by Master Sgt. Jeff Walston
307th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
Barksdale AFB, La. -- Airmen had the opportunity to mingle with
actual World War II heroes and touch pieces of history at the 98th Bomb Group
Reunion here Oct. 17-21, 2011. The 98th BG Veterans Association hosted
approximately 29 surviving members of the famed Ploesti Raiders.
The 98th BG reunion highlighted the achievements of the bomb
group during World War II for their day-time raids against the oil refineries
around Ploesti, Romania.
Retired Col. Bill Seals, who is the current president of the
98th BGA, opened the gathering with a slideshow detailing the non-classified
aspects of "Operation Tidal Wave." He described to the audience the challenges
of the mission, mistakes that were made during the chaos, and the final results.
As dawn approached on Aug. 1, 1943, aircrew, maintenance and
munitions personnel prepared their bombers on the air fields of Benghazi, Libya.
They were all unaware how writers of history would bookmark their efforts during
Operation Tidal Wave, but, that day, which the Air Force War College describes
as "one of the bloodiest and most heroic missions of all time," would forever be
known as "Black Sunday."
The original plan was to send 177 B-24 Liberator bombers, the
greatest air armada ever assembled, on a gutsy, low-level mass attack against
18-square miles of German held assets in and around Ploesti, Romania, to destroy
Hitler's oil reserves.
Aircraft were drawn from a total of five different bomb groups,
the 98th and 376th from N. Africa, the 93rd and 44th from the 8th Air Force, and
the 389th that was diverted from the United Kingdom.
If all went as planned, at least 155 would make it to the
target. If they completed their mission, the bombers would travel a total
distance of 2,100 miles, and return to the base in Benghazi.
The area around Ploesti, which contained eight major oil
refineries, was targeted because it supplied the German war machine with more
than 60 percent of its crude oil supply, including 90- octane aviation fuel, the
highest quality in Europe at that time.
But, it wasn't going to be a surprise attack. Ploesti was the
most heavily defended city in all of Europe, and the Germans knew the American
Airmen were coming. The B-24 pilots would have to fly at tree-top level if they
had any hope of surviving the German guns.
The results of the raid were not exactly what American and
Allied forces were hoping for. Only 40 percent of the Ploesti refinery capacity
was knocked out, and three refineries were not even touched. Full refining
capacity was recovered within months.
The U.S. Army Air Force losses on the Ploesti raid that day were
devastating. In all, fifty-four planes were lost, forty-one of those in combat.
Ninety-three planes returned to Benghazi, nineteen landed at other Allied
fields, seven landed in Turkey, and three crashed at sea. There were 532 men
killed, captured, missing, or interned. Every man who flew on the Ploesti
mission was decorated. Five Medals of Honor were awarded for the Ploesti
mission, three posthumously. This was more than any other day in American
Airmen had the opportunity to sit down with a few of the Ploesti
Raiders at the Barksdale Officers Club and hear about their experiences during
the raids and even some prisoner of war stories. There was also memorabilia on
display, which included Colonel John Kane and 2nd Lt Lloyd Hughes Medals of
Literally on fire when he bailed out of his plane, Robert Rans,
who hails from Tampa, Fla., was a technical sergeant with the 98th BG and 415th
Squadron in 1943. He told the audience his story of survival as a prisoner of
war in Romania.
"I was covered with fire ... Fitzpatrick, the waste gunner on
the left side jumped out," Rans said. "I didn't think should or shouldn't I. I
just jumped. Only three got out of the plane." According to Rans, no one knows
what happened to his plane and there are no official comments about it.
After landing in a Romanian cornfield, Rans was captured by a
German soldier and taken to Ploesti where he was interrogated. He spent four
months in a hospital recovering from his injuries, and was eventually interned,
not by the Germans, but the Romanians. Rans describes his experiences a lot
different from most of his friends, who were held prisoner by the Germans.
"I lived a fairly decent life all the 13 months I was there. A
girl's school was converted into a camp for us with straw mattresses, sheets,
and straw pillows. There were four roommates in one room, and we were treated
like guests," Rans said. "My story is so unusual from the POW standpoint. Other
POWs get mad at me because they went through so much hell."
Sergeant Rans burns were severe. He received nine operations on
his ears just so he could wear glasses. He spent a year and a half in the
hospital after he was liberated by the Russians and returned home.
Festivities wrapped up with a the 98th Bomb Wing "Ploesti
Raiders" Reunion Dinner Friday night at the Barksdale Club. All of the Ploesti
Raiders, both past and present were recognized by those who attended the dinner
for their achievements during World War II, and the legacy they left for future
History would later tell the story of how the Allies finally
broke the German defenses and devastated the Ploesti refineries in bombing runs
launched from airbases in Italy after they became available in April 1944. After
numerous attacks, Allied planes succeeded in reducing Ploesti refinery
production to a "relative trickle." Ploesti was liberated by Soviet troops in
August 1944 putting an end to the German utilization of the Romania oil.