By Col. Scott Reed, 180th Fighter Wing Maintenance Group
/ Published August 01, 2014
Swanton, Ohio -- I'm a strong believer that our heritage is critical to our future, and that remembering times when our core values were tested is fuel for our profession of arms. There really isn't a better example of our core values than Lt. Col. Addison B. Baker - long before we even called them "core values." You all know the basic story - 112th pilot wins Medal of Honor flying a B-24 for a raid on the Ploesti oil fields. But I think it's in the details that you see the integrity, excellence and service most clearly. So here's "Addison Baker, The Rest of the Story". Remember him.
Ploesti, Romania sits in the plains 35 miles north of the capital of Bucharest and south of the Transylvanian Alps. There is a large oil reserve close to the surface there - in fact, in the 1800's they simply dug pits and gathered crude oil with buckets. Ploesti was the only place in Europe where oil was available as the industrial revolution began. They were also the first to start commercial refining in 1857. When Hitler began his Blitzkrieg, Romania tried to remain neutral. The Soviet Union issued an ultimatum, and Romania was forced to give up major areas totaling a third of the country's area and population. The King abdicated as a result, and General Ion Antonescu rose to power. A year later Romania joined the Axis, partly out of self-preservation and partly hoping to regain the land lost to the USSR. By WWII, Ploesti was producing a million tons of oil a month, supplying a third of the fuel for Germany's mechanized forces.
Baker enlisted in the Army in 1929 at the age of 21 from his hometown of Akron, Ohio where he worked as an automobile mechanic. He served about a year before being accepted as a flying cadet. In 1931 he received his wings and commission, but the following year budget cuts forced him back to the private sector. He built and ran his own service station in Detroit, Michigan while serving in the 112th Observation Squadron, at Cleveland Hopkins airport, Ohio Air National Guard. The 112th was activated and sent to Pope Field, North Carolina in 1940. They moved to Dover, Delaware in 1941, back to Pope in 1942, then to Lantana, Florida. The unit flew anti-submarine patrols during this time as a response to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. The 112th finally ended up at Birmingham, Alabama where it was inactivated. 112th personnel were assigned to other units and Baker ended up being trained as a B-24 pilot for the 93rd Bombardment Group. When the 93rd deployed to England in 1943, he became the operations officer and flew 15 combat missions. Later that year the 93rd split up and sent a large contingent of B-24's to North Africa on temporary assignment to the 9th Air Force, while the rest moved to Hadwick, England. The Group reunited in England later in 1943, but they now had experience in Africa. This would make them a logical choice later on when units of the 8th AF would be loaned to 9th AF in Africa for the Ploesti raid. These mini deployments also led to the nickname "The Traveling Circus" for the 93rd, since actual unit designators couldn't be used in the news for secrecy.
In the first month after the U.S. entered the war, a plan was initiated to establish a major fighting command in Burma to halt the Japanese advance into China. The new command was named 10th AF and was activated at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio in February 1942 under Col "Hurry-up Harry" Halverson. It then moved to India under Maj. Gen Lewis Brereton. Fighters were to be assembled in West Africa to join Chennault's Flying Tigers, and the first bombers were to be a combination of brand new B-24's (an element later known as the Halpro Group, or Halverson Project ) and Doolittle's B-25 raiders, who, after bombing Tokyo, were to continue to China to join 10th AF. Halverson's B-24's were hopping across Africa toward China when their intended base was captured by the Japanese. They were stuck in the Sudan, while Doolittle's raiders completed their bombing of Tokyo but were unable to regroup in China.
A week after the U.S. declared war on Romania in response to Romania's aligning with the Axis, planners decided to attack a target of opportunity with Halverson's B-24's. Ploesti was out of reach of bombers based in England, but possibly in reach from across the Mediterranean. The plan was to take off out of Egypt at night, cross the Mediterranean, deviate around neutral Turkey, then approach Romania through German-held Greece and bomb from 30,000 feet. Never mind the detour made the trip 2,600 miles (at the edge of the plane's ability without a bomb load, let alone fully loaded) and the fact that most of the bombers would never be able to reach 30,000 feet with the extra fuel and a full bomb load. After the mission brief from headquarters, Halverson produced a map with a heavy crease from Egypt and through Turkey, saying "Can we help it if National Geographic put this line through Turkey?" He also changed the plan to bomb at 14,000 feet. Except for the difficulty of flying across the Mediterranean alone in the dark and trying to find the rest of the formation after sunrise, the mission went uneventfully. 12 bombers dropped on Ploesti in June, 1942 - the first bombs dropped by Americans in Europe - with minimal damage. Unfortunately only six made it back to Iraq (their planned destination), two landed in at their Syrian divert for fuel, and four landed in Turkey due to fuel where they were seized and the crews interned. Ploesti had been attacked earlier by the Soviets after war was declared, but this was the first attack by Americans. The Germans were surprised by the reach of the B-24 and immediately began to build up the defenses around Ploesti since it represented a critical logistics capability.
After the mission, the Halverson Project was dissolved and renamed the Middle East Air Force (MEAF) under Lewis Brereton, now a Lieutenant Geneneral. It was renamed again to 9th AF after the successful American invasion of North Africa by Patton. Subsequent missions by the MEAF / 9th AF targeted the supply lines in northern Africa supplying Rommel. They destroyed 60 percent of the food, fuel, and supplies shipped to Axis forces. Later that year the Brits broke through at El Alamein, denying the Germans access to the Suez Canal and the critical oil fields of the Middle East. Also in 1942, the Soviets won the battle of Stalingrad, denying the Germans the Russian oil reserves at Baku. Ploesti quickly became even more important - a true center of gravity as Germany's main oil refineries.
The conventional thinking at the time was to target "high value" or "panacea" targets. Gen. Carl "Toohey" Spaatz was convinced that the oil refineries represented a key target in Europe, but British and other American leaders advocated attacks on cities and ball bearing plants. He eventually took his opinion straight to Roosevelt. In January of 1943 Roosevelt, Churchill and allied war planners met in Casablanca, Morocco to talk about the land invasion of Europe. A decision was made to postpone a cross-channel invasion in favor of a march up through Sicily and Italy into the "soft belly" of Germany. A footnote to this approach from the south was "Operation Tidal Wave", a bomber attack on Ploesti to be scheduled after North Africa was won and before the invasion of Sicily began. The estimate was that a successful attack could deny Hitler 30 percent of his fuel and shorten the war by six months. The mission was assigned to 9th AF but the planning began in Gen. "Hap" Arnold's staff. He assigned Col. Jacob Smart, who ultimately came up with the low level attack idea. The idea was, in part, an answer to the problem of attacking the oil facilities circling the city of Ploesti without hitting civilians, but also with the hope of achieving surprise so that German fighters could not react and gunners could not reset their burst elevation from high to low altitude in time. This attack, contrary to the earlier one, would take off out of Benghazi, Libya and follow a direct line across Greece. The mission was one of the few instances where High Command handed down a major task to a theater commander without asking him if it was even feasible. The Operations Officer of one of the squadrons, a veteran of 46 combat missions including the first raid on Ploesti, estimated losses of 32 planes. He refused the mission and was sent home. The Group commander, Gen. Ent, estimated a loss of 75 aircraft and requested to fly at high altitude. Unfortunately, by that time Lt. Gen. Brereton had approved Col. Smart's low level plan and sent the plan to Gen. Eisenhower, who had already approved it.
Starting in June 1943, a small green hut in the center of the base at Benghazi held a mock-up of Ploesti, but only commanders and planners were allowed in. Airfields nearby were closed. Around this same time, a low level B-24 mission against the submarine pens at Kiel lost seven out of 18 aircraft. Another squadron of B-26's had tried a low-level run on Holland and none came back. Crews were not happy about the low level flying they heard about and were spooked by all the secrecy. Meanwhile, Gen. Doolittle led 158 B-17's from 12th AF and 110 B-24's of the 93rd on an attack of targets around Rome. The goal was to soften up Italy for invasion. The very next day the 9th Bomber Command stood down to begin final preparation for their secret target. All the Airmen were quarantined for 10 days and began flying practice low-level attacks. They had one week to train on an attack that had never been attempted before: low-level bomb runs by a very large formation of bombers. No one knew if it was even possible. In the desert, white chalk lines outlined targets and telephone poles simulated smokestacks so crews could practice bombing runs at 50-200 feet dropping wooden bombs. The final practice run hit every target in less than two minutes. This was critical because the bombs were going to be set with time delay fuzes to allow the bombers to get away from the target area before the explosions; at very low-altitude your own bombs can kill you. Despite the obvious danger, every officer from the 9th AF commander on down planned to fly with his men. The day before the mission Gen. Hap Arnold sent a cable to the base prohibiting Lt. Gen. Brereton or Col. Smart from flying. They, in turn, kept other senior leaders on the ground because the losses were expected to be huge and they couldn't afford to lose their entire leadership team. There was a last-second reshuffling of crews to fill the holes, but no hesitation of men to step forward. Baker told his men "If we hit it good, we might cut six months off the war. She may be a little rough, but you can do her. I'm going to take you to this one if my plane falls apart."
Early Sunday morning, 1 August 1943, a man-made dust storm engulfed Benghazi as 178 B-24 Liberators began taking off. The dust ingestion, and extreme fuel and bomb load weights made it a touchy takeoff roll. One crashed after a problem on takeoff killing five men. The large formation was made up of five groups - three, including Baker's group borrowed from 8th AF in England, and two from 9th AF. As the package flew across the Mediterranean toward Corfu, off the coast of Greece, the lead plane developed trouble. There was strict radio silence due to the extreme secrecy of the mission, so nothing came out on radio. Shortly before landfall, the plane nosed up onto its tail, then flopped on its back and fell into the ocean killing all 10 crewmembers. The deputy lead dove down to search for survivors despite pre-mission orders not to break formation. Within 30 seconds there was nothing on the surface, but the overloaded and slowed B-24 couldn't climb back up to rejoin the formation and had to turn back. Now lacking their lead and backup navigators, the 175 bombers continued north, but 12 more had to turn back due to mechanical problems. The large formation began to drift apart, mostly due to pilot technique. The lead pilot set higher power and speeds, while the trailing lead pilot settled on a lower power and speed to save fuel. There were now two groups out front with three falling behind, but they were out of sight of each other and radio silence kept the pilots from communicating. No one knew the split was happening. They all climbed to 11,000 feet and flew through a cloud deck to clear the 9,000 feet peaks of the Pindus Range. By the time they entered Romanian airspace there was 60 miles between the first two groups and the last three. The plan to hit quickly and get away was dissolving. As they descended to tree-top level they were banking on the element of surprise, but radar had tracked them across the Mediterranean, spotters had seen them and called ahead from the coast, and Bulgarian fighters had seen them and called ahead too. The Germans guessed the target was Ploesti and had the most heavily defended air defense system in Europe on high alert, waiting. Due to the importance of Ploesti, the defenses were extremely heavy, manned by the best crews available.
The route of flight was a straight line heading northeast through three towns, followed by a right turn toward the targets. The lead plane mistook the second town as the third and turned early to start the bombing run. This turn, 20 miles early, put them on a direct course for Bucharest, the Romanian capital (and more air defenses). Baker was leading the second group of 32 Liberators and recognized the mistake, but initially thought it was a tactical change made by Gen. Ent in the lead aircraft. Soon after, Baker saw smoke from the smokestacks of the distant refineries and knew a decision had to be made. He peeled away from the lead group to head to his target. As one of the other pilots later said "There was no doubt about his decision. He maneuvered our group more eloquently than if he had radio contact with each of us. He turned left ninety degrees. We all turned with him. Ploesti was off there to the left and we were going straight into it and we were going fast." One B-24 ignored the original mistaken turn and continued on course as planned, but alone. This sole target of gunners on the ground and Me-109s in the air was forced into a crash landing short of Ploesti. In the lead group, pilots were now breaking radio silence as they were halfway to Bucharest. The group turned and headed to Ploesti too, but almost exactly opposite the direction they had planned on. A controller in the German command post noted, "It's a simultaneous attack on Bucharest and Ploesti! Damned cleverly done. They send planes to tie up fighters at Bucharest while the main force hits Ploesti."
Ironically, despite the compounding misfortunes and errors that plagued the waves of American bombers in Operation Tidal Wave, the American Airmen would respond with such courage and initiative that the German surprise would turn into utter amazement. Conduct of the broken raid was accomplished so incredibly that, on the ground, enemy forces assumed the raid had been planned that way.
Baker's thirty-two Liberators executed a text-book turn towards target, forming tightly into three waves only fifty feet above the fields of hay and corn below. The planned approach from the northwest had been plotted because Intelligence reports indicated the enemy would expect any attack as coming from over the Black Sea (as Halpro had done), so the heaviest defenses were south and east of the city. It was directly into those heavy defenses that Baker led his Airmen.
At 230-250 miles per hour it only took Baker's formation five minutes to reach their targets, but those five minutes were deadly. Below the bombers and often level with them because of the lowness of the approach, innocent-looking haystacks dissolved to reveal hidden enemy gunners. Top turret gunners accustomed to firing upwards to fight enemy aircraft found themselves trying to force the angle of their big 50-caliber machine guns downward into ground forces. It was an air/ground battle unlike anything American Airmen had ever encountered.
Short-fused anti-aircraft fire filled the landscape at point-blank range while scores of barrage balloons were raised, and in many cases lowered, over Ploesti to snag the wings of the incoming raiders. The running battle damaged nearly every one of Baker's inbound bombers; several of them falling to earth before reaching the city. It was obvious that the battered Liberators could never survive the full breadth of the city to the assigned target. Noting the high smoke stacks of the Columbia Aquila refinery in the distance, Baker homed in on it. Columbia Aquila was the briefed target of another group that should have been ahead of them, but no sign of them had been seen since takeoff, so this would have to do as an alternate target.
Baker's plane, Hell's Wench (Serial 42-40994), was still three minutes from Columbia Aquila when the co-pilot, John Jerstad, felt a tug at the wing of the lead bomber as it snagged a balloon cable. Both he and Baker fought the controls to remain on course, then struggled to correct when the cable parted while ripping away sections of wing. Simultaneously, the enemy gunners below scored with a direct hit on the nose of the lead bomber with a massive 88 round, shattering Plexiglas and killing the bombardier.
Hell's Wench immediately took three more hits, one puncturing the right wing fuel tank to release a stream of burning aviation gasoline and another puncturing the "Tokyo tanks" (extra fuel tanks in the bomb bay; so-named because Doolittle's raiders used the same extra tanks to reach Tokyo). The fuselage was engulfed in flame. One crewman managed to leap out through the nose wheel hatch and following pilots saw his parachute open as they zipped past. Meanwhile, Hell's Wench somehow managed to roar onward towards the twin stacks of the refinery.
Two minutes from target Baker's plane was a flying inferno but the intrepid pilot and his co-pilot somehow managed to remain on course. Still beyond the city, an open field lay between them and the target that would have afforded ample opportunity for a controlled crash-landing, but Baker never wavered. The two leaders jettisoned their bombs to enable them to remain airborne (they had lost their bombardier anyway), then set to the task promised by Baker when he said "I'm going to take you to this one if my plane falls apart."
Even as the massive twin-stacks of Columbia Aquila loomed in his shattered cockpit window, Baker felt Hell's Wench shudder beneath another direct hit. Flying as navigator in Queenie a short distance behind, Lt. Carl Barthel recalled,
"Baker had been burning for about three minutes. The right wing began to drop. I don't see how anyone could have been alive in that cockpit, but someone kept her leading the force on between the refinery stacks. Baker was a powerful man, but one man could not have held the ship on the climb she took beyond the stacks."
Baker and Jerstad tried to climb, but only after leading their men directly over the target. Hell's Wench struggled to get up to 300 feet where burning crew members were seen tumbling out in a desperate attempt to parachute to earth. Meanwhile Utah Man, the sole surviving bomber in the first wave, dropped the first bombs on the massive refinery below.
Baker and Jerstad remained in the cockpit but their efforts were futile. Shortly after the bodies of their crew were seen exiting the Hell's Wench, the tangled wreckage of their Liberator fell over on its flaming right wing. In the plummet back to earth she missed the nearby bomber Queenie by only a few feet. That bomber was piloted by Lt. Col. George Brown, bringing in the second wave. "Flames hid everything in the cockpit," he marveled as he remembered the leadership of Baker and his volunteer co-pilot. "Baker went down after he flew his ship to pieces to get us over the target."
None of the crew of Hell's Wench survived, including the man who had leaped from the nose wheel before reaching the target.
In less than ten minutes the 32 bombers of Baker's group struck at two targets and flooded the south side of Ploesti with smoke and flame. Only 19 surviving aircraft were still flying northeast over the city, their bomb bays empty, in a desperate effort to turn west and escape the hell below to return home. The withdrawing and badly-battered force was suddenly confronted with a new danger. The errant lead group had corrected their course and were now approaching Ploesti from the opposite direction only five to 10 feet above the ground, on a collision course with Baker's group. Liberators began dodging each other amid the smoke, flames, and artillery. Observers on the ground swore it was the most amazing demonstration of flying skill they ever saw.
Ahead of the inbound flights the pilots witnessed the desperate withdrawal of broken and flaming Liberators that had survived the first attacks. In the distance the ground was littered with charred and still-burning ruins of American bombers. At the extremely low altitude, crewmen could see the blackened and burning bodies of their fallen comrades, many racing desperately for cover to avoid capture. But still they pressed forward. The sky was filled with tracers and heavy flak, making the flight a desperate race. A reasonable man had every excuse to abort and turn back. Not a single commander who led his bombers into Ploesti considered the easy alternative. 20 minutes later the trailing groups arrived at Ploesti and the ground fire was reaching its peak. Time delay fuzes from bombs dropped by previous flights detonated underneath the bombers as they flew across their assigned targets already in flames looking through the black smoke for targets of opportunity. It was almost a miracle that any of them survived.
It became the worst loss ever suffered by the USAAF on a single mission, and its date was later referred to as "Black Sunday". Only 89 bombers made it from the target back to Benghazi, most of them badly burned and full of holes, with some carrying corn stalks stuck in the bomb bay doors - testament to the low altitude bomb runs. Ultimately, only 33 were able to fly again. 300 Airmen were known dead, 140 captured, and more than 440 who made it back to base were injured.
Every man who flew the Ploesti mission was awarded the Silver Star or higher. There were five Medals of Honor awarded on the raid. Baker's nomination for the Medal of Honor was debated at the highest levels for more than a year. Opponents argued that the "Traveling Circus" commander's decision to break formation when he realized the lead group had made a wrong turn, and then his decision to bomb the wrong targets, made him ineligible to receive our nation's highest award. Ultimately, it was the men who flew with Baker, men who witnessed his courage and were inspired enough by his leadership to follow him into Hell, who prevailed. Baker's Medal was approved on March 11, 1944, and was presented to his widow a few months later in the hero's home town of Akron, Ohio. That medal now sits in the archives at the Air Force museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
While the mission was a strategic failure - the refinery was producing more oil than ever within a month of the attack - up to that point, "strategic bombing" had been perceived as a way to strike cataclysmic blows at the enemy's few most critical holdings. Basically, the idea was that if you could knock out just a few such ultra-high-value targets, the damage to the enemy war effort would be immediate and almost decisive. That was tried at Ploesti, and in the celebrated British "dam-busters" attack in the Ruhr, and in the costly Eighth Air Force B-17 raids on what was thought to be the panacea target of the German ball-bearing-production facilities at Schweinfurt.
But Ploesti convinced the planners that this strategy was wrong. The losses were far too excessive (entire bombing squadrons became inoperable due to lack of men and planes), and the attacks were unable to produce anything even close to the expected decisive results. Commanders now completely changed their strategy. Rather than hitting the big "glamour" targets, they began to hit seemingly less-important targets. By suffering much lower loses in the effort, the bomber groups were able to maintain a very high ops tempo while aircrews gained experience and became very, very good at what they did. The vast European transportation network was in indefensible. The new strategy, while not spectacular, was effective - and the Germans soon realized this.
In particular, although Ploesti continued to operate, Allied air action so disrupted the transportation network that the Germans found it increasingly difficult to simply get fuel to their units. The German Luftwaffe was increasingly hard-hit by fuel shortages, and found it more and more difficult to get planes into the air. Naturally, this process fed back on itself - the less the German planes could fly, the more the Allied air forces came to dominate the skies over Europe; due to that domination, the transportation infrastructure was squeezed even further.
By the time of the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944 - barely ten months after the Ploesti raid - the main fear of Allied invasion planners was that there would be so many Allied planes in the air that they were more likely to shoot each other down by mistake than to be shot down by German aircraft. The fuel shortages suffered by the Luftwaffe were so great that on the day of the Normandy invasion, exactly two German aircraft got into the air - making one quick flight over the beaches (where they did no damage) and then returning to their base.
The strategic bombing campaign against Germany had (at first) been badly-thought-out - and had only been able to accomplish anything at all due solely to the courage of the Airmen who flew. But once the strategy had been adjusted and the Airmen gained experience, the results were devastating.
And, now you know the rest of his story.