven Tidal Wave B-24s found their way to refuge of sorts in Turkey.
T/Sgt Thompson later returned to US control and resumed flying in his squadron. Unfortunately he was killed in a mid-air collision between his B-24J and another during formation assembly over Carleton Rode, England for a mission on 21 November 1944. His remains were never recovered. He is remembered on the Tablets of the Missing at the Cambridge American Cemetery, Cambridge, United Kingdom. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart for his service. Three other Oregonians who flew and survived Tidal Wave were also killed in action later in the war.
Anti-aircraft guns extracted a heavy toll of the B-24s, particularly the light and medium weapons with their high rate of fire. Fighters joined in pursuit and finished off several crippled bombers. Some 20 Liberators fell in the areas near their targets.
As the raiders left Romania, they ran the gauntlet of enemy fighters based in other countries, Bulgaria and Greece, which took an additional toll of the pink and green bombers. Only 88 of the raiders returned to Libya that night, and 55 of those had battle damage. A total of 23 others landed at Allied bases in Cyprus, Malta and Sicily.
A total of 41 B-24s were lost to enemy defenses, mostly anti-aircraft fire and another seven lost to internment. Another six were lost to varying causes: one on takeoff, one en-route, two in a mid-air collision n in clouds on return, one in Cyprus and one off the Turkish coast. This made for 54 total B-24D losses, with 310 aircrew killed, 108 captured and 78 interned in Turkey. On August 3rd only 33 B-24s were deemed mission capable
Enemy losses consisted of five German fighters (four Me-109 and one Me-110 and 3 aircrew) and three Romanian fighter planes (two IAR-80 and one Me-110, including one pilot) as well as 12 Romanian and three German soldiers killed in anti-aircraft gun sites. In addition 121 Romanian civilians were killed, about half in the unfortunate crash of 93d BG B-24 “Jose Carioca” into the Ploesti women’s prison – one of the inmates killed was Elena Sarbu, the sister of Princess Caradja, a political prisoner.
“I have been through and out the mouth of Hell” said Capt Reginald H. “Bud” Phillips, pilot of “Lemon Drop,” 44th Bomb Group, 68th Bomb Squadron, upon his return to Benghazi.
Results of the raid were short of expectations. Of the nine refineries targeted, only six were struck, with overall production at those six reduced by 46%. Some of the lost production was restored fairly quickly, within weeks or months, but for Target Blue, it was out for the rest of the war. The targets struck as planned without complication (Targets Blue and Red) validated the effectiveness of the low-level tactics. Unfortunately, the navigation error mitigated the impact on the other targets and caused the complete miss of three of them.
Despite the limited success, author Michael Hill in Black Sunday – Ploesti suggested there were three significant impacts from Tidal Wave. One was the loss of Romania’s only aviation fuel production at Creditul Minier, Target Blue. This diminished Nazi Germany’s aviation fuel resources and eroded its reserve needed to support pilot training as well as operational forces.
Another was the subsequent transfer of additional ground and air defenses from other parts of the German war machine to reinforce the defenses at Ploiești which could scarcely afford it as the Allied air offensive increased in power and scope.
Lastly, Hill assessed a psychological impact on the enemy, who witnessed the great effort American air forces made to hit Ploiești, the coordination involved, significant numbers that attacked and losses they took indicated an immense production capacity for the Fatherland to contend with.
However the impact is assessed, the cost for the results achieved was still high. Even the Germans recognized this as Axis Sally spoke of the mission from Berlin: “Good show, Brereton - but you lost too many.”
Col Kane later wrote a stirring tribute to the men who were lost on the Tidal Wave mission. It is repeated here, provided courtesy of MSgt Herb Harper, 98th Bomb Group Veterans Association Historian:
To The Fallen of Ploesti
To you who fly on forever I send that part of me which cannot be separated
and is bound to you for all times. I send to you those of our hopes and
dreams that never quite came true, the joyous laughter and showery tears of
our boyhood, the marvelous mysteries of our adolescence, the glorious
strength and tragic illusions of our young manhood, all these that were and
perhaps would have been, I leave in your care, out there in the blue.
John Riley Kane
Of note, Col Kane’s salute is carried on a stone monument in Cismigiu garden in Bucharest, Romania, dedicated to all the American flyers lost in air missions over Romania.
Less than a year later, another Portland native took part in the renewed attacks on “Festung Ploiești” (Fortress Ploiești) that came in 1944 – he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor. See “The Final Flight of David R. Kingsley” at:
On this 75th anniversary of Tidal Wave, we salute all the brave Airmen, from Oregon, the rest of the United States as well as the RAF officer who carried out the difficult mission. Even though the plan was impacted by contact with reality and did not achieve all the desired results, it was still a punishing blow by American airpower. Operation Tidal Wave demonstrated to the enemy the willingness of American Airmen and capacity of the Air Force to close in combat with the enemy over great distances and inflict telling blows.
Of the Tidal Wave groups and squadrons, a number are still on duty today, as indicated in this listing of the current status of the units that flew the 1 August 1943 mission:
44th Bomb Group, now the 44th Fighter Group (AFRC, Tyndall AFB, FL)
66th Bomb Squadron – Nil since 1993
67th Bomb Squadron – Nil since 1992
68th Bomb Squadron – Nil since 1994
404th Bomb Squadron – Nil since 1986
93rd Bomb Group – Nil since 2002
328th Bombardment Squadron, now the 328th Weapons Squadron (ACC, Weapons School Cyberspace Warfare Operations Weapons Instructor Course, Nellis AFB, NV)
329th Bomb Squadron – Nil since 1991
330th Bombardment Squadron, now the 330th Combat Training Squadron (ACC 461st Ops Group, Robins AFB, GA)
409th Bomb Squadron, now the 909th Air Refueling Squadron (PACAF, 18th Wing, Kadena AB, Japan)
98th Bomb Group, now the 98th Operations Group (NTTR, Nellis AFB, NV)
343rd Bomb Squadron, still the 343rd Bomb Squadron (AFRC, 307th Ops Group, Barksdale AFB, LA)
344rd Bomb Squadron, now the 344th Air Refueling Squadron (AMC, 22nd Ops Group, McConnell AFB, KS)
345th Bomb Squadron, still the 345th Bomb Squadron (AFRC, 489th Bomb Group, Dyess AFB, TX)
415th Bomb Squadron, now the 415th Flight Test Flight (AFRC, 413th Flt Test Group, JB San Antonio, Randolph AFB, TX)
376th Bomb Group – Nil since 2014
512th Bomb Squadron, now the 512th Rescue Squadron (AETC, 58th SOW, Kirtland AFB, NM)
513th Bomb Squadron, now the 513th Electronic Warfare Squadron (ACC, 53d Electronic Warfare Group, Eglin AFB, FL)
514th Bomb Squadron, now the 514th Flight Test Squadron (AFLC, Ogden Air Logistics Center, Hill AFB, UT)
515th Bomb Squadron – Nil since 1962
389th Bomb Group – Nil since 1965
564th Bomb Squadron – Nil since 1965
565th Bomb Squadron – Nil since 1965
566th Bomb Squadron – Nil since 1965
567th Bomb Squadron – Nil since 1945