On this day in 1944, a United States Army Air Forces pilot puts his life on the line. First Lieutenant Donald Pucket must have known that his action would mean certain death, but he simply refused to leave a man behind.
Pucket’s heroism came during the critical effort to destroy oil refineries in Ploesti, Romania, during World War II. Those refineries were an important source of energy for Nazi Germany, but Ploesti’s location deep inside enemy territory also made them a hard target for Allied forces. Attempts had already been made (and largely failed) in 1943. Pucket was among those who would try again in 1944. His mission, along with others, would finally deplete Ploesti’s production and undermine Adolf Hitler.
“The role that the [Ploesti] campaign played in the defeat of Nazi Germany is impossible to quantify,” military historian Jay A. Stout concludes, “but it can hardly be overstated. Hitler’s armies were dependent on modern, mechanized equipment; their strategies and tactics demanded it. But tanks and aircraft are useless without fuel to operate them. And useless is what German tanks and aircraft became at the end of the war.”
On July 9, 1944, Pucket’s crew departed on a mission to attack a vital refinery in Ploesti. The men got far enough to drop their payload—but then they got hit. “The airplane was badly damaged,” Pucket’s citation describes, “2 engines were knocked out, the control cables cut, the oxygen system on fire, and the bomb bay flooded with gas and hydraulic fluid.” One person had been killed and others were wounded.
Pucket struggled to regain control of the plane. Once it was stabilized, he passed the controls to his co-pilot while he went back to assess the damage. He helped the wounded. He threw out guns and equipment, attempting to lighten his load. He manually cranked open the bomb bay doors to let accumulating gases escape. None of it was enough. The plane was doomed, unable to maintain altitude. Pucket ordered the crew to parachute out.
Some of the crew obeyed orders, but three men were hysterical—possibly in shock—and refused to leave.
Pucket was urged to leave the plane, along with others who weren’t so badly wounded. But he wasn’t one to leave a man behind. He knew what he had to do: He made his way back to the plane’s controls and did what he could for those final three men.
“[H]e refused to abandon the 3 hysterical men,” his citation says, “and was last seen fighting to regain control of the plane.”
He’d taken on an impossible task, and he was unable to accomplish it. The plane crashed into a mountainside, killing everyone aboard.
Pucket’s widow—a woman who had been his childhood sweetheart since 4th grade—accepted a Medal of Honor on his behalf just one short year later.
Jay A. Stout, Fortress Ploesti: The Campaign to Destroy Hitler’s Oil Supply (2003)
Medal of Honor citation (Donald D. Pucket, WWII)
Pucket—1st Lt Donald D Pucket (Air Force Historical Support Division website)
Widow of Pilot Hero will get Honor Medal (L.A. Times; July 4, 1945) (interviewing Pucket’s widow) (page 2)