Air Group One/CAF
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 1, 2011
Special Guest Speaker: Major Robert Sternfels
was the pilot of "The Sandman", the B-24 that was photographed flying through the smoke and flame of the infamous 1 August 1943 Ploesti Oil Field raid. The photo became an icon of WWII.
Robert W. Sternfels is the author of the book "Burning Hitler's Black Gold". The book provides facts and thoughts from many who were there and survived this mission and details the low-level bombing raid against oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania. In the raid Sternfels' B-24, "The Sandman" hit a barrage balloon cable damaging the bomber. Sternfels was able to complete the mission and return safely. The photo on the cover of the book shows "The Sandman" just clearing the smoke stacks after dropping his bombs. General Jimmy Doolittle presented Robert Sternfels with the Distinguished Flying Cross for the Polesti mission. The Ploesti raid was one of the most dangerous and deadly and the resulted in 310 aircrewmen were killed, 108 were captured by the Axis, and 78 were interned in Turkey. Three of the five Medals of Honor (the most for any single air action in history) were awarded posthumously.
"Like ducks in a shooting gallery," recalls Bob Sternfels, of the Ploesti bombing run in 1943. "The Germans had their guns all warmed up. Oh, it was terrible."
Ploesti, Romania, supplied one-third of Germany's total petroleum needs - and most of its high-octane airplane fuel. Stop the pipeline, many believed, and you'd stop the war. So the U.S. devised its longest, large-scale bombing mission to date: 1,700 airmen flying 2,700 miles (it required extra fuel tanks in the bomb bays). On top of that, to ensure success, pilots were ordered to drop bombs not from the usual 20,000 to 26,000 feet - but just 200 feet off the ground.
The night before, men were told to write letters home. The next morning they were fed eggs. Real eggs. Everyone knew they might not return.
By the time Sternfels piloted his B-24, "The Sandman," over one refinery, he says, "everything was happening" - smoke, flames, propeller wash from other planes, anti-aircraft fire.
"I couldn't see the ground through the smoke," he says. "If I dipped my wing too far, I would've clipped a smokestack."
He missed the smokestack but - wham - caught a steel cable tethering a large balloon meant to deter such attacks. At the bottom of the cable was a bomb.
"I thought, 'Holy heck,'" says Sternfels, "We didn't know if it was going to cut off the wing or what."
His No. 3 engine gobbled up the cable and spit out a chunk, lacerating the fuselage of his plane. Some 54 of the 178 Liberators that bombed Ploesti were lost, but Sternfels made it home.
Others weren't so lucky.