Returning is Secondary

Art on Sunday #24

Ploesti, Romania, August 1, 1943.."Hell's Wench," a B-24 badly damaged by anti-aircraft artillery fire

Remember… Returning is Secondary1 – from painting by Roy Grinnel. 

On her first combat mission, badly damaged by anti-aircraft fire, Hell’s WenchConsolidated B-24D Liberator 42-409942, flown by Lt. Col. Addison Baker, commander of the 93rd Bomb Group – continues toward its target in a low-level bombing run against Axis oil refineries at Ploieşti, Romania, in Operation Tidal Wave.

Duane Schultz, in Into the Fire: Ploesti, the Most Fateful Mission of World War II, writes:

They were an estimated three minutes from the target when Lt. Stewart’s copilot shouted, “Look at that!” Hell’s Wench, Colonel Baker’s ship, was on fire. The plane had hit the cable of a barrage balloon and snapped it in two, but part of a wing was left shredded. A shell exploded in the nose, killing the bombardier, and at least three more explosions rocked the plane. One shell hit a bomb-bay gas tank. The flames enveloped the cockpit and spread quickly…

Colonel Baker, who had vowed to his men that he would lead them over the target, even if his plane fell apart, was doing just that. He kept Hell’s Wench flying, ignoring the flat field below on which he could have tried a crash landing…

The two men [Baker (pilot) and Jerstad (copilot)] held the plane on course even after they jettisoned the bombs. There was no need to go onto the target then, except to lead the formation there. And for that, somehow they kept Hell’s Wench going. A crewman on a nearby plane remembered:

Baker had been burning for about three minutes. The right wing began to drop. I don’t see how anyone could have been alive in that cockpit, but someone kept her leading the force on between the refinery stacks. Baker was a powerful man, but one man could not have held that ship on the climb she took beyond the stacks. 

Baker and Jerstad pulled their plane up in a climb to about 300 feet. At that point, a few men – variously reported as three or four – jumped out, their bodies afire, flames spreading out in the wind. The plane slued over on its right wing and plummeted to the ground, missing a bomber in the second element by a mere six feet. That pilot saw Hell’s Wench flash by, a flaming torch. “Flames hid everything in the cockpit. Baker went down after he flew his ship to pieces to get us over the target.”

Despite the damage and resulting flames, Baker had led the formation to their targets, after which he broke formation to avoid collision with bombers from the lead group arriving from the opposite direction.  Baker and Jerstad tried to gain altitude so the crew could parachute to safety, but, despite their efforts, Hell’s Wench crashed and exploded, killing all ten aboard.

Baker Medal of Honor citation:


Rank and organization: Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army Air Corps, 93d Heavy Bombardment Group
Place and date: Ploesti Raid, Rumania, 1 August 1943
Entered service at: Akron, Ohio

Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy on 1 August 1943. On this date he led his command, the 93d Heavy Bombardment Group, on a daring low-level attack against enemy oil refineries and installations at Ploesti, Rumania. Approaching the target, his aircraft was hit by a large caliber antiaircraft shell, seriously damaged and set on fire. Ignoring the fact he was flying over terrain suitable for safe landing, he refused to jeopardize the mission by breaking up the lead formation and continued unswervingly to lead his group to the target upon which he dropped his bombs with devastating effect. Only then did he leave formation, but his valiant attempts to gain sufficient altitude for the crew to escape by parachute were unavailing and his aircraft crashed in flames after his successful efforts to avoid other planes in formation. By extraordinary flying skill, gallant leadership and intrepidity, Lt. Col. Baker rendered outstanding, distinguished, and valorous service to our Nation.

Jerstad Medal of Honor citation


Rank and organization: Major, U.S. Army Air Corps, 9th Air Force
Place and date: Ploesti Raid, Rumania, 1 August 1943 (Air Mission)
Entered service at: Racine, Wis.
G.O. No.: 72, 28 October 1943

Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty. On 1 August 1943, he served as pilot of the lead aircraft in his group in a daring low-level attack against enemy oil refineries and installations at Ploesti, Rumania. Although he had completed more than his share of missions and was no longer connected with this group, so high was his conception of duty that he volunteered to lead the formation in the correct belief that his participation would contribute materially to success in this attack. Maj. Jerstad led the formation into attack with full realization of the extreme hazards involved and despite withering fire from heavy and light antiaircraft guns. Three miles from the target his airplane was hit, badly damaged, and set on fire. Ignoring the fact that he was flying over a field suitable for a forced landing, he kept on the course. After the bombs of his aircraft were released on the target, the fire in his ship became so intense as to make further progress impossible and he crashed into the target area. By his voluntary acceptance of a mission he knew was extremely hazardous, and his assumption of an intrepid course of action at the risk of life over and above the call of duty, Maj. Jerstad set an example of heroism which will be an inspiration to the U.S. Armed Forces.

Operation Tidal Wave (Wikipedia)

Operation Tidal Wave was an air attack by bombers of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) based in Libya and Southern Italy on nine oil refineries around Ploiești, Romania on 1 August 1943, during World War II. It was a strategic bombing mission and part of the “oil campaign” to deny petroleum-based fuel to the Axis. The mission resulted in “no curtailment of overall product output”.

This mission was one of the costliest for the USAAF in the European Theater, with 53 aircraft and 660 aircrewmen lost. It was the second-worst loss ever suffered by the USAAF on a single mission and its date was later referred to as “Black Sunday”. Five Medals of Honor and numerous Distinguished Service Crosses were awarded to Operation Tidal Wave crew members.

Hell’s Wench (Attacks)

Lt. Col. Baker and his co-pilot Maj. John L. Jerstad, who had already flown a full tour of duty while stationed in England, would now succumb to the effects of the extensive air defense array. Continuing through the intense defensive barrage, damage to their aircraft forced Baker and Jerstad to jettison their bomb load in order to maintain lead of the formation over their target at the Columbia Aquila refinery. Despite heavy losses by the 93rd, Baker and Jerstad maintained course and, once clear, began to climb away. Realizing the aircraft was no longer controllable, both men maintained the climb in order to gain time for the crew to abandon the aircraft. Although none survived, both Baker and Jerstad would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for maintaining their successful approach to Columbia Aquila and their efforts to save the crew of Hell’s Wench.

    1. “They gave pep talks about getting to the target, not about getting back. A lot of talk was about “…if the target was wiped out and none returned, the mission would still be a success. Remember, returning is secondary.” – Aviation Art Hanger
      Before the mission, Maj Gen Lewis H. Brereton assessed, “We expect our losses to be 50 per cent, but even if we lose everything we’ve sent but hit the target, it will be worth it.” – B-24 Liberator Units of the Eighth Air Force, by Robert F. Dorr
    2. I wonder if Grace Jonata, machinist at the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation plant, Fort Worth, Texas, might have machined some of the parts for Hell’s Wench.
american history, art, art on sunday, history, military, war, ww2

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