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WWII bomber crews recall horror of Ploesti

The Salt Lake Tribune (08/02/2003)

By Dawn House

Texas State University professor Norman Whalen is known for his research of early humans in the Middle East.

But this week, the former B-24 navigator reunited with other veterans at the Best Western Plaza Hotel in Salt Lake City to remember one of the most daring heavy bomber raids of World War II.

Organizers brought together five separate bombing groups that destroyed the Ploesti Oil fields in Romania, along with an organization of airmen who crashed and were taken prisoner.

“ It was the most horrific raid I went on,” said Whalen, 83, who served two bombing tours over Europe—the second as a volunteer—for a total of 75 missions.

On Aug. 1, 1943, Army Air Corps B-24 bombers took off from bases in Libya and headed toward the heavily defended target in Romania, more than a thousand miles away. Their target: the Ploesti oil fields that supplied 60 percent of Germany’s crude oil.

To achieve surprise, said Whalen, the bombers flew at treetop height, but clouds broke up the formations and German radar detected them and alerted ground defenses. In the confusion of battle, some crews made bombing runs through heavy smoke over targets that already had been attacked. The second wave of planes were caught in bursts of delayed action bombs that had been dropped previously.

On Friday, a memorial service in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Ploesti Raid was conducted at a chapel at Hill Air Force Base. The survivors meet through Sunday.

Maj. Gen. Kevin Sullivan noted that of the 1,726 crew members who manned the 178 B-24s—the only plane capable of making the round trip—532 were killed. By the mission’s end, only 30 of the aircraft were deemed airworthy.

Pilot Henry Lasco, 83, Phoenix, remembers the inferno, the ground flak that knocked out one of his engines and the German Messerschmitt pilot who circled in to finish off his disabled bomber. Farmers took Lasco and three other crew members to an area hospital. The six other men in his crew died.

Lasco spent the rest of the war in hospitals and prisoner of war camps in Romania.

Within 13 months, the Soviets were advancing and the Germans were setting fire to cities and towns as they retreated, he said. Then, B-17s landed in Bucharest to retrieve U.S. prisoners of war.

“ Our bombers were accompanied by fighter planes,” said Lasco. “We had always flown unescorted so we knew it was a good sign. I felt proud. I never lost hope or confidence. I knew my country would be there. And finally, they were.”

Lasco spent another year in U.S. hospitals undergoing reconstructive surgery from wounds to his mouth and face.

For the next half century, he remained in contact with his co-pilot, Joe Kill, the man for whom crew members erected a sign in the bomber that read, "Kill, the Copilot.”

“ Joe died a few years ago,” said Lasco. “But his daughter and granddaughter still come to these reunions. Now, they think of me as their surrogate Dad, and to me, they’re my family too.”

Whalen went on to teach courses in ancient cultures of the American Southwest, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. But it is the bombing raids that bring some of his most vivid memories.

He had volunteered for a second tour of duty, knowing he could have gone back to the United States to teach navigation to younger replacements.

“ I felt an obligation to the men over there,” he said. “In all the raids, I never even got a scratch. I have always attributed it to Divine Providence.”

Whalen quit after his 75th raid, but not before he asked a friend to accompany him on his last mission. The pilot, who was preparing to return home after 65 missions, agreed.

“ I didn’t ask him because I thought he was lucky,” said Whalen. “I asked because he was the best pilot I knew.”

The raid was on Brenner Pass in northern Italy. The Germans had placed ground artillery on the tops of the mountains to get closer to the bombers for more accurate shots.

Whalen remembered a bomber flying close to his plane exploding, sending body parts into the air. A severed leg was caught up in the propeller of Whalen’s bomber.

“ But it was the Ploesti raid that I never expected to survive,” he said. “It was the first and last low-level raid of the war. In that and other raids, many men never returned.”