Monday, August 26, 2013

Witness to History

Dear Readers,

I suppose there was part of me who thought once I got over the initial nervousness of being at the White House today for the Medal of Honor presentation to United States Army Staff Sergeant Ty M. Carter for his heroism during the Battle of Kamdesh at Combat Outpost Keating on October 3, 2009 by President Barack Obama, I'd be able to easily write about my experience.

I wish that were the case. Today was an absolutely amazing experience. I'm feeling quite a bit overwhelmed by the experience, but in a very different way than the jitters I felt while I was sitting in Lafayette Park across from the White House this morning at 11:30 calming myself for walking up to the visitors' gate and saying, "I'm supposed to be here."

To best relate what I saw and experienced today, I have to start at the end.

Live from the White House!

I'm composing this sitting in the rightmost (as facing the podium) seat of the second row in the James S. Brady Briefing Room in the West Wing of the White House.

I just wrote that, I've read it six times, and I still can't believe it!

Good Morning from Our Nation's Capital!

I arrived in Washington, DC this morning just after 5:00 AM after an uneventful and thoroughly satisfactory ride on Megabus from Pittsburgh. I did manage to get some sleep, although I chalk the lack of rest value to my keyed-up state rather than a condition of the accommodations!

After getting coffee & breakfast at Union Station, I walked around the surrounding streets and by chance came upon the Japanese-American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II. The monument remembers both those who were unjustly interned during the war as well as those patriotic Americans - including the late Senator and Medal of Honor recipient Daniel K. Inouye - who still rose to their nation's call and valiantly wore the uniforms of our Armed Forces in the defeat of tyranny.

The real excitement for the rest of my day is of course yet to come, and thanks to a phone call earlier, got a whole lot more interesting.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Journey Begins; Thanks to a New Media Pioneer

I'm about one-half hour into my six-hour ride on MegaBus from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC. to cover the Medal of Honor presentation Monday to United States Army Staff Sergeant Ty M. Carter at the White House. It's my first time traveling on MegaBus, and so far, I couldn't be happier. I'm seated on the upper level of the motorcoach at the very front. If it was daylight, the view would be great from this seat. The seat is comfortable, the temperature on-board isn't too cold, and I'm also seated right by the power outlets. There's free WiFi, but I'm opting to tether across my iPhone instead.

The one thing I'm not sure I'm going to get during this trip is much rest, but that's because I'm so keyed up for what I'm going to witness tomorrow and not any discomfort in the ride.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

TFH Goes to Washington!

To everyone who's ever read a post here, commented, shared links, and encouraged the labor of love that is this blog - and especially to the American warriors who have received the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, or Air Force Cross whose exploits in the defense of liberty have and always will be my focus here - I have to say thank you, for without you all, the story I'm about to tell wouldn't be happening.

Their Finest Hour is going to be breaking new ground - for me, anyway - on Monday, August 26, 2013! This is a story though that really begins on October 3, 2009, and for me in April 2012.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

TFH 8/18: Major Ralph Cheli, USAAF

Ralph Cheli (pronounced "Kelly") was born on October 29, 1919 in San Francisco, California. He later lived in Brooklyn, New York, and studied engineering at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania as a member of the class of 1941. He didn't graduate though, choosing to leave school in February 1940 to join the United States Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet.

He received his wings and a commission as a Second Lieutenant in November 1940 and was trained as a pilot for the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. With the United States' entry into World War II and the ramping up of the United States Army Air Forces for global combat, Cheli first found himself flying anti-submarine patrols in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

After promotions to First Lieutenant and Captain in early 1942, he was transferred to Barksdale Field in Louisiana (today's Barksdale Air Force Base) and assigned as the operations officer for the 405th Bombardment Squadron (nicknamed the "Green Dragons") of the 38th Bombardment Group - a new North American B-25 Mitchell unit that was being formed.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

TFH 8/15 and 8/30: First Lieutenant Kenneth A. Walsh, USMC

Kenneth Ambrose Walsh was born on November 24, 1916 in Brooklyn, New York. He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps at age 17 on December 15, 1933. Walsh was trained as an aviation mechanic and radioman. While still an enlisted man, he received flight training and earned his "Wings of Gold" as a Naval Aviator in 1937. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he was one of the more experienced Marine aviators and was a Technical Sergeant flying with Marine Fighting Squadron 121 (VMF-121).

Walsh was promoted to Warrant Officer in May of 1942, and later received a full commission when promoted to Second Lieutenant. He was reassigned to Marine Fighting Squadron 124 (VMF-124). VMF-124 was the first USMC squadron to field the Vought F4U Corsair fighter. The squadron was also one of the few Marine aircraft carrier-capable units of the day, and Walsh was one of the few Marine officers qualified as a carrier Landing Signal Officer (LSO).

VMF-124 deployed to Guadalcanal in February 1943 and flew and fought during the Solomon Islands Campaign. Walsh achieved "ace" status by shooting down five enemy planes by mid-May 1943. For two instances of aerial combat where he faced numerically superior enemy opposition on August 15 and 30, 1943, he received our Nation's highest honor.

Monday, August 12, 2013

TFH 8/12: Lance Corporal Kenneth L. Worley, USMC

Kenneth Lee Worley was born on April 27, 1948 in Farmington, New Mexico. He was orphaned during his early teens, and later lived with an aunt in California. Worley's living conditions were impoverished and he left school to work as a truck driver in agriculture. After suffering a workplace injury, he was taken in by Don and Rose Feyerherm of Modesto; they became his surrogate family.

Worley volunteered and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps on July 14, 1967. After completing recruit and advanced infantry training, he was posted to the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment for combat with the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam. Prior to leaving for war, he was promoted to Private First Class.

He arrived in Vietnam on November 24, 1967. He served as a rifleman and with the battalion headquarters and was promoted to Lance Corporal on May 1, 1968. On August 12, 1968 - 45 years ago today - he was a machine gunner with Company L of 3/7 Marines. His unit was secure for the night in an occupied house when the Marines were awakened with an alarm call that an enemy infiltrator had thrown grenades into the building. One landed near Lance Corporal Worley, and he placed his body between the explosive and his comrades, and thus received our Nation's highest honor.

Monday, August 05, 2013

TFH 8/5: PVT James W. Reese, USA

In the closing days of July 1943, the Allied forces on Sicily had pounded the remaining German and Italian enemy defenders back to the mountainous region surrounding Mount Etna and from there, back towards Messina. The Nazis and their fascist Italian cohorts dug themselves in deep. If they had a hope of surviving the Allied onslaught, they would have to make their stand on the high ground.

James William Reese was born in 1920 at Chester, PA. He was drafted into the United States Army in November 1941, right before the United States' entry into World War II. He was part of the 1st Infantry Division's 26th Infantry Regiment, and fought with the division in North Africa before the Sicily Campaign.

On July 31, 1943, the US II Corps (the 1st Infantry Division and the 9th Infantry Division), Lieutenant General Omar Bradley commanding, began their assault on the city of Troina. The city was defended by the German 16th Panzergrenadier Division and the Italian 28th Infantry Division Aosta. Resse's regiment was given the assignment of flanking the city and cutting off the enemy's escape route.

As it happens, it would be the Americans who would get cut off.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

TFH 8/1 Flight 4: Colonel John R. Kane and "Hail Columbia"

John Riley Kane was born in McGregor, Texas on January 5, 1907. He graduated from Baylor University and later joined the United States Army Air Corps in 1931 as an aviation cadet. He earned his pilot's wings and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1932. He was one of the more experienced pilots with the United States Army Air Forces as they ramped up for a long war.

He arrived overseas for combat in the Europe, Africa, and Middle East theaters in July 1942. Over the next year, he flew 43 combat missions against the Nazi Germans and their allies and became the commander of the 98th Bombardment Group (Heavy). The group styled themselves as the "Pyramiders", as they were based in Egypt.

The 98th's success and tenacity in combat were well known to the enemy. In fact, German military intelligence tagged their commander by the nickname by which he'd be known for the rest of the war: "Killer Kane".

Kane, the 98th Bombardment Group, and their Consolidated B-24D Liberators were selected for Operation TIDAL WAVE, the attack on critical petroleum industries and infrastructure surrounding Ploesti, Romania on August 1, 1943 - seventy years ago today.

TFH 8/1 Flight 3: Colonel Leon W. Johnson, USAAF aboard "Suzy Q"

Leon William Johnson was born on September 13, 1904 in Columbia, Missouri. He graduated from the United States Military Academy, West Point with the class of 1926 and commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. He opted to become part of the Army Air Corps and later earned a master's degree in meteorology from Cal Tech.

In 1942 as the then United States Army Air Forces were establishing themselves in Britain for action against Nazi Germany, Johnson was one of the first flying officers of the nascent Eighth Air Force and spent time as a staff officer planning missions and tactics for bombing strikes against military and industrial targets in Germany and occupied Europe.

Johnson was given command of the 44th Bombardment Group (Heavy) in January 1943. In June 1943, the group was detached from the Eighth Air Force to reinforce the Ninth Air Force in North Africa and the Mediterranean for Operation TIDAL WAVE, the planned attack on petroleum refineries and infrastructure vital to the Nazi war machine surrounding Ploesti, Romania.

TFH 8/1 Flight 2: Second Lieutenant Lloyd H. Hughes, USAAF and "Ole Kickapoo"

Lloyd Herbert Hughes was born in Alexandria, Louisiana on July 12, 1921. His family returned to his mother's native Texas not long afterwards, and he grew up and graduated from high school in the town of Refugio in 1939. Hughes, known as "Pete" to friends, attended Texas A&M University where he studied petroleum engineering. He heard his nation's call not long after the attack on Pearl Harbor and enlisted on January 28, 1942 and accepted into the United States Army Air Forces as an aviation cadet.

He married the former Miss Hazel Dean Ewing on November 8, 1942 and had his pilot's wings pinned on two days later. Hughes was assigned to the 564th Bombardment Squadron of the 389th Bombardment Group (Heavy), flying the Consolidated B-24D Liberator. The group was posted to North Africa in June 1943 and he flew during five combat missions in June and July.

On Sunday, August 1, 1943, he and his crew boarded B-24D serial number 42-40753, named Ole Kickapoo, for the attack on the oil refineries surrounding Ploesti, Romania - operation TIDAL WAVE.

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.

Tidal Wave: The Raid on Ploesti

Ploesti, Romania (correctly spelled Ploiești, but I will use the common spelling as found in most World War II histories) is, to this day, a center for petroleum production and refining. The first large oil refinery in the world was opened there in 1856-57. Foreign producers, including John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil built and operated facilities there.

Nazi Germany gained control of most of Romania and the Ploesti oil production facilities in 1941. As Germany had little petroleum production of its own, the strategic significance of the city's resources couldn't be underestimated. By the middle of 1943, Germany was consuming up to 22 million tons of oil, but was only bringing in 14 million tons. If the Ploesti facilities could be severely damaged or destroyed, the war in Europe would assuredly be shortened by months and tens of thousands of lives might be saved.

As the war progressed into the summer of 1943, the United States Army Air Forces - progenitor of today's United States Air Force - prepared to execute the first large scale bombing raid against the Ploesti refineries. Five heavy bomber groups would be used, flying from bases in North Africa.

The plan was called Operation TIDAL WAVE. It was scheduled for a Sunday: August 1, 1943 - seventy years ago today. The men who flew the mission and survived came to know their attack on Ploesti by a much grimmer name:

Black Sunday.