The last plane back

The Memorial Day story of a local World War II hero

Kenton McFarland (circled) on the cover of Life; one week later, he would embark on one of World War II’s most dangerous missions.

Kenton McFarland (circled) on the cover of Life; one week later, he would embark on one of World War II’s most dangerous missions.

Kenton McFarland pointed to a medal, one of nine mounted in a frame, and said, “I got that for flying that airplane back safely and saving the crew and myself—but I was thinking about saving my own ass.” The medal is the Distinguished Service Cross, second in rank only to the Medal of Honor. McFarland earned the medal during World War II for heroism at the Ploesti bombing raid in Romania. Of 178 planes that went out on the mission, only 89 returned; McFarland’s was the last plane back.

McFarland graduated from Sacramento’s Grant High School in 1938 and was attending college in San Jose when he heard the news of the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. By January 1942, he had joined the Army Air Corps. After training to fly B-24 four-engine bombers, he was assigned to Col. Edward “Ted” Timberlake’s 93rd Bombardment Group stationed in England. The bombing group earned the nickname “Ted’s Traveling Circus” because of three major deployments outside of England.

One deployment was to Benghazi in North Africa, where flight crews practiced low-level bombing. Wooden dummy bombs were dropped between chalk lines drawn on the desert floor to represent industrial buildings and oil tanks. Telephone poles were set up to represent factory smokestacks. The bombing practice was for “Operation Tidal Wave” a daring plan to destroy the Ploesti oil refineries 1,000 miles away in Romania. The bombing raid was one of the largest ever attempted up to that time.

The city of Ploesti was ringed with oil refineries and storage facilities that supplied Adolf Hitler’s military with three-fifths of its crude-oil requirements and one-third of its fuel needs. At that point in the war, the Germans thought an attack at Ploesti was unlikely. The eastern front was deep in Russia, and the western front was at the English Channel. American and allied forces recently had captured North Africa, but the Americans were now bogged down fighting in Sicily. The Germans doubted that the Americans would gamble on striking a target like Ploesti, so deep in enemy territory. However, they were not taking any chances; the Germans had more than 200 fighter planes stationed in the area, along with about 200 big anti-aircraft guns and hundreds of barrage balloons.

The success of the mission depended on the element of surprise. The plan was to fly 178 bombers from North Africa in radio silence across the Mediterranean Sea and over a mountain range and then drop down under enemy radar for low-level bombing that would destroy the oil refineries without destroying the city of Ploesti. It was estimated that the destruction of the Ploesti refineries would shorten the war by six months. Mission planner Brig. Gen. Uzal Ent confided in other officers that “if nobody comes back, the results will be worth the cost.” By the time of the Ploesti raid, McFarland was a veteran pilot who had flown more than 30 missions in France, Germany and Italy, so the Ploesti mission was slated to be his last—one way or another.

The bombers began taking off from multiple fields in North Africa at 5 a.m. on Sunday, August 1, 1943. McFarland’s plane, named the “Liberty Lad,” was among the last to leave. Bad luck plagued the mission from the beginning. One plane tried to return to the airfield immediately after takeoff but crashed while attempting to land. Several more planes were forced to return while crossing the Mediterranean because of mechanical problems. One plane spiraled down into the sea. A nearby plane flew low over the floating wreckage to check for survivors but found none. The plane could not regain enough altitude with its heavy load of bombs and fuel, so it aborted the mission and returned to North Africa. Lack of radio communication and patches of heavy clouds caused the nearly six-mile-long formation of bombers to become even more spread out. When the planes passed the Greek island of Corfu, German troops spotted them and alerted potential targets to the north.

After crossing the Mediterranean and a 9,000-foot-high mountain range, the bombers flew low and fast across the Romanian plains. McFarland flew so low over the countryside that he had to lift a wing to clear a tree. The bombers used three towns as navigation points to direct them to their target. The lead plane missed a navigation point and turned the formation toward Bucharest rather than Ploesti. After seeing the skyline of Bucharest on the horizon and realizing their mistake, radio silence was broken to put the formation on a new heading toward Ploesti. At the same time, German headquarters in Bucharest alerted Ploesti that American bombers were on the way. German fighter planes were scrambled, and artillery was swung into position. Oil fires were ignited to fill the sky with smoke, and barrage balloons tethered with steel cables were sent up to snare the planes’ wings.

Kenton McFarland and his “Liberty Lad” circa 1943.

Just before reaching Ploesti, McFarland flew over the rooftops of a small village. He said, “I remember looking up at a church steeple, and there was a clock. Our time over target was supposed to be 12 noon, and I looked up at the clock, and it said 12 o’clock.”

McFarland’s group had five elements of bombers, and each element flew 100 feet higher than the one in front of it as they approached the target area. German 88 mm artillery shells detonating above them forced all the planes to fly at the same low level. McFarland said, “I was leading the last element. The prop wash was just unbelievable, and they were shooting at us with 20 mm guns on both sides of us, and my plane was hit. It was really hell. It really was. I saw a lot of planes go down. I saw our group commander get shot down. A guy hit a balloon barrage, and he went right up that balloon-barrage cable, and it caught on the tail and just snapped the tail off, and he went down.”

McFarland steered the plane between barrage-balloon cables and pulled up to clear a smokestack by only a few feet. His plane was hit with 20 mm cannon fire, the radio operator was wounded, and the radio was damaged. The left vertical stabilizer was hit and bent at a diagonal angle. McFarland dropped the plane’s load of bombs and gained some altitude to view the destruction. “We got away from the target, and we didn’t see any other airplanes,” he said. “We thought everybody had been shot down.” McFarland spotted a river and dropped down to follow it upstream, flying his plane just above the river’s surface, while enemy fire rained down from the hills above. At a bend in the river, he flew up and over a hill and was finally free of enemy fire.

Once over the hill, the crew saw some other surviving American planes, and they got into a defensive formation just before some German fighter planes arrived. The Germans shot down several more planes. Some of the enemy fighters crashed into the ground as they dove to attack the low-flying American bombers. McFarland said, “We were flying so low, they wouldn’t be able to pull out of a dive.” After about 15 minutes, the fighters broke off the attack and headed back to their bases because they were running out of fuel. Some of the American planes that survived the bombing raid and the fighter attack were so damaged they were unable to gain altitude and were forced to crash-land; the surviving crewmembers were taken prisoner. While crossing back over the mountains, two bombers collided inside a cloudbank, and McFarland watched as the pieces of wreckage fell out of the clouds.

Over Greece, just before McFarland’s plane started out across the open sea to return to North Africa, a crewmember discovered that the fuel line in one wing was damaged. That meant that the transfer of fuel from the bomb-bay fuel tank to the wing tank would be impossible, and soon the two engines on the right wing would die. McFarland considered his options: The crew could bail out over enemy territory, or he could attempt to fly his damaged plane across the Mediterranean. He decided to try to make it across.

First one engine and then the second one on the right wing died. The plane slowed and pulled strongly to one side, and both McFarland and the co-pilot held their feet hard on the left rudder to keep the plane flying straight ahead. The Liberty Lad dropped out of formation, and the other bombers flew on ahead. His plane quickly began dropping from its 10,000-foot altitude, and McFarland ordered his crew to lighten the plane by tossing out equipment. Machine guns, ammunition and nearly everything weighing more than a pound was thrown out. The strategy worked, and the plane leveled out at 5,000 feet.

Meanwhile, the wounded radio operator was bandaged and went to work repairing the radio. He managed to receive a transmission from Benghazi, and now they had a heading to follow back to their home base. Strong headwinds and extra drag from the dead engines and the bent vertical stabilizer caused the plane to consume more fuel than anticipated. As darkness fell, and fuel was running low, the coastline of North Africa finally came into view. McFarland chose to land at a different field than the one he had taken off from more than 14 hours earlier. The secondary airfield had a hospital for his wounded radio operator, and the Liberty Lad needed the airfield’s 6,000-foot-long runway—the hydraulic system had been shot, so the plane had no brakes.

The ground crew lit up the airfield with floodlights. And as McFarland made his final approach, the engines sputtered out; the fuel tanks were empty. He brought the gliding bomber down from 2,000 feet, and at 120 miles per hour, the plane hit the runway. Fire trucks and an ambulance raced alongside the plane for a mile until it finally rolled to a stop—it was the last plane back from Ploesti.

McFarland never flew another combat mission. The radio operator recovered from his wounds, and the Liberty Lad was repaired and went back into service. Exactly half of the 178 bombers made it back, and 58 of those were damaged. Three hundred Americans died in the Ploesti raid, 140 were captured, and 440 were wounded. About half of Ploesti’s refining capacity was destroyed, and, despite the heavy losses, the mission was considered a success.

McFarland retired from the service after 22 years. He raised two daughters and lived with his wife in Roseville. Last year, he attended a reunion of the veterans of the Ploesti raid. Earlier this month, on May 4, Kenton McFarland died of leukemia at the age of 83.