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On June 11, 1942, 13 B-24D Liberator bombers flew from Fayid, Egypt, and bombed the oil complex at Ploesti, Romania. These aircraft were part of a secret program named HALPRO originally put together to bomb Japan from a base in China. Although the B-24s bombed individually through an overcast with negligible results and encountered no defensive reaction, only seven aircraft made it back to the planned recovery base in Syria.

The results of this wasted mission, besides depleting the bomber force working against the Germans in the Mediterranean area, would come to have great meaning for a bright young U.S. Army Air Force colonel named Jacob Smart. Smart was handpicked by General H.H. “Hap” Arnold’s senior staff to be the chief planner for an aerial assault decided upon at the January 1943 Casablanca Conference. Unanimous eagerness to put the oil refineries out of business pronounced Ploesti the number one target whose destruction would hurt Adolf Hitler the most. About 30 percent of the oil consumed by the German economy was refined in Ploesti, and some estimates claimed that target destruction would shorten the war by six months. The attack was to take place between the end of the North African campaign and the invasion of Sicily and would emanate from recently evacuated fields around Benghazi in Libya.


Jake Smart’s opponent in his planning for the attack on the Ploesti targets was the defensive genius German General Alfred Gerstenberg, nominally German Air Attaché in Bucharest but actually the German officer who oversaw all facets of the military in Romania. Gerstenberg’s primary interest was his responsibility for the massive oil refinery complex around Ploesti, and he had done an excellent job of protecting his charge. Gerstenberg is an interesting study. He was a member of Manfred von Richthofen’s Jasta 11 in World War I and thereby a close friend of Hermann Göring. Although not a Nazi, Gerstenberg used this connection to squeeze the Reichsmarschall for armament, men and aircraft in defense of Ploesti, a job made easier because of the HALPRO bombing.

Anticipating an allied bombing offensive against the Ploesti targets, the shrewd Gerstenberg succeeded in amassing one of the greatest concentrations of defensive firepower anywhere in the German sphere of influence. He prepared an inner ring of flak defenses made up of 40 batteries of six 88 mm and four 37/20 mm guns each and an outer ring of numerous lighter batteries and hundreds of machine-gun pits and towers. More guns were mounted on buildings and in haystacks. Barrage balloons were everywhere, and complementing this array was a new signal detection unit in Athens that fed tracking information to an operations center in Bucharest.

Gerstenberg was pressuring Berlin for a defensive fighter force of 250 first-line interceptors and 75,000 more Luftwaffe personnel. This was work in progress, but in hand were 52 Me-109s at a base 20 miles from Ploesti (50 percent German pilots) and at least 85 German and Romanian fighter aircraft at other in-country bases. Completing this airborne defense force was an outer ring of fighter bases on Crete and in Greece and Bulgaria. Not bad when one considers the demands for the air war in Northwest Europe!

Jake Smart had his hands full in the planning process. He gathered a small staff that included his West Point classmate Colonel “Ted” Timberlake, whose fingerprints would be all over the plan. Timberlake immediately assigned one of his acolytes, Major John Jerstad, to the planning staff to do the legwork. Smart had to decide what targets to hit and how to strike them most effectively. It was quickly decided that all the refineries in the Ploesti complex could not be covered with available aircraft, so the seven main targets were selected for attack. There was no doubt that an effective strike would depend on the element of surprise, and after much agonizing, Smart decided that bombing Ploesti by low-altitude attack would answer most of the surfaced problems. The efficacy of this decision eventually was questioned by Brigadier General Uzal Ent and some of the group commanders who felt continuous bombing from high altitude was preferable.

Overall command of the Ploesti mission was vested in Major General Lewis H. Brereton as commander of Ninth Air Force, headquartered in Cairo. The B-24s used in the mission were directly under the command of Brigadier General “P.D.” Ent (P.D. for Pennsylvania Dutch), commander of IX Bomber Command, headquartered in a beat-up cement hotel in the town of Benghazi. Brereton ostensibly had the final say on the method of attack, but knowing the low-altitude approach had been “accepted” by higher authority, he refused to listen to opposing arguments, claiming in his memoirs that he had made the final decision to go low altitude. (See Ploesti Raid map.)

The five B-24 groups selected for the 2,600-mile trip were a mixed bag. (See Ploesti Raid Bomber Groups diagram, p. 35.) The lead group, the 376th “Liberandos,” was led by Colonel Keith K. Compton, formerly deputy group commander to Colonel Edward Timberlake when Timberlake was commander of the 93d Group. Compton was a fair-haired boy in the heavy bombardment business who hated Colonel John“Killer” Kane, another of the group commanders. The 376th had absorbed remnants of the HALPRO mission and flew pink colored B-24s.

Second in line was Lieutenant Colonel Addison Baker’s 93rd “Traveling Circus,” on loan from 8th Air Force in England. Baker, a regular Army man, was personally selected by Timberlake to lead the Circus.

Next was Colonel John R. “Killer” Kane’s tawny colored 98th “Pyramiders.” Kane was an outspoken, rather abrupt man who had few close friends. He detested Keith Compton, with whom he indulged in bitter arguments concerning proper power settings for the B-24 aircraft. His group had much desert experience and he resented the aura of the European crews.

Fourth group in line was the 44th “Eight Balls,” commanded by Colonel Leon W. Johnson. A West Pointer like Timberlake, Johnson was a taciturn, self-controlled man with a dry sense of humor. He was well known for his concern for his men. The 44th was an experienced Heavy Bomber Group also borrowed from the 8th Air Force.

The fifth group, the 389th “Sky Scorpions,” commanded by Colonel Jack W. Wood, was brand new to the 8th Air Force when sent to Libya for the Ploesti mission. Wood commanded a disciplined group that was assigned a target outside of Ploesti.

The selected targets surrounding Ploesti in a five-mile diameter circle were to be approached from the northwest, as Intelligence thought that Gerstenberg would heavily fortify for an attack from the east, the Soviet side. In addition, a rail line ran from the final Initial Point (IP), Floresti, straight to Ploesti, providing an unmistakable guideline for aircrews. The first IP, Pitesti, and the second IP, Targoviste, were west of Ploesti, a direction that promised maximum surprise. The problem was Gerstenberg all along had expected an attack from North Africa and had been placing defenses for that eventuality!

Smart’s plan visualized the first four groups sweeping down, in ech elon, to cover their assigned targets like a TIDAL WAVE, code name for the mission. Each group had an assigned target that was numbered from left to right as they approached from Floresti: the lead group, 376th, White I; 93d, White II and White III; 98th, White IV; 44th, White V and Blue; and 389th, Red. Lieutenant Colonel James Posey commanded B Force of the 44th and with 21 aircraft would turn right at Floresti and fly five miles to Blue Target. The 389th was to turn left at Pitesti and fly to Red Target, 18 miles northwest of Ploesti. From low altitude, accuracy and surprise would be shocking and disconcerting to any defense.

All groups practiced low-level flying well before the target was announced. Dummy targets were set up in the desert for practice, and a final mock run was deemed successful. Crews were treated to pep talks by their commanders and senior officials. The sobering impression left with the troops from these meetings was that destruction of the target was worth a high casualty rate. Conditions at the five B-24 bases outside Benghazi were appalling. Blowing sand was everywhere and in everything. Ground crews worked around the clock to keep sand-covered engines in running condition.

Dysentery was rampant throughout the command, and commanders feared its impact on the mission. One thing was certain – the mission would proceed on the first day of August 1943, in complete radio silence, to a target 2,600 miles away!

On the evening of July 31, a shock hit Benghazi in the form of orders from General Hap Arnold that restricted key officers from flying on the mission. General Brereton and Colonel Jake Smart were ordered not to fly, and Timberlake was grounded by Brereton. These changes in mission leadership started an unsettling session of last-minute musical chairs among the crews. Brereton was replaced in the command aircraft by General Ent, whose slot with Colonel Kane had to be filled by a spare co-pilot. Smart’s position as co-pilot in one of Baker’s 93d Group aircraft was filled by a Captain not originally scheduled to fly. These changes combined with dysentery groundings “shot crew integrity all to hell” and, needless to say, added greatly to the foreboding.


At 7:00 a.m. August 1, the lead B-24 from the 376th, “Wongo-Wongo,” piloted by Major Brian Flavelle, lifted off from the sand and dust of the group field Berba-2. Flavelle was assigned to lead the 376th and, thereby, all five groups to Floresti, with the exception of the 389th, which would break off at Pitesti. The fact that Compton, with General Ent the mission commander on board, was not the lead aircraft has been the cause of unending discussion and argument in almost every rendition of the TIDAL WAVE mission. Compton has claimed that he led his group for the entire mission, but evidence does not support his contention (see below). No doubt exists that Compton’s aircraft “Teggie Ann” with General Ent aboard was the Command Aircraft, but the aircraft “Wongo-Wongo” had been designated the lead ship with Lieutenant Robert F. Wilson the mission navigator.

Adding to the apprehension was the crash on takeoff of one of Kane’s aircraft, leaving 177 B-24s flying to the target in trail by groups led by the 376th. Later, over the Mediterranean Sea, 10 aircraft had to abort with engine problems and return to Benghazi, dropping the total airborne to 167.

About two hours out, with Corfu in sight, Kane found his group closing on the two lead groups. Rather than changing his airspeed, he started a climb in order to keep his proper position.

The next disaster took place almost over Corfu when the lead B-24 “Wongo-Wongo,” with the mission navigator aboard, abruptly pulled up then dropped straight into the sea. Another B-24 in that flight, with the deputy mission navigator, broke formation, circled to look for survivors then returned to Africa, being unable to rejoin the formation. This episode caused much consternation and confusion, especially because of the radio silence edict. Once the shuffling around ceased, the 376th re-formed behind Lieutenant John Palm’s “Brewery Wagon,” causing a late turn over Corfu. Kane, leading the last three groups, turned over Corfu expecting the 376th, when collected, to turn right and recover its position on course. This was the last time Kane would have the lead two groups in sight! These stunning incidents were to have a major impact on the results of the planned mission to Ploesti.

The 376th, once back on course over Albania, and now at 10,000 feet to clear the Pindus Range, confronted cumulus clouds towering to 17,000 feet. The first two groups penetrated the clouds at 16,000 feet, and Kane led the second three groups through the weather at 14,000 feet. Compton’s crews, unable to see any aircraft to their rear, assumed they were well ahead of Kane’s, Johnson’s and Wood’s groups. Once clear of the clouds, Compton zigzagged down from altitude to give the trailing groups time to catch up. Kane, after penetrating the frontal clouds, saw Leon Johnson’s 44th Group on his right and another group to the right and rear of the 44th. Kane was unsure of the identification of this group on the far right. After his tail gunner said the aircraft were green rather than pink, Kane knew they were either the 93d or the 389th and not the 376th as he had hoped. Squeezing the three groups between two towering thunderheads, Kane descended still looking for the 376th. Finally down to below 1,000 feet, he flew west up the Danube in hopes of allowing the lead group to catch up, but after a few minutes gave up this course with the knowledge that bombing Ploesti as a cohesive mass was out of the question. This diversion completely confused Colonel Wood, who was leading the “unknown” group, and caused him to abandon his trailing position and fly directly to the first IP (Pitesti) on his own. Kane now figured that if this group moving to the front was the 389th, when over Pitesti, would continue north toward its separate target, but if the 93d, would turn right at Pitesti toward the second IP.

To Killer Kane’s horror, the “unknown” group continued north when over Pitesti. It was Jack Wood’s 389th! Kane and Johnson were obviously well behind the front two groups. Kane quickly pushed his throttles forward. Radio silence was the specter riding the backs of these group commanders – and this troublemaker was not yet finished!


The 376th Group crossed Pitesti and headed, with the 93d in tow, for Targoviste, the second IP. Compton then made the fatal mistake that initiated a series of complications resulting in utter confusion and unnecessary casualties. He had mistaken Targoviste for Floresti, the final IP and final turning point. He slid into the lead position and turned his group to the southeast toward Bucharest and away from Ploesti. Lieutenant Palm, who had led the group after the “Wongo-Wongo” debacle, continued alone straight ahead toward Ploesti.  

Realizing Compton’s gross mistake, several crews finally broke radio silence and broadcast warnings that a wrong turn had been made. In spite of these frantic calls, Compton pressed on toward Bucharest seemingly unaware of what he had done. Nearing Ploesti, Palm headed for a target at treetop level. An 88 mm shell hit the nose of his aircraft, killing the bombardier and the navigator, Lieutenant Wilson, who had brought his group to Targoviste. On three engines, seriously wounded and attacked by Me-109s, Palm managed to slide his aircraft into an open field. The remaining crew survived, only to be captured.

Addison Baker with his 93d Group dutifully following Compton’s 376th, suddenly spotted the refinery smoke of Ploesti to his left and immediately swung his group in that direction. He was unconcerned that he was headed for targets White IV and V assigned to the 98th and 44th Groups.

Compton, about five minutes after his wrong turn, realized his error and, breaking radio silence, announced that the target had been missed and that he was turning to a heading of north.

Addison Baker, with Jerstad as co-pilot, now closed on White IV amid a fully alerted defense system. When his aircraft was repeatedly hit by ground fire, Baker jettisoned his bombs to stay aloft but continued to lead his group into the targets until his flaming aircraft crashed. Eight B-24s of Baker’s group went down in the target area and one was lost later to fighter attack. The second element of the 93d damaged the unassigned target, but White II and White III, their assigned targets, were still untouched.

Approaching Ploesti from the south, the 376th crews were surprised to see the smoke, fire and confusion of exploding bombs with aircraft on fire crashing and others exploding in midair from the attack of the 93d against targets White IV and White V. Having now been in the area for 20 minutes without finding a suitable target, Compton, with Ent’s approval, broadcast instructions to his group to “pick targets of opportunity.” He then salvoed his bombs through closed bomb bay doors and headed west. Major Appold left the main 376th formation, swung left with two wingmen and looked for a target. He decided on Target White II, Concordia Vega, and after releasing bombs the flight crossed the inbound path of Killer Kane’s 98th headed for Target White IV. This resulted in moments of stark terror and violent maneuvering to avoid midair collisions!

Jack Wood had turned his 389th toward his Red Target, Steaua Romana. Kane and Johnson led their groups exactly as planned, turning toward Ploesti when over Floresti. They were stunned to see the foreground alive with explosions and swirling smoke. They lined up on the railroad leading to Ploesti, with Kane’s 98th on the left and Johnson’s 44th on the right. Adding to the vicious automatic weapons fire on the way in, a speeding flak train opened up on both groups with 88 mm guns as they flew along. Both groups suffered heavy damage before their gunners put the locomotive out of action.

Johnson’s second group of 20 aircraft, led by Colonel James Posey, now turned right toward their separate assigned target, Blue, Creditul Minier, southwest of Ploesti. Posey’s textbook attack completely shut down this refinery.

Kane drove into the maelstrom to bomb his assigned target, already struck by aircraft from the 93d Group. Flying close to the ground and rocked by exploding bombs previously dropped, Kane emerged from the smoke with one engine destroyed and two others damaged. Flak raked his Liberators as they left the target, enemy fighters circling the area suddenly becoming a factor.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s target was so obscured by smoke and fire from the 93d’s delayed-action bombs that Johnson had to circle his formation around the target to find a visual opening. Seeing a hole, he ordered his pilot, Bill Brandon, to lead the group into the target, White V. The target was accurately struck. Leon’s “Suzy Q” was holed by an 88 mm shell that passed through the right wing too low to arm! Nine of the 16 aircraft Johnson led to his target were lost, but Target White V was out of business.

The 389th Group had shut down Red Target at Campina, but Colonel Wood had lost four B-24s to flak, one of which was piloted by “Pete” Hughes, who drove to his target completely in flames. After dropping his bombs, Hughes pulled up, allowing three crewmen to parachute before crashing. Wood, as he left his target, was surprised to see a stray flight of desert B-24s (376th Group) drop or jettison their bombs near Campina.


Coming out of the target area and joining up in any semblance of order was impossible for most of the aircraft. Those flying in makeshift groups of twos, threes, and even singly flew toward safety or Benghazi, depending on fuel remaining and aircraft condition.

Enemy fighters orbiting over expected exit routes attacked crippled aircraft as small groups clustered together for mutual defense. The heroism displayed in seriously damaged aircraft making the long 2,400-mile flight home, some with dead and wounded aboard, is the stuff of legend. In many cases, these actions overshadowed the valor displayed in the attack itself. These young men, who had pressed the attack on targets for their country, now struggled valiantly for themselves – for their own survival!

Eighty-eight surviving aircraft made it back to Benghazi, 55 with battle damage. Others struggled to Turkey or Cyprus. When over the Adriatic, a few headed for Sicily and Malta. The butcher’s bill was steep. Fifty-four aircraft and 532 crewmen were lost from all causes, including 310 dead and 54 seriously wounded. Total mission flight time was 13 to 14 hours, with some aircraft landing after dark. The 376th Group was the first to land, having lost two aircraft. The last B-24 to land logged 16 hours in the air!

General Gerstenberg’s protectorate had suffered about 40 percent damage. The refineries in a few weeks were producing at a greater rate than before the attack. Of the seven targets assigned, two were completely missed, three were accurately struck (by assigned group), and two received slight damage.

The strikes against the red and blue targets proved the efficacy of Jake Smart’s planning. The low-level attack, as planned, was more for accuracy than for surprise and was foiled more through execution than by the planning. The wrong turn by Keith Compton initiated a series of decisions that resulted in confusion, increased casualties, and left critical targets undamaged. In spite of this, unusual bravery and resourcefulness provided a measure of target destruction.

The mission resulted in the award of five Medals of Honor. Group Commanders Kane, Johnson and Baker were recipients, as were Major John Jerstad (Baker’s Co-pilot) and Lieutenant Lloyd “Pete” Hughes of the 389th Group. The last three were posthumous decorations. Every crew member reaching Ploesti was presented with a medal. Included were 50 Distinguished Service Crosses, 41 Silver Stars and 1,320 Distinguished Flying Crosses.

Unfortunately, from some quarters, controversy concerning the mission has carried through almost to the present day. Most disturbing were attempts by Lieutenant General Edward Timberlake to divert blame for Compton’s poor decisions by “talking up” responsibility for the gap that developed between the groups. Both Timberlake and Compton blamed Kane for creating the gap they claimed caused the plan to be ineffective. In their view, Kane’s “wrong turn” up the Danube caused the last three groups to fall behind the two leading groups and in the process also alerted the enemy radar station on Mt. Cherin. In truth, the 20-minute separation that developed had no major bearing on the results of the mission, and causes for the gap are more speculative than factual. These attempts at justification went on long after Killer Kane’s demise and have caused confusion among students of the great Low-level Ploesti Mission.

Colonel Keith Compton’s decision to designate a lead and backup mission navigator in aircraft other than his own might well have been the mistake that set in motion his fatal turn at the wrong IP. As Captain “Red” Thompson, Compton’s own co-pilot, was quoted as saying in James Dugan and Carroll Stewart’s definitive book, Ploesti: The Great Air-Ground Battle of 1 August 1943: “Who knows what bearing there was on it from the mysterious loss of Flavelle and Wilson, the target-finding team, and the lack of air discipline that moved Flavelle’s wingman, carrying the Number Two navigator, to go down and circle his oil slick and return to base?”

Finally, the three borrowed 8th Air Force B-24 groups returned to England, and Ploesti was not bombed again until May 1944, then at high altitude from Italy. The Soviets overran Ploesti in August 1944, capturing General Gerstenberg in the process. The allied book on Ploesti was finally closed.

Mission Ploesti, flown that single day in August 1943, is etched permanently in United States Air Force annals. Its story contains records that will probably never be matched, and it tells of brave men who persevered in the face of horrendously daunting circumstances.

 Major General (USAF, Ret.) Hoyt S. Vandenberg, Jr. is a West Point graduate, decorated fighter pilot, Air Force history specialist, and member of the “Armchair General” advisory board. During his distinguished career, he held numerous operational commands and was the Commandant of Cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Armchair General.