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.
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.
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.
them have been told they are flying to shorten the war, that coming
back is secondary today.
August 1, 1943, the 36th anniversary of the U.S. Army Air Force.
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.
were inconclusive early trials of the American concept of daylight
strategic bombing over France and Germany. Then came Tidal Wave.
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
(picture) American B·24S bomb Ploesti May 31, 1944, in one of many
high altitude raids following the Tidal Wave low level attack the
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
matter how savage the opposition, an American bomber force, once
committed to battle, has never turned back.
"Ploesti" by James Dugan and Carroll Stewart, Random House,
"Black Thursday" by Martin Caidin, Ballantine Books, N.Y.