Monday, March 21, 2016

“Beyond the limits of a vulgar fate, / Beneath the good how far - but far above the great.” *



It's been a busy week, although since it was Spring Break there were very few employees around the district so the copier/printer swapout went fairly well.  Well, aside from a small miscommunication that 25% of the copier/printers that were being installed required 220V power to operate.  Ah well!

Well, Sarge's Blog does not have a section for "woulda, coulda, shoulda", so on with this week's posting.  Today, we'll be discussing Operation Tidal Wave.  Now, there are a LOT of posts that are Naval related (No, not Navel related, they pertain to the Navy, not your belly button).  This Operation however had nothing to do with any Navy, other than flying over water.  

According to the Source of all "verified" knowledge, Operation Tidal Wave was the official title for the Raid on Ploesti during WWII on August 1st 1943 by 178 B-24s crewed by 1751 crewmen.  The bombers took off from Benghazi (where have we heard that name recently), crossed the Med, flew across Bulgaria and then eastward into Romania.  To avoid detection, they flew the entire route, a distance of about 2400NM, at 300'.
Source

Suffice it to say the raid did not go well. One bomber crashed on takeoff, another crashed into the sea due to unknown causes, but that crash caused one groups formation to come apart.  Several of the bombers aborted at that point.  
Notice the angle of attack, those bombers are HEAVY!
Source


Radio silence was rigidly enforced to maintain surprise, but the Axis forces were aware of the attack.  However, the maintenance of Radio silence meant that formations couldn't be rejoined and when the lead bomber of one group missed a turn point, no one could inform him of that error.

All in all, of the 177 Bombers that got airborne, 162 made it to the target.  88 made it back to Benghazi , 55 of which had battle damage.  310 aircrew were killed, another 186 were captured or interned.  Damage to the Ploesti refineries was repaired in a matter of weeks and production rates actually increased after the raid.  


Source

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In short, a disaster for the Allies, the United States and the Army Air Corps.

Sarge did an excellent post on the raid back in 2014, so I'm not going to spend more time on the raid itself.  Rather I'm going to look into one specific airplane and it's crew.  That airplane would be "Hell's Wench".  


Obviously this airplane is in bad shape.
Source



"Hell's Wench" was the lead bomber of the 93rd Bomb Group.  The raid was it's first and only mission.  It was piloted by the Group Commander, LtCol Addison Baker, Co-piloted by Major John Jerstad.  Lt George Reuter was the Navigator, Lt Al Pezella was the Bombardier. The other crewmembers were SSgts Faith, Fritts, Bennet, Stafford, Workman and Barto.  

LtCol Baker and Major Jerstad were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions during the raid.
Lt Col Baker
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Maj Jerstad
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Posthumously.

As I researched this aircraft, it's crew and the reports of it's final flight, I stumbled upon some of those internet crumbs that brings a name to life.  

For instance, with the exception of the Pilot and Co-Pilot, all the remaining crew were part of a formed crew assigned to Lt Pat Murphy.  Lt Murphy evidently annoyed Lt Col Baker by missing the Colonel's reception after he took over command of the Bomb Group.  The Colonel conveyed his disappointment by commandeering Lt Murphy's crew to fly the lead ship.  

SSgt Faith was an excellent Guitar player with a preference for Hank Williams Sr.  Lt Pezella was Italian with a quick sense of humor.  On a previous mission, their aircraft had been hit by AAA and a piece of shrapnel had come up through the floorboard, passed between his legs and exited out the top of the plane.  Lt Pezella, immediately called "Ball One!" over the intercom.

Around this time in the war, much ado was being made about "Memphis Belle" having completed 25 missions and coming home.  It was interesting to note that the entire crew, to include Lt Col Addison and Maj Jerstad, had completed 25 missions and volunteered to stay in theater to complete this mission.

So, what brought about the end of Hell's Wench?

As they all perished, no one knows for sure, but as they're in the final stretch of their bomb run, other aircraft reported that the aircraft hit a barrage balloon cable on the left wingtip.  Almost simultaneously, a AAA round exploded in the wing of the airplane setting fuel on fire.  Shortly thereafter, another round explodes in the nose compartment.  

B-24s were notorious for exploding when set on fire.  "You've got til the count of ten to bailout before she explodes" was the watchword.  Col Baker elects to continue the bomb run, drops his bombs and then starts to initiate a climb which would allow the crew enough altitude to survive bailing out.  As the aircraft starts to climb, it explodes and kills the crew.

I stumbled upon an excellent blog as I was researching this.  The blogger is the nephew of the Navigator, Lt Reuter.  He's assembled several articles on various aspects of the crew and their final flight, and I've borrowed heavily from them.  Unfortunately, the last posting was from 2012 when he was travelling to Romania to try and find where the bomber had crashed and obtain any other information there might be.
Lt Reuter
Source

I hope he was successful and will start posting again.

Lt Col Baker's citation.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy on August 1, 1943. On this date he led his command, the 93d Heavy Bombardment Group, on a daring low-level attack against enemy oil refineries and installations at Ploesti, Rumania. Approaching the target, his aircraft was hit by a large caliber antiaircraft shell, seriously damaged and set on fire. Ignoring the fact he was flying over terrain suitable for safe landing, he refused to jeopardize the mission by breaking up the lead formation and continued unswervingly to lead his group to the target upon which he dropped his bombs with devastating effect. Only then did he leave formation, but his valiant attempts to gain sufficient altitude for the crew to escape by parachute were unavailing and his aircraft crashed in flames after his successful efforts to avoid other planes in formation. By extraordinary flying skill, gallant leadership and intrepidity, Lt. Col. Baker rendered outstanding, distinguished, and valorous service to our Nation
Maj Jerstad's citation
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty. On 1 August 1943, he served as pilot of the lead aircraft in his group in a daring low-level attack against enemy oil refineries and installations at Ploesti, Rumania. Although he had completed more than his share of missions and was no longer connected with this group, so high was his conception of duty that he volunteered to lead the formation in the correct belief that his participation would contribute materially to success in this attack. Maj. Jerstad led the formation into attack with full realization of the extreme hazards involved and despite withering fire from heavy and light antiaircraft guns. Three miles from the target his airplane was hit, badly damaged, and set on fire. Ignoring the fact that he was flying over a field suitable for a forced landing, he kept on the course. After the bombs of his aircraft were released on the target, the fire in his ship became so intense as to make further progress impossible and he crashed into the target area. By his voluntary acceptance of a mission he knew was extremely hazardous, and his assumption of an intrepid course of action at the risk of life over and above the call of duty, Maj. Jerstad set an example of heroism which will be an inspiration to the U.S. Armed Forces.


Warriors!








*Thomas Gray

14 comments:

  1. Awesome post Juvat. Lot's of information to digest here, I think I'll be spending time over at the Hell's Wench Project site. Lot's of good stuff.

    In the first picture (not the map mind you) only a pilot would notice the AOA on those bombers. I've seen that picture many times and never noticed that. Now? Well, it seems pretty obvious. Thanks for sharing that little insight.

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    1. Thanks.

      One of the posts I read, I think it was the Tidal Wave Wikipedia one, talked about the one bomber "flopping" into the sea. At that high of an Angle of Attack, the plane is very close to stall. If someone bumped the throttles, or pulled a little hard on the yoke, the aircraft could very easily stall and in attempting to break the stall, the pilot would push forward on the yoke. @300' ASL, that maneuver is almost impossible to pull off. The heavier the airplane, the less likely the recovery.

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  2. Very nice article Sir. Nice way to start a Monday by reading a snippet of our WWII history. In all the times that I've read about the raid, I did not remember the minimal effect that our efforts had made. Germans were darned good at spreading out manufacturing and in getting damaged facilities repaired ASAP. Thanks!

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    1. Thanks.
      "Germans were darned good at spreading out manufacturing and in getting damaged facilities repaired ASAP."

      I had an Instructor at CGSC state that differently. "The enemy gets a vote on your OPlan." The Tidal Wave Wikipedia article talks about a prior raid on Ploesti finding that the refinery was lightly defended. That finding led to the decision to attack at low level to achieve greater accuracy. Obviously, in the interim between the two raids, the German Commander strengthened the defenses significantly. Hubris is a terrible attribute in war.

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  3. I see at least three of the attackers were B-24Gs, with the Consolidated nose turret.

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  4. The award distribution is interesting, and in keeping with the today's USAF attitude that anything other than a pilot is baggage. I get giving the AC the MOH -- he made the decision to jeopardize himself, the crew, and the a/c to complete the mission. Tough call, but he was there, and made it, and no one should second guess him. But the co-pilot? Seriously, he was along for the ride just like everybody else. How about giving it to the bombardier? He was the exposed one (as evidenced). He didn't say 'eff this and bale for safety outside that glass cage. I recognize it, but I don't get it.

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    1. I wondered that myself, but I think, if you read the two citations, Maj Jerstad was the Aircraft Commander and LtCol Baker was the Mission Commander probably flying in the right seat. Given that, the two MOH's might be appropriate. I looked to see if other Medals were given, and there isn't a lot of info on the remainder of the Crew. It seems SSgt Faith received a DFC at some point. (I've got my source info at home, I'll add a citation this evening) The Hell's Wench project website implies that Lt Reuter only received a Purple Heart. And I couldn't find any info on any of the others.

      I did think this was a particularly thought provoking passage from the Hell's Wench project website.
      "I couldn't wrap my child's mind around it. I wasn't sure how you got a medal after you had already died. How did they pin it on you? He never got to see it. It was like getting chocolate cake for your birthday even though you died the day before! A lot of good it did you. But then again, medals bestowed to dead men aren't really for the dead men, but rather the living. Something to hold on to, I guess. Or maybe something to assuage the conscience of those responsible for sending young men to their deaths. Or, a little of both."

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    2. Here's the reference to SSgt Faith's DFC. Not much info, but I just noticed he had a DFC and one Oak Leaf Cluster, so two awards. No date on either however.

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    3. According to this site Lt Reuter received a Silver Star, Lt Pezella and the rest of the crew received DFCs. Looks like my interpretation of the Hell's Wench Project article about the crew list was in error. According to the Find A Grave site, the crewlist was:
      Lt Col. Addison Baker
      Maj. John Louis Jerstad
      1Lt. Alfred W. Pezzella
      1Lt.George J. Reuter
      T/Sgt Charles E Bennett
      T/Sgt T/Sgt John M Carroll
      S/Sgt.George P. Allen
      S/Sgt.Edgar C Faith
      S/Sgt. Morton O. Stafford, Jr
      S/Sgt.William O. Wood

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  5. They were truly heroes. One thing the Ploesti raid did was show that Americans WOULD push the limits to make a strike and it forced the Germans to protect the 'back door' so to speak.

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    1. And according to Frederick the Great "He who defends everything defends nothing." Pretty costly strategy though. Less than 50 fully functioning Libs remaining made that wing pretty useless.

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  6. Second grade free reading period (teacher needs a vitamin V and a little down time). Working my way through the encyclopedias in the back of the room, I come across Ploesti (which I read as Polesti). Two illustrations, the low level through the black smoke and an image of a column of smoke rising from the sea. I read and cogitate, cogitate and re-read. My eyes keep returning to the lonely column of smoke, all that remains of Wongo Wongo! and her crew. I drag the heavy book up to teacher's desk and show her what I've found. She doesn't get it and I can't articulate it. In some ways I still can't. http://www.warbirdinformationexchange.org/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?p=523289

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    1. As a great American from Nebraska has said. "We stand on the shoulders of Giants." I can only pray that I would have done as well.

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