On this day in 1996, a hero passes away. Colonel John R. Kane would fly bombing missions with such resolve that he would be dubbed “Killer” Kane. But would you believe that the talented pilot almost didn’t make it into the United States Army Air Force in the first place? And it was all because he’d joined a basketball team.
During his college years, Kane played for Baylor University. Unfortunately, that team endured a terrible tragedy when the basketball team’s bus collided with a train in January 1927. Ten of the twenty-two bus passengers were killed, yet Kane escaped with only minor injuries.
Was he saved for a special purpose? After all, he ended up playing a critical role in Operation Tidal Wave, a World War II effort to destroy oil refineries in Ploesti, Romania. The Germans relied heavily on those refineries. Destroying them had become a prime objective.
The mission was an ambitious one. Ploesti was located deep in enemy territory. The attack would need to be launched from more than 1,000 miles away, in Benghazi. The raid would be a low-level attack: The bombers would fly low, sometimes only a few hundred feet off the ground. Navigation would be difficult, and the bombers might be more vulnerable. But they’d avoid detection by radar.
The mission proved to be long and bloody. One participant later concluded that our boys were “dragged through the mouth of hell” that day.
And yet Kane was right in the middle of it, throwing himself into harm’s way.
The mission began on August 1, 1943, when nearly 180 Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers left Benghazi at daybreak. One plane lost an engine and crashed during takeoff. Another crashed into the sea near Greece for unknown reasons. The American bomb groups became separated and never reconnected because of the strict requirement for radio silence. Perhaps worst of all, Germans apparently learned of the attack in advance. The strict defenses around Ploesti would take Americans by surprise.
Some of these problems were especially difficult for Kane. He’d become separated from other bombing groups and arrived at Ploesti after the others. By the time he arrived, any hope of surprise was long gone.
He could have turned around. Many elements of the day had already gone awry. The scene below was chaotic, and his target had become more difficult to attain. Kane’s plane was in danger not only from enemy fire, but also from the continued blasts resulting from prior American attacks. Smoke, flames, and explosions continued to tear through the air. Kane could see that his assigned target had already taken at least a few hits. Was it enough?
Yet Kane was unwavering. His target might be damaged, but he would work toward more than that: The target needed to be destroyed. He led his bombing team into the chaos.
Unsurprisingly, Kane did not escape unscathed. His plane was hit more than 20 times—he even lost an engine! He’d also used too much fuel circling above his target.
“We ditched one empty bomb bay tank,” he later said, “our heavy flying clothes, all our guns that were shot up, frequency-meter tools, a ladder, everything except food, water and the ammunition we would need to fire what guns we could still work.” He didn’t make it the whole way back, but he did at least manage to make an emergency landing in Cyprus.
In addition to Kane, four other men received Medals of Honor for their bravery during Operation Tidal Wave. Naturally, those are stories for another day.
Immortal Ten Memorial Installed on Campus (Baylor University; June 22, 2007)
James Barron, John Kane, 89, Who Led Raid That Bombed Nazi's Oil Depot (N.Y. Times, June 12, 1996)
James Neal Harvey, Sharks of the Air: Willy Messerschmitt and How He Built the World’s First Operational Jet Fighter (2011)
Jay Stout, Fortress Ploesti: The Campaign to Destroy Hitler's Oil (2003)
Kane -- Col John R Kane (Air Force Historical Support Division)
Medal of Honor citation (John R. Kane; WWII)