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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
BUT WE DIDN’T exactly win that round. One B-24 was burning furiously, and the crew members were already bailing out. That left eight B-24s in formation for the second attack. The Jerries tried the same tactics, this time six abreast. Again they all fired together, and the lead Me-109 completely disintegrated in the air as it was caught in our deadly crossfire. Another was smoking, and again a B-24 went down in flames; this time we only counted five chutes out.
Then the Jerries changed their tactics and began coming in individually and from all directions. On the second pass we received several holes in the fuselage, and Lieutenant Gioana (who had exchanged places with Sergeant Alfredson) and Sergeant Ayers were injured by 20-mm explosions. Lieutenant Gioana smiled and said, “Guess we get the Purple Heart. ” A couple of seconds later an individual fighter ship slipped in from directly astern and planted a direct hit on the armored glass of the tail turret, knocking Sergeant Hunt into the fuselage and putting the turret out of action. Sergeant Hunt picked himself up and then manned a waist gun. We now had only our waist guns working and hurriedly transferred our spare ammunition to these positions.
Another 20-mm explosion knocked a large hole in the left rudder and still another tore away a large piece of elevator surface. And then suddenly two more shells exploded in the fuselage and seriously wounded Lieutenant Gioana. He had thirty-five cuts, mostly on the torso and legs. The explosions also severed the control surface cables. The nose dropped slightly, and the ship started into a shallow bank to the left, out of control. CaI, who was looking out the window at the time, turned and said, “Let’s move back up into formation.” I answered, “Can’t do it, the controls are gone,” as I pulled the control column completely back in my lap. I automatically reached for the elevator trim tab, but that too was loose and revolved freely without effect. I almost pushed the alarm button to prepare to bail out, but then I remembered the automatic pilot, which, fortunately, I always kept warmed up. I reached over and flipped it into the “on” position and, thank heaven, it was working. By this time we were down about five hundred feet below the formation. I adjusted the elevator and aileron knobs, and the nose came up slowly. We moved under the formation, where we stayed for about fifteen minutes until the fighters, out of gas, finally left us.
The trip home was one of sweating out the gas. Sergeant Dillman figured we had enough to last until 7:00 P.M. Lieutenant Klinkbeil said we would never make it by then. So we decided to stretch it as far as possible. We threw all the guns, except two, overboard and most of the ammunition and everything else we figured we wouldn’t need if we were forced to ditch. I cut back the rpm to 1700 and the manifold pressure to twenty-five inches and indicated 155 mph. Oddly enough, the number three engine was running more smoothly now, although I could see several flak hits on the top cylinders and several spark-plug wires dangling in the air.
The engines were still going but couldn’t last much longer; the gas gauges indicated zero. It was 9:30 P.M. We only needed a few more minutes!
Sergeants Ayers and Alfredson and Coldiron were in the back bandaging both themselves and Lieutenant Gioana, who had passed out by this time from loss of blood. Sergeant Dillman was busy trying to splice the broken control cables, which were dangling all over the fuselage.
We waited and watched for the coastline and did a lot of praying. Several times we thought we could see the coast, but it would always turn out to be a long string of clouds. Finally it began to get dark, and our spirits dropped even more. Gas was running low, and Sergeant Dillman, checking it for the twenty-seventh time, said he didn’t see how it could last beyond 9:00 P.M. even with our low power settings.