Valor: Of Tradition and Valor

July 1, 1991

Air Force attacks on the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania, probably are best remembered–by those who were not there–from dramatic pictures of a B-24 emerging at chimney-top level from smoke and flame engulfing one of the targets. That was the Aug. 1, 1943, raid, the first major Ploesti strike. There were many to follow after Allied bases were secured in Italy and the 1944 bombing campaign against German oil supplies came into full swing. The refineries were hit 24 times in the spring and summer of that year, largely by heavy bombers of Italy-based Fifteenth Air Force, until production was completely shut down in mid-August.

The 98th Bombardment Group was heavily committed to the oil campaign, flying against synthetic plants in central Europe as well as Ploesti area refineries. (The 98th had won a Distinguished Unit Citation for its part in the August 1943 raid. Its commander, Col. John R. Kane, was one of five men to be awarded the Medal of Honor for valor that day) The refineries, because of their small size, were the more difficult of the oil targets. Smoke generators at Ploesti often made it necessary to use recently received M2X radar equipment to find a target. Antiaircraft fire remained heavy almost to the end, and enemy fighter pilots were more persistent than in other parts of Europe.

On July 9, 1944, the 98th was scheduled for another Ploesti mission from its base at Lecce, Italy. In the left seat of a 343d Squadron B-24 was 1st Lt. Donald Pucket, only six months out of pilot training and a relative newcomer to the 98th. Because of his maturity–Pucket was approaching 29 years of age–and leadership, he was marked for advancement. Two weeks earlier he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for leaving formation to defend a battle-damaged straggler that was being attacked even though his own Liberator had been severely damaged by flak.

Now, shortly after “bombs away” over Ploesti, Pucket’s aircraft was hit by enemy fire. The flight engineer was killed, six other crew members wounded, two engines knocked out, control cables cut, fuel lines damaged, and the oxygen system set on fire. Pucket turned the controls over to copilot Lt. Robert Jenkins and went to the rear of the plane to assess damage and help the wounded. Using a hand crank, he opened the jammed bomb bay doors to clear out gasoline and hydraulic fluid, then jettisoned the guns and all other movable equipment.

The B-24 continued to lose altitude rapidly. It was apparent that they could not reach friendly territory. Pucket ordered the crew to bail out, but three of the wounded were unable to follow his orders. As the others abandoned the plane, they pleaded with Pucket to follow them. He refused. With the controls unmanned and the B-24 in a dive, there was no time for him to drag the wounded men to the open bomb bay and push them out. Instead, he fought his way to the cockpit, hoping to regain enough control to make a successful belly landing. It was too late. The B-24 crashed on a Mountainside and exploded. Donald Pucket had given his best–his life–in an attempt to save three crewmen. His loyalty to the men under his command and his acceptance of responsibility for them was in keeping with Air Force tradition. His sacrifice that day is forever a part of the Air Force heritage of valor.

Lt. Donald Pucket was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously, the seventh and last man to be so honored for extraordinary heroism in the Ploesti campaign. The presentation was to be made to his widow at Boulder, Colo., on Aug. 12, 1945. The ceremony probably was unique in the history of the Medal of Honor. Loeren Pucket refused to accept her husband’s Medal until certain words in the citation, which she felt disparaged the courage of the men who died with him, had been removed. That aspersion, she knew, Donald Pucket would not have tolerated.

Published July 1991. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.