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2nd Lt. Lloyd Herbert "Pete" Hughes, Jr.
(12 Jul 1921 - 1 Aug 1943)


"My Most Memorable Combat Mission"
by James H. McClain - 564th Navigator

Jim McClain wrote in (February) 1945 for a college English class this account of this experiences in Bengasi, Libya, and on Operation TIDAL WAVE, the August 1, 1943, lo-level mission on oil refineries in Rumania. Because he wrote it for a grade and to a civilian audience, our readers will note that Jim was careful to avoid a lot of military lingo. The impresses professor gave him an “A”! For our publication Jim as added some footnotes at the end. (Editor, Kelsey McMillan)

It is not altogether easy for me to pick out one combat mission as my most memorable, as there were several missions during my combat tour that will remain vivid in my memory for many years. Each of these memorable missions has its own unique situations, dangers, and thrills.

However, one mission that will always stand out in my mind is the low-level attack on the Ploesti, Rumania, oil refineries by 177 B-24 Liberators on August 1, 1943. This raid has been described by many writers(1) as the most daring attack of the war by the Army Air Forces. Of significance is the fact that five Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to participants in the raid. Three were awarded posthumously and two were awarded to fliers who survived very exceptional dangers in this raid where exceptional dangers were not uncommon.

I shall not attempt to tell the overall story of this mission as that would take much too long. Instead, I shall tell, as best I can, the story of this raid from my point of view as a navigator on one of the many combat crews that participated in this great undertaking.

Of particulate note is the exceptionally detailed training we received for this mission in spite of the limited intelligence data available. Because the refineries lay at such great distance from our bases, reconnaissance planes were not able to photograph the target. Therefore, the only pictures available were from pre-war postcards and travel folders. Nevertheless, ground training included study of models of the refineries, movies of how the targets would look as we approached them (these movies were made by the English using the models just mentioned and were exceedingly realistic), and lectures by men who had worked in these Rumanian refineries. (Some refineries were English owned and/or operated before the war.)

Also, we diligently studied maps of the route to and from the target and photographs of landmarks we would see. On top of this, we were taught some basic Slav words to be used in aiding our escape should we happen to be forced down.

In addition to this ground training we naturally got considerable air training. Pilot, navigator, and bombardier had to become familiar with, and master, the problems arising from low-level flying and bombing. For weeks preceding the actual operation several practice bomb runs were made every day over the full-size outline of the target laid out in the desert. At first we practiced singly, then by flights, and finally the whole group worked together. In spite of the dangers involved in just that practice for this mission, no causalities were incurred. However, two planes did “bounce” off the desert, and one B-24 struck and killed a camel.

No one in the group knew when the mission was to take place, and tension mounted at we completed our training. After practice missions utilizing the whole force that was to attack the refineries had been accomplished, we knew that the fateful day was near. For several days prior to the raid we were briefed every evening on the weather for the following day. We would then go to our beds and try to sleep, expecting to be called in the morning for the actual operation. Practice continued for some days however, and it was like waiting for the dentist to call you in to have a tooth filled.

Finally it came. We were aroused at two-thirty on Sunday morning for breakfast and final briefing. One might have thought we were very calm because we were so quiet. Actually, we were all wondering whether we would be among those who would return, and no one cared to discuss it. Nevertheless, everyone was willing and ready to take their part in this all-important effort to smash the axis’ greatest source of fuel oil. I had even packed a small cloth bag with toothbrush, soap, razor, and other articles I thought might come in handy should we be forced down in enemy territory.

Takeoffs began about six-thirty and about eight o’clock the five groups participating in this might effort departed the Libyan coast on the 2,400-mile round trip. It was a clear, bright Sunday morning – a morning that one would rather go to church and then leaf through the Sunday papers than be winging his way into the heart of Hitler’s “Fortress Europe”.

It was a quiet and uneventful trip2 across the smooth, bright blue Mediterranean to the southern tip of Corfu, an island off the western coast of Greece, where we altered course to the northwest and headed inland to our objective. Our course from Corfu took us across the southern tips of Albania and Yugoslavia, practically in a straight line to the target area.

The countryside en route was extremely hilly and mountainous, with many red-roofed farms and villages dotting the landscape. Some of these farms and clusters of houses looked so peaceful and remote because of the rugged terrain that I began thinking of their inhabitants. (Flyers, because of the impersonal nature of their work, are prone to forget that human beings exist in the areas they pass over and bomb.) I wondered what personal effect the war was having on them. Could war and its effects alter their way of life in these remote and inaccessible areas? Also I wondered how they felt upon observing such a might armada, since a good deal of the area we flew over that day had been penetrated by Allied planes in this war.

The trip continued uneventfully until we reached the Balkan Mountains of Bulgaria. Here we encountered the age-old enemy of the airman – weather! In this instance it was towering cumulus clouds which forced the formation to break up. Some groups had to circle several times in an effort to find a place their whole group could go through. It was at this point that the 390th became separated from the main force. However, we continued on our way across the Balkan Mountains, and the broad, flat valley of the muddy Danube River to the town of Pitesti, our initial point (the point at which the bomb run begins).

At Pitesti we were about 7,000 feet above the terrain, and we started out let-down on the curve bomb run to our target at Câmpina, which was about 15 miles north of the main group of refineries at Ploesti. On the bomb run the tension among the crew was at its peak. Here we were, going into a target 250 feet off the ground in a bomber that was made to do its work above 20,000 feet. Furthermore, after beginning the let-down to the target, misfortune began to dog our heels. The leader first momentarily lost his position (low-level navigation is very difficult because of the limited field of view of the navigator,) and we began a southward run on an impressive-looking, though unimportant, cement factory at Tragoviste, just west of Câmpina. Luckily, however, the error was discovered in time and the leader turned northward to resume the bomb run. But in doing so we passed two or three miles to the west of Câmpina, thus thoroughly alerting their defenses. The bomb-run was picked up at a point four or five miles north of the target, and, after an extremely steep bank to the right, we were on the last lap of the run. As I mentioned before, we had alerted the defenses at Câmpina and we were paying for it now. Intense 20- and 40- millimeter fire converged on us along with the too-occasional black puff of an exploding 88mm shell.

Things were happening so fast now that although I can picture the scene in my mind today, I cannot describe it fully. The flight ahead of us dropped their delayed-action bombs squarely on their target, the boiler house. As we flashed over the refinery, a bare 10 or 15 feet above the smoke stacks, the smoke and flames of the exploding boilers enveloped us as our bombs went away to their mark.

These explosions of the refinery boilers proved fatal to our left wing man, LLOYD “PET” HUGHES and crew, as they had suffered a hit in a gas tank a moment previous, and as they passed through the smoke and flame of the exploding boilers, the stream of gasoline coming from the punctured tank was ignited. The huge bomber resembled a meteor as flames streamed from it. Pete then attempted to crash-land in a dry river bed, but a wing tip caught the river bank and the stricken bomber cartwheeled to total destruction. We felt that no one could survive the crash, but we learned a year later that two of the gunners lived. Pete could have pulled up as soon as he was hit and undoubtedly make a successful crash-landing. He elected, however, to deliver his bombs to the target. In this decision Pete lost his life. Lloyd H. Hughes was one of the three brave men who posthumously received our country’s highest award, the Congressional Medal of Honor, for their deeds that day.

On leaving the target area we “hit the deck”; that is, we flew only a few feet off the ground, lifting up only to go over trees, wires, houses and other obstacles. Some planes came back with corn stalks caught in their bomb bay doors. As we lifted over these obstacles I could see B-24s by the dozens to the southeast, swarming in confusion in the smoke-filled sky. The groups that had attacked Ploesti proper were not having things as easy as we were. As we roared along “on the deck” I had a couple of opportunities to some strafing. I managed, with some luck, to hit a pumping station and set it on fire. This made me feel that I had contributed more personally to the destruction of this target.

Other incidents of a less violent nature were of interest also: a small boy flinging a stone at us as we passed over him; a gathering of children and a few adults in their brightly-colored dress near a church (I wondered if it could have been a Sunday-school picnic); and people swimming in the Danube. We were only a few minutes removed from the havoc we had wrought, but it seemed quite peaceful below us again. Because we were flying so low, these scenes were very clear.

After crossing the Danube on our route home we began climbing, because we again had to cross the rugged Balkan Mountains. We climbed very cautiously, utilizing every bit of power in order to conserve our gasoline supply. Just as we were crossing the highest peaks we noticed a bomber from our group3 to the rear and below us with an engine out. Although we had been warned not to play “nursemaid” to any damaged aircraft (“It’s every man for himself”, our Group Commander had said.), we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave a friend in need of protection. So we circled back and took a position off the right wing of the injured bomber. Since this aircraft had one of its four engines out and a leaking gas cell, the pilot had to fly much slower than the rest of the formation. So before long we were watching the remainder of our group disappear into the distance.

We and our crippled charge were no alone and still deep in enemy territory. (Months later, on a mission to Norway4, we were repaid for this protection by the same crew when we were the cripple and they were the protector.) Luckily we ran into no opposition, and a few hours later we were again over the Mediterranean, this time heading southward to our base in Africa. A couple hours later, as we approached the Libyan coast, darkness began to fall quickly. We landed about 9:30 in the evening by the light of oil-burning flare pots, some 14-1/2 hours after we had taken off.

The feeling of joy and elation at again setting foot on solid earth was something beyond description. That morning we had doubted that we should see our desert home again. We thanked God too for our very good fortune in coming through the ordeal without a scratch.

Then came the interrogation, which was a scene of considerable noise and confusion. Intelligence officers were attempting to get information of a military nature: “Did you bombs hit the aiming point?”; “How many enemy aircraft did you see?”; and so on. Meanwhile, the crew members were immediately more concerned with items of less military importance:

“Didja see that guy on the white horse on the bridge just left of the target?”

“Yeah!”

“Well, somebody shot ‘im up! Those .50s blew that horse apart!”

The scene had it comic aspects.

After a meal of cold hamburgers and coffee, we wearily dragged ourselves to our dusty but welcome cots. As I lay there, I could see through the opening of our tent Pete Hughes’ tent, and I wondered about Pete. I didn’t wonder long because sleep was upon me in a few moments. It had been a busy day.

FOOTNOTES

1 At that time (February 1946) I don’t think there was a comprehensive account of TIDAL WAVE. My “references” were largely articles which had appeared in news and adventure magazines of the times.

2 I decided to omit my observations of the smoke rising from the sea as a result of the FLAVELLE (376th BG) mishap since it wasn’t pertinent to my 389th story.

3 This was FRANK MCLAUGHLIN and crew in OLE IRISH. ROBERT L. WRIGHT did an intercom poll of the crew as to whether we should disregard the “no nurse-maiding” order, do a 360, and escort Mac home. He got a unanimous, “Okay.” Knowing Wright, he’d have done it regardless of the vote. Having to power down our four smoothly running engines enabled Wright to return to Bengasi with the most remaining fuel of the 389th planes.

4This was the November 18, 1943, mission to the Kjeller, Norway, German airdrome. But that’s another story!


Source: "My Most Memorable Combat Mission" by James H. McClain - 564th Navigator - as published in the NEWS 389th Bomb Group and Attached Units - Volume 21 #1, Winter 2008, Pages 1, 3-5. Republished here with his permission

First published here: October 30, 2012

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