Ploesti always will be a symbol of surpassing valor in air warfare. More Medals of Honor–seven in all–were awarded for extraordinary heroism over that Romanian city than for great deeds performed at any other USAAF target of World War II.
The Ploesti area was said to be the third most heavily defended in the European theater, and for good reason. Oil fields and refineries in and around the city provided from one quarter to one third of the petroleum used by Hitler’s armed forces and industry.
The first large-scale (five B-24 groups) USAAF attack on Ploesti was on Aug. 1, 1943 [see “Valor: Into the Mouth of Hell,” September 1988 issue]. An estimated 40 percent of refining capacity was put out of service, but at a terrible cost of men and planes. USAAF was not able to follow up decisively because of other commitments, including support of the imminent invasion of Italy. Ploesti was soon back on line.
In the spring and summer of 1944, however, Fifteenth Air Force opened a sustained campaign against oil targets, including Ploesti, “the premier oil target of the continent.” Before the refineries around that city were shut down by bombing and the city captured by the Soviets, nearly 60,000 USAAF airmen had flown against those pinpoint targets, dropped some 13,000 tons of bombs, lost 350 heavy bombers, and left more than 1,000 airmen as POWs in Romania.
Fifteenth Air Force raids were considerably larger than the attack of August 1943. On June 23, 1944, in one of its major strikes, the Fifteenth sent 761 bombers to Romanian oil targets. In the nose of one 97th Bombardment Group B-17 was bombardier 2d Lt. David R. Kingsley, four days short of his 26th birthday. This was his 20th combat mission, but not his first to Ploesti, where the flak was intense, German fighter pilots tenacious, and targets usually obscured by smoke generators. It would be his job to put the B-17s bomb load on an oil storage facility at Giurgiu, about 70 miles south of Ploesti.
As the bomber stream approached the city, the 97th Group broke off and headed for Giurgiu, which, not unexpectedly, was shrouded by smoke. On the bomb run, Kingsley’s B-17 was knocked out of formation by flak hits, but was able to proceed alone to bomb its target. Unable to hold altitude, the damaged bomber fell behind its formation. The straggler was attacked viciously by three Me-109s, which further damaged the bomber and severely wounded the tail gunner. Kingsley was called to the radio compartment to administer first aid. He removed the wounded man’s damaged parachute harness and flight clothing, managed to check the bleeding, and did what he could to alleviate the gunner’s suffering.
Could the B-17, torn by flak and raked by the Me-109s’ 20-mm fire, make the 500-mile flight over Yugoslavia’s 8,000-foot mountains to its base at Amendola, Italy? That question was answered as eight Me-109s bored in on the faltering bomber, wounding the ball turret gunner. With the B-17 now barely controllable–and apparently about to break up, the pilot ordered his crew to prepare for bailout.
Kingsley immediately began helping the wounded crewmen into their parachute harnesses, but the tailgunner’s damaged harness could not be found in the welter of debris and blood-soaked clothing and blankets. Kingsley faced a fateful decision: Should he save himself by abandoning the wounded gunner, or give the man his chute harness at the cost of his own life? Kingsley chose the latter, fitting his harness to the injured man. Moments later, on the order to jump, Lieutenant Kingsley helped both wounded men to bail out through the open bomb bay. When last seen by surviving crew members, Kingsley was standing alone by the bomb bay catwalk, awaiting the inevitable end. His body was later found in the plane’s wreckage.
For the gallant sacrifice of his life to save another, 2d Lt. David Kingsley was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.
In four wars, 58 men of the US Air Force and its predecessors have earned the Medal of Honor. Their acts of phenomenal bravery generally have been done to complete a mission or to save others in exceptionally hazardous combat circumstances. It is doubtful that any paused to consider the odds, but in the great majority of cases there was a chance, however remote, of survival. Kingsley made a conscious, irreversible, and total commitment that June day in 1944. His Medal of Honor, it would seem, was a rather special award of the nation’s highest decoration for valor.
Published August 1990. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.