It was one of the most dangerous and daring raids of World War II, and it resulted in the most medals of honor bestowed on America's airmen from any battle in any war.
In the summer of 1943, the U.S. Army Air Force launched the audacious Operation Tidal Wave, an effort to destroy the largest supply of oil production for the German war machine in Ploesti, Romania.
The Ploesti oil fields produced a third of all Axis oil in Europe, so it was a prime target for an Allied attack. But unbeknownst to the Allies, it was also one of its most heavily defended cities in Europe — second only to Berlin.
Flying from Benghazi, Libya, a force of five bomb groups – the 98th and 376th from the Ninth Air Force and the 44th, 93rd, and 389th from the Eighth Air Force – (totaling 177 B-24 Liberator bombers) conducted the raid. The most effective way to strike the targets was to come in at tree-top level and use bombs with delayed fuses to allow planes to clear the area before detonation.
The force would have a series of troubling events before they even reached Ploesti.
In the early morning hours of August 1, 1943, just after the bombers began their mission, an overloaded bomber crashed on take-off and later the lead plane winged over and crashed into the sea.
As the raid approached its target, the 98th Bomb Group fell behind, separating the planes into two groups. Then a navigational error sent the lead group away from Ploesti and toward Bucharest. Realizing their mistake, the 93rd, led by Lt. Col. Addison Baker, turned north toward the refineries. Seeing this, the 376th, led by Col. Keith Compton and mission commander Brig. Gen. Uzal Ent, also turned toward the target but turned away to look for a better entry point when they hit the anti-aircraft defenses.
The overwhelming ground fire soon overwhelmed many of the planes during the attack, and the pilots did everything they could to maintain course and strike their target.
In a final act of heroism, the pilots of a shot up plane tried to gain enough altitude for the crew to bail out but were too late – the plane crashed into the target, killing all on board.
Pilots Lt. Col. Baker and Maj. Jerstad were both awarded the Medal of Honor.
The 376th, unable to find a suitable line to the main refineries, was ordered to bomb targets of opportunity before coming home. One six-plane element breached the defenses and hit its target but was ineffective.
Just as the remnants of the 93rd and 376th were leaving the target, the straggling 98th and 44th, which followed the correct course, arrived with the fifth group, swerving north to hit a separate compound.
Due to the confusion, the first groups over the target hit anything they could. This meant the next two groups approached with their primary targets already in flames. To make matters worse, not all of the planes evacuated the target area, so pilots already dodging smoke and ground fire had to watch out for other bombers too.
Despite the hellacious conditions, Col. John Kane's 98th Bomb Group and Col. Leon Johnson's 44th Bomb Group flew on and attacked their targets with precision. For their bravery and leadership, both men were awarded the Medal of Honor.
While the 98th and 44th fought their way through Ploesti, the 389th attacked the Campina facility to the north. Though more lightly defended than the main facility, the bombers still encountered heavy resistance.
Lieutenant Lloyd Herbert Hughes' plane was hit numerous times in its fuel tanks and streamed fuel as it entered the target area. Motivated by duty and mission, he flew his plane into the inferno to hit his target. His own plane caught fire. Hughes attempted a crash landing but he and five other crew died. The enemy captured the rest. Lt. Hughes received the Medal of Honor for his devotion to duty.
The top turret gunner, Sgt. Zerrill Steen, continued to fire on enemy positions until his ammunition was exhausted. Steen was part of an air crew under Lt. Robert Horton. Horton's plane was heavily damaged and went down, killing nine of the 10 crew. Sergeant Steen was captured and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross while in captivity.
Of the 177 planes that took off from Benghazi, only 89 returned. While the enemy destroyed 54 planes, others crash landed at bases throughout the area. Over 300 men died, over 100 captured, and 78 were interred in Turkey.
Of the 89 returning planes, over a third were unfit to fly afterward. Five pilots received the Medal of Honor, three of them posthumously.
The high cost of the mission did not bring about great success. While the refinery at Campina was put out of action for the remainder of the war, the losses in oil production were repaired within weeks.
Due to the losses suffered by the attackers, August 1st came to be known as 'Black Sunday.'