Most readers of Air Force Magazine are familiar with the Aug. 1, 1943, low-level attack on refineries near Ploesti, Romania. A carefully prepared plan for simultaneous strikes on assigned targets by a force of almost 170 B-24s was disrupted en route by bad weather and navigation error. It was, nevertheless, a day of unsurpassed heroism. Leaders of the five B-24 groups saved a broken plan from disaster–but at a terrible cost. Nearly one-third of the B-24 force was lost in combat or forced by battle damage to land in neutral Turkey.
Many stories and several books have been written about that mission, but less has been said about the heroism of individual crews. The story of Sad Sack II, a B-24 from the 66th Bomb Squadron, 44th Bomb Group, epitomizes the valor and self-sacrifice of so many on that mission.
The 44th, an Eighth Air Force group, had been sent to North Africa to participate in the Ploesti mission. Col. Leon W. Johnson, commander of the 44th and later a four-star general, led 37 of his bombers on that mission.
Unlike the two groups that preceded him, Colonel Johnson turned at the correct initial point and led 16 of his planes to their target–the Columbia Aquila refinery–while 21 of his bombers broke off to attack another target. The 16 descended to their bombing altitude of 250 feet. They could see that their target had already been hit by another group in the confusion of the disrupted plan, but Colonel Johnson, who would later be awarded the Medal of Honor, elected to continue his strike as planned.
As the 16 B-24s approached their target, which was obscured by heavy black smoke, they came under concentrated small-arms and antiaircraft fire from all sides. Before “bombs away,” Sad Sack II, piloted by 1st Lt. Henry Lasco, took many hits. Left waist gunner SSgt. Charles DeCrevel was shot through the thigh. Tail gunner Sgt. Thomas Wood was killed. The No. 2 engine was knocked out, and its propeller would not feather. It seemed to the crew impossible for any plane to survive a bomb run through the maelstrom of smoke, fire, and exploding delayed-action bombs that engulfed the target. This was it.
At bombs away, navigator 2d Lt. Harry Stenborn’s chest was torn open by an 88-mm shell. He managed to crawl along the bomb bay catwalk to the rear of the aircraft, where he collapsed and died. Top turret gunner TSgt. Leonard Raspotnik and radio operator SSgt. Joseph Spivey were hit. Neither survived. Lieutenant Lasco knew then that they could not make it back to North Africa. He decided to head for Turkey.
By this time, Sad Sack II was at treetop level, vibrating badly, and barely able to remain airborne. Several Bf-109s attacked the critically damaged bomber. The wounded Sergeant DeCrevel continued to fire at the enemy fighters, downing one, while ammunition boxes exploded around him. He was wounded by more shell fragments. SSgt. Albert Shaffer, the right waist gunner, kept shooting at the fighters, though one of his legs had been almost severed by enemy fire.
The bomber was down to about 50 feet with one wing low when a Bf-109, coming in level at 10 o’clock, shot the pilot through the face, stunning and temporarily blinding him. Copilot 2d Lt. Joseph Kill leveled the wings just before Sad Sack II bellied into a corn field. Bombardier 2d Lt. Dale Scriven was killed in the crash; both of Lieutenant Kill’s legs were broken, and one of his ankles was dislocated.
Lieutenant Lasco was pinned in his seat by a harness that would not release. He finally managed to free himself, remove the tangle of wires around Lieutenant Kill’s legs, and drag him out of the burning wreckage through a hole in the fuselage. Still dazed, Lasco staggered off to look for help. While he was gone, Romanian peasants stole Lieutenant Kill’s watch and ring, beat him, and left him for dead.
Sergeant DeCrevel fought his way out of a plane he later described as “a pile of burning junk.” Then he remembered that Sergeant Shaffer was still inside, immobilized with only one functioning leg. DeCrevel went back and dragged Shaffer out of the wreckage. After stripping off his own smoldering clothing, DeCrevel also went for help.
Of Sad Sack II’s nine crew members, all had been wounded and five killed. The four survivors–Lieutenants Lasco and Kill and Sergeants DeCrevel and Shaffer–became POWs in Romania until they were rescued by Fifteenth Air Force B-17s in late August 1944, after the Germans had retreated before advancing Soviet troops.
Aug. 1, 1943, will always be special in USAF history. It was a day of supreme heroism on a unique scale, when hundreds of men laid their lives on the line–and many lost–to complete their mission.
Thanks to Will Lundy, the 44th Bomb Group’s historian, and to retired Col. William R. Cameron, who participated in the mission.
Published December 1994. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.