Redhawk Reflections on the First American Mission in Europe, 1942

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Terrence G. Popravak, Jr. (ret)
  • 142nd Fighter Wing Historian (Volunteer)

This year marks the 75th anniversary for many important battles which took place during the World War II year of 1942.  June 12, 1942, was a milestone in Air Force history which should be remembered.


In the spring and summer of 2015, the 142nd Fighter Wing deployed F-15C Eagle fighter aircraft and personnel to the country of Romania as part of a 12 jet and 200 personnel in a theater security package under Operation ATLANTIC RESOLVE.  The wing deployed units to two locations in Romania, with the jets to Campia Turzii Air Base in northwestern Romania and over 30 Civil Engineering Squadron personnel on a Humanitarian and Civic Assistance (HCA) mission to Mangalia on the Black Sea coast to renovate a medical clinic.  Lt. Col. Sean Sullivan, 123rd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander for the Romanian deployment, said this about the Redhawk mission there: "It is to show the United States' dedication to security, stability and peace in Europe and to work on interoperability with our NATO allies."


There is a place in Romania which lies in between Campia Turzii and Mangalia, a city by the name of Ploiesti (pronounced Ploy-esht), which was a primary strategic target for Allied air forces during World War II.  Many people may recall the epic August 1, 1943, low-level raid by B-24 Liberator heavy bombers on Ploiesti against the vital oil refineries there, or the sustained air campaign against this target-rich area in 1944.  But truth be told, it was the American air raid on Ploiesti on June 12, 1942, which was the very first American offensive air mission over the continent of Europe against the Axis powers in World War II, and marked the start of America’s air offensive there.


This first Ploiesti raid has its origins in Halverson Project 63 (Halpro, for short, so named after commander, Col. Harry A, Halverson), a special mission by B-24D Liberator heavy bombers intended to strike Japan in early 1942 from China.  Halpro was comprised of 231 men with 23 aircraft which were drawn from the 98th Bomb Group still in training in the United States.  By the time these aircraft and crews were ready to go, crossing the Atlantic to Africa and on to the Middle East on the way to China with all the personnel and spare parts they could carry, Imperial Japan had launched a brutal offensive in China as a reprisal for the Doolittle Raid of April 18, 1942, and the prospective air base for the Halpro B-24’s was lost.


Instead, Army Air Forces leadership opted to keep the Halpro unit in the Near East, where there was a crisis in North Africa as Nazi forces of General Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox,” and his Afrika Korps pressed against the British Eighth Army forces in Libya and Egypt.  In looking for a suitable target for the Halpro B-24 bombers to strike, Ploiesti became the top choice.  At the time the Nazi’s were obtaining about a third of their petroleum resources from the various oil refineries surrounding Ploiesti, an industrial city some 35 miles north of the Romanian capital of Bucharest.  This made Ploiesti a lucrative target.


Author Jay A. Stout gave several reasons for this Ploiesti mission to be flown in his book Fortress Ploesti:  The Campaign to Destroy Hitler’s Oil.  First, it was thought even a small scale raid could interdict some of the oil going to support Axis operations in North Africa.  It would also show the capabilities of America’s newest strategic bomber, the B-24 Liberator.  It would also make the enemy divert more effort into air defense, as well as boost morale on the home front with a first American raid on continental Europe.  Lastly, it would punctuate America’s June 5, 1942, declaration of war against Romania, months after the December 12, 1941, declaration of war by Romania against the U.S.  Apparently the powers that be thought a declaration of war against Romania was appropriate to make before the first American raid on Ploiesti. 


The first Ploiesti mission came only about three weeks after the Halpro team left the United States.  The unit was based at the RAF airfield at Fayid, near the Suez Canal, and was able to generate 13 B-24D Liberators for the raid – more were intended but fuel leaks and other problems caused fallout in numbers.  The range was great, and the aircraft were to be launched from Egypt and fly north, around western Turkey and over the Black Sea, approaching Romania from the east.  After attacking Ploiesti targets, chiefly the Astra Romana refinery, the aircraft were to recross the Black Sea and then recover at the RAF air base in Habbaniyah, Iraq, near Baghdad, refuel and then return to Egypt. 


The bomber crews were formally briefed by RAF officers not to cross over neutral Turkey, though given the extreme range of the mission (over 2,600 miles in total) even for a B-24, with greater range than a B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber, and to bomb from 30,000 feet altitude.  One of the pilots, Captain John Payne, flying B-24D “Black Mariah,” reacted:  "To us the briefing was straight out of 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.' Many of our ships could never make thirty thousand feet with an extra bomb bay tank and six five-hundred-pound bombs.  And range....!" (Quote from Home of Heroes website, posting “Ploesti:  When Heroes Filled the Skies”)


Fortunately, for the crews, a more direct route passing over the Dardanelles Strait and into the Black Sea was briefed by Col Halverson after the formal briefing. And the directive to bomb from 30,000 feet was soon disregarded by some crews.


On the night of 11-12 June 1942 the 13 mission capable Liberators took off and proceeded singly on their way, as the unit was not trained in any night formation flying.  As the aircraft approached Romania between 20,000 and 30,000 feet in altitude the next morning, some while it was still dark, unfavorable weather greeted them, with a thick layer of cloud below and a swollen Danube River which rendered that waterway a bit unrecognizable for visual navigation through breaks in the cloud, making finding their targets problematic. 


One crew having mechanical problems with frozen fuel lines bombed Constanta Harbor instead of continuing inland and commenced its return.  Constanta is about 30 miles north of Mangalia where the Redhawk CE Squadron deployed.  The remaining 12 B-24D’s flew on and tried to find their targets.


As things turned out, the individual aircraft ended up making such scattered attacks the Romanian and German air forces could not discern any pattern for the raid.  Some aircraft bombed by dead reckoning through the cloud deck below them.  Others were able to visually bomb when they found breaks in the clouds, in at least one case descending beneath the cloud deck to find their target.  Bombs came down all the way from the Ploiesti area (over 100 miles southeast of Campia Turzii) and south to Bucharest and villages near the Danube River. 

Although the Halpro raiders dropped some 24 tons of bombs on Romania, few actually struck an oil target or anything else of military significance.  One who did was Richard G. Miller, co-pilot on the Sibert crew, who recalled "When our top turret went out for lack of oxygen, we decided we had best drop our bombs and scram out. Found a cluster of 10 to 15 fuel storage tanks and blew them to hell - big billows, and rolls of black smoke rolled out - an intriguing sight." (Quote from 376th HBG Veterans Association)


Defending anti-aircraft artillery and fighters damaged at least two of the B-24’s, injuring two crewmen.  All in all it was not a very successful mission, but it was a start.


On the way back four aircraft diverted to Ankara in neutral Turkey where they and their crews were interned.  Circling over Romania for more than an hour trying waiting for daylight and/or searching for a break in the cloud deck to find their target had eaten up precious fuel needed for the return.  One ship landed with but 80 gallons left in its gas tanks.  In fact a Messerschmitt Me-109 fighter pilot and his plane were also interned as the pilot pursued the fleeing Liberators into Turkish airspace and then ran short of fuel himself.  Of the other B-24’s reached Ploiesti six made it to Iraq and two to Syria before returning to Egypt to continue the war effort against the Axis. 

Of note, Ploiesti also figures into Oregon military history as Second Lieutenant David R. Kingsley, a Portland native, earned the Medal of Honor, posthumously, for his sacrifice on a Ploiesti mission which took place on June 23, 1944. A bombardier aboard the B-17F Flying Fortress “Opissonya,” he unhesitatingly gave his parachute to a wounded gunner and went down with his flak and fighter-stricken B-17, this on his 20th combat mission.  Lieutenant Kingsley was assigned to the 341st Bomb Squadron of the 97th Bomb Group, which was the first B-17 group to attack continental Europe from England on August 17, 1942, before being transferred to the Mediterranean theater.  The Oregon ANG’s Kingsley Field in Klamath Falls, Oregon, is named after him, the home of the 173d Fighter Wing.


And today, Romania, being a member of the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance since 2004, is an ally of the United States.  The Redhawk experience in Romania in 2015 during Operation ATLANTIC RESOLVE was certainly a positive one, and evidence of the good relationship between our respective nations, quite different from the situation on June 12, 1942.  


These days Romania makes valuable contributions to NATO’s Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan (NATO’s fourth largest contributor of troops) as well as to the KFOR peacekeeping mission in Kosovo.  And NATO is conducting an enhanced Air Policing mission in the Southern Region out of Romania, augmenting the Romanian Air Force’s Air Policing assets including F-16A MLU fighters acquired in 2016.  


On this 75th anniversary of the first American mission over Europe in World War II, we salute the Airmen who took part in that inaugural raid on Ploiesti, Romania, David Kingsley and all those that followed to achieve victory in the war-torn skies of Europe nearly three years later.   Although many American missions were hotly contested by enemy forces, none were turned back, an incredible heritage for those serving today.