The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the GreatestRescue Mission of World War IIby Gregory A. Freeman
Now in paperback—the “amazing”( James Bradley, New York Times bestselling author of Flags of Our Fathers) never-before-told story of the greatest escape of the Second World War.
In 1944 the OSS set out to recover more than 500 downed airmen trapped behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia. Classified for over half a century for/b>/i>/i>… See more details below
Now in paperback—the “amazing”( James Bradley, New York Times bestselling author of Flags of Our Fathers) never-before-told story of the greatest escape of the Second World War.
In 1944 the OSS set out to recover more than 500 downed airmen trapped behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia. Classified for over half a century for political reasons, the full account of this unforgettable story of loyalty, self-sacrifice, and bravery is now being told for the first time.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 - We’ll Get Them Out
Chapter 2 - Abandon Ship!
Chapter 3 - Counting Parachutes
Chapter 4 - Americanski?
Chapter 5 - Long Journey to Somewhere
Chapter 6 - Escaping Yugoslavia
Chapter 7 - Passports, Please
Chapter 8 - Man of the Year
Chapter 9 - Abandoned Ally
Chapter 10 - Screw the British
Chapter 11 - Goats’ Milk and Hay Bread
Chapter 12 - An All-American Team
Chapter 13 - SOS ... Waiting for Rescue
Chapter 14 - Sure to Be a Rough Landing
Chapter 15 - Red. Red. Red.
Chapter 16 - Going Home Shoeless
Chapter 17 - Gales of the World
Chapter 18 - Secrets and Lies
Partial List of Airmen Rescued in Operation Halyard
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ALSO BY GREGORY A. FREEMAN
Lay This Body Down: The 1921 Murders of Eleven Plantation Slaves
Sailors to the End: The Deadly Fire on the USS Forrestal
and the Heroes Who Fought It
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Freeman, Gregory A.
The forgotten 500: the untold story of the men who risked all for the greatest rescue mission of World War II /
Gregory A. Freeman.
1. Operation Halyard, 1944. 2. World War, 1939-1945—Search and rescue operations—Yugoslavia.
3. World War, 1939-1945—Aerial operations, American. 4. Airmen—United States—Biography.
5. Escapes—Yugoslavia. I. Title.
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A sense of duty pursues us ever. It is omnipresent, like the Deity. If we take to ourselves the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, duty performed or duty violated is still with us, for our happiness or our misery. If we say the darkness shall cover us, in the darkness as in the light our obligations are yet with us.
Argument on the Murder of Captain White,
APRIL 6, 1830. VOL. VI., P. 105.
One of the last untold stories of World War II is also one of the greatest. It’s a story of adventure, daring, danger, and heroics followed by a web of conspiracy, lies, and cover-up.
The story of Operation Halyard, the rescue of 512 Allied airmen trapped behind enemy lines, is one of the greatest rescue and escape stories ever, but almost no one has heard about it. And that is by design. The U.S., British, and Yugoslav governments hid details of this story for decades, purposefully denying credit to the heroic rescuers and the foreign ally who gave his life to help Allied airmen as they were hunted down by Nazis in the hills of Yugoslavia.
Operation Halyard was the largest rescue ever of downed American airmen and one of the largest such operations in the war or since. Hundreds of U.S. airmen were rescued, along with some from other countries, right under the noses of the Germans and mostly in broad daylight. The mission was a complete success, the kind that should have been trumpeted in newsreels and published on the front page of the newspapers. But it wasn’t.
It is a little-known episode that started with one edge-of-your-seat rescue in August 1944, followed by a series of additional rescues over several months. American agents from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of the CIA, worked with a Serbian guerilla, General Draza Mihailovich, to carry out the huge, ultrasecret rescue mission.
These are the tales of young airmen shot down in the hills of Yugoslavia during bombing runs and the four secret agents who conducted their amazing rescue. These are the stories of young men—many of them first-generation Americans, the proud, patriotic sons of European immigrants—who were eager to join the war and fight the Germans, even finding excitement in the often deadly trips from Italy to bomb German oil fields in Romania, but who found themselves parachuting out of crippled planes and into the arms of strange, rough-looking villagers in a country they knew nothing about. They soon found that the local Serbs were willing to sacrifice their own lives to keep the downed airmen out of German hands, but they still wondered if anyone was coming for them or if they would spend the rest of the war hiding from German patrols and barely surviving on goats’ milk and bread baked with hay to make it more filling.
When the OSS in Italy heard of the stranded airmen, the agents began to plan an elaborate and previously unheard-of rescue—the Americans would send in a fleet of C-47 cargo planes to land in the hills of Yugoslavia, behind enemy lines, to pluck out hundreds of airmen. It was audacious and risky beyond belief, but there was no other way to get those boys out of German territory. The list of challenges and potential problems seemed never ending: The airmen had to evade capture until the rescue could be organized; they had to build an airstrip large enough for C-47s without any tools and without the Germans finding out; then the planes had to make it in and out without being shot down.
The setting for this dramatic chapter in history is a region that, for modern-day Americans, has become synonymous with brutal civil war, sectarian violence, and atrocities carried out in the name of ethnic cleansing—an impression that, though it may ignore the region’s rich cultural history, is not inaccurate. Serbia covers the central part of the Balkan Peninsula, also known as the Balkans, a region in southern Europe separated from Italy by the Adriatic Sea. Serbia borders Hungary to the north; Romania and Bulgaria to the east; Albania and the Republic of Macedonia to the south; and Montenegro, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina to the west.
Throughout history the area has been neighbor to great empires, a proximity that contributed to a rich mixture of ethnicities and cultures, but also to a long history dominated by wars and clashes between rival groups of the same country. The fractious nature of the region even led to the term “Balkanization” or “Balkanizing” as a shorthand for splintering into rival political entities, usually through violence. The word “Balkan” itself is commonly used to imply religious strife and civil war.
The former Yugoslavia is a region seemingly in a constant state of flux. During World War II, Serbia was part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, which then became the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1945. In 1992 the country was renamed the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, then the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro from 2003 to 2006. When Montenegro voted independence from the State Union, Serbia officially proclaimed its independence on June 5, 2006.
Serbian borders and regions are determined largely by natural formations, including the Carpathian Mountains and the Balkan Mountains, which create the mountainous region that formed a hurdle for crippled American bombers trying to return to their bases in Italy, but which also sheltered downed fliers from the German patrols hunting them.
From the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria at Sarajevo, which set off World War I, to the Nazi occupation in World War II, the region was in the center of global conflicts while contending with its own internal strife. The former Yugoslavia is a mix of different ethnic and religious groups, including Serbs, Croats, Muslims, and Slo- venes. Throughout history, ancient and recent, most of the fighting in the region has been a struggle among these groups for the control of territory. After World War II, the Bosnian Muslims were strong supporters of Communist leader Josip Broz Tito, partly because he was successful at keeping the ethnic groups peaceful—just as Italian dictator Benito Mussolini made the trains run on time. Serbs were the most populous ethnic group in the former Yugoslavia, with a national identity rooted in the Serbian Orthodox Church.
After World War I, the Serb monarchy dominated the new nation of Yugoslavia. During World War II, hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies were killed by Croat Fascists, called Ustashe, and by Germans. Some Muslims fought for the Nazis, while many other Muslims and Croats fought for the Partisans led by Tito. Serbs supported the exiled royal government.
These age-old hatreds and ethnic disputes erupted in 1992 to cause the bloodiest fighting on European soil since World War II. More than two hundred thousand people, most of them civilians, were killed and millions more were left homeless. As the fighting raged and the world learned of atrocities committed against civilian populations simply for being of the wrong ethnic background, European nations responded with numerous peace proposals that produced no peace. Then the United States moderated peace talks at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. The talks led to a November 21, 1995, peace accord that relied on sixty thousand NATO troops to stop the killing.
The Bosnian war of the 1990s was particularly vicious. While Serbs are generally considered the aggressors in the Bosnian conflict of the 1990s, there also are legitimate charges that Croats and Muslims operated prison camps and committed war crimes. Some critics accused former Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic of looking the other way while his Muslim soldiers committed war crimes in retaliation against Serb attacks. Many Serbs acknowledge the well-documented atrocities committed by Bosnian Serb militia against Muslim and Croat civilians, but they also argue that Serb civilians were the victims of similar crimes and that the Western media coverage was skewed by a bias in favor of the Muslim and Croat sides.
The Dayton accord did not completely end the violence in the region. Between 1998 and 1999, continued clashes in Kosovo, a province in southern Serbia, between Serbian and Yugoslav security forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army prompted a NATO aerial bombardment that lasted for seventy-eight days. The peace among Serbs, Croats, and Muslims in the area of the former Yugoslavia still is a fragile one.
American fliers who parachuted out of their bombers over Yugoslavia in World War II had little idea of the complex, troubled history of the country in which they were about to land, or of the international disputes in which they were about to become entangled. They sought refuge and a way back home, and they were humbled by the outpouring of support from the poor Serb villagers who risked their own lives to help the Americans drifting down out of the sky.
As the world came to know only the modern-day violence of the Bosnian wars, there was a small band of men who knew that the people in that distant country had once done a great service to the American people and to many young men who were scared, tired, and hungry. They held on to that story and told everyone they knew, yet the story slowly died with the forgotten 500.
Only a handful of the rescued airmen and OSS agents are still alive to tell the stories, their health and memories fading fast. But they insist that the world know the truth of what happened in Yugoslavia in 1944, including the series of almost unbelievable coincidences and near misses—everything from an improbable meeting with a top Nazi officer’s wife to a herd of cows that show up at just the right moment—that made their rescue possible.
They never forgot, and they refuse to let the story die with them.
We’ll Get Them Out
Yugoslavia, August 1944
This village seemed just like every other village Clare Musgrove had been through in the last four days, simple stone and thatch houses with minimal furnishings and even less food, occupied by people who welcomed him even though he had no idea who they were or what they intended to do with him. The smoke of a long-smoldering fireplace mixed with the earthy aroma of wet hay and livestock, the same pungent smells that permeated every one of these villages. Following the gesture of his armed escort, he entered the small house and looked nervously around, trying to assess what might happen. For all he knew, this was it; this was where they were bringing him. Was it some sort of safe house where he could hide from the Germans without running all the time? He had wondered that at every village where he and the other American airmen stopped in the past days, but each one turned out to be just a waypoint on a journey to . . . somewhere. Musgrove and the other bomber crewmen had no idea where they were being taken by these local escorts with guns. Hell, they weren’t even sure they were being taken anywhere. As far as he could tell, they were just being passed around from one village to the next in search of a few bits of goat cheese and scraps of bread so stale that Musgrove thought he might be better off eating his shoes.
They had no idea what fate awaited them, but they were fairly confident that they wouldn’t be turned over to the Germans. Though the Americans and the local Serb people couldn’t communicate in anything but gestures and facial expressions, the airmen got the idea that these swarthy people were on their side. The women had nursed their wounds and fed them as best they could, and the men had provided protection from the Nazi patrols that were always on the lookout for Allied airmen whose planes crashed before they could get back to safe territory.
Though it seemed these locals were trustworthy, Musgrove still was apprehensive. The bomber crews had been warned that some of the Yugoslav people were Nazi sympathizers and might turn them over to the Germans who had occupied their country since 1941. In fact, they’d been warned that the people in this area would cut off the downed airmen’s ears and then turn the men over to the Germans. But the burly men escorting the Americans seemed friendly enough. Then again, they were the ones with the rifles. Could they be taking Musgrove and the others somewhere else before handing them over? Possibly to a German unit that offered rewards for American airmen? It didn’t seem likely, but Musgrove couldn’t help worrying that this curious trip would not end well. He was at the mercy of people he couldn’t understand, and they were moving him around from one place to another instead of just letting the Americans hide out. Musgrove also wondered if anyone was looking for them. He hoped he and the other downed airmen hadn’t been forgotten, left for dead in Nazi territory.
Musgrove had been on this mysterious journey for four days, since bailing out of his B-24 bomber over northern Yugoslavia, behind enemy lines. His eighth mission—to bomb the oil fields of Ploesti, Romania, a critical source of fuel for the German war machine—turned out to be his last. All in all, Musgrove felt lucky to be alive and without serious injuries, unlike some of the Americans in his group. One of the men broke his leg badly on landing in his parachute, and every time he grimaced in pain during the all-day hikes Musgrove was grateful that all he could complain about was hunger, the occasional thirst, and being tired. Knowing how narrowly he had escaped his crippled bomber, Musgrove was happy to be walking around anywhere instead of dead in the wreckage. And with all the German patrols in this area, he was also glad that he could walk along without a German shoving the muzzle of his rifle in his back. Musgrove had gotten out of the bomber so late, just before it crashed into the mountains of Yugoslavia, that he had become separated from the other nine crew members, whose earlier exit put them down a few miles before him. He suspected they had made it to the ground okay, but he worried that they had been captured by Germans. It would be a long time before he found out his worries were justified and he was the only one of his crew not taken prisoner right away. Getting trapped in his ball turret and the agonizing minutes it took to extricate himself while everyone else bailed out of the rapidly descending bomber, as terrifying as that was, turned out to be the saving grace for Musgrove. He wasn’t in the clear, of course, and he was joining the hundreds of other airmen who escaped their planes and capture by the Nazis only to find themselves in limbo, unsure of what would come next.
It was getting dark when Musgrove entered the home with three other Americans, the group having been split up among several houses in the village. A rather robust woman, obviously the wife and mother, gestured for them to sit at the rough-hewn and well-worn wooden table and then she started putting out some meager food rations for them—the same goat cheese, hard bread, and bits of rotting potatoes that they had seen in other villages. Though they were ravenous, the men tried not to rush as they ate. They knew already that it was a hardship for these people to feed them and that their meal probably meant the couple, maybe even some children, would not eat tonight. They tried to eat with some decorum out of respect for the family’s generosity, smiling and nodding thanks to the woman as she sat and watched.
Just as Musgrove was choking down a last bit of dry bread, the door opened and a man entered, saying something to the woman, who responded and then stood up, leaving the room to the men. Musgrove and the other Americans nodded to the man as he entered and hung up his hat on a wooden peg, but they didn’t say anything. They had gotten out of the habit of speaking to the locals in the past few days because no one could understand them. The man sat at the table with them and smiled in return as a couple of the Americans nodded and smiled a gesture of thanks for the food, lifting a piece of bread or a cup of milk.
“You are American?” he asked.
The Americans were stunned, and thrilled. They looked at one another and then back at the only Yugoslav they had met who could speak English.
“Yes, yes, we’re American,” all three of them said together.
The man introduced himself, but the name was a mash of consonants and vowels that the Americans could not catch. He asked if the men needed more food, but Musgrove and the other two men knew better than to say yes. Though they were still hungry, they could not ask this man to spare more of what little food he might have for his own family.
In all their excitement to find someone who spoke English, the Americans were momentarily dumbfounded about what to say. The man across the table spoke instead.
“I am principal of school,” he said. “I study English.”
“A principal, oh, okay,” Musgrove said, nodding his head. After a pause, he continued. “Your English is very good.” He spoke slowly in case the man’s English actually wasn’t so good. “Where are we?”
The man responded with something in Yugoslav that, like his name, sounded like a jumble of consonants and vowels to the men. Besides, they weren’t really concerned with the name of the village. They wanted to know what would happen to them.
One of the other Americans spoke up. “Are we staying here? Did they bring us to you because you speak English?”
“No,” the man said, “you go to other place. You go to place with more Americans. They help you.”
Musgrove looked at the other Americans, puzzled. He turned back to the man.
“They’re taking us to Allied territory? Across the border?” he asked. The Americans knew that was unlikely. How could a bunch of hungry, injured, unarmed airmen get across the border and out of enemy territory?
“No, no. You go to place where more Americans. Here, Yugoslavia.”
Musgrove was still unsure what he meant. “You mean they’re putting us all in one place? We’re meeting up with more American airmen?”
“Yes, yes, more like you. You go there. More Americans. You go there.”
Musgrove looked at the other two airmen and all three slowly cracked smiles. There was a point to all this hiking from one village to another, after all. But they still didn’t know exactly where “there” was, how long it would take, or what would happen when they got there. All efforts to pry more information out of the principal resulted only in him smiling and shrugging his shoulders to indicate that was the extent of what he could convey in English. “You go there. More Americans” was the most he could explain.
Well, anything was better than just wandering like this, they thought. Let’s hope there’s a plan once we get there. Wherever there is.
The villagers helping Musgrove and the other Americans get to their destination were risking their lives. If caught helping the downed American airmen, they would be killed just as the Germans had already killed thousands for resisting the Nazi invasion. German troops had been vicious when they overtook the country in 1941, brutalizing anyone seen as resisting the invasion and bombing the country into submission virtually overnight.
In 1944 the country was firmly controlled by Germany. But as soon as the Nazi bombs had begun to fall three years earlier, those who had resisted the German invasion from the start had begun to fight back. The Germans may have rolled into Yugoslavia with little difficulty, but the Yugoslav people would not let them stay without a fight.
These poor people in the Yugoslavian countryside were resisting in every way possible, from acts of sabotage and the occasional Nazi soldier who never returned from a visit to the hills to aiding every American airman they could find.
After another week of walking through the Yugoslav countryside, sleeping in whatever village they could find or curled up in the bushes off the side of the road, Musgrove and the band of Americans were following their two armed escorts up yet another dirt road when they saw someone on horseback up ahead. They looked to the Yugoslav escorts for a reaction, ready to dive into the brush off the roadway and hide out until it was safe again, but the escorts were not concerned to see someone ahead and kept walking. The Americans assumed that the man on horseback was not German and might be someone the escorts knew, maybe an officer in their resistance. The group trudged along slowly. The fellow on horseback seemed to be waiting for them, and Musgrove grew more curious as they moved closer. Maybe this guy can speak some English, he thought. Sure would be good to find out where we are and where we’re going.
As they came closer, Musgrove could see that the man on horseback seemed to be a local, a brawny guy with a bushy beard, similar to many of the other men they had encountered along the way. The Americans looked to their escorts expectantly, thinking they would say something to the man, but instead they just stopped when the group approached him. Then the man on horseback spoke and once again Musgrove was pleasantly surprised to hear English.
“Hi, boys,” the man said in a deep voice, using perfect English. “Welcome to Pranjane.” It sounded like pran-yan-ay.
The Americans didn’t know what to make of this. The man looked Yugoslav but spoke clear English, and . . . was that a New York accent?
The rider was George Musulin, a special agent with the OSS—the elite group of spies and covert operatives that would later become the CIA—who had been dropped behind enemy lines to help the downed airmen. He and his team had been on the ground for a few weeks already, about as long as Musgrove, and they had news for the tired and hungry Americans.
“You made it. You’re here,” he said. He looked down at the Americans as if he expected them to be happy with that, but Musgrove and his companions still didn’t know where “here” was.
“Where are we?” he asked. “What are we going to do here?”
It was then that Musulin realized the new arrivals hadn’t been clued in yet. Some of the airmen arriving in Pranjane found out along the way about the plan, and others like this group showed up with no knowledge at all.
“We’re going to get you out of here, boys,” Musulin said, a smile showing through his bushy black beard. “There’s going to be a rescue. There are already about two hundred Americans here. They’ve been assembling since January.”
A rescue! Finally some good news. Musgrove and the other airmen rejoiced, finding the energy to raise their arms and shout, clapping their Yugoslav escorts on the back and hugging one another. They would be rescued! They could go home!
“C-47s,” Musulin said, referring to the workhorse cargo planes that every airman knew well. “They’re going to land in a field right over there.” Musulin gestured off in the distance. “We’ve been working on a big plan that will get you boys out of here before long. Gotta build a landing strip, though.”
And with that, Musulin turned his horse and trotted off.
Musgrove and the others stood there in the road, joyous but a little puzzled too. To be sure they understood, one of their Yugoslav escorts raised his flat hand and moved it along like an airplane, making a buzzing sound. Musgrove and the other two Americans nodded at him. They understood the plan.
But it sounded a little crazy to them. Build a landing strip? They certainly wanted to be rescued, but how could planes land in this mountainous region where they couldn’t even walk down a country road without ducking into the bushes every time a vehicle passed, hoping they wouldn’t be found by the Germans?
The same questions were going through the mind of George Vujnovich, the OSS control agent in Bari, Italy, with responsibility for sending secret agents on missions throughout much of Europe, including Yugoslavia. When Vujnovich heard that there were American fliers waiting for help in Yugoslavia, he knew they had to come up with a plan to get them out. He also knew right away that this would be no ordinary rescue.
Could they really pull this off? Could they go right into German territory and snatch these men out of harm’s way? He had discussed the risks at length with Musulin before sending him behind enemy lines, but even with Musulin on the ground in Yugoslavia the questions remained.
It was more than his job duties that motivated Vujnovich. He was driven by his own memories of being trapped behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia a few years earlier; he felt a kindred spirit with the Americans stranded in the country where his parents had grown up. The Pittsburgh native was attending college in Yugoslavia when his studies—and his fledgling relationship with a beautiful local girl—were interrupted by the rapidly advancing German army. Two years of running from the Nazis, trying to find a way out of Yugoslavia and back to freedom, gave him a real appreciation for what these young airmen were going through. Vujnovich was determined to get them out of their limbo.
Could he make it happen? It hadn’t been too difficult to send in Musulin and the rest of his team, but getting more than a hundred airmen out was a totally different matter. The plan, which the British were fighting vigorously, was to send in C-47 cargo planes to pick up the downed airmen and whisk them back to Italy. That was the plan: Just send in planes to pick them up. Allied planes flew over Yugoslavia all the time on the way to bomb targets in German territory, so it wasn’t farfetched to think that one could drop down and pick up a few airmen. It sounded simple until Vujnovich started trying to work out the details. Already Musulin’s team had radioed back that there were far more airmen to rescue than the one hundred and fifty that they’d expected when they parachuted in to coordinate the pickup. Musulin’s last message had informed Vujnovich that there were at least two hundred men there already, and more were coming in every day, sometimes a dozen or more at a time.
That meant the mission was growing exponentially harder every day, Vujnovich realized. It was not simply a matter of sending in a few planes to swoop down and snatch the men in a hurry; rescuing that many airmen would require a series of planes landing one after another. More planes meant more of a spectacle for the Germans to notice and much more time when the planes and the airmen would be easy targets for German fighters or ground troops. And the more he thought about it, the more Vujnovich worried that sending in any planes, even one, to this area was extremely risky. He knew the area was rugged and mountainous, with no airstrip nearby, and not even a clear field that could serve as a runway in a pinch. That was why all the bomber crews bailed out when their planes were dying in this area; there was nowhere to even attempt a crash landing. The best they could hope for was to jump out and hang under a parachute as they watched the plane crash into a mountainside.
Now Vujnovich was trying to organize not just one but a whole series of cargo planes to land in that rugged countryside, right under the Germans’ noses. It was an audacious plan, and some in the office weren’t shy about telling Vujnovich that it was more than that, that it was just plain crazy. But Vujnovich kept thinking about all the young men trapped in Nazi territory, struggling to get through another day without being captured and hoping that someone was working on a way to get them out. He could identify with them. He could remember the cold terror that gripped his whole body as he held his breath and hoped a German patrol would pass by the young American and the girl he loved, the desperation of wanting to just get out of danger, to just get over the border, to get back home.
We’ll have to make it work. We’ll get them out.
Clare Musgrove ended up in Yugoslavia in the same way hundreds of other Allied airmen had in the few years before him and as many more would after him: He climbed into a bomber in Italy, flew into Nazi territory to bomb critical oil refineries and other targets, and never made it back to the safety of his home base. Every time a fleet of bombers went out, some were heavily damaged by German defenses and either went down immediately or limped back toward Italy, trying to make it as far as they could.
By 1944 downed American airmen were piling up quickly in Yugoslavia as bombing raids on Nazi targets, especially the oil refineries of Ploesti, Romania, resulted in many planes making it only that far on their return journey before the crews had to bail out and try to survive behind enemy lines. The quest to destroy Ploesti would leave hundreds of airmen stranded in the hills of Yugoslavia.
To get to Romania, the Allied bomber crews had to fly westward, usually from bases in the recently liberated Italy, across the Adriatic Sea, then across Yugoslavia to their targets in Romania. Then they had to get back again, often limping home with planes and crew injured from the intense fighting at the target site. Romania was a top target because it represented one of the westward strongholds of the German military, and particularly because it was the major source of fuel for the German war machine. The country was smaller than the state of Oregon and had little chance of resisting the Germans, though it took a shot at staying neutral. Hitler, of course, saw pleas for neutrality as a sign of weakness and rolled into the country.
Romania was in an untenable situation, perched between German advances in Poland and Hungary and Soviet advances from the Ukraine. In June 1941 Romania officially joined the Axis, primarily in hopes of regaining some provinces that it had previously been forced to give up. Though Romania had fought Germany in the first World War, the country allied itself with the Nazis strictly as a desperate measure for self-preservation. Romania’s pact with the devil would be costly, however. It was no surprise that once the country joined the German rampage across Europe, Britain declared war on Romania on December 5, 1941.
On June 5, 1942, the United States extended its declaration of war on Germany and Italy to include Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria. Before long, the same resource that had made Romania so desirable to the German war machine—massive oil fields and high-capacity refineries—made it a prime target for the Allies. American bomber crews who had barely heard of Romania months before soon learned all about a Romanian city called Ploesti, an oil boom city in the plains below the Transylvanian Alps in northern Romania and thirty-five miles north of Bucharest, the national capital. Ploesti was a massive complex consisting of seven major refineries, storage tanks, and related structures covering nineteen square miles.
Oil refining had been big business in Ploesti since 1857, which means the city was one of the first to build riches on the resource that would dominate the world’s economy within decades. By 1942 the refineries at Ploesti were producing nearly a million tons of oil a month, accounting for 40 percent of Romania’s total exports. Most of that oil, as well as the highest-quality 90-octane aviation fuel in Europe, went to the Axis war effort. Ploesti, a prosperous but otherwise little-known city in a quiet country before the war, suddenly became a central component of the Nazi military, key to everything Hitler wanted to accomplish. The refineries of Ploesti provided nearly a third of the petroleum products that fueled Hitler’s tanks, battleships, submarines, and aircraft.
The Allies had to put Ploesti out of the oil refining business and they were willing to risk as many lives as necessary to do it. The Germans were just as determined to protect this vital supply of oil, and they installed an astonishing array of antiaircraft guns all around the refineries for miles and miles. Some of the best German fighter pilots were stationed at airfields around Ploesti, with orders to protect the refineries from Allied bombers.
Ploesti was the first target in Europe bombed by American aircraft. Many more attacks would follow the first.
The honor of hitting Ploesti first went to Colonel Harry A. Halverson in May 1942. He led twenty-three factory-fresh B-24 bombers from Florida on a journey to bomb Tokyo in a follow-up to the Doolittle Raid, the daring assault on the Japanese homeland that was carried out as retribution for the attack on Pearl Harbor. But when the bombers reached Egypt, Halverson and his crews were informed that they had a new destination: Ploesti. The planes took off for their new target on the evening of June 11, arriving over the target at dawn the following day. The mission was a success: Ten of the bombers hit the Astra refinery at Ploesti, one B-24 attacked the port area of Constanta, and the remaining two B-24s struck unidentified targets. Damage to the planes was minimal.
The first bombing run caused substantial damage, but it was clear to the Allies that many more young men would have to risk their lives to keep the refineries off-line. Bombing runs continued, and then in August 1943 the Allies launched Operation Tidal Wave, intended as an all-out effort against Ploesti. Unlike previous attacks that had been made from thousands of feet in the air, Operation Tidal Wave called for striking the oil fields at very low levels—treetop level sometimes, so low that the exploding bombs and oil fires actually threatened the planes. And then, of course, there was the problem of a B-24 bomber making a very big, very easy target at that altitude.
The extreme risk required that the plan be approved all the way up the chain of command, with even President Franklin D. Roosevelt agonizing over whether the need to knock out Ploesti justified the extreme risk to the aircrews. He decided that it did, and the bomber crews were given terrifying orders.
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