The Blackest Day: 10 June 1944
Flight Journal, Dec 2003 by Cleaver, Thomas McKelvey
The great complex of air bases near Foggia, Italy, bustles with activity as the sun rises. Forty-six 82nd FG Lockheed P-38J Lightnings from the 95th, 96th and 97th Fighter Squadrons, each carrying a 1,000-pound bomb on the right wing shackle and a 310-gallon ferry drop tank on the left, shake the Foggia No. 11/Vincenzo airfield as they taxi for takeoff. Over the Adriatic, 48 1st Lighter Group P-38Js of the 27th, 71st and 94th FS flying escorts will join them. One after another over southern Italy, nearly 100 P-38s take wing and climb to altitude, Their target: Ploesti-the major oil refinery complex in Europe and more than 600 miles away across the Adriatic Sea and over the mountains of Yugoslavia. The mission: to dive-bomb the Romano-Americano oil refinery, which is the primary producer of high-grade aviation gasoline for the Luftwaffe. It will be recorded as the blackest day in the history of the American fighter forces in WW II.
....Among the pilots of the 96th Fighter Squadron detailed for the attack on Romano-Americano was Capt. Richard "Dick" Willsie, the Squadron Operations Officer and an experienced pilot with more than 40 missions under his belt. "There were 46 of us with bombs, and 48 P-38 escorts from the 1st Fighter Group," Willsie explained. "The strategy was that we would join up while crossing the Adriatic and fly over Yugoslavia until we got to the mountains, at which point we would go into Romania on the deck-and I mean we were to remain at 50 to 100 feet altitude when we came out of the mountains."
....Low-level formation flying is difficult under the best circumstances, let alone when two, three-squadron formations are flying on the deck under radio silence for two-and-a-half hours. Unfortunately for the Americans, the German air-defense radar spotted them over Yugoslavia before they entered Romanian airspace. This negated the value of the difficult low-level penetration, since they had lost the element of surprise. To cap things off, shortly after coming out of the mountains, the two groups had been separated. Both accelerated into their attack as they punched off their drop tanks over fields.
....With the radar reports now definite with regard to the U.S. attack, Luftwaffe Oberst Neumann and his assistant controller, Capitan Comandor Aviator Gheorghe Miclescu of the Romanian Air Force, scrambled their defenders as the P-38s spread out over the Romanian plain. At this point, the Germans-having identified the attackers as Jabos-expected an attack on their airfields. All operational IAR 80s of Grupul 6-led by top IAR 80 ace Capitan Aviator Dan Vizante (15 kills)-lifted off Popesti-Leordeni airfield and clawed for altitude while the Bf 109Gs of Grupul 7 flew back from the Russian Front and the Messerschmitts of I/JG 53 and III/JG 77 rose from Pipera airbase near Bucharest. Among the scrambling Luftwaffe Experten were I/JG 53 Gruppenkommandeur Knight's Cross holder Maj. Jurgen Harder (64 victories), Lt. Rupert Weninger, Lt. Erich Gehring and Uffz. Willi Dreyer, each of whom would raise his scores this day.
....Within minutes, Capitan Vizante and Grupul 6 were in position. Moments later, the P-38s of the 1st FG passed Popesti-Leordeni airfield and spotted four Do.217s attempting to land. Three flights of the 71st FS broke off to attack these aircraft. Moments later, they were bounced by the diving IAR 80s of Grupul 6. Four P-38s went down in the first pass as the others salvoed their drop tanks and tried to turn with the enemy. All the advantages the heavy P-38 had over the lighter IAR 80 were canceled out in dogfights waged at altitudes of between 100 and 300 feet. In the four-minute battle, the 23 Romanian pilots who made the interception claimed 23 P-38s for a loss of two of their own. The P-38s of the 71st FS suffered the highest casualties; nine of 16 were lost, while 2nd Lt. Herbert "Stub" Hatch Jr.-element lead for Cragmore Green flight-managed to shoot down five IAR 80s. These were the only Romanian losses of the day, and his success made Hatch one of the few P-38 "aces in a day." Capitan Aviator Dan Vizante added two P-38s to his score to solidify his position as top IAR 80 ace of the Romanian Air Force. Of 23 P-38s claimed by the Romanians, the 1st FG lost a total of 14 and numerous others were crippled.
....Not knowing that the battle was under way and still right on the deck as they approached Ploesti, the men of the 82nd overflew Pipera airbase looking for their missing escorts. Past the field, they began their climb to altitude to make the attack. At that moment, they were struck by the 40 Bf 109Gs of Grupul 7, I/JG 53 and III/JG 77. "It was as though the roof fell in on us," Willsie recalls. "There were Messerschmitts and heavy flak bursts everywhere." Of the 48 Lightnings in the attack, only 24 were able to drop their bombs on the target; nine were lost to flak and fighters and another 10 were badly damaged. During this combat, one Bf 109G-6 was shot down.
....Gefreiter Helmut Koditz was killed when his White 3 crashed near Brosteni. A second Bf 109G-6 made a successful belly landing at Horsesti, with minor battle damage. Lt. Merrill Adelson of 96th FS claimed an Me 210 and an he 111 hit while they were trying to lift off from the Pipera airbase; he also claimed the destruction of an unidentified single-engine fighter. Another 96th FS pilot, Lt. John Sognia, claimed a Bf 109G in the wild dogfights over the refinery.
....June 10, 1944, would go down in history as the blackest day in the combat history of the P-38 Lightning; the 30-percent loss rate represented the worst losses suffered during a single mission by American fighters in WW II. The Romanian claim of 51 U.S. fighters shot down was more than twice the actual loss, but 23 P-38s failed to return to their bases around Foggia. U.S. claims of 33 were also more than double the actual Romanian loss of 14-only 10 of which were fighters. The inflated claims of both sides indicate the intensity of the battle over Ploesti that day. Most important, despite all the sacrifice, the Romano-Americano refinery hadn't been seriously damaged.
.... "We pretty much felt like we'd gotten kicked pretty hard that day," said Willsie. "It took a lot of hard work by the ground crews for us to be ready for the mission we flew on the next day." Despite the battering of June 10, the 82nd flew support on the next day for a B-24 mission to Constanta. The June 11 attacks showed the growing power of the Americans; a return flight of Operation Frantic I (a repeat of the first shuttle raid flown by the 15th AF to Russia on June 2) hit Ploesti with one of the hardest blows, as the B-24s destroyed their target at Constanta.