Ploesti: A Pilot's Diary

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Another hour went by and we passed over the southern tip of the island of Corfu and headed northeast across Greece where it joins Albania. As we crossed the coast we expected some flak but saw none. We were flying low (six thousand feet) to avoid alerting the German radar stations, but now we had to climb to pass over the Pindus Mountains; so up we went to eleven thousand feet. We were over enemy territory and heading straight for Ploesti, still five hundred miles away.

The weather above the mountains was worse than we had expected; large cumulus clouds had developed and were towering high above the formation. Three planes began clipping the edges of the clouds, some losing the formation altogether for several minutes. It was difficult just to keep the groups together, impossible to keep them in their proper positions. The lead group became separated, and we did not see it again until we reached the target area.

Across the mountains the weather began to get a little better, and we started letting down to three thousand feet and finally to one thousand feet. We continued across Greece, southern Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, over the Danube, and straight into Rumania. One navigator noted in his log, “The Danube River isn’t blue but brown.”

At this low altitude we had a good view of the countryside. Bombardier Gioana pointed out a Rumanian festival in full swing with girls in colorful dresses. They were unaccustomed to air raids and waved as we went by. Farmers were ploughing in the small, square fields. Some stopped to look upward, using their hands to shade the sun from their eyes; others ignored us completely. Some fields were green with wheat. In others sunflowers were growing between the rows of corn. Occasionally we passed yellow haystacks, which reflected the bright sunlight. It was a beautiful country and looked quite peaceful.

 
 

We had been briefed to expect fighters any time after making landfall, and this thought limited our enjoyment of the scenery. We flew for two and a half hours in a straight line to a little town in Rumania called Pitesti. This was the place where the five groups would break up and proceed to their respective targets. Once we turned down the wrong valley but quickly turned back and were finally on our bomb run. We were at five hundred feet now and still going down. From Pitesti to Ploesti was only twelve miles, yet it was the longest twelve miles I ever hope to fly. The peaceful countryside wasn’t peaceful anymore: the Germans had made good use of their two or three hours’ advance warning. Haystacks opened up and turned into gun nests; machine guns and flak guns were on every hill. By now we were down to two hundred feet, but we knew instantly that we were still much too high. Down we went to one hundred feet, fifty feet, twenty-five feet, just clearing the bushes and shrubbery. At 2300 rpm and thirty-seven inches we were doing 230 mph in tight formation. As we got closer we were surprised to see B-24s from another group bombing our target. The ack-ack boys were already at work, and the oil tanks were smoking and burning furiously. Our route followed a railway line to the target. As we headed into the target area, dozens of machine guns from a flak train alongside opened up, and then all hell broke loose! Thousands of tracers crisscrossed through the sky making beautiful but terrifying patterns. I saw one heavy 88-mm gun fire point blank, and a long arm of orange flame spouted from the muzzle.

Coming out of the smoke on the far side of the target seemed like a miracle, unbelievable! The tail gunner said, “Look at all that oil burning!”

Our gunners were not idle. Twelve .50-caliber machine guns from each ship spouted continuous rounds of deadly fire concentrating on anything that moved. Many gun emplacements were put out of action; many ground gunners were mowed down. Our lead ships had several extra fixed guns in the nose section that fired continuously until the barrels burned out. One ship made a belly landing, and a couple of the crew members scrambled for cover. The storage tanks were exploding now, with burning oil flowing out, making towering, black smoke clouds. But we could still see the outline of the target, the buildings, and the chimneys. I was astonished to hear Gioana say calmly over the Interphone, “We’re headed straight for our building; be sure you pull up in time.” When the smoking target was almost in the windshield, CaI and I both hauled back on the wheel, held it a few seconds, and pushed it forward again, barely clearing the chimneys as we plunged through the smoke. I felt the bombs go and saw several balloon cables snap as they struck our wings. A ship on our left waited too long to pull up and flew directly into a storage tank. Burning pieces of it disintegrated into the air, and crewmen were thrown in every direction. Other ships, hopelessly damaged on the bomb run, plunged directly into the burning target.