Saturday, May 26, 2007

For Memorial Day Weekend: The Ploesti Oil Fields Raid

This Deseret News article tells part of the story of the pilot, and the plane's role in the pivotal Ploesti oil fields raid on August 1, 1943 (artist's rendition at left). It was a harrowing low-altitude bombing mission.

An inspiring 1-hour documentary film is available on DVD. You can buy it here.

It's called "Wing and a Prayer: The Saga of Utah Man," and is advertised as "the story of, and tribute to, the 1,700 men who flew this mission, told from the point of view of Walter T. Stewart." Walter T. Stewart is a University of Utah alumnus who named his B-24 bomber "Utah Man," after his alma mater's fight song. Utah Man was the sole surviving bomber in the first wave of the attack, and dropped the first bombs of Operation Tidal Wave on the massive Ploesti refinery.

The mission is summed up here:
In all, of the 163 bombers from the five bomb groups that reached their target, only 89 made it back to Benghazi. (The following day only thirty-three of these were pronounced "fit to fly.") Casualties for the 1,726-man force that had flown into hell were heart-rending. Nearly a third of the crews failed to return with more than 300 known dead and 140 captured. Of those who did come home, more than 440 were wounded.

The smoke and flame of burning oil lit the night skies of Ploesti and [German] General Gerstenberg marveled at the American strike. In less than half-an-hour the Axis had lost 40% of its critical oil production. Though devastating, he understood that it could have been worse. He was also acutely aware that while the bombs had been falling over Ploesti that day, the Allies had painted a bulls eye over his domain. He was certain they would be back.

I happened to come across this Medal of Honor citation, also from the Ploesti raid. If you can read it without getting at least the beginning of a lump in your throat, you're a tougher guy than I am:
KINGSLEY, DAVID R. (Air Mission)

Rank and organization: Second Lieutenant, U.S. Army Air Corps, 97th Bombardment Group, 15th Air Force.
Place and date: Ploesti Raid, Rumania, 23 June 1944.
Entered service at. Portland, Oreg.
Birth: Oregon. G.O. No.: 26, 9 April 1945.

Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty, 23 June 1944 near Ploesti, Rumania, while flying as bombardier of a B17 type aircraft. On the bomb run 2d Lt. Kingsley's aircraft was severely damaged by intense flak and forced to drop out of formation but the pilot proceeded over the target and 2d Lt. Kingsley successfully dropped his bombs, causing severe damage to vital installations. The damaged aircraft, forced to lose altitude and to lag behind the formation, was aggressively attacked by 3 ME-109 aircraft, causing more damage to the aircraft and severely wounding the tail gunner in the upper arm. The radio operator and engineer notified 2d Lt. Kingsley that the tail gunner had been wounded and that assistance was needed to check the bleeding. 2d Lt. Kingsley made his way back to the radio room, skillfully applied first aid to the wound, and succeeded in checking the bleeding. The tail gunner's parachute harness and heavy clothes were removed and he was covered with blankets, making him as comfortable as possible. Eight ME-109 aircraft again aggressively attacked 2d Lt. Kingsley's aircraft and the ball turret gunner was wounded by 20mm. shell fragments. He went forward to the radio room to have 2d Lt. Kingsley administer first aid. A few minutes later when the pilot gave the order to prepare to bail out, 2d Lt. Kingsley immediately began to assist the wounded gunners in putting on their parachute harness. In the confusion the tail gunner's harness, believed to have been damaged, could not be located in the bundle of blankets and flying clothes which had been removed from the wounded men. With utter disregard for his own means of escape, 2d Lt. Kingsley unhesitatingly removed his parachute harness and adjusted it to the wounded tail gunner. Due to the extensive damage caused by the accurate and concentrated 20mm. fire by the enemy aircraft the pilot gave the order to bail out, as it appeared that the aircraft would disintegrate at any moment. 2d Lt. Kingsley aided the wounded men in bailing out and when last seen by the crewmembers he was standing on the bomb bay catwalk. The aircraft continued to fly on automatic pilot for a short distance, then crashed and burned. His body was later found in the wreckage. 2d Lt. Kingsley by his gallant heroic action was directly responsible for saving the life of the wounded gunner.
David Kingsley was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, along with 45 other World War II recipients of that honor..

Let's think about him this weekend. Happy Memorial Day.


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