The year was 1941, Benny Goodman was the King of Swing, and the “One O’Clock Jump” was the national anthem. They gave little thought to global oil politics as they drove their smoking jalopies to work, play, or sports events. And who among them knew that within a few short years they would die in B-24’s fighting and killing over oil?
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the State Department, and most of the Congress intended to end the domination of the Far East by imperial Japan by halting the flow of American oil to the Japanese isles. Roosevelt knew the Japanese would aggressively annex the Netherlands East Indies to make up their oil deficits. And that meant war.
Across the globe, Adolf Hitler needed the oil for his own war needs. Von Ribbentrop had already put the squeeze on Dictator Antonescu of Rumania for more petroleum products from the latter’s fabulous Ploesti fields.
Libya – 1943
Robert E. McGreer, from Antelope, Oregon was nudged from a night of restless sleep on August 1, 1943, by the shrill beeps of jeep horns. It was 2.am, and grasshoppers covered him, his clothes and mess kit.
At 29, he was considered the “old-man” of the 10-man crew of Sweet Adeline, a B-24 Liberator (41-23933Z), of the 565 Bomb Sq., 389 Bomb GP (H). He had enlisted on December 27, 1941. He had been in Europe since June 15, 1943, anticipating missions over Germany, but instead, the crew of Sweet Adeline had been practicing low-level flying, a hair-raising maneuver for them all since it increased the probability of mid-air collision.
Early in June, while practicing low-level flying, he watched as two aircraft from the 389th collided at about 1,500 feet during a turn. One of the group’s planes slid into another, cutting into its waist area. One plane crashed killing the bombardier. The other bomber landed safely.
Years later, McGreer could still hear the words of the flight leaders: “Close it up. Close it up”.
On June 30, McGreer left England with the 389th for Libya. On July 9, he made his combat debut in a mission over Maleme, Crete. It was supposed to be a milk run.
Instead, the crews were greeted by the Luftwaffe as they approached Crete. His first combat fight was on. Sweet Adeline was under attack, and for the first time, he felt what it was like, as the tunnel ball turret gunner, to hang exposed in Plexiglas below Sweet Adeline’s belly and exchange machine gun fire with enemy aircraft. They fought to the target and dropped their payload. One aircraft was lost, but Sweet Adeline came through her first mission unscathed. He had twenty-four missions to go.
Operation Tidal Wave.
Operation Tidal Wave was the mission for the day. Sweet Adeline would fly into Romania and attack one of the seven refineries near Ploesti. McGreer knew that Ploesti provided over one-third of the Axis oil supply and likely defended vigorously. Every gunner was told to shoot their way in and out if they hoped to survive. That they did just that disturbed him for the rest of his life.
The B-24 Liberator was the only bomber that could do the job. The Liberator was the ugly duckling to the over-publicized B-17 Flying Fortress. With her slab sides and thin Davis wing, the Liberator didn’t look like much of a bomber. But McGreer knew what the Liberators could do, and more importantly, he had total confidence in Sweet Adeline’s command pilot – Stanislaus J. Podolak.
The targets were assigned code names to simplify communication among the men. His group would hit the Red Target as part of Target Force No. 7. Red Target was the last target at the Steaua Romania refinery at Campina. The B-24D’s in the 389th Group had extra-range fuel tanks enabling them to reach the destination 18 miles north of Ploesti.
McGreer dressed and trudged through the darkness to breakfast, thinking about 2,770 miles of unescorted flying over water and then exchanging machine gun fire with German and Axis ground troops. He knew that surprise was improbable, low-level or high, and flake, explosions, and flames could slaughter them. He knew that fighters could knock them down, going in or coming back. The balloon cables would be murderous. And the maze of chimneys, power lines, buildings, and refineries made it even harder to survive. And possibly in the smoke and confusion, they might crash into each other.
Sweet Adeline would be the last plane in a three-ship formation over the target. To the crew of Sweet Adeline, that position ended any chance of surprise for them. But they had volunteered, and they accepted not the possibility but the probability of death.
He shook off the fear and sat down to a sparse breakfast of real eggs and bacon, and potatoes crusted with sand, and marmalade served with flies with no fresh vegetables or fruits. Everything was dried out, tasteless, canned, and served repeatedly. The water was boiled, hot, and heavily chlorinated.
He rubbed the burns and scars on his chest caused by shortages in the heating wires of his flight suit and realized that it, and flak vest, and the thin sheets of tin were all that protected him from deadly weapon fire and the cold-open sky.
As he participated in a short last-minute briefing, he thought of his wife Glenda, who he had married 16-months earlier, in April 1942, and his daughter Shirlee from an earlier marriage. He recalled his ranch and his life in the small communities of central Oregon before the war. Like others, he had written the last letter home and laid it on the foot of his bunk just in case he did not get back. He had left money with the Catholic Chaplain to pay church pledges while contemplating what lay ahead of him on this Sunday.
He knew it was the day he had trained for, the reason for the low-level practice, and amassing 1,725 Americans and one Englishman, and the bombers in the Libyan desert. They were all told that the mission would shorten the war – maybe by six months.
It was still dark when his fellow crew members jumped on a truck headed towards Sweet Adeline. The ground crews were still busy turning the ship. They worked all night preparing the plane, filling her with 3,100 gallons of high-octane fuel, shackling 4,300 pounds of bombs in place, and arming them with M-124 acid membrane fusses. McGreer watched intently as the crew brushed the sand from the ammo belts for the guns to avoid jamming during combat.
Sweet Adeline’s copilot – Cecil W. Butler – gave out escape kits. The kits included an oiled silk map of the Balkans, a tiny compass, and Romanian and Greek paper money, and an English coin worth about $5.00. It also had $20.00 in American cash, along with a phrasebook of the Romanian language.
Podolak held a quick meeting with his crew, and then each of the ten men climbed aboard from the rear ladder, which extended to the ground from the Planes belly between the tail and waist gunners’ position.
McGreer sat down in the waist gunners’ tunnel next to two other gunners – Richard Crippen and Fred A. Dickerson. He watched as Podolak, Butler, Melvin Brackendorf, the bombardier, Gilbert Siegal, the Navigator, Paul Jacot, the top turret gunner, and the radio operator, Paul A. Cantrelle each squeezed forward through the bomb bay to their positions near the cockpit.
McGreer stared at the ball turret that bulged into the tunnel when retracted and thanked God that this low-level flight did not require him to occupy the plexiglass enclosure. Since Sweet Adeline was in the last sortie over their formation’s targets, his job was to take still pictures for battle damage assessments. He glanced back towards Herman Townsend, the tail gunner who would take moving pictures. Eventually, he heard and felt the boost pumps start to prime the engines.
Then: “Clear #3,” he heard Podolak call. ‘Maybe, she won’t start,” McGreer prayed as the starters whined and props rotated, each eventually disappearing into blurs as the engines caught, coughed and belched blue-gray oil smoke.
McGreer glanced at his watch. It was 0400 hrs. He stood and looked out the waist gunners window and saw a green flare arch into the desert morning. For three more hours, he chatted with Crippen and Dickerson as the four engines periodically strained to move the 64,000-pound Sweet Adeline for takeoff while Podolak and Butler ran through their checklist.
For the rest of his life, McGreer would say that “the takeoff was the most dangerous part of flying”.
At seven o’clock, Major Brian Flavell, commanding Wongo Wongo, the first ship of the first element of the leading 376th Bombardment Group, gunned all four engines and lifted off. Eventually, it was time for Sweet Adeline to join the formation.
Podolak lowered the flaps to a quarter for better lift and pushed Sweet Adeline’s throttles to the gap. Copilot Butler’s eyes darted from dial to dial, then stopped as he called out the increasing airspeed. At 95 mph, Sweet Adeline’s massive wings responded as the natural force of lift shifted the weight from the wheels.
“100, 110, 120, Rotate!” Butler called.
At 130 miles per hour, the plane groaned into the air in a swirl of dust. They had traveled nearly a mile to gain enough speed to lift off.
“Gear up!” Podolak called to Butler, and Sweet Adeline began a long, slow climb to two thousand feet. Podolak turned the ship into the pattern.
As the plane lifted off, McGreer, Crippen, and Dickerson looked down at the end of the runway. A bomber from the 98th had crashed and exploded. The three shook their heads and returned to their seats.
McGreer and his fellow crew members plugged their radios into the inter-phone jack just as the great task force swung north across the cobalt-blue Mediterranean Sea. It was 07:40, and all five groups were aloft and formed up.
Podolak called: “pilot to navigator . . . pilot to radioman.” and so on until McGreer heard him say: “pilot to tunnel-ball.,”
He responded as the others had, that his station was in order and that he had checked his oxygen. He reported that his Mae West was on, and his parachute was in proper condition.
With the mission underway, 9th Bomber Command flashed a coded message into the airways. It was a simple statement. A large force was airborne. The Germans were listening, and they sent messages to all Axis defense sectors with Italy, Austria, Romania, and Greece.
Death in the Mediterranean.
Podolak pushed Sweet Adeline to 4,000 feet as it crossed the Libyan coast at Torca and headed out over the blue-green Mediterranean. Across the Sea, the planes flew in a flat V, wing tip to wing tip, none more than twenty-five feet apart.
In the lead were the planes of 389th, led by Colonel Jack Wood. Ahead of the 389, flew the 44th, led by Colonel Leon Johnson, in “Suzy Q.” Ahead of the 44th, flew the 98th, headed by Colonel John R. “Killer” Kane in “Hail Columbia.” And ahead of them were the 376th, under the command of Colonel Keith Compton, with General Ent commanding the mission from the flight deck of “Teggie Ann.”
The first to abort came ten minutes after takeoff – at 07:50 – when Kickapoo, flown by a squadron leader Lt. Robert Nespor, of the 376th began a long curving sweep out of the formation to the right. Although burning Nespor thought, he could make it back to the Benina strip. He did, but the field was still a swirling fog of red dust stirred up by the prop-wash of the last planes that took off. Kickapoo hit the runway, bounced twenty feet into the air, hit again, skidded down the extreme edge of the field, smashed into a concrete telephone pole, and exploded. Eight of the ten men died. Eleven planes aborted. As each plane turned back, the hole in the formation filled.
McGreer knew that the missions from Africa were no less demanding than those flown out of England. However, he also knew that the tactics of this mission were different. They flew in tight formations under radio silence until they encountered clouds and thunderstorms when thankfully, Podolak would drift the Liberator apart of the group for safety. Two hours out, Sweet Adeline had used over 450 gallons of fuel. She was 2,500 pounds lighter than at takeoff, and Podolak trimmed the planes and balanced the plane by transferring fuel from tank to tank.
As Sweet Adeline approached Corfu and the way-point for the turn inland, the crew saw black smoke rising from the water below. It was the burning wreckage of the first plane off “Wongo Wongo.” It was in the third element of the 376th when suddenly, it wobbled and pulled away. It then broke sharply to the left, just missing “Brewery Wagon.” At about 1,000 feet, the pilot had nearly pulled his ship to level flight, when it stalled and dipped into a right tight spiral crashing in the water, exploded and killed all aboard.
Over the Alps
At 11:00 a.m. Sweet Adeline was 38 degrees 20 minutes north near the Greek-Albanian border. Ahead lay the North Albanian Alps. Podolak added power to climb and made a gentle northeastern turn. The crew put their oxygen masks on, and within an hour, Sweet Adeline was at 10,000 feet. The long sea leg of the inbound mission was behind them.
Climbing, they all knew, meant that radar would spot them. The Germans knew the targets were either Bucharest or Ploesti.
The Danubian Plains.
By about 1400 hrs, the squadrons descended into the clouds of the Danubian plains. They were now confused and separated. Aircraft had lost sight of each other, and surprise gave way to faulty timing, confused leadership, and Axis fighters from the Bulgarian Avi.
A surprise was the primary reason for low-level flying. “Killer” Kane had lost control of their groups.
Kane, who belonged in front, was unpopular. Seven of the 11 aborts came from his group. His loss of control and aborts was probably a reaction to Kane’s denial of stateside leave until his men returned from Ploesti and from the constant badgering of his crews to fly beyond their operational limits. And Kane’s stragglers forced the followers to wait for them, causing delays and confusion as they headed towards the targets.
Podolak, upon seeing Bulgarian fighters tightened Sweet Adeline into what was left of a formation, and the Ships gunners prepared for battle. But the Bulgarians did not attack and stayed out of gun range. He put Sweet Adeline into a shallow dive to pick up speed and loose altitude. He leveled Sweet Adeline at two hundred feet.
As they got closer to the target, McGreer and Townsend operated their cameras and filmed the wild and excited people on the ground, often as they were gunned down by .50 caliber machine guns firing rapidly from the Liberators. McGreer could see the details as older men and women fell to their knees and prayed as they died.
People in the villages stood still and looked up, as they were surrounded by gunfire ripping through the crowds. Men, women, and children walked along country roads; some dressed in their colorful skirts and blouses. They fell to the ground gunned-down by the advancing American Liberators.
Farmers threw stones and pitchforks at Liberators. One farmer leading his horses was startled by the advancing planes and leaped into a nearby stream. Ten separate crews reported a girl swimming in another river. Yet, not a plane, nor a gun challenged the Americans. Yet Americans shot their way towards the target. The orders from “Killer” Kane and others: “shoot your way in and out,” if you expect to survive.
At about 200 mph and as low as he dared, Podolak drove Sweet Adeline ahead as McGreer and Townsend recorded the swift and dreamlike slaughter below them.
Campina: Steaua Romana.
Sweet Adeline approached the town of Pitesti according to the plan. At Pitesti, the 389th Bomb Group would break away from the Ploesti bound formation and continue as an independent force the 42 miles, or 12 minutes to Campina.
Colonel Jack Wood’s in “The Scorppion, piloted by Capt. Kenneth Caldwell led the 29-plane formation to Campina. The lead Navigator, Lt. Stell Meador, franticly tried to pick out a key landmark on the side of a hill; The Monastery Dealului.
Unfortunately, the marker was impossible to find through the low hanging clouds and haze covering the foothills.
Lt. Norbert Gebhardt, the copilot of Sack-Time Sally, was flying off Caldwell’s left-wing. Without warning, The Scorppion turned towards Sack-Time Sally. Gebhard shoved the engines to the firewall and climbed to get ut of the way.
Deputy leader, Maj. John Brooks saw The Scorppion make the wrong turn. His navigator, Lt. Harry Moedinger, yelled that it was a mistake. Yet, Brooks instinctively turned his section down the wrong valley.
Col Wood, standing between Caldwell and the copilot, did his navigation. He indicated to Caldwell that the turning point should be over the next ridge. Caldwell drove The Scorpion over the hill. Wood seeing a valley running in the general direction of the target bearing, told Caldwell to proceed along the valley.
“Too Soon! Too Soon! ” shouted the Navigator Meador over the intercom.
Other navigators in the Campina formation joined in the chorus to their pilots in protesting.
Woods’s decision resulted in the planes requiring 180 degree low altitude turns, out of the wrong valley, under radio silence.
Caldwell quickly acknowledged his mistake and banked his ship left and up the side of the ridge.
Podolak, at the end of the formation in Sweet Adeline, faced a decision. Should he follow the leaders into the wrong valley or proceed straight ahead towards the correct turn point. He decided, and followed the leader into the wrong valley, then left and then up and out, just as Caldwell had done.
Years later, Campina pilots would recall the object lesson of formation integrity: if they had not followed the leader in the turn, they would have run into each other when they doubled back.
Caldwell resumed the heading towards the IP. They were now out of the clouds, and the tail gunners reported seeing the monastery landmark in the fading distance. The plan required the formation to split into three prongs for the attack on a cracking plant, a distillation plant, and a boiler house. Several planes would come over in different directions.
Caldwell led the first three ships into the intense flak and machine-gun fire from the Axis gunners defending the Steaua Romana refinery. Caldwell’s target was the refinery boiler house, while the other elements followed him or took on the cracking plant or the left or right distillation plants. Some of the bombers were so low that treetops ripped their wings.
Liberator gunners operated over four hundred .50 caliber machine guns in their run on the Steaua Romana refinery. They exchanged millions of rounds against Axis machine-gun nests firing down on the bombers from the sides of the hills, or machine gun or anti-aircraft batteries concealed below in haystacks, or in railway flatcars or farmhouses.
Into the fray flew “Eager Eagle,” piloted by Lt. Lloyd Hughes, and copilot Lt. Ronald Helder. Their target was the cracking plant. Machine-gun fire that punched holes into the left-wing, allowing gasoline to pour everywhere. Hughes decided to complete the run to his destination. Over the refinery, he ran into flames igniting his wing. After releasing his load, Hughes and Helder tried to land on a dry creek bed. A bridge emerged. He lifted Eager Eagle over it and tried again. The plane stalled and spun into the ground, cartwheeled, and exploded into flames. Gunners Sgt. Thomas Hoff and Edmond Smith stumbled from the burning wreckage of the rear section. Bombardier John McLaughlin was partially thrown clear of the wreck and managed to crawl away but died from his burns. Smith and Hoff were taken prisoners in Romania. Hughes was awarded the Medal of Honor for his commitment to the mission and efforts to save his crew.
While Hughes and Helder were struggling with Eager Eagle, Lt. Robert O’Reilly brought “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” down to about 275 feet and headed into the thick black smoke rising in tall columns from the distillation plant. The crew entered a dancing array of tracer shells and flake, embedded in flashes of brilliant yellow-red burning oil. Upfront, navigator Lt. Richard Britt was firing at a gun position to his left in a clump of trees.
Chattanooga Choo Choo lifted upward as its bombs fell away. Suddenly tracers cut the ships’ control cables, and the engine started blowing gray smoke. The right wingtip rolled towards the ground, and O’Reilly, and his co-pilot, Lt. Ernest Paulson, fought hard to level the plane and keep it flying long enough to dislodge bombs hung up in the bomb bay. Just over Ploesti, the bomb was freed from the slings and fell into a dry riverbed. A few miles south of the town, the plane began to lose airspeed, and it plowed into a dry riverbed, its metal crunching, grinding, and scraping as the uncontrollable plane slid to a stop.
Sweat Adeline came in last over the left Distillation Plant with McGreer and Townsend taking pictures of the thick black smoke rising in tall columns with flashes of brilliant yellow-red colors of burning oil. And they took photos of the human casualties from the sweeping mass of machine-gun fire that killed, wounded, and scattered high numbers of defenders.
Only 88 B-24s returned to Libya, of which 55 had battle damage. 222 Losses included 44 to air defenses and additional B-24s that ditched in the Mediterranean or interned after landing in neutral Turkey. Some diverted to the RAF airfield on Cyprus.
One B-24 with 365 bullet holes in it landed in Libya 14 hours after departing; its survival was due to the light armament of the Bulgarian Avia B-534 (only four rifle-caliber (7.92mm) machine guns).
Three hundred ten aircrewmen died. The Axis captured 108, while 78 became interned in Turkey, and four were taken in by Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia. Three of the five Medals of Honor (the most for any single air action in history) were posthumously.
The Allies estimated a loss of 40% of the refining capacity at the Ploiești refineries, although some refineries were mostly untouched.
The Axis repaired most of the damage within weeks. The net output of fuel increased over that before the raid. Circa September, the Enemy Oil Committee appraisal of Ploesti bomb damage indicated “…no curtailment of overall product output…” as many of the refineries had been operating previously below maximum capacity.
The Luftwaffe’s losses were four aircraft over Ploiesti and two over Greece. Some 100 civilians died, and 200 were injured.
The Romanians lost two fighters and claimed 20 of the shot down bombers.
Through emergency bomb drops on secondary targets, there were casualties at Drenta, Elena, Byala, Ruse, Boychinovtsi, Veliko Tarnovo, Plovdiv, Lom, and Oak – Tulovo.
Operation Tidal Wave is considered an American strategic failure.
The sights would haunt McGreer for the rest of his life. McGreer filmed the raid, including the shooting of civilians. After landing and debriefing, authorities took and classified his films to keep them from public view. But McGreer remembered, and his cameras recorded the events.
McGreer enlisted on December 27, 1941. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, European-African Middle Eastern Campaign Medals. In 1944 he contracted Cholera and was discharged on June 29, 1944.
Hill, Michael, “Black Sunday, Ploesti.
American Air Museum, Britain
Bombing Raid on Ploesti, 1943,” EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2008).
Official crew photos compiled by John R. Beitling, Steve Nylen and Michael Hill.