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A Memoir of World War II

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A Memoir of World War II

William A. Barr

William Barr was an aviator with the U.S. Naval Air Corps during W.W. II, and flew in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Pacific regions.

This account may seem an odd choice for the Review, but it tells a story that should interest our readers, reminding us of a time when we unambiguously exploited our resources, were supremely self-confident, and so were respected and admired around the world.

One of the salient features of the war was mobility. Although the Germans used horses for hauling to a considerable extent, the one indispensable item for both sides was gasoline. Early in the war Canadian oil fields and refineries were connected to Halifax for convoys to Britain while German U-boats lurked in the ocean saving their torpedoes for vital oil tankers as prime targets. Those were the days of the "Battle of Britain," when Britain stood alone.

Then in the Lend-Lease / Arsenal of Democracy" period before USA's entry into the war, Oklahoma/Texas oil gushed from flow to flood in the transport of oil out of Houston, around the tip of Florida, up the East Coast to refineries, and then to trans-Atlantic convoys. It was then that NAS Banana River (where I served) was created on Cape Canaveral to hunt and kill German submarines that sought to choke off this vital flow of Allied oil.

Immediately after America's entry into the war, gasoline was rationed at home while our petroleum industry supplied more than 80 percent of the Allies' aviation fuel. Soon petroleum made up more than half of all USA's exports. The Battle of the Atlantic was a struggle between submarines and the convoys and their defenders. Attesting to our success is the overwhelming supply of arms and fuel on hand in Britain for the invasion in June 1944. The Allied High Command quickly laid an underwater pipeline from Britain to France to insure the flow of vital fuel to feed the Allied war machine on the Western fronts.

Meanwhile the Axis war machine found itself dependent on the rich oil fields of Ploesti in Romania. Allied military strategists quickly recognized the possibility of shortening the war by depriving the Axis of this precious Ploesti oil.

After the Allied success in driving Rommel and his forces out of North Africa in Operation Torch, the feasibility of air strikes against Ploesti first became evident. An air base was set up in Benghazi, Libya, composed of USAAF B-24 Liberator bombers for the specific purpose of a daring, long-range bombing strike against Ploesti. Named Tidal Wave, this mission of 1500 miles round trip required stretching the limits of fuel/bomb load for the B-24s and their crews. Furthermore, with the Germans expecting Allied strikes against Ploesti, their fighter plane protection and their anti-aircraft gun fire was known to be even more formidable than Berlin's. Nevertheless, the possibilities of depriving the Axis of vital fuel and shortening the war compelled the decision to undertake this dangerous mission for five squadrons of B-24 Liberators totaling 177 bombers. On August 1, 1943, those bombers took to the air amid clouds of Libyan desert dust kicked up by over 700 roaring engines.

The Queen Helen

At about noon, local time, the planes reached Ploesti where they flew at treetop level to evade both enemy planes and radar detection. The flak was as thick and deadly as the worst fears had imagined, but the low-level tactic permitted evasion and access to planned targets for most of the bombers. Ploesti was scorched by incendiaries and damaged by explosions, enough to justify the investment of planes and men.

Most of the damage to the bombers came in the turn away from target and the regrouping phase where ground fire found its marks and crippled many of the planes before they were able to head for far away safety. Two such bombers crashed among many. We cite these two particular fallen planes because both crews experienced gracious deeds of royal compassion - not kindness from ordinary country folk but mercy from the most unusual, unexpected sources, from Romania's Queens.

The first is 1st Lt. John Palm, a tall Texan from El Paso, the pilot of the B-24 named the Brewery Wagon, in the 376 Bomb Group (Heavy) called the "Liberandos" during Operation Tidal Wave. In the Bomb Group's approach the lead navigator had made an early turn, a mistake as it turned out that brought the Liberandos into the heaviest ack-ack concentration below. Flying in and out of rainsqualls, Palm found his plane separated, yet headed for the target. This brought concentrated ground fire and soon an 88-mm shell exploded in the nose, killing the bombardier and navigator while destroying three engines. Palm jettisoned his bombs just in time while co-pilot Bill Wright flooded the engines with foam to avoid a huge gasoline fire, at the moment their bomber skidded and crashed.

Eight of the ten-man crew survived the crash, including John Palm whose right leg was almost shot away. With his leg in a tourniquet, Palm was carried to a truck by Romanian soldiers and ended up in a Bucharest private clinic run by a Dr. Georg Petrescu. Palm relates, "I could tell right away that Dr. Petrescu was a wheel and an Allied sympathizer." This orthopedic surgeon immediately removed his dangling leg and sutured the stump.

After a night's sleep, Palm received friendly visitors. Attending to him and sympathizing was a slender, pleasant lady. She explained, " I am Helen and this is the King." At her side was King Michael, Helen's son. John Palm recalled a news item that described King Michael operating a tank during army maneuvers. An animated conversation followed involving airplanes, motorcycles, cars and such - all this in the English language! Eventually, Queen Helen took advantage of a semi-private moment to whisper to Lt. Palm, "You know we are not free to speak. Do the Americans understand that our sympathies are with you?" Looking up from his hospital bed, John Palm winked at the Queen with a confident smile, fulfilling with flair the function of America's de facto ambassador to the Courts of Romania.

Meantime, at the bidding of the Queen, Dr. Petrescu moved patient Palm to a private room where her highness could visit incognito without courtier interlopers snooping about. She was the wife of Carol II, the Romanian King who had previously put her away - his true wife - in favor of the intriguing, infamous Magda Lupescu, eventually causing Carol to abdicate in favor of Helen's and his son, Michael.

When Tidal Wave survivors were finally rounded up and out of various hospitals, they were assembled in Timisul in a prisoner-of-war camp in the Transylvanian Alps, that is, all prisoners except John Palm, who was free to go his own way in Bucharest on his peg leg, mostly at the beckoning of Queen Helen. He soon became a conduit of news from the outer world to those 108 downed airmen behind barbed wire in Timisul.

The Queen of Hearts

As mentioned above, a second crashed B-24 has our special attention. Coming off bombing Red Target, one of the "Eight Balls" of the 44th Bomb Group piloted by 1st Lt. Robert O'Reilly, was trailing smoke and in big trouble. The huge plane crashed and skidded on its nose on a dry riverbed on the thousand-acre estate of Queen Caterina Caradja, of the House of Cantacuzene. Her Highness held royal ancestry reaching back ten centuries to the Byzantine era. In fact, Queen Caterina was King Michael's wife and thus she was Queen of Romania in 1943 at the age of fifty.

Like her mother, Queen Caterina kept busy operating orphanages and foster homes for 3,000 unfortunate children in war-torn Bucharest. By nature she had more compassion for others than concern for herself.

Queen Caterina was energetic, active, blue-eyed, fair-skinned and attractive. Her father had placed her in a private British boarding school when she was but three where she remained until sixteen. This explains her fluency in English language, history, and traditions. Royal bloodlines to Queen Victoria had something to do with this grooming arrangement.

That Sunday she was in conversation with a Polish countess whom she had rescued from the Nazis during the invasion of 1939. Suddenly O'Reilly's bomber crashed nearby. Queen Caterina jumped into her 1939 Plymouth automobile and raced to the scene, thinking like all the others that this was a Russian airplane. Eight of the crew had survived and escaped to a nearby thicket, but two bodies were trapped in the nose of the plane. The gathering of people assumed that they both were dead, but a child said, "I saw one of the Russians move."

Immediately Queen Caterina's bold nature and compassion took control of the situation. Under her direction the wounded body of 2nd Lt. Richard Britt, the navigator, was extracted from the wreckage with great difficulty. The ruptured wing tanks of fuel had leaked down to the nose section and drenched Britt and his clothing causing blisters the size of pancakes over much of his torso. Queen Caterina had noticed that the nickname of the plane was Shoot, Fritz, You're Faded and so she asked Britt, "Boy, are you an American?" and then heard his reply, "Yes, Ma'am."

Two German soldiers proceeded to drag Britt away, but Queen Caterina, true to her boldness, said, "No you're not! He's our prisoner." Somehow her authority prevailed as she dragged Britt into her Plymouth along with a car full of her orphans and she had her chauffeur drive them to a regional clinic for Britt's treatment.

Plane pilot O'Reilly and the rest of his Shoot, Fritz survivors had witnessed this episode from their nearby concealment. In time they were apprehended by Romanian citizens who were holding them to turn them over to the Nazi authorities. When Queen Caterina got word of this she found them in a cellar, saying, "Boys, there are only friends here. Now come up and let us help you." They emerged and help they got! Villagers brought peaches, pitchers of milk, cheese, apples, fresh bread, and sugar. At this, O'Reilly questioned, "Why all this when we were just dropping bombs here?" The Angel's reply was, "My boy, we Romanians never hit a man when he is down, and besides, we like Americans very much. Your chaps used to work here in the refineries." For the moment, our Angel was able to prevail against the local Nazi authorities.

Meantime, Richard Britt's burns required medical attention. Queen Caterina watched every step, insisting on full care. His skin was peeled off like wallpaper and replaced by medicated jelly. In effect Britt became a mummy. It took about a month for new skin to form and for him to be able to move around. Queen Caterina visited him regularly and carried on conversations that explained both his and her circumstances and they became good friends.

A Year in the Cooler

All this time the prisoner population at Timisul kept building. Soon the officers were separated from the enlisted men so that they were never together. In a year the original 108 grew to 1,274 rambunctious souls clamoring to get out.

John Palm's wooden leg and his Bucharest ladies of influence gave him opportunities to move around, meet people, and gather news of the war which he brought into Timisul to prisoners who listened avidly. One day Palm brought along John Cune, a high ranking recent POW who told of Boeing B-29 Superfortresses, aviation advances, the invasion of Italy, and the news that all Tidal Wave personnel had been awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses in absentia.

Now in August of 1944, the Russian tanks were moving into the region and the Germans were moving out. Timisul was up for grabs. Queen Caterina was up against big problems in caring for her 3000 orphans in the transition.

A Tail Gunner's Tale

The appetites of the Allied strategists to shorten the war by blasting Ploesti were as strong as ever. The determination of the anti-aircraft batteries around the Ploesti complex was strengthened all the more.

When in mid-year 1944 the Allies had pushed their way half way up the Italian boot, a U.S. Army Air Base was set up at Foggia, which is near the boot spur on the Adriatic Sea. From here the flying time to Ploesti and back was two hours less than the run from Africa. This new 15th Air Force airfield was home for squadrons of Boeing B-17 long-range, high-altitude, four-engine bombers and it was not long before another Ploesti air raid was scheduled. Instead of low-altitude tactics as were carried out from Benghazi, this mission adhered to traditional USAAF emphasis on high-altitude, "pinpoint" practices.

Howard Schuch was a tail gunner on one of those bombers on a Ploesti run out of Foggia in mid April, 1944. The flak was so severe that all systems went dead. Howard and all the crew were forced to bail out and parachute from on high.

After the Germans were entirely gone from Bucharest, the POWs were moved to what had been a girls' school and conditions improved. Howard Schuch writes that one day they were visited by King Michael and Queen Caterina, who gave them candy and pastry. The royal couple did their best to care for the POW's both before and after the Germans left by responding to pleas for better food and bathing facilities. There was a plague of body lice and bed bugs.

Exit Twenty by Twenty

Col. James Gunn became another POW during the last Ploesti air raid just before the retreat of the Germans from the area. He saw that the wounded needed treatment and recognized the plight of all 1,274 of the prisoners. Only two weeks after his capture and as the highest-ranking POW, he took off in an Italian fighter plane and headed for Foggia to arrange for an airlift out of Romania, but was forced to return, not having adequate range.

It so happened that the Queen Caterina had a nephew (Constantin Cantacuzene) who was an ace Romanian fighter pilot who had his own ME-109. At the departure of the Germans and the Russian advance, Constantin made himself available to easing the plight of the POWs at the urging of his Aunt Caterina. He offered to fly Col. Dunn in his fighter plane if they could modify it to accommodate a passenger. This was improvised by removing radio equipment and stuffing the Colonel head first into the fighter plane with his boots sticking out in the slipstream. With a map in his lap and a briefing from Col. Dunn, they took off to fly to Foggia while fervently praying that they would not be intercepted by Allied fighters or shot down by Allied flak. Their only precaution was to hand paint a crude American flag on the underside of the wing and hope for the best.

Flying under radar detection, they miraculously reached Foggia USAAB. Constantin cut the engine, jumped out of the plane, raised his arms, and shouted the only English words he knew, "Pull those boots!" Fortunately he was not shot on the spot and Dunn was dragged from his aerial coffin after his 550-mile confinement.

Meantime, the King and Queen proceeded to arrange for a suitable airfield for such an airlift. The 15th Air Force brass lost no time in setting up the operation. Popsetti Airport was selected as the turn-around landing site. A string of busses were commandeered to transport the POWs twenty by twenty. In Foggia, some B-17s were stripped of bombing gear and machine guns and modified to accommodate twenty men, be they sitting or on stretchers. Radio co-ordination was established and the wheels began to turn. It was the last day of August, 1944 and the first day of freedom for 1,274 liberated fliers.

The injured came out first. The POW officers, true to their code, were the last to be flown out. Twenty by twenty, plane by plane, the evacuation process and the turn-around flights were carried out with precision. With P-47, P-38, and P-51 fighters as escorts, those dogfighters could not contain their jubilation as they turned Popsetti airport skies into an acrobatic circus.

Caught in Limbo

As expertly carried out as the evacuation shuttle was, all-military management was now caught flatfooted. Normally, prisoners of war are liberated at the end of hostilities or in accordance with armistice terms. This World War was far from decided in any theater, on any front, now in September 1944. The brass in Washington were not ready with systematic reassignments. These 1,274 service men were oddities, even unique, being the first and only ones of their kind in all of World War II.

In time, everything got sorted out and they all had separate assignments. Richard Britt, the navigator rescued by Queen Caterina, now with his body burns healed, found himself in Houston at Ellington Field as a navigation instructor until the war mercifully drew to a close. Houston was where he lived and worked, also where he found a wife and raised two daughters. The Queen and Romania drifted into his remote memories.

Fast forward to 1955. Britt got a phone call from New York asking if he were a prisoner of war in Romania in 1944, a question that led to his appearance on "The Today Show" with Dave Garroway. When the show was being televised live, at a certain point, Richard Britt was absolutely astonished to meet the Queen when she appeared after eleven long years! Their embrace revealed everything - that they knew, remembered, and immediately recognized each other. As the program continued, the Queen's noble bearing and self-assurance came through as before.

During their three days in New York as guests of NBC's "Today Show" and their flight back to Houston, Richard and Queen Caterina had a chance to get reacquainted. She would relate the cruelty and oppression Romania suffered under Communist Russia's occupation. She and Michael were held hostage as mere puppets. Michael fled to Switzerland and after eight years of oppression Queen Caterina was obliged to smuggle herself out of the Iron Curtain on a Danube river barge, abandoning her estate and family property. Her greatest regret was to acquiesce at the inevitable Soviet indoctrination of her 3000 orphans. Once out of Soviet control it took her three years to arrange documentation for immigration to the United States. Now in 1955, she had made it at last.

At the same time, Richard attempted to bring the Queen up to date concerning his affairs. He married Dorothy in Houston, completed his college degree at the University of Texas on the G.I. Bill. Now he was employed in the lumber business. By now Dorothy and he were proud parents of two young daughters. The contrast was dramatic between Queen Caterina's suffering under Communist property confiscation and usurped authority in Eastern Europe compared to Richard's comfortable adjustment in the land of opportunity. Their circumstances were now completely reversed compared to 1944.

Yet some things never change. Queen Caterina brought with her out of Europe her instinct of compassion. Instead of her dedication to her orphans in Bucharest, she now had a passion to make contact with "her Boys." the battered, broken, lice-ridden prisoners she cared for and had managed to set free.

After leaving Richard in Houston, the Queen, now aged 62, began her travels across America in search of her various POWs, crossing the northern tier of the country in the summer season and across the South in the winter.

On a Sunday in August 1973, the telephone rang in the home of Howard Schuch in Cheviot (a suburb of Cincinnati). The caller asked in a demanding tone, "Howard, why didn't you attend the Ex-POW Reunion in Dayton this past weekend? This is Queen Catherine Caradja from Romania and we expected you to attend since you live nearby." Howard was so stunned he could hardly respond. Recovering after he finally realized who was calling, "I didn't know you were in America. I didn't know about the reunion. I would be there had I known." It turned out that by this time, eighteen years after coming to America, the Queen had compiled a roster and helped form the Organization of the Former Prisoners of War in Romania. In fact, Roy Meyer, the Bombardier on Howard's B-17 bomber was the Secretary-Treasurer of the group.

Howard dropped everything and drove over to the other side of Cincinnati to meet the Queen again after almost thirty years. He had seen her only once in Romania when Michael and she visited the POWs in August 1944, but when she opened the door their embrace was as if they were all in the family. What a sudden development! Now at age 80, Catherine (now called that instead of Caterina) was just as lively and enthused as a teenager.

The next reunion was scheduled at Louisville in 1974. Howard not only met Catherine again, but was delighted to find his Hustlin' Gal crew mates, Roy (bombardier), Alex (radio operator), and Jordan (flight engineer) after thirty years! It was 1944 all over again among comrades, but after a full generation, these reunions were now populated by wives and family members.

Every place she went, continually through 1992, after 38 years of travel and reunions in America, the Queen earned and received love and respect. She died on May 26, 1993, at the age of 100 years, 3 months, and 28 days. *

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