Today, a chance meeting with a hero. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Two older men in the Museum
book shop were talking about flying in WW-II. I
asked one, "What did you fly?" "`24s," he said. "In
the Pacific?" I wondered. "No, we flew out of Italy
-- over Ploesti." My jaw dropped, for I knew what
But I'm ahead of my story. We'd just been through
Galveston's Lone Star
Flight Museum - their fine collection of WW-II
airplanes. It was a remarkable experience walking
among all those machines that'd lain at the center
of my childhood -- airplanes I'd never seen so
close up. Background speakers played Glenn Miller
A small but important item on the hangar floor was
an old car with an A-sticker on its window. "A"
was the tightest gasoline rationing level. This war
was fueled by petroleum and gasoline was precious.
Germany got petrol from the Ploesti oil fields in
eastern Romania. Hitler had said that if the
Ploesti refineries were destroyed, the damage would
be beyond repair.
So damage them we must. But how? They lay out of
reach of Allied bombers. Two elements
finally came together in 1943. First the
British and Americans took North Africa. Second,
the Americans brought in the B-24 heavy
bomber -- the Liberator. The B-24 was designed
more for range than bomb capacity. It had a nominal
range of 3500 miles and now it was available.
The first great Ploesti raid left from Benghazi in
Libya on Sunday, August 1st, when few Romanians
would be at work. 1726 men took off in 177 B-24s,
overloaded with defensive armor.
The first casualty on that 2700-mile trip was a
plane that crashed on takeoff, killing all hands.
The planes attacked Ploesti at treetop level --
flying into flak, machine gun fire, fighters, and
barrage balloons. Their aim was no less than to
shut off German petrol supplies. But things went
wrong. The element of surprise was lost. Airplanes
were shot down over the oil fields and on the way
back. American losses approached 800 men. Estimates
of lost airplanes are uncertain -- maybe 70 heavy
In the end, we paid a terrible price for shutting
off sixty percent of Germany's oil -- and then we
only turned it off for a while. What we did in 1943
we had to do again -- and again.
And I'm back to that museum shop. "We went out to
Ploesti in 27 planes one day in 1944," the man
said. "Only 14 came back. I was 19 years old. I was
a ball gunner.
He left me at a loss for words, trying to add it
all up. He'd flown 51 missions -- dangling out in
the flak in that bubble on the plane's body, with
only luck to protect him. I'm five years younger
than he -- that close to having been in that, or in
some other, shooting gallery myself. But it'd been
him, not me. I had momentarily brushed up against
heroism, a virtue we find all too hard to believe
in today. And it had been heroism on my behalf.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of
Houston, where we're interested in the way
inventive minds work.