Ernie Poulson was shot down in a B-24D Liberator on a near tree-top-level bombing run above oil refineries in Ploesti, Romania, on Aug. 1, 1943.
Seventy years to the day, the former World War II pilot and 10 Army Air Force veterans of that bombing raid gathered for what could be the last time at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force to mark the anniversary of the history-making mission.
The once leather-jacket-clad young airmen, now white-haired and some leaning on canes, listened to stories of the danger of the wartime mission while Taps and bagpipes played to remember the fallen.
Of the 177 bombers that launched that day, 54 planes did not return. Out of the 1,726 men aboard the bombers, 532 did not return, with more than 100 of those taken as prisoners of war.
“We were unlucky in a way and lucky in another way,” said Poulson, 92, of Salt Lake City, who noted the survival rate was remarkable given the dangerous nature of the mission.
The Ploesti refineries supplied about 60 percent of the Nazi regime’s petroleum to power its war machine. The aerial raid was the first of several that targeted oil fields and refineries to stop the supply of petroleum to Hitler’s troops.
“If you have a lot of tanks, but you don’t have gas, you can’t move them,” said Jeffrey Underwood, an Air Force museum historian. “If we could take out their oil fields, it would slow down their attack.”
The Americans bombed German industry to cripple war production. “If you could take out a key enemy industry, their entire war effort might collapse,” Underwood said.
The Germans spotted the B-24 bombers headed to Ploesti on radar, losing the element of surprise, Underwood said. That gave the Germans time to prepare for the attack, and they were able to inflict heavy aircraft losses. Through heavy smoke, American planes dropped bombs with delayed fuses. Moments later, some U.S. planes flew through the blasts.
“They did what they were supposed to do, but at a really heavy loss,” Underwood said.
Poulson’s plane had a fabric fuel tank in the bomb bay for extra range, but half the fuel was consumed before it reached the target. The crew realized they would not be able to return to an airstrip in Benghazi, Libya, where they launched.
“It was theoretically possible to get there and get home,” Poulson said. “And some did and some didn’t.”
Anti-aircraft fire shot off an engine and damaged control of Poulson’s plane. The crew crash-landed in a dry creek bed a few miles from the bombing site.
“I think we were about the only plane that didn’t burn up when it crashed,” he said. “We were shot up very badly.”
Poulson would become a prisoner of war for 13 months until the Russians overran the territory and he was freed in September 1944. The future colonel and his captured comrades flew to Bari, Italy, aboard a B-17 to freedom.
Lloyd “Bill” Reese, 92, of Elida, Ohio, was a bombardier in another B-24D but suffered a similar POW fate when his aircraft crash-landed in a cornfield. His crew had flown about 100 feet off the ground to bomb a target.
“Probably the worst thing that I can think of was … we got out of the airplane and I looked up and there’s these B-24s flying home,” he said.
William G. Morton, 95, of Centerville and his crew made it back to base, although they flew so low he said angry farmers threw hoes and pitchforks at their plane. The former bombardier, who also served in Korea and Vietnam, relived those memories Thursday when he saw the last remaining B-24D on display in the museum.
“It was a good old plane,” he said.
Eleven World War II veterans who were part of the Ploesti, Romania, raid, and a sister of one of the Medal of Honor recipients, visited the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the mission.
Ernie Poulson - Salt Lake City, Utah
Al Romano - Lynnfield, Mass.
Lloyd “Bill” Reese - Elida, Ohio
James McClain - Waterloo, Iowa
Richard Tuttle - Mokelumne, Calif.
Bill Newbold - Newton, Pa.
William G. Morton - Dayton, Ohio
Dale Hulsey - Benbrook, Texas
Anthony Sapienza - San Francisco, Calif.
John Ramey - Baton Rouge, La.
Robert Rans - Tampa, Fla.
Mary Jerstad Jacobs (sister of Medal of Honor recipient John Jerstad) - Humbird, Wis.
Source: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force
Photo Gallery: See photos of the WWII veterans as they mark the 70th anniversary of their historic raid.