- Historic Sites
Ploesti: A Pilot's Diary
A thousand miles behind enemy lines, Liberator bombers struck Hitler’s Rumanian oil refineries, then headed home flying so low that some came back with cornstalks in their bomb bays
October/november 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 6
Benghazi, Libya, July 23,1943. Something new is in the air! This morning we were introduced to a Major Blank, an expert in low-level bombing, who lectured us on a new bombsight, which was a converted gunsight. He explained how A-20s had been making low-level attacks and that experiments were being made with B-24s. He said that he didn’t know if the new sights would ever be used, but we assumed the Air Force wouldn’t be running experiments that far out in the desert for nothing, so we decided to get interested in low-level bombing.
July 24, 1943 . This afternoon several B-24s were rigged up with the new sights, and some of the lead crews ran demonstrations on wooden targets built much like billboards. The planes came in very low and released their bombs just before reaching the target. Bull’s-eyes were scored almost every time.
July 25, 1943 . Today all the ships on our field were suddenly equipped with the new low-altitude sight, and the bombardiers were given special bombing charts. Now we knew they weren’t kidding! Rumors and tall stories began going around the camp about where the attacks would be made. Some guessed the Messina dockyards.
This afternoon we were briefed on low-altitude formation flying and also on security (which wasn’t much of a problem in the desert; there was no one to talk to except ourselves).
July 26, 1943 . Captain Packer called my crew in and explained that our group (the 389th) had more crews and ships than our quota and that the 98th Group was short, and since we had joined the group last, we were to fly the next mission with the 98th Group. We therefore packed and went the short distance over to the 98th and were assigned the airplane Daisy Mae , a veteran of some fifty-six missions but a good ship just the same. Little did we know what a difference this simple transfer was to make for us in the raid to come.
The next five days were busy ones. Every morning we flew low-altitude formation (from fifty feet down). It was really fun! All five groups (44th, 93rd, 98th, 376th, and 389th) were doing the same thing. I guess we frightened every Arab off every hay wagon and blew down half the tents for fifty miles around. Each morning we added something new. At first we flew in three- and six-ship formations, then squadron formation, then in our group, and finally in five waves with seven ships in each. I was assigned to fly on the left wing of the squadron leader (Maj. Herbert Shingler) of the fourth wave. For days you could look around almost anywhere on the desert and see formations of B-24s skimming along the ground, just missing what few palm trees there were. In open spaces they swooped still lower until they barely missed the ground. The sheepherders on the desert really had a rough time! One lieutenant actually flew so low he scraped off his bomb-bay doors, kicked up a lot of dust, and blew down three tents. On the third day the British engineers erected the “target” on a clear space in the desert. It consisted of a large number of long, low, wooden buildings with an occasional circular building and a few towers. We always dropped a few one-hundred-pound practice bombs, but on the last day we put in some live five-hundred-pounders with delayed fuses and blew the whole thing sky high.
In the afternoon and evenings we studied the target, for by now we knew we were making a low-level attack on the Ploesti oil fields in Rumania. I guess we received the most complete and detailed briefing of any air raid in history. Each of our five groups was assigned one of the thirteen oil refineries around Bucharest, and each of the five waves in our group had a certain area. Every airplane had a specific building or a part of a building on which the bombs were to be placed. Our target was the left end of a boiler house; the ship behind us was assigned the right end. The briefing facilities, equipment, and assistance were unlimited. We had draftsmen to make drawings and sketches of every route, every target, every building. They constructed wooden models, to scale, of every building and every oil storage tank. We had pictures, maps, and drawings galore. Every pilot, navigator, and bombardier knew exactly what he was supposed to do. Group commanders Colonel Kane, Colonel Wood, Colonel Timberlake, and wing commander Brig. Gen. Ent knew all the targets better than the crews themselves. General Brereton and Air Chief Marshal Tedder talked with all the crews. In the evenings we were shown motion pictures of the target area and buildings, some borrowed from the files of American oil companies in the States, some smuggled out of occupied Rumania. One evening a group of engineers who had helped to build the refineries spoke to us and described many of the buildings, how they were constructed and how the plants could best be put out of action. For five days we talked only of Ploesti, trying to digest all the information the intelligence section had spent so long in preparing. On Sunday, August 1, we were ready.