Aviation History

Heroes in Hell – What Really Happened at Ploesti

Cover Story

Aviation History Magazine March 2012

© 2012 By Mark Carlson

All Rights Reserved.

One of the most interesting aspects about history is when new information comes along to change the prevailing view. When it concerns a well-documented event, it can change history.

So it is with the events of 1 August 1943 in the skies over the Mediterranean and the Balkans. On that fateful day 178 B-24D Liberator bombers of five heavy bomb groups, carrying more than 500 tons of bombs left bases in Libya to undertake the longest and most audacious aerial raid in history, codenamed ‘Tidal Wave.’

The targets were vital oil refineries around the Romanian city of Ploesti.

What happened that day has been the subject of many articles, books and documentaries.

The raid was conceived by Colonel Jacob Smart, then considered one of the best planners in the Air Force.

After following a carefully laid-out course the bombers would descend to low altitude along the southern foothills of the Transylvanian Alps to reach the third and final Initial Point (I.P.), and turn southeast to the refineries.

Tidal Wave’s bombers would attack at low level in a five-mile wide swath aiming for pinpoint targets to destroy the key installations without hitting the city itself.

Two groups of General Lewis H. Brereton’s Ninth Bomber Command, the 376th Liberandos under Col. Keith K. Compton, and the 98th Pyramiders commanded by Col. John ‘Killer’ Kane, were joined by three arrivals from the Eighth Air Force in England. Colonel Leon Johnson’s veteran 44th, the Eight Balls, the 93rd Traveling Circus, commanded by Col. Addison Baker and Col. Jack Wood’s fledgling 389th Sky Scorpions filled out the huge force.

Seven of the most modern and largest refineries in Europe were targeted, including Astro Romana, capable of processing more than two million tons of oil per year.

Ranged along the southern curve of the city of Ploesti, five of the targets were assigned, from east to west as follows:

White One: 376th BG, Compton

White Two: 93rd BG, Baker, Brown

White Three: 93rd BG, Section B, Potts

White Four: 98th BG, Kane

White Five: 44th BG, Johnson

To the southwest was Blue Target, assigned to Johnson’s deputy, Col. James Posey of the 44th. To the north was Red Target, to be hit by the 389th.

More than 170 bombers would fly in several waves wingtip-to-wingtip and immolate the refineries in less than twenty minutes.

If all went well, the massive aerial assault would cut a third of Hitler’s oil refining capacity. Ploesti produced 100% of the aviation fuel used by the Luftwaffe.

But all did not go well, and after a disheartening series of mistakes, accidents, bad luck and determined enemy defense, Tidal Wave only succeeded in destroying two of the refineries and damaging three others at the terrible cost of 53 Liberators. After nearly sixteen hours and some of the most savage and desperate fighting ever seen in the air, 440 men were dead, more than 300 wounded, and 108 taken prisoner in Romania. More were imprisoned in Yugoslavia and Bulgaria or interned in Turkey.

What went wrong?

That question was officially answered by the Air Force two weeks after Tidal Wave, but to this day it has inspired endless debate among military historians.

Among the official explanations was the loss of the lead mission navigator on a plane that unaccountably fell into the Ionian Sea.

Compton’s force increased altitude to 12,000 feet and maximized power while Kane’s groups remained at lower altitude and cruise power to maximize fuel use, increasing the distance between the two main forces.

A high storm front over Albania further separated the forces. Total radio silence made it impossible to regroup.

And finally a disastrous wrong turn short of the final I.P. by Compton and Baker caused the leading groups to head for Bucharest instead of Ploesti. After that the entire mission was a shambles. Compton ordered the 376th to break off the bomb run and hit targets of opportunity. The 93rd was virtually annihilated attempting to hit White Four, Kane’s target.

Group, squadron and element leaders, pilots and bombardiers had to improvise and do what they could.

Kane and Johnson’s groups, arriving almost twenty minutes later were forced to bomb targets already burning, further adding to the chaos of the day.

The German and Rumanian defenders found Tidal Wave’s bombers to be easy targets and Liberators fell with terrifying frequency.

Those are the main points of what history considers the reason for Tidal Wave’s failure.

Yet history is almost never chiseled into stone. It can be revised and even changed when new information comes forth. And the best source of information often comes from those who were present.

Major Robert Sternfels is a veteran of Kane’s 98th Bomb Group at Ploesti. On the drive to White Four, Sternfels was in the thick of it, at the controls of his Liberator, ‘Sandman.’

When large aircraft fly in close formation it creates turbulence capable of tossing 30-ton bombers around like leaves in a storm.

“The prop wash was fierce,” Sternfels said during an interview with the author in his Laguna Beach home.

“Both my co-pilot Barney Jackson and I had our hands full just trying to stay on the bomb run.”

He has vivid memories of following Kane along the railroad leading to the city. The Germans had put an ingenious flak train on the tracks paralleling the bomb run. It hosed deadly point-blank fire into the low-flying B-24s. Kane led his 47 planes right into the fires and towering black smoke rising from Astro Romana already hit by bombs from the shattered Traveling Circus.

Sternfels, a veteran with over 300 hours of combat on 50 missions, admitted he had never seen anything like it before or since.

“When we went into that black smoke, I could only use instruments. Balloon cables were all around,” he said, referring to the low barrage balloons with explosive-laced cables the Germans had over the refineries, “but I couldn’t see them. The right wing struck one and fortunately the propeller broke it. I was more scared at that moment than I’ve ever been in combat. I don’t know what we hit with our bombs. The target was nearly impossible to see.”

A famous photo from the raid shows ‘Sandman’ emerging from the pall of black smoke.

Many planes and crew ended up as long flaming smears of wreckage in the fields around the target.

The pilots of ‘Sandman’ did manage to bring their ship and crew back to Benghazi, one of the 25 survivors of Kane’s force.

According to Sternfels, there was a lot more in the background that affected the mission’s outcome than is commonly known.

The roots lie with Col. Jacob Smart. The man most responsible for the audacious Tidal Wave plan merited some astonishing comments by Sternfels. “Smart conceived the entire low-level concept, the route, approach and bomb run for each plane.”

The four main groups were to turn onto the bomb run in waves of several planes each, keeping formation in the turn.

Smart sold the idea to the Air Force, but the men who would actually have to carry it out didn’t think it could be done. Among those was Kane, who never minced words in expressing himself.

“During the initial mission briefing meeting Kane said ‘What idiot armchair lawyer from Washington planned this one?’”

“It looked good on paper but that turn was totally impractical,” the veteran pilot said.

Smart’s lack of understanding of how large bombers behaved in close formation was obvious to the pilots.

“We practiced staying in formation over the desert but didn’t dare try that turn. It was dangerous to try even once and wouldn’t work. And that’s exactly what happened. We were in formation as we reached the I.P. But after that turn the entire formation was scattered and it was impossible to get it back together in the few minutes we had before we reached the target. We were supposed to be in the fourth wave, but were so tossed around, to this day I can’t tell you which wave we ended up in.”

A surprising aspect of Smart’s unsuitability for the task never became public. Sternfels related an incident. “On 15 July, just two weeks before Tidal Wave, my crew and I were preparing for a mission to Foggia, Italy when a staff car pulled up. And out stepped Smart, fully geared up in brand-new flight suit and Mae West life preserver. He came up to me and said “I’d like to fly with you today as an observer.’ Smart was on the flight deck with me, Barney, and our flight engineer, Sergeant Bill Stout. He was standing there between our seats watching as we went through our checklist. I asked him if he would step back to let my flight engineer come forward and call out speed and engine readings.’ Smart did so and we took off.”

On the way north towards Italy, Smart again came between the pilots’ seats. Then he did something virtually unheard of in any aircraft.

“He reached out to adjust the fuel mixture controls,” said Sternfels, still astonished after more than sixty-eight years. “You just don’t do that if you’re a passenger. Even a general doesn’t do that without the pilot’s permission. I didn’t say anything but adjusted the mix to what I wanted and we flew on. A little while later, Smart did it again!”

That was too much of a breach of protocol for Sternfels. “I said, ‘Colonel, please don’t touch the controls!’ He didn’t say anything.”

The man who planned the complicated raid said “I just completed my first check-out ride the week before.”

“In 1993 I went to South Carolina to interview Smart.”

The meeting between the Tidal Wave planner and pilot was pleasant but held an astonishing revelation. “I always wanted to ask him about his actions in my plane,” Sternfels said. “But I didn’t want to just come out with it. So I asked him in a roundabout way, ‘By the way, how many hours did you have in B-24s before that mission with me?’”

Smart’s answer stunned Sternfels. The man who had conceived and planned the daring and complicated raid said “I just completed my first check-out ride the week before.”

Until just three weeks prior to the huge mission he had planned nearly six months before, Smart was totally unfamiliar with the B-24D or how it handled in close formation.

“I don’t know if he flew a combat mission prior to Foggia,” Sternfels said with evident amazement.

Sternfels also asked Smart, “Why didn’t we send some Mosquitoes to photograph the target?”

Smart said they didn’t want to alert the Germans.

“As if the sudden arrival of almost two hundred B-24s in Libya wouldn’t have done that.”

Ploesti was the only major target that would require long-range Liberators.

“So our briefings never mentioned the heavy flak or barrage balloons.”

He continued. “We were told the flak guns were manned by Romanians who would run to the shelters when we flew over. We didn’t know how vicious the flak would really be. They knew we were coming. Maintaining radio silence was a moot point,” he said. “Of course no one could know that then, so we can’t be blamed for trying to keep the Germans in the dark. However, radio silence worked against the mission as soon as things went wrong.”

But another far more acute reason for Tidal Wave’s ultimate tragedy rested on the shoulders of one man.

Sternfels reserved most of the blame for Col. Keith K. Compton, who led the mission. “I don’t like to say anything bad of a man who is no longer alive to defend himself,” Sternfels said cautiously. “but Compton was very confident and at times arrogant. He was accustomed to doing things his own way. That was a primary reason for the way the mission came apart.” Sternfels’ reasoning was based on his own observations before, during and after Tidal Wave and examination of documents and photos. He interviewed several other Tidal Wave veterans, including Compton in 2000, then a retired Lieutenant General.

Compton’s lead 376th plane, ‘Teggie Ann,’ which also carried the mission commander, Brigadier General Uzal Ent, took off from Benghazi at 0600. Berka Two and Terria, the 376th and 93rd bases were much closer to the coast than Lete, Kane’s field. Once the Liberandos were assembled Compton put his plane on high power settings and headed north. In a relatively short time the 376th and the 93rd were far ahead of Kane’s desert-weary ships, which stayed at lower power settings.

“The gap started at takeoff and widened over the Mediterranean,” Sternfels explained.

“Compton never gave a thought to the following groups.”

The author asked about the plane carrying Lt. Robert W. Wilson, whom some sources say was the lead mission navigator. After a series of violent pitch oscillations,

Lt. Brian Flavelle’s ‘Wingo-Wango’ flipped onto its back and fell into the Ionian Sea, killing all aboard.

“Losing a plane and crew was bad enough,” agreed Sternfels. “But Flavelle wasn’t carrying the lead navigator. That implies he led the mission. If Flavelle was in the lead ship, Compton would have seen him go down.”

Several other crews did see the crash.

“Compton told me he didn’t learn about Flavelle’s crash until he returned to Benghazi. Compton admitted he led the mission from takeoff to landing. I found documentation to back it up,” said Sternfels.

Another B-24 piloted by Lt. Guy Iovine dropped out of the formation to assist Flavelle. “They later said they wanted to drop life rafts. They weren’t able to climb to rejoin the mission and had to turn back.” Sternfels then said, “But there’s no way to drop life rafts from a B-24D. They’re in compartments on the top of the fuselage. You can’t get at them in flight.” Some sources say that plane carried the deputy mission navigator.

By the time the leading groups reached the mountains of Albania Compton and Kane were separated by at least thirty miles.

‘Ploesti,’ a controversial book by James Dugan and Carroll Stewart © 1962 Random House, New York, cites that the storm clouds over the Albanian mountains convinced Kane to begin circling in what was known as ‘frontal penetration,’ a maneuver to prevent collisions in cloud. This earned a strong comment from Sternfels. “We never did that. That was a fictional explanation for the wide gap between the two formations. But it never happened. In fact I’d never heard of it until long after the war. Our navigation logs show we climbed and worked our way through.”

The book also states that at Compton’s altitude, there was a strong tail wind that was not present at Kane’s altitude, further adding to the gap. This was untrue, according to Compton.

As for losing the two most trained navigators, Sternfels stated, “That’s baloney. If only two men knew the route, why did we take along 176 others? All the navigators were trained and had very cleverly drawn low-level course charts.”

How then, could so many qualified navigators have failed to keep the force on course at the critical moment?

“Compton ignored frantic radio calls that they’d turned too early.”

Sternfels had more surprises in store.

“I found a photo of Compton just prior to takeoff. In this photo, he is holding under his arm a set of charts and maps. Compton was familiar with the route and approach. But his job as the mission leader wasn’t to be looking at maps. That was Wicklund’s job,” he said, referring to Capt Harold Wicklund, one of the most experienced navigators in the Air Force. Wicklund had flown to Ploesti on the Halpro raid in 1942.

According to Compton’s co-pilot, Capt. Ralph Thompson, Compton had the charts and maps on his lap during the approach to the I.P.

“The 376th and 93rd reached the first I.P. at Pitesti and continued on.”

Kane and Johnson were by now almost sixty miles behind the lead force.

“When they reached Targoviste, the second I.P. Compton turned the force southeast. Most of the other pilots realized it wasn’t the right place. Compton ignored frantic radio calls that they’d turned too early. It would have taken only a few minutes to get back to the correct route.” This would have given the following groups time to catch up and possibly return the mission to its original plan.

The Circus’ 39 ships, led by Baker and Major John Jerstad in ‘Hell’s Wench’ then turned east to attempt an improvised attack on Kane’s target, White Four from an unfamiliar direction. They flew into a deadly hailstorm of flak. German gunners found ripe targets at point-blank range. 88mm, 37mm and 20mm batteries wreaked terrible carnage on the low-flying B-24s.

When the Circus came out, ‘Hell’s Wench’ wasn’t among them. Only twelve returned to Benghazi.

“It still amazes me,” continued Sternfels, “that Compton ordered the 376th to break off the bomb run and hit targets of opportunity. Many planes just jettisoned their bombs rather than face the flak. They weren’t even under fire when he sent that order.”

Bombardier 1st Lt. Lynn Hester said in an interview with Sternfels, “I wasn’t told to drop the bombs. Compton pulled the lanyard on the pilot’s pedestal and dropped them right through the doors, pulling them off their tracks. I never saw the target nor did I see the bombs explode.”

The B-24’s manual reveals that a firing unit switch must be turned on or the bombs will not be fully armed. This was not done, so Compton’s bombs probably never exploded.

Then Compton compounded his error. After conferring with General Ent, he sent ‘MS’ for ‘Mission Successful’ to Benghazi.

The ‘MS’ signal was sent while the 93rd was being totally mauled.

“Very few of the 376th bombed a refinery. Otherwise they’d have lost a lot more planes flying into that flak.”

Only three of the 29 Liberandos managed to do any real good with their bombs.

“Those were led by Major Norman Appold, a very smart and excellent pilot.”

Appold took his element around the city and hit White Two, a Circus target.

Kane, Johnson and Wood’s groups made the correct turn. But by then Tidal Wave had become a total debacle. The flak train, flak batteries and fighters were fully alerted.

After Compton returned to Benghazi, he went into conference with Brereton and Ent. A photo found by Sternfels after the war tells a very compelling story. “It was taken only minutes after Compton’s plane landed,” Sternfels explained. “If you look at his face, he doesn’t look like a man who led a successful mission, nor does he look like someone who ran into a ton of bad luck. He looks guilty.”

This fits Compton’s supercilious attitude. “He always did things his way.”

Tidal Wave’s final outcome was both a failure and a success. While only two refineries were totally destroyed, and three others received moderate damage, it eliminated the reserve of vital oil distillation capacity just when Hitler’s war machine needed it most to stop the relentless Soviet drive towards the Fatherland.

The shocking losses and meager results forced the USAAF to legitimize the mission by awarding five Medals of Honor to pilots, both living and dead. Every man was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

At reunions and meetings with fellow Tidal Wave veterans, Sternfels became more convinced that rather than bad luck, the real reason for what happened on 1 August 1943 rested on the shoulders of two men: Smart and Compton.

Major Sternfels wrote ‘Burning Hitler’s Black Gold’ in 2002. The book details the points Sternfels outlined in this article and contains a great deal of unknown facts about Tidal Wave. Many aviation and military historians have long accepted the oft-told accounts of the ill-fated mission, but there is always more to history than meets the eye. Major Robert Sternfels, USAF has provided the key to the truth about Tidal Wave.



The Luftwaffe’s Wooden Wonder

The He-162 Volksjäger

Aviation History Magazine, July 2013

© 2013 By Mark Carlson

All Rights Reserved.

Had it been produced in greater numbers, Heinkel’s jet-powered He-162 could have helped the Germans prolong World War II

By the summer of 1944, as the U.S. Army Air Forces’ massive daylight bombing campaign decimated the Third Reich’s war industry, the Luftwaffe was a shadow of its former self. Despite the impressive combat record of Germany’s Me-109 and Fw-190 fighters, the loss of experienced pilots, fuel shortages, reduced training time and the destruction of factories greatly reduced the Luftwaffe’s effectiveness. At the same time, burgeoning Allied resources allowed the U.S. and Britain to fill the skies with warplanes that soon flew largely unchallenged over the enemy homeland.

In desperation, the crumbling Third Reich sought a technological edge through the development and deployment of “wonder weapons” such as the sleek Me-262 Schwalbe (Swallow), the first German production jet fighter. The Me-262 hadn’t initially been considered for mass production after its first flight with jet engines in July 1942, but General der Jagdflieger Lt. Gen. Adolf Galland wanted it to be given top priority as an air superiority fighter.

Several factors made that impractical. Despite its impressive speed, the Me-262 required highly advanced materials that were in short supply and thousands of man-hours to build. Its twin Junkers Jumo 004 engines had a very short service life, requiring frequent overhauls. Slow acceleration and short range were also problems for the new jet.

Given these difficulties, late in the war Armaments Minister Albert Speer proposed building a huge fleet of simple, agile and fast single-engine jet fighters using steel and wood rather than advanced alloys and aluminum. The German Ministry of Aviation (Reichsluftfahrtministerium, or RLM) sent out a request for proposals to several top aircraft firms on September 8, 1944, including Messerschmitt, Junkers, Blohm & Voss and Heinkel. Not surprisingly, Messerschmitt passed on the project right away, favoring the Me-262. Junkers also bowed out. Blohm & Voss submitted a design for the P.211, featuring a jet engine buried in the fuselage with a nose air intake. But the time required to build each aircraft was too long for the hard-pressed Luftwaffe.

Ernst Heinkel was well ahead of the competition. His special projects branch director Sigfried Günter had already envisioned a simple, single-engine jet fighter, designated the P.1073. In a paper presented on July 10, 1944, he wrote that “air superiority is dependent not only upon the number of single-seaters but also upon the speed of the single-seat fighter. Should enemy jet fighters be deployed, the Me-262 could not be counted on for air superiority, because its unswept wings and the placement of its engine nacelles give too much resistance—at low altitudes, its fuel expenditure is quite large and its range quite small. For these reasons, it is necessary to concentrate on a single-seat aircraft with the least possible amount of equipment and not limit fuel to so small a portion of the overall weight.”

The P.1073 had a tubular frame fuselage and wings, twin rudders and retractable landing gear. Its reliable BMW 003 axial-flow turbojet was dorsally mounted, with the exhaust nozzle vented above the stabilizers. Günther’s team redesigned the 1073 to fit the RLM’s needs.

Heinkel’s lead prompted the RLM to award the firm the contract on October 19. The airplane was officially named the Volksjäger (“People’s Fighter”), and designated the He-162. Postwar examination of RLM documents would reveal that the number 162 had been used to deceive Allied intelligence into thinking the plane had been under development for some time and was a proven quantity.

Heinkel’s Rostock Flugzeugwerke team went to work, and in the remarkably short span of 74 days the prototype He-162 V1 rolled out of the factory. It weighed just over 6,180 pounds fully loaded, with a third of its weight consisting of wood.

Heinkel test pilot Gotthard Peter made the maiden flight on December 6, reaching nearly 500 mph—only 50 mph slower than the Me-262. The BMW 003’s 1,700-pound thrust gave the He-162 a far better power-to-weight ratio than that of the Messerschmitt. But while Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring wanted the jet to be flown by Hitler Youth in defense of the Fatherland, it was immediately obvious this would never work. Though the He-162 was very nimble, only experienced pilots could fly it safely.

Four days later, while demonstrating the aircraft for RLM and Luftwaffe officials, Peter was making a high-speed pass when catastrophe struck. The aileron on the port wing tore off, taking part of the wing with it. Peter was killed in the crash. Examination of the wreckage showed the glue used in the wing construction was inadequate under high-speed aerodynamic stresses.

The BMW turbojet, which required frequent maintenance, was fitted into a streamlined pod just behind the bubble canopy. While this had several advantages, it was a concern to the pilots, since it would be impossible to bail out without being forced against the wide jet intake. The design therefore incorporated an ejection seat, fired by an explosive cartridge triggered by the pilot on the right armrest.

Production of the He-162 began even as the second prototype was still being tested, with speeds limited to 310 mph. Some of the teething problems could only be alleviated via hastily conceived modifications. The He-162’s pitch instability, for example, resulted in the addition of lead ballast in the nose, “drooping wingtips” and strengthened wings. The third and fourth prototypes were tested in mid-January 1945, even as the production line was up and running—an indication of the pressure the Luftwaffe was under to get the Volksjäger into frontline service.

The original specifications called for twin MK 108 30mm cannons mounted in the nose, each loaded with 50 rounds of ammunition, resulting in the grandly named Kampfzerstörer, or Bomber Destroyer. When the heavy recoil from that armament proved to be too much for the diminutive fighter’s frame, the He-162A-2 was armed with twin MG 151 20mm cannons, each with 120 rounds.

The first jet off the regular production line was an He-162A-1 on January 28. By early February, Heinkel reported it had 71 fuselages finished and 58 more on the assembly line, well below what the RLM had demanded. The Luftwaffe had set an impossible goal: 1,000 He-162s built per month by the end of June. The delay was due to the decentralization of the German aircraft industry by the Allies’ strategic bombing campaign. While some of the work was done at the Heinkel factory and Junkers’ Bernberg plant, Speer decided that final assembly would be performed by forced labor at the underground Nordhausen Mittelwerke facility in the Harz Mountains.

The RLM organized a special testing unit, Erprobungskommando 162, to evaluate the Volksjäger at Rechlin, near Berlin. Lieutenant Colonel Heinz Bär, a 221-victory ace, took delivery of several He-162s in February. While tests revealed serious stability problems, one pilot reported that the Volksjäger was “a first-class combat aircraft.” After overseeing a hurried evaluation of the new jet, Bär was transferred to Jagdverband 44 to fly Me-262s.

In mid-February, Jagdgeschwader 1 (JG.1) was reorganized as the first operational Volksjäger unit. Its pilots all had previous experience in Fw-190s or Me-109s. Command of JG.1 was given to Colonel Herbert Ihlefeld, a veteran with 123 victories. Two groups of 50 aircraft each, designated I/JG.1 and II/JG.1, were assembled at Rechlin.

JG.1 took delivery of its first He-162s at the Heinkel airfield at Marienehe. Instructed by Heinkel pilots, the fighter wing’s members learned how to fly the new jet. After just 20 minutes at the controls, they were deemed ready for combat.

Meanwhile production of the Volksjäger proceeded rapidly, with nearly 200 completed by the end of March 1945.

What was it like to fly the Volksjäger? Harald Bauer, who served as a Heinkel factory pilot, provided some insights during a recent interview.

After being wounded while serving as an anti-aircraft gunner, Bauer was assigned to a Luftwaffe training unit. “It was in Stendal and Rechlin, north of Berlin,” he recalled. “We went from the Arado 96 to the Focke-Wulf 190. We were each paired with an experienced fighter pilot, who showed us how to fight the Allied bombers. We weren’t supposed to take on the fighters. The base was under constant threat of air attack, and sometimes we didn’t have fuel to fly more than a short hop. After landing, we pushed the planes back into the woods and put netting on them.” Bauer’s time in the Fw-190 was cut short due to a landing mishap. “I stepped on the brakes too hard on a landing and put it on the nose,” he said.

In early March the Luftwaffe decided experienced pilots were needed for its new jet fighters, and time should not be wasted training new pilots. “In March 65 of us were attached to the Heinkel works in Rostock and Marienehe,” Bauer recalled. “We were Werkespiloten, factory pilots.” Their first job was to make sure the new jets were safe for combat pilots. “We were at the very bottom of the Luftwaffe’s stable of pilots, The Luftwaffe wanted to make sure there was no sabotage, so we were told to put each plane through a 20-minute test of climbing, diving and so on. Then the Luftwaffe inspector put an ‘Accepted’ stamp on the aileron.”

After that Bauer and his comrades delivered the He-162s to the JG.1 bases. “We were told to fly at a certain altitude, at a certain speed and just get it there. After delivering a plane, we were to hitch a ride on a transport or a truck or take a train back to the Heinkel works. I think I personally ferried about 10 or 15.”

Bauer’s last flight in a Volksjäger began on March 23. “I took one north to deliver to the base at Parchim, north-northwest of Berlin,” he recalled. “The Allies were bombing the base, and the Reichsjägerwelle, the fighter communications radio, told me to go to Varel and wait until morning. The next morning, the 24th, I was told to take off and get clear. American bombers were coming. I climbed into the plane and got off the ground. I didn’t even think of trying to fight. There was no ammunition in the cannon.”

Twenty-five B-17Gs of the 490th Bomb Group were approaching Varel that day. In the nose of the lead Fortress was navigator Lieutenant Bob Durkee, who spotted several planes taking off and called on escorting P-51 Mustangs to “Get those bogies down there.”

Bauer did his best to evade, but suddenly he saw “red tracers coming down on both sides of the cockpit. Then one hit the engine, came through the canopy and buried itself in my leg. The ejection mechanisms weren’t installed until after we delivered the planes, so I had to either bail out or crash-land. I’d heard horror stories of pilots being banged against that huge BMW engine intake and didn’t want to try it. One of the Heinkel mechanics had told me that if we just turned the plane over, we could jump out safely. But the engine intake was still right there, waiting.”

He elected to bring the crippled fighter down in a meadow. “The He-162 did not glide well; it fell like a rock. But I got it down. And when I realized I was OK and was trying to get out, I heard an American voice saying, ‘That son-of-a-bitch is still alive.’” Bauer had bellied the Volksjäger into a field behind American lines. The U.S. 2nd Armored Division had just crossed the Rhine River the night before, and the German pilot looked up to see tanks and troops approaching.

He was taken to a hospital, where the doctor pulled a .50-caliber bullet out of his leg. “He told me it had probably been spent by passing through the engine and canopy,” Bauer said. “He let me keep it.”

Bauer said, “I met Bob Durkee years later, when I was living in the United States and he was a vice president of Macy’s in New York. He told me he’d been the lead navigator that morning and saw me taking off. He also told the Mustangs to get me.”

Of the 65 pilots assigned to fly He-162s to JG.1, there were only about five left at the end of the war. “None of them were lost to combat,” Bauer said. “They died or crashed during ferry flights or learning to fly them.”

On April 7, 134 B-17s bombed Rechlin, forcing I/JG.1 to move to another base at Leck in Schleswig-Holstein, close to Denmark. In mid-April the I/JG.1 pilots began combat operations. Though they had had little time to become skilled with their new mount, they were pitted against the Allies’ best planes and pilots. The He-162 did offer at least one advantage: Its simple construction and design allowed for quick repair and replacement of the engine and other vital components. Where battle damage would have grounded most other planes for days or weeks due to a lack of replacement parts, JG.1 could discard a damaged Volksjäger in favor of a new aircraft just off the assembly line. It was in effect the first disposable fighter.

I/JG.1’s mission was to attack low-flying Allied fighters. On April 19, a captured RAF fighter-bomber pilot claimed, during interrogation, that he had been shot down by a jet aircraft. His description matched the He-162. Colonel Ihlefeld, JG.1’s commander, attributed the victory to Cadet Günther Kirschner, but the cadet was unable to put in for the credit, as moments later he was shot down and killed by a Hawker Tempest.

First blood was officially drawn on April 26, when a Staff Sgt. Rechenbach shot down a de Havilland Mosquito, and his victory was confirmed by two other pilots. The sergeant was killed the same day. On May 4, 2nd Lt. Rudolf Schmitt claimed a Hawker Typhoon (in fact a Tempest), but a German flak unit put in a counterclaim and was given credit for the victory.

The war in Europe was coming to an end at that point. JG.1’s pilots continued to fly right up to May 5, when British forces occupied Leck. In all, JG.1 lost 13 planes and 10 pilots, mostly due to accidents rather than combat losses.

If fighting had continued for a few months longer and Heinkel had continued producing He-162s, Allied fliers would have seen something terrifying in the skies over Germany: hoards of sleek, nimble jet fighters capable of running rings around the bomber formations. After the war, British, American and French air forces captured the remaining He-162s and flew them. Legendary British test pilot Captain Eric “Winkle” Brown deemed it “an innovative concept that was quite tricky to operate.” He called it “an unforgiving aeroplane,” but noted that it was an effective gun platform, and “as a back-up for the formidable Me 262 it could conceivably have helped the Luftwaffe to regain air superiority over Germany had it appeared on the scene sooner.”

Former Volksjäger pilot Harald Bauer ended up in America following the war, where he resumed his aviation career. Since his mother was American-born, he was eligible to join the U.S. armed forces. In March 1952 Bauer joined the U.S. Navy. At the height of the Cold War, he flew Lockheed EC-121 Super Constellation radar aircraft attached to an early warning squadron at Elmendorf, Alaska. “Our job was to test the Soviet air force’s response time when they detected U.S. aircraft,” he said. After that tour, Bauer was told that he would have to qualify for carrier operations if he wanted to remain in the Navy. “I said Auf Wiedersehen,” he said, laughing. “I don’t land on postage stamps in the middle of the ocean.” He went on to work for Associated Press, United Press International and United International Pictures. Today he is a member of the Estrella Warbirds Museum in Paso Robles, Calif.

Several He-162s are now on display in museums around the world, including a fully restored Volksjäger at Planes of Fame, in Chino, Calif.



The Marines’ Lost Squadron

Cover Story

Aviation History Magazine, January 2015

© 2015 By Mark Carlson

All Rights Reserved.

When 23 Corsairs of VMF-422 set out on a seemingly routine ferry flight over the Pacific, no one dreamed that only one would make it to their destination

On January 25, 1944, 23 young men faced the most perilous fight of their lives. They were from towns and cities all over the U.S. A few were combat veterans; most were fresh out of training. Before the war they had little in common, but in 1944 they were all naval aviators eager to take on the Japanese in the Pacific. Near the Ellice Islands, six of those pilots and 22 airplanes were lost in the worst air disaster in Marine Corps history. Although the incident took place during the most furious phase of the Pacific War, not a single plane was downed by enemy action. They were all victims of bad weather, technical difficulties, poor planning and, most of all, careless command and control.

The Gilbert Islands fell to the Allies in December 1943 with the capture of Tarawa, adding another ribbon to the Marines’ list of victories. The next step in the island-hopping campaign was the invasion of the Marshall Islands. Among the Marine squadrons slated to support the invasion was VMF-422, a new unit flying Vought F4U-1D Corsairs. Its baptism of fire would not be against the Japanese, but against a fierce storm and an implacable sea.

The pilots of VMF-422, dubbed the “Flying Buccaneers,” had begun training together at Santa Barbara, Calif., in July 1943. They learned to work as a team and became proficient in gunnery, navigation and bombing, first in Grumman F4F-4 Wildcats, then transitioning to Corsairs. They had heard a lot about the hot new fighter.

“It had speed, climb, stability and was also a fantastic gun platform,” said Lieutenant Mark Syrkin. “When we fired the six .50-cal. guns, she held as steady as a rifle in a vise. This was the first 2,000-hp fighter we had ever handled.”

Their squadron CO, Major John S. McLaughlin, was an Annapolis graduate in his first command. In late September they received orders to ship out to Pearl Harbor on the carrier Bunker Hill. After arriving in Hawaii they were assigned to Marine Air Group 22 on Midway, where they continued to hone their piloting skills. They learned to work with ground control radar and gained experience in over-water flying.

After three months at Midway, the Buccaneers returned to Oahu, where they received brand-new F4U-1Ds. Then it was off to Tarawa Atoll aboard the escort carrier Kalinin Bay. VMF-422’s pilots were launched and flew the last 60 miles to Tarawa, landing at Hawkins Field on Betio on January 24, 1944. The island, only recently taken from the Japanese, still bore the scars of intense bombardment and combat. Not a single palm tree was intact, and the beaches and fields were a sea of craters and foxholes. The air was ripe with the smell of burned flesh and rotting Japanese corpses.

They were met by Colonel Lawrence Burke, the 4th Marine Air Wing operations officer. Wing commander Brig. Gen. Lewie Merritt ordered the newly arrived pilots to fly to Funafuti, about 800 nautical miles to the south-southeast. From there they would help support the Marshall Islands campaign, code-named “Operation Flintlock.” Although the Marshalls were to the north, Merritt wanted the Marine squadrons off Tarawa, where Japanese bombers could still strike. Known for being ambitious and irascible, he hoped to make his mark in this operation.

McLaughlin asked Burke if a PV-1 Ventura could escort the squadron to Nanumea, the Marine pilots’ first stop, more than 450 nautical miles distant over open water. But Burke said Merritt wanted to keep the Venturas for reconnaissance. Captains Cloyd Rex Jeans and Charley Hughes, both veterans of Guadalcanal, prevailed on McLaughlin to again request an air escort. Burke went to Merritt, who flatly refused.

The wing’s aerological officer provided McLaughlin with navigational information and weather data. From Tarawa to north of Nanumea the skies were expected to be clear. Beyond Nanumea to Funafuti were scattered showers and rainsqualls.

The Marines boarded a yacht moored offshore, where they spent the night and were briefed on their flight and the upcoming campaign. They returned to Hawkins by 0800 on January 25. “We wrote down our course on our plotting boards and were told that the weather data was the same as it had been the night before,” said Syrkin. That report, posted at 0830, was 14 hours old.

They were to take off at 0930 and proceed to Nanumea at 1,000-2,000 feet and 200 knots. There they would refuel and continue to Funafuti. The fighters were serviced, armed and fueled with 349 gallons, which gave them three hours’ reserve. The first leg was estimated to take 2½ hours.

The pilots were told they would communicate on 6970 kilocycles. Call signs for the radio stations in the Gilbert Islands and range beacon frequencies for Nanumea and Funafuti were not given to all the men, but as Syrkin related, “Since the flight to Nanumea was only 463 miles, we weren’t too concerned.” The southern Gilbert Islands to Nanumea and down the Ellice Islands was a long, ragged chain that roughly paralleled their course, so as long as the weather was clear they would almost never be out of sight of land.

McLaughlin led his men off the island at 0930 hours. One pilot had starter trouble and was unable to take off. But the other 23 Corsairs formed up and headed south-southeast.

“The weather was perfect,” recalled Syrkin, “with visibility unlimited. We left Tarawa behind at 1000 hours.” They were in three flights, one of seven, two of eight, divided into four-plane divisions. “I was leader of the last division,” said Lieutenant Robert “Curly” Lehnert. “Jeans was leading the division ahead of us.”

For the first two hours all went well. They passed dozens of small lush islands ringed by pure white beaches, garlanded with turquoise and pearl necklaces of coral reefs. The Corsairs’ Double Wasp engines pounded out the cadence as the miles passed below.

Then, at 1215 hours, their luck changed. Rising swiftly over the horizon, a wall of dark clouds extended northeast to southwest directly astride their course. The heavy gray storm front reached well over 30,000 feet. The storm played havoc with their radios and instruments, and compasses spun erratically. Realizing they could not climb over the storm, McLaughlin ordered the pilots to fly under it. He had to make the call several times before the others responded. With the ceiling at no more than 200 feet, rain battered the Corsairs. “It was as though a fire hose was aimed at the front of the aircraft,” said Syrkin. “There was really no forward visibility and we were only able to keep some semblance of formation by looking out the sides of the canopy.”

The sea was a maelstrom of dark green 50-foot swells peaked with white foam and driving spray. They managed to keep one another in sight, but always kept a wary eye on the clutching waves passing under their wings.

McLaughlin made several radical turns to try to locate the Nanumea beacon. But VMF-422 was lost in a major tropical storm.

The Buccaneers didn’t know they were actually on the Nanumea radar screens just 19 nautical miles away. Their IFF (identify friend or foe) transponders were picked up on Nanumea, but the base had not been informed of the flight and wasn’t even monitoring the squadron’s frequency.

McLaughlin led the entire formation into a sharp turn to port and then to starboard. As in a schoolyard game of “crack the whip,” some planes could not follow the line. “My division leader John Rogers was unable to keep formation,” Syrkin recalled. “John Hansen and Jake Wilson went off with him.” Rogers was never heard from again.

Hansen, fearing a midair collision, had decided to go it alone. He radioed that he had lost contact. Lieutenant Don Walker gave him the Funafuti range frequency. “I tuned it in and it worked,” Hansen said. “I followed it in. My engine started to pop, but about 20 minutes later I saw the island.”

He landed safely on Funafuti. “They were surprised to see me. I learned that I was the only one to come in. They weren’t even expecting us.” Hansen immediately informed the station of the squadron’s trouble. It was the first official notice that VMF-422 was lost in the storm.

As for Wilson, he soon found himself alone, and spotted the island of Niutao ahead. Almost out of fuel, he decided to ditch and headed for the surf line far below. His Corsair came to a shuddering stop in the waves. Wilson looked to see natives rushing out to him in dugout canoes.

Back in the main group, Lieutenant Chris Lausen reported engine trouble and said he had to ditch. Lieutenants Ken Gunderson and Curly Lehnert stayed with him as his Corsair slid toward the heaving green swells while the rest of the squadron orbited them. “Chris’ Corsair came down and smacked into a wave and sank,” recalled Lehnert. “Then he came up, but didn’t have his raft. He had only his Mae West life preserver to keep him afloat. Even though I was ordered to rejoin the squadron, I couldn’t just leave him.” Lehnert continued to orbit the struggling Marine, who had released a yellow dye marker, while Gunderson caught up with the squadron.

The 18 pilots fought to keep each other in sight and stay above the turbulent sea. Rain continued to hammer their windshields until they finally they broke out into an area of good weather over the tiny island of Nui. The towering storm clouds behind them receded, but the skies ahead held more dark squalls. As they rebuilt the formation, McLaughlin radioed that he had caught the Funafuti beacon and would lead them to the island.

Unknown to the men of VMF-422, they were less than 20 miles from Funafuti, but fortune still did not smile on them. Another storm front rose ahead, and they were quickly swallowed into its dark maw.

McLaughlin lost the Funafuti beacon and grew desperate. He gave the lead to Jeans, who began a formation turn back to the northeast toward Nui. Then McLaughlin stopped communicating, and his squadron mates were unable to contact him.

Lieutenant John “Abe” Lincoln saw his CO veering away. “I flew very close to him and tried to get him to look at me,” he said. “I called him several times. I went so far as to bump his wing with mine, and…nothing.” Finally Lincoln rejoined the squadron, and McLaughlin disappeared into the storm. “I think he knew he had lost his command, a whole set of brand-new airplanes,” said Lincoln. “He couldn’t take it.” The Marines continued flying, lost and dangerously low on fuel.

Meanwhile Lehnert was still circling over Lausen. “Chris was all alone with no raft,” he said. “I decided to bail out.” After opening his canopy Lehnert lowered his flaps. “I was at 2,000 feet as slow as possible. I jumped clear right over Chris’s dye marker. After I hit the water, I inflated the raft. I had to get rid of my chute, which was pulling me away. Then I said to myself, ‘Okay Bob, get into the goddamn raft now!’” The massive swells hampered his efforts to reach Lausen. “I used the hand paddles. But every time I reached a crest he was nowhere to be seen. I never saw Chris again. He perished at sea.”

At about 1500 Lieutenant Tiger Moran radioed Jeans that he was approaching Nui and was in communication with Nanumea. Jeans ordered Moran to hold his position until they could join him. The station at Nanumea had assumed the mystery planes were heavy bombers on their way to the Solomons and saw no reason for concern, but Moran’s calls quickly dispelled that notion.

Moran told Jeans he was low on fuel and was going to bail out over the island. He jumped from his Corsair and landed in the heavy surf, but drowned while trying to escape from his parachute harness. “Tiger wasn’t a strong swimmer,” recalled Lehnert.

The remaining planes finally broke out of the second storm around 1530. Lieutenants Ted Thurnau and Bill Aycrigg both reported they were almost out of fuel. Jeans knew there were high storm fronts between them and Funafuti, and their odds of making the island were slim. He decided to order the pilots to ditch as close together as possible so they would have a better chance of being rescued. Aycrigg ditched first, followed by Thurnau, but he overshot Aycrigg by five miles. The other 13 pilots managed to ditch close together in between the first two, but were unable to link up with them.

“I climbed out of my plane and into the raft,” recalled Gunderson. “I swallowed a lot of seawater and was pretty sick, heaving for a long time.” Lieutenant “Tex” Watson nearly drowned when his Corsair sank, but he struggled to the turbulent surface.

Syrkin, who was nicknamed “Breeze” after a B movie actor, was the next to last to ditch. By then the area was dotted with yellow rafts and swimming men. “Not being a good swimmer I took my shoes off and hung them by the laces around my neck,” he said. Then he circled the ditching site and fired off all his ammunition, trying to lighten the plane as much as possible. “With that big engine it would sink fast enough, and I wanted those few more seconds,” he explained.

“We were sure ol’ Breeze had gone berserk when he started firing at nothing,” said Watson.

Syrkin continued: “I jettisoned my hood and used full flaps and came in tail low, holding off as long as possible. I felt the fuselage skipping the water until the prop and engine dug into a heavy swell and it stopped dead. I lost my shoes, but my only thoughts were of leaving the plane and getting into my raft. The raft doubled as a seat cushion and was rigged through the leg straps of the parachute harness between the parachute and the pilot. I slipped out of the harness and jumped onto the wing, then reached back and flipped out the parachute and raft and followed them in.”

With swells cresting over 20 feet, the pilots frequently lost sight of one another. Using whistles and calls, small knots of men assembled. Syrkin finally saw a group of rafts tied together, and as he approached, paddling with his hands, Watson greeted him with “Hey Breeze, how about an autograph?”

Thirteen men were in 12 rafts. Rex Jeans, Charley Hughes, Bill Reardon, Tex Watson, John Lincoln, Jules Flood, R.K. Wilson, Ken Gunderson, Sterling “Shou” Price, Caleb Smith, Chick Whalen, Don Walker and Syrkin began the long wait for rescue. Whalen, who had not been able to recover his raft after ditching, had to double up with each of the pilots in turn.

Ted Thurnau was unable to link up with the rest. Bill Aycrigg, the first to ditch, had disappeared. Nine pilots were either dead, lost or missing. To make matters worse, the stranded Marines weren’t alone. Three large sharks began to prowl around the rafts.

Lehnert continued his lonely sojourn. “I had read a Life Magazine article about Captain Eddie Rickenbacker crashing at sea. He and his buddies survived 24 days on a raft. It was in almost the same area of ocean. I figured if Eddie can do it, so can I. I used the sea anchor as a bucket to bail out the raft. It was always shipping water. I ate my malted milk tablets and pemmican. I used the canvas sea anchor to collect rainwater. I had plenty to drink.” He tried to catch a seagull, as Rickenbacker had, when it hovered close to him. “I grabbed him but he flapped and pecked at my face so much I said, ‘Hell, I’m not hungry enough to eat you,’ and let him go.”

Night fell and another rainsquall hit the small band of Marine aviators. They eagerly collected water with their rubberized tarps. Jeans ordered them to tie the rafts into a circle so they would have more than one connection with each other. The hours passed slowly. At dawn on the 26th they spotted the sharks still swimming nearby.

The wind, blowing out of the north, brought what they all feared. The same storm they’d flown through the day before caught up with them and struck with a cold, merciless vengeance. The desperate pilots held onto each other’s rafts, bailing with one hand. The storm passed within a few hours, the weather cleared and the sea became glassy calm. Reardon spotted a plane in the distance, but it never came close to them.

As darkness fell, another storm lashed the 13 Marines. They tied the rafts into a single line when conditions were calm and in a circle during the squalls. Hour after hour rainsqualls hit and passed, adding to their fatigue. But the men never lost their sense of humor. During one rainstorm on the second night, Walker sang “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More” at the top of his lungs.

By the morning of the 27th, they had named their shark companions Leroy, Oscar and Herbert. At one point Lieutenant Smith, trying to get comfortable in his raft, overbalanced and fell in the water. When he saw the sharks moving in, he kicked and swam so vigorously he seemed to “walk” on the water and fell back into his raft. Once he was safe, the pilots all started laughing uproariously.

The strain was beginning to tell, however. Muscles were sore and skin rubbed raw. Nearly constant rain soaked their thin flight suits, while the heat of the day burned their skin. The saltwater caused red sores and open blisters. Late that morning Jeans announced he had figured their position and that they should use the wind and currents to move toward Funafuti.

Leroy and his cronies were becoming more aggressive, so the Marines decided Charley Hughes should shoot them with his .38-caliber revolver. “Our .45 Colt automatics had rusted shut,” said Gunderson. “Charley was in the raft next to mine, and when he fired at the shark it was right in front of my face.” The wounded shark swam off, pursued by the others.

A seagull landed on Hughes’ raft, and he was able to catch and kill it. The hungry pilots, who had been living on malt tablets and concentrated chocolate, eagerly ate the fishy-tasting raw meat.

Miles away, Curly Lehnert saw a PBY on the horizon. “He was flying a square search. I watched him like a hawk. He came right toward me. I had my Very pistol in my right leg pocket and yanked it out. When I fired, it exploded into two big red balls. He saw me and rocked his wings.” The PBY crew picked up Lehnert and flew him to Funafuti—“The same place where Rickenbacker had been brought,” he noted. “But there was no Life photographer for me.” There Lehnert learned that the rest of VMF-422 was still missing.

It was late that afternoon when fortune at last smiled on the stranded Buccaneers. Lincoln spotted a plane in the distance, a PBY Catalina. At first it appeared to be flying away, but then it turned, making a 360-degree circle. Some of the Marines fired flares, others their .38s and still others released their yellow dye markers. The PBY’s crew saw them and waggled the flying boat’s wings as it passed over.

Captain George Davidson of Navy patrol squadron VP-53 was out looking for Japanese submarines when he and his crew spotted the tiny group of yellow rafts about 100 miles west-southwest of Funafuti. After making several passes, Davidson finally managed to set down on the rough water, an incredible feat considering the waves were about 15-20 feet high. A heavy wave tore the right engine off the wing. The wind then pushed the flying boat away from the rafts, and only on the third pass was a crewman able to throw a line to the men in the water. Eight men climbed aboard, then five rafts broke away and were suddenly lost in the turbulent seas. With visibility waning and rain, waves and wind hampering the search, Davidson taxied the big Catalina around time and again, looking for the lost rafts.

To make matters worse, the PBY’s hull had been breached during the rough landing and was taking on water. After more than two hours, Davidson’s crew located the five other men and hauled them aboard the Catalina.

Knowing there was no hope of lifting the damaged, heavily loaded PBY into the air, Davidson kept its nose into the wind. He was in contact with rescue forces, and ships were converging on the area.

The destroyer Hobby arrived a few hours later and took on not only the Buccaneers, but also the crew of the sinking PBY. When the exhausted Marines settled into Hobby’s sickbay, they found Jake Wilson, who had ditched in the surf off Niutao, already on board. The friendly natives had rescued Wilson and fed him while they contacted Nanumea. Wilson had come close to having to marry one of the tribal chief’s daughters before a boat from Hobby picked him up on the 26th. His squadron mates needled Wilson about his “close call.”

The Navy conducted an extensive search, but Major McLaughlin, Captain Rogers and Lieutenants Aycrigg and Thompson were never found. Ted Thurnau was picked up by the destroyer Welles on the 28th, the last survivor of VMF-422 to be rescued.

The final toll was six Marines and 22 Corsairs lost. After the survivors were flown back to Tarawa, an inquiry was held on the incident (see sidebar, P. XX).

The Flying Buccaneers received new Corsairs and replacement pilots. They did their duty in Operation Flintlock. After the Marshalls were taken, the VMF-422 disaster was largely forgotten. But for the rest of their lives, the survivors of the lost squadron never forgot those three terrible days.