It was dark and eerie when he climbed out of the sack at 4 a.m, shaved and ate a breakfast of powdered eggs, Spam and coffee. Then he and the rest of the 10-man crew of “Shack Happy,” a B-24 bomber, headed to the briefing room with scores of other B-24 crews to get the bad news.
It was May 5, 1944. Sgt. Bob Herres of Venice, Fla. was in the 717 Bomb Squadron, 429th Bomb Group, 15th Air Force stationed in Grotaglia, Italy, near the country’s toe. He was a tail gunner on a “Liberator” bomber.
When the briefing officer pulled the cover off the flight map on the wall up front there it was again — Ploesti. A string on the chart stretched from their base to the Romanian oil fields. The 717th had already made two godawful trips over Ploesti.
It was the pits. The absolute worst. The area bristled with anti-aircraft cannons and swarmed with German fighter planes. The Third Reich knew it was critical to protect its Romanian oil production facilities or its hope of victory would evaporate.
At the conclusion of the 19th raid over the enemy oil fields by the 15th Air Force 13,469 tons of bombs had demolished most of the German’s oil production capacity. It cost the Americans 223 heavy bombers, not including fighters lost in these raids.
“It was a very odd time for me. I was scared. I hoped they would cancel this mission. I never felt like that before. I felt almost sick,” Herres recalled almost 60 years later.
He and the crew of “Shack Happy” were on their 40th combat mission. Only 10 more trips over enemy territory and they could go home. They’d had one close call in the more than three dozen flights they made. They all survived when their B-24’s fuel line was severed and the pilot had to crash land the “Liberator” after the rest of the crew bailed out.
Things were pretty dull on their 40th mission during most of the four hour flight to the Ploesti oil refineries as 700 four-engine bombers droned along in formation under clear skies. Squadrons of P-51 Mustang fighters flew cover for the bomber armada. “Shack Happy” was lead bomber flying at 23,000 feet. Things started heating up as they made their final approach to the target. Flak from anti-aircraft guns on the ground filled the sky with deadly black puffs of smoke.
A Focke-Wulf-190 fighter dove out of the sun at 12 o’clock high with its twin machine-guns and four 20mm cannons blazing away at them.
“We were one of the first bombers hit. We lost our rudder controls and couldn’t stay in formation,” Herres said. “Lt. Alfred Morton, our pilot, almost took another plane down with us when he tried to pull ‘Shack Happy’ out of the pack. Once our bomber dropped below the formation he attempted to use the engines to steer it as he headed home.
“That’s when we got jumped by more German fighters. There was a fighter right on our tail shooting at us. It was so close I could see the smoke from its guns as our metal skin began pealing off in sheets from the pounding we were taking from the 190s guns.
“The power in my turret was out. I couldn’t shoot at the German fighter without power. I tried cranking my guns up by hand so I could return fire, but that was useless,” he said. “One of our waist gunners and the ball turret gunner had already been killed. I looked back into the waist section of the bomber and the whole inside of the plane was in flames.
“I got out of my turret, grabbed my chute and snapped it on. I burned my face running through the flames to reach the escape hatch in the floor. It was a two-foot by three-foot hole in the center of the plane. I could see the pilot struggling to help the bombardier who had spilled his chute on the flight deck.
“I jumped through the escape hatch. They tell you to count to 10 before pulling the ripcord. I pulled it immediately. When my chute opened my English flying boots flew off at 18,000 feet. On the way down Al Lobato, the radio operator, and I were strafed by German fighters. I could hear the bullets whizzing by my face.”
Herres landed in a wheat field unscathed. The navigator wasn’t as fortunate. He had been hit. A piece of shrapnel broke his nose and missed up his face. Herres was in the process of patching up his buddy when he realized he was surrounded by a bunch of unfriendly Romanian peasant farmers. They carted him off in a hay wagon to the local jail in a nearby town.
Six of “Shack Happy’s” 10-member crew survived after their B-24 exploded over Romania near Bucharest.The copilot, bombardier, waist gunner and ball turret gunner didn’t make it.
After spending a few days in a Romanian hospital undergoing treatment for his burned face, Herres ended up with his crew and 1,500 other POWs, in a Bucharest school used as a prison. For the next four months he and his buddies suffered through Allied bombings that pulverized the capital day and night. Friendly bombers came within feet of where they were being housed. When they weren’t being bombed by their own air force they were picking lice.
Conditions in the camp where Herres and his buddies were kept weren’t good, but the guards were generally not abusive. Food was poor and in short supply. It amounted to a chunk of brown bread in the morning and a bowl of cabbage or potato soup at night.
Thanks to the efforts of Princess Catherine Caradja of Romania, who visited the American POW camp regularly in her chauffeur-driven limousine, the day-to-day situation in the camp was better than it might have been if she hadn’t taken an interest in the captured fliers. She brought food, athletic equipment and morale support to the POWs.
As a young girl the princess had been educated in England. She liked American pop culture. As a consequence, she did everything she could for the American bomber crews shot down over Romania.
“The worst day in the POW camp for me was the day the Romanians switched allegiances and came over to the Allied side in August 1944. The Germans demanded the Romanians turn over all the POWs to them. The Romanians refused. They wanted the prisoners for bargaining chips.
“On day, after they changed sides, we were quickly moved out of the school where we had been kept and taken down the street to another building that was under construction. A few minutes later a number of Luftwaffe fighters bombed and strafed the school building where we had been. No one was injured in the raid. The Germans didn’t return,” Herres said.
Lt. Col. James Gunn, shot down in a raid over Ploesti, was the ranking American officer in the POW camp. After the Romanians switched sides he asked to be flown to Italy to meet with the Allies and arrange for the American POWs repatriation.
Bob Herres’ Commendations: Purple Heart, Air Medal with four Oakleaf Clusters, POW Medal, World War II Victory Medal, European Theater Medal, Good Conduct Medal.
A Romanian air force captain, Constantine Cantacuzino, an ace with 64 victories to his credit, offered to fly him to Italy in a German fighter with an American flag painted on its side. The American officer agreed to fly lying down in a narrow compartment behind the pilot’s seat. They made the trip without incident in two hours landing at San Giovani Airfield in Italy.
A short time later a massive flight of American B-17 bombers flew into a nearby airfield, accompanied by dozens of P-51 fighters, to return the POWs to their bases in Italy. In groups of 21 the former prisoners were crammed into plywood-floored bomb bays of the B-17s for their ride to freedom. When they reached Italy the war was over for them.
Herres had been waiting for a letter that arrived when he reached Italy. It read:
“4 Sept. 1944
“Headquarters U.S. Air Force Italy
“Dear Sgt. Herres,
“You are going home. With you will go the thanks and admiration of the 15th Air Force for a superb and heroic performance.
“You are the returning heroes of the Battle of Ploesti. You will be greeted and treated as such by your loved ones and by a grateful American public. They are proud of you.
“Your safe return to my command marked the culmination of an outstanding campaign in the annals of American military history. The German war machine disintegrated on all fronts, caused to a large extent by their lack of oil that you took from them.
“One of the memories of my life will be the thrill I experienced when a B-17 came into view, circled and landed and I saw you unloading. It’s impossible for me to say good-bye to each of you before you return to the States. However, I do want you to know my thoughts and those of your fellow soldiers are with you.
“Best of luck and God’s speed.
“N.F. Twining, Major General, United States Air Force, Commanding.”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. in May 2003 and is republished with permission.
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