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
Coming out of the smoke on the far side of the target seemed like a miracle, unbelievable! Sergeant Hunt, tail gunner, picked this time to say over the Interphone: “Look at all that oil burning. And to think this time last year I was working in a gas station. ” Quickly we looked around to assess the damage. Number three engine had been hit and was smoking. (I reduced the power and waited before feathering it.) The nosewheel was knocked out. The hydraulic system was inoperative, fluid pouring into the bomb bay. The top turret was out, and one gun in the tail turret was inoperative. Flak holes were all over the fuselage and several were in the wings and engine nacelles. But we were still flying, and no one was badly injured. Our chances looked pretty good.
Others ships had not been so lucky. Boilermaker Number II wasn’t with us anymore. The Cornhusker had gone down. Lil Joe wasn’t there, nor Semper Felix, Old Baldy, Air Lobe, Vulgar Virgin , and others. Over on the right a B-24 suddenly started climbing, stalled, and spun in. Another, smoking badly, was forced to crash-land in a long field. A twin-engine fighter went down in flames. I was amazed at the capacity of my subconscious mind to record so many details at a glance.
Out of the target area the formation had loosened up, but we closed in again quickly. I ended up on the right wing of Maj. Herbert Shingler, from Tennessee, our squadron commander, and flew the tightest formation I had ever flown. Junkers-88s and Me-IOQs were attacking stragglers and cripples and anyone above one hundred feet. We had been briefed to fly low to make fighter attacks more difficult, and for fifty miles after the target we skimmed the deck, cutting corn, wheat, and sunflowers with the propellers. The engineer, Sergeant Dillman, was posted between the seats as a safety measure, to observe any obstructions that CaI and I might miss. Lieutenant Gioana in the nose was very much concerned about a small wooden tower coming up ahead (which we had already seen), and he screamed over the Interphone until at the last instant we pulled up and just cleared it.
The navigator reported that Colonel Kane’s ship, Hail, Columbia , had slipped behind and turned off course with a feathered engine.
For fifty miles we flew low at 175 mph. Then someone called the leader over the command radio and complained that his rudder section had been damaged and fluttered if he flew above 160; so we slowed down. Before reaching the target, I had become very tired from flying, and CaI relieved me about every thirty minutes. Now I somehow felt fresh, almost completely rested, and in spite of all that had happened, I thoroughly enjoyed flying. We buzzed over small villages and, invariably, people waved. We passed so close over a two-wheeled hay wagon that three girls in brightly colored skirts jumped off, but nevertheless they smiled and waved. I wondered if they knew who we were.
A farmer plowing in a cornfield saw us coming and left his horse and plow and lay flat between the rows, obviously frightened. He didn’t wave.
Just past the Danube River we started a gradual climb. We flew north of Pleven, Bulgaria, and later passed south of Sofia. At about five thousand feet someone suddenly called out “fighters at three o’clock and a little high. ” Sergeant Coldiron in the top turret (our best man on aircraft recognition) looked them over and decided they were Italian fighters, and he was right. They made only a few passes and did not press the attack. I think we actually scared them away with our tracers, which showed up brilliantly in the rather dark sky. (There were many thunderheads in this area.)
We continued our climb to eleven thousand feet to clear the mountains. Some of the damaged ships were unable to climb and were forced to turn south and fly down the winding river valley. As we crossed the southern tip of Corfu we breathed a premature sigh of relief. The worst was yet to come! We had only nine B-24s left in the formation of thirty-five starting with our group, and again we heard the announcement, “Fighters, three o’clock, straight in the sun.” We looked closely and there were fifteen Me-109s flying along parallel to our course, looking us over. We tightened up the formation a bit and waited. I was on the right wing and dropped down a little to uncover the guns of the ship on my left. Pretty soon the 109s dropped their belly (gas) tanks, and five of them started in, flying abreast in a shallow V-shape formation. There was no surprise action. We recognized this as a cool, well-planned, German attack, and we knew the Jerries couldn’t be frightened away. We either had to shoot them down, be shot down ourselves, or wait for them to run out of gas. At one thousand yards we started firing, and at eight hundred yards everyone was firing. Tracers literally covered the sky, and 20-mm shells exploded all through the formation. Our gunners got the range, and the two Me-109s on the right were hit hard; one exploded immediately, and the other blew up just after passing the formation. The second Jerry bailed out in a yellow parachute.