Seventy Years Ago Today: Black Sunday

| August 1, 2013

We of the other services sometimes chide our Air Force brethren for not being “hardcore” enough. And in some respects, that’s certainly true.  The Air Force lifestyle is in general  considered the least stressful of any of the military services.  Ground combat it ain’t – by design.

Still, some in the Air Force are certifiably hardcore at times.  And seventy years ago today, “hardcore” doesn’t even begin to describe the actions of a group of roughly 1650 Army Air Forces personnel.

Today marks the seventieth anniversary of one of the most costly US operations in World War II:  Operation Tidal Wave.  This operation was a large-scale bombing raid on oil facilities near Ploesti, Romania.  It was executed by elements of the 8th and 9th Army Air Forces.

As in many wartime operations, politics played a part.  The operation had been agreed to by the POTUS and British Prime Minister at their conference in Casablanca in January 1943.

It wasn’t solely a political target, though.  The Ploesti oil facilities were chosen as the operation’s target as they were believed to be a critical part of the “Achillies heel” for the Axis war effort:  POL production.  Postwar analysis was to show that this assessment regarding Axis POL production was correct – even if for many reasons Ploesti turned out not to be a single point of failure.

Ploesti was too far away from bases in England to be reached by aircraft operating from bases there.  The USSR would not permit US or British aircraft to operate from its territory; suitable bases in the eastern Mediterranean did not exist.

The operational concept was to launch a bombing raid from airfields in North Africa.  The planes would fly northward, skirt the Greek coast, cross inland over Albania, and then attack the Ploesti facilities from the west.  They would then return to base.

The closest suitable bases available to support the attack were austere facilities near Benghazi, in Libya.  The operation was marginal due to range – a round-trip of approximately 2,300 miles.  Due to a lack of available aircraft, the operation’s targets were to be attacked via low-level bombing.  (Less than 200 B-24s were to be available for the operation; a minimum of 1,400 were estimated required if the targets were attacked using high-altitude bombing.)  The additional speed and surprise provided by a low-level attack were assessed sufficient to negate much of the Axis air defenses in the target area.  This – plus the additional damage due to the enhanced precision of low-level bombing – would therefore allow the Ploesti refinery complexes to be attacked successfully with the forces available. Even so, high casualties were foreseen – estimates ran as high as 50%.

Yet the operation was nonetheless approved in spite of expected heavy casualties.  The target was considered so critical that, in the words of then US Army Air Forces Brigadier General Uzal G.Ent, “If nobody comes back, the results will be worth the cost.”  (Other sources attribute a similar quote to US Army Air Forces Major General Lewis Brereton.)  For what it’s worth:  Brig. Gen. Ent was the not merely pontificating about sending others on what might be a potential suicide mission from the safety of some remote HQ.  He personally flew over Ploesti during Operation Tidal Wave.

Operation Tidal Wave was executed on 1 August 1943.  The operation depended on virtually everything going according to plan.

As is common in war, everything most decidedly did not go as planned.

One B-24 crashed shortly after takeoff.  In-flight difficulties caused the loss of another 12 aircraft:  one that crashed at sea; one that searched for survivors from the crash and could not later catch up with and rejoin its formation; and another 10 aircraft forced for various reasons to abort.  Technical and navigation errors further unhinged the mission’s timing – which had been designed to hit its targets near-simultaneously in order to confuse/overwhelm air defenses and add to the chances of returning safely; a simultaneous attack was no longer possible.

Radio silence, imposed as a security measure, made in-flight coordination difficult to impossible (until abandoned out of necessity after a major navigational gaffe), and was in any case perhaps unnecessary.  A previous small (13-plane) raid against Ploesti launched from airfields in Egypt nearly 14 months earlier had identified to Axis planners the vulnerability of this critical asset.  From intercepted radio traffic, Axis intelligence correctly deduced that the Allies were planning some type of air operation in the Mediterranean and that the Ploesti refinery complex as the most likely target.  As a result, air defenses near Ploesti were greatly improved, and were dramatically stronger than expected – including a locally-based “aerial welcoming committee” that by some accounts outnumbered the bombers participating in the raid.  German radar tracked the mission as well, starting shortly after takeoff, passing this information to German air defense headquarters in Bucharest – about 35 miles south of Ploesti..

In short:  the airmen in Operation Tidal Wave were flying into the teeth of serious trouble. Trouble knew they were coming.  And when they got to Ploesti, trouble bit them.  Hard.

Yet on arriving, the men executing the mission carried on.  They fulfilled their orders to the best of their ability.

Several excellent and publicly-available articles give more detail concerning the events over Ploesti that day, as well as additional background on the operation’s planning and execution.  A brief overview article from the USAF web site may be found here.  A longer article from Air Force Magazine may be found here; while a third, more detailed article from Doug Sterner’s Home of Heroes web site may be found here.  All three are worthwhile reading; there are many others.  Even the Wikipedia article on Operation Tidal Wave is reasonably good.

I won’t attempt to present details here.  Suffice it to say that reading the linked articles is IMO well worth the time.

After running the gauntlet of ground fire and aerial attack, the survivors limped home.  More were lost during the return to base.

. . .

Militarily, for the US Operation Tidal Wave was at best a Pyrrhic victory – and at worst a disaster.  Although the operation did damage Romanian oil facilities near Ploesti, the damage was neither complete nor catastrophic.  It was also repaired quickly by Axis authorities.  A September assessment indicated that the operation appeared to have caused “no curtailment of overall product output”.

The cost to US forces making the attack was extreme.

A total of 178 aircraft and 1,764 aircrew embarked on Operation Tidal Wave.  Due to losses and aborts enroute, only 165 of the aircraft  made it to Ploesti.

Only 92 aircraft returned to their bases near Benghazi – and of these, only 33 were fit to fly the following day.  Seventeen additional aircraft diverted safely to other Allied bases instead of returning home.

A total of 54 aircraft were lost during the operation.  Another seven were interned in Turkey with their crews for the duration of the war.

A total of 532 aircrew were lost – KIA, MIA, taken POW, or interned in neutral Turkey for the duration of the war.  Additionally, at least 440 aircrew were reportedly WIA.

The overall casualty rate for Operation Tidal Wave appears to have been in excess of 55%.  (It’s unclear if any POWs or internees were included in the WIA total.  The calculation assumes they were not.)

That’s a higher total casualty rate than was sustained by Confederate forces during Pickett’s Charge.

. . .

In his comments to the after-action-report for the Rapido River debacle in Italy during January 1944, Brigadier Howard Kippenberger of New Zealand noted that “Nothing was right except the courage.”   This statement applies equally well to Operation Tidal Wave.

Little went right operationally.  But the courage was indeed right.  That day uncommon valor was commonplace – if not the norm.

During Operation Tidal Wave, in a brief period in the skies near Ploesti, Romania, individual and collective acts of valor occurred such that:

  • At least the Silver Star was awarded to every aircrew member that attacked Ploesti.
  • Literally dozens of Distinguished Service Crosses were awarded.
  • The Medal of Honor was awarded to five different individuals – the most awarded for acts occurring during any single air operation in World War II.  These individuals were Col. John R. Kane, Col. Leon Johnson, Lt. Col. Addison Baker, Maj. John Jerstad, and Lt. Lloyd “Pete” Hughes.  Three of these – to Baker, Jerstad, and Hughes – were awarded posthumously.

Hardcore?  In a word:  yes.  However, IMO “hardcore” really isn’t the best word to describe this group of men.

A better word for their conduct over Ploesti also begins with the letter “h”.  That better word is “heroic”.

We salute you, my elder brothers-in-arms.  Your courage that day should make every American proud.

Many thanks.


Author’s Note:  August 1, 1943, was a Sunday.  For obvious reasons, within the Army Air Forces that day was often later referred to as “Black Sunday”.

Category: Air Force, Historical, Real Soldiers

Comments (24)

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  1. Beretverde says:

    “We of the other services sometimes chide our Air Force brethren for not being “hardcore” enough.”

    70 years ago they were NOT the US Air Force…they were the US Army Air Forces. They were the Army…in airplanes!

  2. Thunderstixx says:

    A lady friend of mine was at Dekalb IL this weekend with a few other Harley riders and saw the B-17, Sentimental Journey there. They were able to get into the plane and take pics of it from the inside and outside.
    I have been reading the breakdown of the B-17 on Wikepedia (there is a lot of information) I am still amazed at the bravery of those that flew those planes over the teeth of the Nazi Third Reich to bomb them into submission and ultimate total defeat.
    If you get a chance to read the Wikepedia information, take the time to read it. It is eye opening to say the least and also well done.
    I was born 10 years after WWII so that struggle played a huge part of my childhood years and my attitude for the rest of my life. Growing up in a small Iowa Town I remember all the Veteran’s that lived there that had given so much for the security and freedoms that so many take for granted.

  3. Sparks says:

    All my honor and respect for the men of that mission. Heroes all, often forgotten. As were so many who fly missions they knew the enemy was ready for, yet they fly anyway. Losing a plane, meant 10 to 13 men lost in one way or another. It is these stories of little known raids that make me so proud of the Air Force I served in. Nothing, even today, warms a troops heart like calling for air support and seeing an A-10 come in for a run, on time and on target. God bless any of those men surviving today.

  4. 1AirCav69 says:

    My dad’s best friend, Jack Schooley, was a bottom ball turret gunner on that raid. No, he never really talked about it except when I got back from Vietnam. I think he felt comfortable because I had been in combat. He said that once the raid started he had to get out of his turret and raise it into the belly because they were so low. After the raid, he found corn stalks jammed into it. My parents and Jack and his wife flew to the Bahamma’s for a vacation. On the way back they ran into a horrible storm. Dad said Jack started sweating profusely. Their plane got banged around good. When off loading in Miami Jack went up to the pilot and thanked him. He said, “Haven’t been that scared since Ploesti”. The pilot said, “which group?” Turned out they were both there on the same raid. Here’s to all who flew that horrible mission. RIP Jack, I think of you and my dad all the time.

  5. 1AirCav69 says:

    I also meant to thank Hondo for posting this. Great story.

    Honor and Courage

  6. 2/17 Air Cav says:

    Take a look. Balls. Big. Spine. Steel. Salute.

  7. AW1 Tim says:

    When I was a teenager in Utah, I joined the Civil Air Patrol. I’ve been around airplanes since I was 5. Anyway, there was this Air Force officer who used to come to some of our Utah Wing meetings down in Salt Lake City. Through listening to him, I learned that he was a B-24 pilot and his aircraft was named “Utah Man”. This guy was a quiet, smiling fellow, but he had the aura of someone you knew was a leader.

    Anyway, years later, while an aircrewman in the Navy, I learned his story when I read up on Ploesti. Frikkin’ amazing. Here’s a bit from the article on him:

    During the ingress, Lieutenant Colonel Addison Baker, who was leading Stewart’s group, was shot down. Lt. Stewart assumed the lead and continued on, guiding the 93rd through the intense flak to deliver the first bombs on the target.

    The attack turned to chaos with bombers from the different groups attacking from all quadrants, but the oil refineries were severly damaged. The B-24s were under heavy attack from flak and fighters on their egress and return flight as well. Of the 178 aircraft that took off on the most decorated mission of World War II, 54 were shot down; 532 of 1,726 men did not return.

    Lt. Stewart’s plane, named “Utah Man,” came back with 365 holes in it. The damage the aircraft suffered was so severe that they had to reduce airspeed and nearly ran out of fuel. The plane landed two hours after most of the other aircraft had returned to base. The USAAF’s next raid on Ploesti was six months later and flown at 25,000 feet.

    Lt. Stewart flew one more combat mission after Ploesti, then was re-assigned to the United States where he toured facilities supporting the war effort. After the war, he continued flying with the Air Force Reserve. He retired as a Colonel after thirty-six years of service. Among his many decorations are the Distinguished Service Cross, which was not awarded until 1995 due to clerical errors; the Silver Star; Distinguished Flying Cross; and Air Medal with 4 Oak Leaf Clusters.

  8. Hondo says:

    Thunderstixx: you might want to check out the B-24 as well. The US actually produced more B-24s for use during World War II than B-17s. The B-24 had a more modern design and a substantially longer range than did the B-17. That’s why B-24s were used for the Ploesti raid.

    Unfortunately, the B-24 had two serious shortcomings vice the B-17. First, its more modern design was also lighter – contributing to its greater range – but was also thus more susceptible to battle damage than the B-17. The B-17’s older and more robust structural design proved more survivable.

    Second, the B-17 had (if I recall correctly) 5 exits. The B-24 had one – in the tail. The catwalk between left/right bomb bay compartments was only a few inches wide, making it virtually impossible for crew in the front of the plane to get from front to rear wearing a chute. The bottom line was that when a B-17 was lost, many if not most of the crew often escaped. When a B-24 was lost, usually only a small part of the crew had any chance to bail. Most of a B-24’s crew was usually lost with the aircraft.

    It took cojones muy grande to fly either aircraft in combat. But your chances of coming home were substantially better if you were in a B-17 than in a B-24.

  9. Ex-PH2 says:

    Nothing better than a piece of real history with breakfast in the morning.

    Good story, Hondo.

  10. Old Trooper says:

    @8: Actor Jimmy Stewart flew B-24s in Europe.

  11. Hondo says:

    Old Trooper: quite a number of folks who were/later became famous flew the B-24 (or the Navy version, the PB4Y).

  12. Eggs says:

    I had thought that maybe Dad was on that raid, but I don’t have his service records and the dates on his photo album show 1944 & 1945.

  13. Combat Historian says:

    Interestingly enough, Opn TIDAL WAVE was not the first B-24 mission against Ploesti, although it was certainly the biggest. The first Ploesti mission took place in August 1942, when HALPRO force launched a dozen B-24s against Ploesti (this was pretty much the ENTIRE U.S. heavy bombing force in the Middle East at that time). The HALPRO B-24s caught the Germans at Ploesti somewhat by surprise and was able to mostly drop their loads and get the hell out of dodge before the German AAA and fighters came up in force to defend. HALPRO losses were proportionately fairly minor compared to Opn TIDAL WAVE a year later, but then a dozen B-24s really were not able to inflict too much of any damage on Ploesti to begin with.

  14. Combat Historian says:

    Minor correction to post #13: The HALPRO mission against Ploesti took place in JUNE 1942, not in August ’42.

  15. Hondo says:

    Combat Historian: the HALPRO raid actually launched 13 aircraft, not 12. However, only 12 made the target area. They launched from Egypt.

    I think I mentioned that raid in the article above, actually. (smile)

    The HALPRO raid in June 1942 is generally considered to have been largely responsible for the debacle almost 14 months later. It tipped the Germans that (1) facilities at Ploesti were vulnerable, and (2) the Allies had figured out the facilities there were were of great importance. This led to the Germans dramatically strengthening air defenses at Ploesti – and they had well over a year to do so.

    Tipping one’s hand is not a good thing when playing cards. It’s an even worse thing during wartime.

  16. Combat Historian says:

    #15: Hondo, In the PTO, we did the same stupid thing when Carlson’s Raiders attacked Makin in the Gilberts on a raid in Aug 1942. It was a nice propaganda coup, and Hollywood even made a film about it. But for the Japanese, it was a wake-up call, and they hurriedly reinforced and built up their defenses in all of the Gilberts, especially Tarawa/Betio. The result was that when the Marines invaded Tarawa in force during Opn GALVANIC in Nov 1943, they walked into a defensive buzzsaw and suffered heavy losses before it was taken. NEVER tip the enemy off as to your intentions if you can avoid it…

  17. Combat Historian says:

    Hondo, for the record, you did indeed make mention of the June 1942 HALPRO raid in your original article 🙂

  18. OWB says:

    My supervisor in my first grown-up job in the civilian world was one of those B-24 drivers, but he spent most of his time driving B-17’s. He much preferred the B-17, for all the reasons Hondo mentioned above and a few others.

    But, the Ploesti story repeated here today is very much appreciated. Thank you, Hondo.

  19. Joseph Welsh says:

    When talking about Zoomies … I’m reminded of something I read once … that the 8th Air Force lost more men in the campaign against Nazi Germany than the USMC lost in the ENTIRE Pacific Theater.

    By the way … I once had a Zoomie friend … go down about half way to read of his adventures in RVN.

  20. AverageNCO says:

    I’ve had the honor to meet one of the pilots who settled down here in New Mexico and became a physician, serving a tour as a Air Force Flight Surgeon during the Korean War.

  21. Hondo says:

    Joseph Welsh: I think you have to go to total AAF casualties to get that vice just 8th AF. 8th AF only incurred about 1/2 of the AAF’s total casualties.

    The AAF had 12% of the Army’s casualties in World War II. According to Wikipedia (yeah, I know – don’t have time to research archives) the AAF did have more battle deaths (KIA + DOW + MIA and presumed dead + nonhostile battle deaths) than either the Navy or the USMC. Only the Army Ground Forces had more battle deaths.

  22. THUNDER 26 says:

    My Uncle Paul was one of the survivors, the only time I heard him talk about it was after I joined the Army and we got really drunk together. He cried for the first time I had ever seen, and told me of the blood and ripped bodies of his crew that were killed the holes in the plane big enough to fall through.

  23. Herbert J Messkit says:

    This was a low level raid. There were many other raids on Ploesti but they never tried low level again.

  24. Jilly says:

    Mediterranean: Seized Film On Ploesti Oil Fields
    starts about 6 1/2 minutes into the Combat Report newsreel.

    …the next Spielberg/Hanks WWII miniseries is going to be about the 8th AAF.