CINCINNATI - All these years later, some surviving veterans still think the raid on "Hitler's gas station" was a great plan. However, not all worked out as expected, and the result was a fierce World War II battle marked by bravery and sacrifice.
The 70th anniversary Ploesti Raid reunion this week at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force commemorates an Aug. 1, 1943, assault by waves of B-24 bombers on oil refineries in Romania that provided much of the fuel for the Nazi war machine. Five Medals of Honor were among the many awards given for what U.S. military histories call the most decorated action of the war.
U.S. commanders "emphasized the importance of completing the mission; in their estimate, it would shorten the war in Europe by six months," Dale Hulsey, 91, of Fort Worth, Texas, recalled Wednesday, after reunion participants viewed a restored B-24 at the museum near Dayton.
"They tried to knock the thing out in one mission, but everything went wrong," said Bob Rans, a Chicago native who lives near Tampa at age 92, with vivid memories of being bathed in gasoline as a wall of flame roared toward him.
The raid inflicted heavy but not devastating damage, and nearly a third of the 177 planes and their 1,726 men failed to make it back to their bases more than 1,000 miles away in North Africa.
The Allies had tried bombing the oil fields before from high levels; Operation Tidal Wave was to be a surprise assault by a flying armada coming in under radar and methodically knocking out assigned targets. But navigational problems disrupted plans, and defenders on the ground were ready for them.
Sweeping in just above cornstalks - "we were so close to the ground it was like driving at high speed in an automobile," Hulsey said - the bombers were met with a barrage of firepower. Hulsey, a radio operator, remembers a continuous line of bright flashes from gunfire on the ground. Rans said anti-aircraft guns mounted on rail cars provided mobile defense against the bombers.
An auxiliary fuel tank near Rans was hit, showering him with gasoline. Fire engulfing his plane, he parachuted out. He was captured, treated in a hospital for burns, then put in a prison camp. Hulsey said his plane knocked out its target and was headed home when shot down by fighter planes. The crew was found and protected by Yugoslav resistance fighters until a British rescue operation got them out nearly a year later.
Rans and Hulsey were among 11 raid veterans at the reunion, with nearly 100 family members and friends. Air Force history enthusiasts Mark Copeland of Lakeville, Minn., and Blaine Duxbury of Indianapolis helped organize it. Copeland said after a 60th anniversary reunion in Salt Lake City, there was interest in coming together again for what likely will be the last reunion. About 70 of the mission participants are still alive, he said.
Scott Stewart came from Lincoln, Neb., to pay tribute to the mission his late father, Carroll Stewart, wrote about in a 1962 book co-authored with James Dugan. Stewart said his father spent years chronicling the stories of veterans of the battle, including Germans and Romanians.
Rans said the reunion, which will include a public memorial service Thursday, brought back memories, some tears and a sense of pride for the veterans about their place in military annals.
"When you stop to think about it, you were part of an action that nobody else could ever be in again, the most highly decorated action of the war," Rans said. "History is history."