Wing historian reflects on honor, heritage of one of Malmstrom's oldest squadrons

  • Published
  • By Andrew Billman
  • 341st Space Wing historian
On a clear Sunday morning, Aug. 1, 1943, the 564th Bombardment Squadron, commanded by Capt. Phillip Ardery, took off from Bengazi, Libya, with the rest of the 389th Bomb Group. They flew into history as a part of the most decorated mission in the history of the U.S. military. 

This mission was Operation TIDAL WAVE and it was the first large-scale, low-level daytime attack on a heavily defended target ever conducted by U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. 

The target was seven oil refineries near Ploesti, Romania, which were responsible for an estimated 35 percent of Germany's oil refining capacity. The size of the task force was unprecedented with five bomb groups executing the mission. They were the 376th, 98th, 93rd, 44th and 389th bomb groups. 

In all, 178 B-24 bombers were loaded down with bombs and bomb-bay fuel tanks [were added] to make the 1,350-mile journey from bases in North Africa to Ploesti. The 564th BS target for the day was the Steaua Romania refinery north of Ploesti. 

The intent behind the tactics and timing for the mission were to surprise the enemy, increase the accuracy of the bomb run and inflict the minimum amount of casualties among the Romanian people. 

German radar picked up the track of the bombers early when they crossed the Mediterranean Sea into Europe. The surprise came for the Germans with the extremely low-altitude (below 100 feet) at which the final bomb run took place. At the initial point and according to plan, Captain Ardery and the pilots of the 564th BS dropped down to treetop level for the final run into Ploesti. 

Within minutes, they flew straight into a maelstrom of fire, blinding smoke, anti-aircraft shells and exploding ordnance dropped earlier by the preceding waves of bombers. For the last bombers over target there was no advantage of surprise as German gunners had their range and altitude zeroed in. 

Captain Ardery and the pilots of the 564th BS dodged barrage balloon cables, accurate flak and flames that roared into the sky, much higher then the altitude of their B-24s. 

Second Lt. Lloyd Hughes flew into that inferno on the right-hand side of his commander with punctured fuel tanks spewing large amounts of fuel from the left wing of his aircraft. He never broke formation, flew through the fire and accurately placed his bombs on target with the rest of the squadron. The fuel leaking from the wing tanks ignited and before he could make a forced landing, the fire burned through the wing. The stricken B-24 cartwheeled into the ground with an eruption of flame and smoke. The cost of the raid was high, as 54 of the 178 B-24s along with their crews did not return to their bases. 

The Ploesti raid holds the distinction of being the most decorated operation in U.S. history. The 389th BG received a Presidential Unit Citation and numerous individual decorations including a posthumous Medal of Honor to Lieutenant  Hughes. Lieutenant Hughes was one of five Medal of Honor recipients from the operation - a record for a single operation that stands to this day.