Thursday, August 01, 2013

TFH 8/1 Flight 1: Lieutenant Colonel Addison E. Baker, Major John L. Jerstad, and "Hell's Wench"

Hell's Wench was the name given to Consolidated B-24D Liberator 42-40994 by her aircraft commander and commanding officer of the 93rd Bombardment Group (Heavy), Lieutenant Colonel Addison E. Baker. Baker was born on January 11, 1907 in Chicago. He joined the United States Army in 1929 and entered the Air Corps. He earned his pilot's wings and an officer's commission in 1931.

Lieutenant Colonel Baker took his B-24 to the skies on August 1, 1943 as the lead ship of his 37 bomber group for Operation TIDAL WAVE - the first large scale bombing attack by the United States Army Air Forces on Nazi controlled petroleum refineries surrounding Ploesti, Romania.

In the co-pilot's seat next to him was Major John L. Jerstad, born February 12, 1918 in Racine, Wisconsin. Major Jerstad began his service as an aviation cadet on July 12, 1941 and was rapidly promoted as the United States plunged into World War II and our armed forces grew exponentially for wartime.

Jerstad didn't need to take to the skies that day; he had already completed the 25 combat missions of a tour of duty and wasn't even officially part of the 93rd Bombardment Group anymore. He didn't want to pass up the chance to be a part of the strike against the most important target in Europe, and volunteered to go.

The battle plan for the Ploesti attack had the 93rd Bombardment Group second in line. As the first two groups approached the target area, the lead group - with the overall mission commander present - made a wrong turn and started heading for Bucharest, not Ploesti. Baker and Jerstad recognized the error and got their group back towards the correct heading. The error forced them to attack a different refinery though than the one they were assigned.

Minutes later, as Baker's group roared towards their Ploesti target barely above treetop level, Hell's Wench was struck by massive amounts of antiaircraft fire the Nazis brought to bear on the American bombers. One large caliber hit in particular was devastating, setting the plane on fire.

Baker and Jerstad fought to keep their Liberator airborne. As the lead ship, the other 36 planes in the group followed their cues. With little or no prospect for survival, the two placed the mission before their own and crew's survival and guided Hell's Wench with the rest of the 93rd Bombardment Group in tow through to the target. Comrades on other bombers in the 93rd later told what they saw, as published in Into The Fire: Ploesti, the Most Fateful Mission of World War II:
They were an estimated three minutes from the target when Lt. Stewart's copilot shouted, "Look at that!" Hell's Wench, Colonel Baker's ship, was on fire. The plane had hit the cable of a barrage balloon and snapped it in two, but part of a wing was left shredded. A shell exploded in the nose, killing the bombardier, and at least three more explosions rocked the plane. One shell hit a bomb-bay gas tank. The flames enveloped the cockpit and spread quickly... 
Colonel Baker, who had vowed to his men that he would lead them over the target, even if his plane fell apart, was doing just that. He kept Hell's Wench flying, ignoring the flat field below on which he could have tried a crash landing... 
The two men [Baker and Jerstad] held the plane on course even after they jettisoned the bombs. There was no need to go onto the target then, except to lead the formation there. And for that, somehow they kept Hell's Wench going. A crewman on a nearby plane remembered: 
Baker had been burning for about three minutes. The right wing began to drop. I don't see how anyone could have been alive in that cockpit, but someone kept her leading the force on between the refinery stacks. Baker was a powerful man, but one man could not have held that ship on the climb she took beyond the stacks.  
Baker and Jerstad pulled their plane up in a climb to about 300 feet. At that point, a few men - variously reported as three or four - jumped out, their bodies afire, flames spreading out in the wind. The plane slued over on its right wing and plummeted to the ground, missing a bomber in the second element by a mere six feet. That pilot saw Hell's Wench flash by, a flaming torch. "Flames hid everything in the cockpit. Baker went down after he flew his ship to pieces to get us over the target."
Both Baker and Jerstad were decorated with the Medal of Honor for their actions.

From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (A-F):

*BAKER, ADDISON E. (Air Mission)

Rank and organization: Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army Air Corps, 93d Heavy Bombardment Group. Place and date: Ploesti Raid, Rumania, 1 August 1943. Entered service at: Akron, Ohio. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy on 1 August 1943. On this date he led his command, the 93d Heavy Bombardment Group, on a daring low-level attack against enemy oil refineries and installations at Ploesti, Rumania. Approaching the target, his aircraft was hit by a large caliber antiaircraft shell, seriously damaged and set on fire. Ignoring the fact he was flying over terrain suitable for safe landing, he refused to jeopardize the mission by breaking up the lead formation and continued unswervingly to lead his group to the target upon which he dropped his bombs with devastating effect. Only then did he leave formation, but his valiant attempts to gain sufficient altitude for the crew to escape by parachute were unavailing and his aircraft crashed in flames after his successful efforts to avoid other planes in formation. By extraordinary flying skill, gallant leadership and intrepidity, Lt. Col. Baker rendered outstanding, distinguished, and valorous service to our Nation.

From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (G-L):


Rank and organization: Major, U.S. Army Air Corps, 9th Air Force. Place and date: Ploesti Raid, Rumania, 1 August 1943 (Air Mission). Entered service at: Racine, Wis. G.O. No.: 72, 28 October 1943. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty. On 1 August 1943, he served as pilot of the lead aircraft in his group in a daring low-level attack against enemy oil refineries and installations at Ploesti, Rumania. Although he had completed more than his share of missions and was no longer connected with this group, so high was his conception of duty that he volunteered to lead the formation in the correct belief that his participation would contribute materially to success in this attack. Maj. Jerstad led the formation into attack with full realization of the extreme hazards involved and despite withering fire from heavy and light antiaircraft guns. Three miles from the target his airplane was hit, badly damaged, and set on fire. Ignoring the fact that he was flying over a field suitable for a forced landing, he kept on the course. After the bombs of his aircraft were released on the target, the fire in his ship became so intense as to make further progress impossible and he crashed into the target area. By his voluntary acceptance of a mission he knew was extremely hazardous, and his assumption of an intrepid course of action at the risk of life over and above the call of duty, Maj. Jerstad set an example of heroism which will be an inspiration to the U.S. Armed Forces.

All ten crew members of Hell's Wench were killed.

The navigator, First Lieutenant George J. Reuter, posthumously received the third-highest decoration for valor, the Silver Star. He had helped to identify the leading group's navigational error and correctly advised Lieutenant Colonel Baker to press on their original course.

The remaining seven crew members all posthumously received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Their names and crew positions were:
  • Staff Sergeant George P. Allen (Gunner)
  • Technical Sergeant Charles E. Bennett (Flight Engineer/Top Turret Gunner)
  • Technical Sergeant John H. Carroll (Radioman)
  • Staff Sergeant Edgar C. Faith (Waist Gunner)
  • First Lieutenant Alfred W. Pezzella (Bombardier)
  • Staff Sergeant Morton O. Stafford, Jr. (Gunner)
  • Staff Sergeant William O. Wood (Gunner)
Lieutenant Colonel Baker's remains were never recovered. A cenotaph in his memory was placed at the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial in Italy. The remains of or memorials to TSgt. Carroll, 1st Lt. Faith, 1st Lt. Reuter, and SSgt. Wood are also located there.

In 1948, the family of Major Jerstad was notified that his remains had been identified. They opted to have him interred in the Ardennes American Cemetery and Memorial in Belgium. Other Hell's Wench crewmembers interred or memorialized with him there are SSgt. Allen, TSgt. Bennett, SSgt. Faith, and SSgt Stafford.

The final crewmember, 1st Lt. Pezzella, is buried or memorialized at the St. Mary's Cemetery in Needham Heights, Massachusetts. If his remains were recovered, he was the only one to come all the way home.

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