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


Then Came Tidal Wave At Tree Top Level

Shaking desert sand and dust from the weathered paint of their slab sides and twin tails, the four engine bombers lumber out of the heat of an African night climbing slowly into a new day.

There are 178 B24s, each with a crew of 10 men, up from the American base at Bengazi at first light this Sunday carrying 310 tons of bombs, more than two million bullets, north into Europe.

This mission called Tidal Wave is to be the longest yet, a round trip of at least 2,300 miles, most of it over hostile territory. Air crews of four of the five bomb groups- Ted's Traveling Circus, the Pyraxiders, Liberandos and Eight Balls-have been to fight in the sky at east 15 times before. Some 300 men have more than 25 missions behind them and know the odds for safe return are getting very long. Only the men in' the factory fresh B24s of the trailing group who call themselves the Sky Scorpions are new to air combat.

All of them have been told they are flying to shorten the war, that coming back is secondary today.

It is August 1, 1943, the 36th anniversary of the U.S. Army Air Force.

Uneasy partners in Khaki, soldiers and airmen argued incessantly for most of those years on how best to use this new winged weapon that showed much promise in World War I.

Skeptical soldiers wanted airplanes to ' clear a path for tanks and infantry. Air- men, believing in their souls that the machine had changed the very nature of war, spent 20 years evolving fragile kites of spruce and doped fabric to sleek metal monsters bristling with machine guns able to carry tons of bombs 1000 miles or more. Victory, the aviators contended, lay in airpower, massive fleets of bombers soaring over the mire of the battlefield, deep into the enemy's homeland to destroy his ability to make and move the machines of modern war.

There were inconclusive early trials of the American concept of daylight strategic bombing over France and Germany. Then came Tidal Wave.

Tucked in tight in standard three plane vees the B-24s are bound for the oil wells, tank farms, pumping stations and refineries ringing the Roumanian city of Ploesti source of more than a third of the gasoline, diesel oil and lubricants for German planes, tanks and submarines. As yet untouched in this fourth summer of war, Ploesti is guarded by experienced fighter pilots and flak gunners who know its importance.

 (picture) American B·24S bomb Ploesti May 31, 1944, in one of many high altitude raids following the Tidal Wave low level attack the previous year.

Enroute to the target, several B-24s drop out and turn back, props feathered on dead engines. Over Albania, the formation breaks up while penetrating a weather front. In the lead, the Liberandos and Traveling Circus are wisked along by brisk tail winds at 16,000 feet. Flying lower, the other three groups hold together and fall behind.

Ploesti's defenders have watched Tidal Wave come to them all morning in plotted positions from radio intercepts, coast watchers, radar and fighters that failed to intercept. Suddenly, just 150 miles out, all contact is lost. The bombers vanish.

Counting on the Germans to anticipate they will bomb from high altitude as they unfailingly have done in earlier raids elsewhere, .the bombers come in under the radar, racing the last miles at tree top height.

A few minutes after 1: 30 p.m. local time, lead B-24s of Tidal Wave burst from a mountain valley into the flatlands south- west of Ploesti. The Liberandos and Traveling Circus have missed a check point and turned too soon for the target. Off to their left the crews see dark smoke hanging above the refineries, realize their error. Circus planes first, then the Liberandos, break left and go for the nearest refineries at 245 miles an hour-50 feet off the ground. The other three groups begin bomb runs far to the northwest of the city about the same time.

Instead of the planned simultaneous strike by five groups on the widely dispersed targets, the first planes come in alone from the wrong direction at the wrong target.
The next 30 minutes span one of history's wildest battles. Air gunners duel point blank with startled flak crews. Huge planes designed to fly and bomb four miles high roar across Ploesti and the surrounding oil fields at roof top level, criss-crossing through smoke and flame, maneuvering violently to avoid refinery towers, mushrooms of exploding gasoline and mortally hit B-24s.

Going in and coming out the bombers fly through the heaviest flak concentration in Europe, small arms of every size, machine guns, rapid firing 20 mm and 37mm cannons, 88 and even 105mm guns. Slewing rapidly to fire at B-24s hurtling by almost on the muzzles of their guns, some flak crews spray men in other gun positions. Head on, the bombers are too big to miss. One takes a direct hit from an 88, simply stops flying. Others are torn to pieces in the air by streams of bullets. Here and there, tracers reach wing or bomb bay tanks. The stricken bombers trail fire and smoke but hold on for their targets.

A hard hit bomber staggers into a gun battery and explodes. In the third wave of the Traveling Circus, a B-24 ablaze from nose to tail flies into the side of a refinery building. The wingless fuselage emerges from the other side, slides on and crashes into another building. Six ships in the last wave of the Pyramiders plunge into a wall of fire and smoke rising from their target. Only one comes out the other side.

Five miles from the bomb release point, the B-24 flown by Lloyd H. Hughes of the Sky Scorpions takes a hit in the bomb bay tank. Raw gas gushing from his ship, Hughes holds formation straight into a piller of fire rising from the target, drives his bombs home. His friends in other planes watch helpless as Hughes heads the plane, a flying ball of fire, for a field just beyond the target. For an instant it appears he will get it down, then the right wing catches the ground. The plane cartwheels and explodes.

Coming off the target, the scattered survivors hug the ground, props feathered on damaged engines. Many are burning. The planes are sieves, filled with dead and injured men. In twos and threes the bombers flee south. A few head southeast hoping for Turkey. Waiting fighters pounce on the cripples like sharks on bleeding whales.

Behind them, the refineries and tank farms erupt in flame. Germans and Roumanians round up Americans who by some miracle survived low altitude parachute jumps. A few badly burned men count themselves lucky to be alive as they crawl from wrecked planes into captivity.

At appalling cost, Tidal Wave knocked out part of the Ploesti complex, but the oil fields were too big for one raid. Working day and night to repair the damage, 10,000 slave laborers had Ploesti shipping its full quotas of gasoline and oil within a few days.

The day after the raid the U.S. Ninth Air Force had but 38 of the 178 bombers sent on Tidal Wave fit to fly. Counting eight cripples that took their crews as far as Turkey, 53 B-24s had been lost. The human cost: 310 dead, about one in five who actually reached the target; 130 wounded, many of them among 108 airmen captive in Roumania.

Tidal Wave was the first of a series of near disasters climaxed by Black Thursday, the October 14, 1943, raid on the ball bearing plants at Schweinfurt which cost 65 heavy bombers and 650 airmen, that forced the Americans to abandon long range daylight attacks for several months.

Beginning in the spring of 1944, new fighters shielding the B-17s and B-24s all the way to their targets made the U.S. heavy bombers the daylight rulers of European skies, but nine months passed before they came back to Ploesti.

The Russian army overran the oil fields in the late summer of 1944, after the bombers struck Ploesti 25 times. The U.S. lost 286 planes, the British Royal Air Force 34 more. Ploesti still pumped at 20 percent capacity when the Russians took it.

The great streams of heavy bombers and the rolling thunder of their engines are gone forever. Only a tradition remains from Tidal Wave and Schweinfurt and hundreds of other sky battles of World War II with happier endings.

No matter how savage the opposition, an American bomber force, once committed to battle, has never turned back.

Sources:

  • "Ploesti" by James Dugan and Carroll Stewart, Random House, Inc., N.Y.

  • "Black Thursday" by Martin Caidin, Ballantine Books, N.Y.


Source: "The Redstone Rocket," Vol. XXIV; No. 41; March 10, 1976; Page 12. "The Redstone Rocket is published in the interest of the personnel at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, by the Enquirer Printing Co."

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