Over the Cauldron of Ploesti: The American Air War in Romania

The stories of the American airmen in Romania should never be forgotten.

Lead Image: A B-24 Liberator over Ploesti, Romania during Operation Tidal Wave. Collection of The National WWII Museum.

After a journey of 1200 miles from Benghazi, Libya, an air armada of 178 B-24 Liberators arrived at their destination in the early afternoon of August 1, 1943.  Maintaining strict radio silence, the aircraft had taken a route via Corfu and the Pindus Mountains. At last, the American pilots could visualize their target: the massive oil refinery complex at Ploesti, Romania, 35 miles north of Bucharest.   Under the code-name Operation Tidal Wave, the mission combined five bomb groups from the Eighth and Ninth Air Forces. Conceived by Colonel Jacob Smart, Tidal Wave completely broke with established US Army Air Forces (USAAF) policy. Instead of the traditional high-altitude, precision bombing, the B-24s would drop their bombs from 200—800 feet in the air. With the Liberators coming in so low and having the element of surprise, Smart expected an inferno to ensue on the ground in Ploesti.

 
The Germans, however, knew they were coming. Having deciphered the American code, Colonel Alfred Gerstenberg, the Luftwaffe commander in the region, sprung a special trap for them. Anti-aircraft guns, many of them the feared 88s, encircled Ploesti. Gerstenberg also had smoke generators at his disposal and had placed barrage balloons near the most valued installations. The steel cables of these balloons could rip off the Liberators’ aluminum wings. German, Romanian, and Bulgarian fighters awaited the colonel’s orders. To make matters even worse, the B-24 formations did not approach the city at the same time due to navigational errors. 


Ben Kuroki, a path-breaking Japanese-American airman, was a gunner in one of the Liberators in Operation Tidal Wave. It was the 24th of his eventual 58 missions. In his interview with Museum historian Tom Gibbs, he recalled how “terrifying” the attack on Ploesti was. When a storage tank exploded below them, “flames even 50 feet higher than our plane” shot into the sky. Kuroki said he “felt sure we were doomed” and deemed it a “miracle we didn’t catch on fire” flying over the targets at such a low altitude. 

Manning the top turret in another B-24, Mack Fitzgerald remembered, “there was smoke all around us.” He watched helplessly as a Liberator struck by enemy fire crashed into a three-story brick building. “That’s 10 men gone,” Fitzgerald told himself. Convinced he was next, he uttered goodbye to his parents. Fitzgerald was as surprised as anyone when his B-24 was able to pull away from Ploesti. 


While the attack on the complex that Kuroki and Fitzgerald recounted so powerfully lasted only about a half-hour, the toll in lives and matériel was horrendous. In total, 52 aircraft were shot down. Historian Donald L. Miller, in his Masters of the Air, claims that 310 American airmen died during the assault, 130 were wounded, and over 100 captured. Miller also points out that the Ploesti raid was “one of the only air strikes of the war in which more airmen were killed than civilians” (116 Romanian civilians and military personnel died). Romanian civilians and officials buried the dead, many of them in mass graves, in the Hero Section of Bolovan Cemetery. The Germans quickly mobilized thousands of forced laborers to repair the extensive damage to the complex. Within weeks, the facilities refined more oil than before the assault. The terrible losses from Operation Tidal Wave, remembered since as “Bloody Sunday,” meant that American leadership would not attempt another major strike against the Romanian oil industry for eight months.

Despite this history, Americans often overlook the role Romania played in World War II. Ignoring it is a major mistake.  Formally joining the Axis states in November 1940, Marshal Ion Antonescu, the leader of an extreme right-wing government in Bucharest, became one of Nazi Germany’s most reliable allies.  Two Romanian armies contributed to Hitler’s “crusade” against Bolshevism, seeing extensive and brutal combat in Ukraine, Crimea, and in the Battle of Stalingrad. The Antonescu regime was principally responsible for the annihilation of between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews from Bessarabia and Bukovina (provinces lost to Stalin in 1940 and regained the following year), and Transnistria, the area of Ukraine occupied by the Romanian military. This represents the highest number of Jewish men, women, and children murdered by an Axis nation other than Germany.

For the Allies, though, what commanded their attention was the crucial economic support Antonescu provided Hitler. Eventually, the Ploesti oilfields and complex supplied some 60 percent of the Third Reich’s crude oil. The failure of the Wehrmacht’s 1942 offensive to seize Soviet oil reserves in the Caucasus only enhanced the importance of Romanian oil.   As Robert Citino, PhD, Executive Director of the Museum’s Institute for the Study of War and Democracy, states, “putting Romania in the ‘minor ally’ box really isn’t correct.” The size of and risk incurred in the Ploesti raid shows just how seriously the US military leadership took Romanian support for the Axis war effort.

 
When American attacks on Romanian oil fields and refineries finally restarted in early April 1944, airfields seized by the Allies in southern Italy shortened the distance to Ploesti considerably. The flight was only half as long as before. The recently created Fifteenth Air Force could also send heavy bombers there with new P-51 Mustang fighters supplying protection the entire way. These long-delayed successor raids, complemented by strikes by the Royal Air Force, resumed the old high-altitude approach. However, the Germans did not defend the oil refineries any less ferociously. Initially, they doubled the number of anti-aircraft guns, set up more smoke generators, and deployed well over 200 fighters to cover Ploesti. Skillful use of decoy fires added to the likelihood of missing the real targets.  

The prospect of combat over Ploesti appealed to many young American pilots. Freddie Ohr, the Korean-American ace, flew one of the P-51s in the 1944 missions. “Everyone wanted to go to Ploesti,” he said. “That’s where the fighting was.” The Romanian city was still perilous. Ohr sustained so much damage to his Mustang in a raid that he barely made it home. According to historian Kenneth Werrell, who has researched the 1944 bombing, the cost to the AAF remained high: 222 heavy bombers.

Nonetheless, the series of air attacks in the spring and then summer of 1944 accomplished an enormous amount.  The bombing wrought tremendous destruction on the complex and its supply system. The Luftwaffe could not replace the planes and pilots lost in battles with the P-51s. On the ground, knowing the war was decided, the Romanians began to abandon Ploesti’s air-defense apparatus in the summer months.

 
By that point, the Antonescu regime’s days were numbered. The Red Army’s redoubtable Jassy-Kishinev Offensive, initiated on August 20, 1944 by General Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front and General Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front, delivered hammer blows to the German Army Group South Ukraine. Tolbukhin and Malinovsky’s forces fielded almost a million men, over 1,000 tanks, and 1,800 aircraft. The offensive prompted the overthrow of Antonescu, peace with the Soviet Union, and Romania’s quick return to hostilities as an enemy of the Third Reich. Once more a German Sixth Army was demolished. Inflicting over 380,000 total casualties on the Wehrmacht, the Soviets occupied the country by early September. 


The Ploesti oil spigot to the Third Reich, already devastated by the U.S. and British strikes, was cut off forever. On August 31, Soviet soldiers liberated Mack Fitzgerald and the other flyers. B-17 Flying Fortresses soon arrived in Bucharest to retrieve them. Freddie Ohr escorted one group of these B-17s back to the American airfield. Antonescu would face the full severity of justice for the crimes of his dictatorship. He was tried, sentenced to death by a Romanian court, and executed in June 1946.


The legacy of the American air war in Romania, often neglected, is still with us two decades into the 21st Century. More than 80 flyers who perished in the Ploesti raid or the 1944 missions remain unrecovered. Over the last few years, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) has been cooperating with the Romanian government to identify, exhume and repatriate their remains. This partnership has involved careful scrutiny of crash sites, the Hero Section of Bolovan Cemetery, the testimony of eyewitnesses, and a host of archives. Thus far, several identifications have resulted. The stories of the airmen—those who survived and those who have not yet been brought home—and their efforts to strike a blow against Antonescu and the economic lifeline of the Nazi regime should never be forgotten.   
 

Contributor

Jason Dawsey

As the DPAA Special Projects Historian in Residence at the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy, Jason Dawsey, PhD, works on the ...
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