This Day in History: Medals of Honor during Operation Tidal Wave
On this day in 1943, Operation Tidal Wave begins. Nearly 180 Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers embark on a lengthy mission to destroy oil refineries in Ploesti, Romania. The mission has been called the “longest, bloodiest, most heroic bombing mission in history.”
The day would come to be known as Black Sunday. Five men would receive Medals of Honor for their bravery that day.
Americans had been planning to hit the oil refineries in Ploesti for months. The refineries were an important source of energy for the Germans! Taking out Ploesti would seriously hamper the Nazi effort.
Naturally, that would be no easy task. Ploesti was located deep in enemy territory. The attack would have 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 bombers left Benghazi at daybreak on August 1, 1943. Was it an omen when one plane lost an engine and crashed during takeoff? There would be many more such problems that day.
As the bombers flew past Greece, one of the planes suddenly crashed into the sea for unknown reasons. Worse, the Germans apparently figured out that Americans were headed toward Ploesti. The American bomb groups became separated and never reconnected because of the strict requirement for radio silence. Perhaps worst of all, Americans never realized how strong the Ploesti defenses were until they arrived.
The scene that followed bordered on chaos.
Lt. Col. Addison Baker and his co-pilot, Major John Jerstad, took a direct hit early on. Their plane was on fire, but they were leading the formation and felt that they could not stop without jeopardizing the mission. Only after the attack did Baker try to take his plane to a higher altitude, hoping the crew could bail out with parachutes. It was too late. The plane broke up and tumbled to the ground.
Those bomb groups that had been separated from the rest finally arrived on the scene. Their targets had become more difficult! Colonels John Kane and Leon Johnson were leading their respective bomb groups. They continued toward their targets, despite the “thoroughly warned defenses, the intensive antiaircraft fire, enemy fighter airplanes, extreme hazards on a low-level attack of exploding delayed action bombs from the previous element, of oil fires and explosions and dense smoke over the target area.”
Another hero, 2nd Lt. Lloyd “Pete” Hughes was hit on approach. His target was already a “blazing inferno when his airplane was profusely leaking gasoline in two separate locations.” Nevertheless, he continued on and completed his attack. Perhaps predictably, the left wing of his plane caught on fire. He tried to make an emergency landing, but it was too late.
Baker, Jerstad, and Hughes would receive Medals of Honor posthumously. Kane and Johnson survived to receive theirs.
The American bombers had an equally difficult time returning to Benghazi. They were low on fuel, and they encountered attacks along the way. Not every plane that left Ploesti made it back to a friendly airfield.
The attack had been horrific. At least 500 Americans were killed, wounded or captured. Roughly 1/3 of the B-24s were lost.
“We were dragged through the mouth of hell,” one participant concluded.
A grateful nation responded by making an unprecedented move: Every participant in the raid was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Jay A. Stout, Fortress Ploesti: The Campaign to Destroy Hitler’s Oil Supply (2003)
Medal of Honor citation (Addison E. Baker, March 11, 1944)
Medal of Honor citation (John Jerstad, October 28, 1943)
Medal of Honor citation (John Kane, August 9, 1943)
Medal of Honor citation (Leon Johnson, September 7, 1943)
Medal of Honor citation (Lloyd Hughes, February 26, 1944)
Ray Ward, Those Brave Crews: The Epic Raid to Destroy Hitler’s Ploesti Oil Fields (2003)
Stephen W. Sears, World War II: Air War (2015)