Ploesti: A Pilot's Diary

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We were at five hundred feet and still going down. It was only twelve miles to Ploesti, yet it was the longest twelve miles I ever hope to fly.

August 1, 1943 . At 3:30 A.M. the assistant operations officer came around to our tent and woke us up for the mission. We dressed, ate breakfast (powdered eggs, prunes, oatmeal, bacon, and coffee), and went over to the briefing hut. Not much additional briefing was necessary, so thorough had been our previous study of the target. Colonel Kane, from Shreveport, Louisiana, did most of the talking. (He reminded me a lot of Wallace Beery, only he was younger and undoubtedly tougher.) He reviewed the formation board and the briefed route (Benghazi to the island of Corfu, to the target, back to Corfu, and home—just as simple as that). It was a twenty-four-hundred-mile flight. We had an extra bomb-bay tank, which gave us a total of thirty-one hundred gallons of gasoline in addition to our bomb load of three 1,000-pound bombs with long-delay fuses, plus some incendiary clusters and an extra-large load of ammunition. We had the ten regular .50-caliber machine guns and two extras—double-waist guns, very formidable weapons. The weather officer, Captain Anderson, explained the situation. Pretty heavy clouds were expected along the coast in the Corfu area; otherwise it was OK. The intelligence officer, Major Exnicios, briefly reviewed the targets. Ours was white target (Austro-Rumania), blue route, building No. 6 (oil-refining plant). We already knew it perfectly. The question was raised whether we should carry our pistols. Colonel Kane explained that it was optional (that personally if he went down, he was going to shoot his way out of Rumania), and about half the crews decided to take them along. Our crew didn’t. But everyone did take his water canteen (in addition to the huge thermos jug in the ship) and a good supply of K rations.

Altogether the briefing was comparatively short for so important a mission, but practically everything had already been covered many times in previous sessions. We went out to check over our ship. The mechanics had been working all night to get everything in shape, and it looked pretty good. The crew members reported their equipment as being in proper condition. Takeoff was scheduled for 6:30 A.M.

Father Beck came around in his jeep to give final blessings and to pick up any last-minute “just in case” mail—(letters to be sent in case the crew didn’t return). Almost everyone had already completed his letters home the day before. This was the first time we had written letters of this kind, and everyone knew this would be a tough assignment. Colonel Wood had said this mission was the reason for our trip to Africa, and Colonel Kane had explained that if the entire group was lost, the destruction of the target would be worth it. Not much consolation.

Pretty soon it was time to start the engines and taxi out. All of the fellows said good-bye to Peanuts, our mascot terrier, before turning him over to the crew chief for safekeeping. We had often discussed the possibility of taking him on a mission, but no one thought it was a good idea to take Peanuts to Ploesti for his first trip.

As we taxied out, everyone was surprisingly quiet and confident, at least outwardly. During our few missions in Africa we had learned something about fear and how to control it.

The ships were marshaled in long lines on both sides of the field, tails pointing slightly downwind to prevent columns of dust from covering the ships. Lt. CaI Fager and I ran up the engine and went through the checklist automatically. Then, trying to appear nonchalant, I smiled and said, “Here we go, boy. ” I gave it full throttle, and we began to gain speed across the dirt runway, then lifted slowly into the air. I had hardly relaxed after the takeoff (getting safely into the air with a heavily loaded ship is always a mental strain on pilots and quite often on other members of the crew as well) when Lieutenant Klinkbeil said over the Interphone, “Navigator to pilot, a plane has just crashed south of the field. You can see it if you look out your left side window.” Something had gone wrong on the takeoff and the ship crashed and burned furiously. I wondered if this was a bad omen at the beginning of our trip and said half-aloud to myself, “Tough luck.”

We circled over the field and formed the group above the black, billowing smoke of the burning ship and headed north, on course, across the blue Mediterranean. The other four groups were flying parallel courses, two up front and one on either side.

SIXTY MINUTES SLIPPED BY without incident, and then suddenly the navigator (who always saw things first) called out that a ship up ahead was losing altitude and was going to crash and, sure enough, down it went, a long trail of blue smoke following it into the water. The radio operator reported that our leader had radioed a distress signal to Malta, but we could see no survivors. The waist gunner said that he had snapped a picture of the ship.