The Washington Times
November 11, 2007
INTO THE FIRE: PLOESTI, THE MOST FATEFUL MISSION OF WORLD WAR II
By Duane Schultz
Westholme Publishing, $26, 287 pages
REVIEWED BY PHILIP KOPPER
A chronicle of a titanic U.S. Air Corps operation, "Into the Fire" shimmers with historical parallels and modern resonances as it proves an awful point: That even in our most necessary war, some of the heroic men of that "Greatest Generation" went into battle valorously and died pointlessly. Further, like every war epic since Homer's "Iliad," this one thunders with paradox in the blunders of leaders, in the acts of superhuman selflessness by combatants of every rank and in an enemy whose horde includes decent men.
The raid on Ploesti, Romania, made perfect sense on paper in 1943. It aimed at Hitler's most vulnerable weakness, his dependence on foreign oil, as it targeted the huge refinery complex that provided most of his fuel. If the raid destroyed just a third of the target, the Allies might win World War II six months earlier and thousands of lives richer.
The practicality of an attack from North Africa had been proved in a bungled strike six months before, when it was barely defended. The plan for a new onslaught by nearly 200 B-24 Liberator bombers was discussed and endorsed by the all highest authorities (a condition that should always give one pause). First codenamed "Soapsuds," it was renamed something fiercer at Churchill's insistence, "Operation Tidal Wave," and the prime minister, along with others in charge, properly turned his attention elsewhere, such as to the crucial invasion of Italy, which would start the actual liberation of Europe.
The commander of the U.S. Ninth Air Force in North Africa, Maj. Gen. Lewis Brereton "believed there was only one thing wrong with the plan . . . approved [in conferences at] Casablanca, Washington and Algiers: he was not sure it would work." And Brereton was no slouch. Having commanded MacArthur's air forces in the Philippines in 1941 (where he lost half his planes), he was later decorated for leading a night raid against a Japanese stronghold and still later helped push Rommel out of North Africa.
In the run-up to Ploesti, Brereton "realized that if he criticized the approved plan, he would be challenging the authority and judgment of Hap Arnold, George C. Marshall and President Roosevelt [et al]. Such an open protest could have only one result. He would be relieved of command and replaced by someone who would do as he was told." Ah, dispensability, the Achilles' heel of military structure and civilian authority.
Several subordinates made the same pragmatic decision to bite their tongues though they saw fatal flaws. For one, reconnaissance flights were banned as Ploesti was placed off limits lest the defenders suspect they were being targeted. For another, the workhorse Liberators, designed for high altitudes, would approach the target at treetop heights, the better to evade radar detection.
But the earlier raid had prompted German strategists to install state-of-the-art defenses. Not only radar, but ground observers who reported the attackers' northward course almost as soon as they crossed Europe's southern coast; not only ack-ack but emplacements camouflaged as haystacks and batteries mounted on mobile railroad cars; not only Romanian recruits but crack German troops who could hit the low-flying attackers with small arms.
Not knowing what they didn't know, the Yanks performed Herculean feats of training and logistics, practiced palm-clipping approaches in the Libyan desert and maintained equipment through blinding sandstorms and hellish heat. Of course some things went wrong. Two colonels waged turf warfare against each other and failed to coordinate their flights. Then, near the destination of the 1,000-mile mission, a single navigator's error and a single commander's order steered two of the four bomber groups off course so that they approached Ploesti from an unplanned direction, which rendered the landmarks they'd studied useless and made them miss their primary targets.
Duane Schultz, who has previously written about the Civil War as well as World War II, combed an impressive body of material for this account: Diaries, archives, periodicals, historical surveys, military studies and earlier books. He punctuates his synthesis with moving anecdotes, ghastly sights and tragic data: A Liberator spewing gas from ruptured tanks holds course through a wall of flames to become a torch itself; a high-altitude operation blasts Bucharest's railroad yards into shambles "but a number of bombs missed, killing 2,942 civilians and injuring more than 2,000."
Notwithstanding the hyperbolic subtitle and flights of jingo, Mr. Schultz properly honors many Air Corps aviators (and blames a few). He gives due credit to a Romanian princess who rescued a downed crew, and to the German commander who buried American dead with military honors. But in the last analysis, the effort he describes was a colossal waste.
Of the 177 Liberators that flew to Ploesti, only 93 returned, 60 of them damaged beyond repair. (Several landed with dry tanks after the 15-hour ordeal, including at least one in a deadstick landing.) Of the rest, 54 were lost in the raid, 26 landed at far-flung fields and three crashed in the Mediterranean trying to get home.
"Of the 1,726 airmen on the mission, 532 were killed, captured, interned or listed as mission in action," and another 440 were seriously — some horribly — wounded. But Ploesti's refineries were back in full production within weeks. Even in that so-called "Good War," brave men following orders issued in good faith died to no decent purpose. It was ever thus and, lest we forget, it still is.
Mr. Schultz doesn't bother to argue the rightness of the Allies' larger cause in fighting the Fascist Axis, three governments that threatened to conquer the world. Suffice it that a grim truth shrouds this new book about an old battle: If only because every war will waste good lives, no war should be fought for small or uncertain reasons.
Philip Kopper reads and writes in Chevy Chase, Md.