Jerstad’s was one of five Medals of Honor earned that day over Ploesti, the most Medals of Honor ever conferred in a single military operation, all but two of them posthumously.
Maj. John Jerstad could have just gone home to Racine and nobody would have faulted him. After all, he’d already earned rapid promotion in the U.S. Army Air Corps, a chest full of medals for bravery — including the Distinguished Flying Cross — and finished far more than his required 25 bombing missions; so many, indeed, that he’d lost count himself. He’d more than earned his ticket back to the states. He had conducted many of the missions in an aircraft nicknamed “Jerk’s Natural”; “Jerk” was a reference to his own name, Jack Jerstad, and “Natural” referred to the fact the plane’s serial numbers added to 7 and 11, a “natural” in dice games.
Instead, Jack Jerstad signed on as operations officer for the 93rd Bombardment Group to help plan one of the most dangerous and controversial bombing missions of World War II, the Aug. 1, 1943, raid on Hitler’s main gas station, the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania.
Planning would have been plenty for an operations officer, but Jerstad also volunteered to fly the mission, and in a quirk of fate wound up in the cockpit of the lead Liberator bomber that pointed the way for the entire 9th Air Force composite wing to blast the Ploesti oil installations with 500-pound bombs dropped from tree-top level.
The Ploesti raid was a long shot from the start. The 178, four-engine B-24 bombers, known as Liberators with their 1,750 crewmen, were expected to fly 1,200 miles from Benghazi in the North African desert, across the Mediterranean Sea into the heart of Nazi-occupied Europe. At the last minute, they got lost, taking a wrong turn at the beginning of the bomb run, heading toward Bucharest instead of Ploesti.
That’s when Jerstad and his boss, group commander Lt. Col. Addison Baker, noticed that Ploesti – the target — was still to the north. They broke off from the larger composite wing and pointed their Liberator bomber, nicknamed “Hell’s Wench,” toward the target, taking the rest of the planes of the 93rd group with them.
Technically, they were disobeying orders, breaking formation, but they actually were leading their group, at least, toward the real target. The remaining bombers of the main attack force finally realized they’d made a mistake, turning back toward Ploesti and following Baker and Jerstad’s lead into the actual target zone.
The B-24 was designed as a high-altitude bomber, but for this mission, pilots were ordered to drop to the deck, flying their bomb runs so close to the ground to avoid radar that they tore off rooftops, clipped trees and, in several instances, nearly digging furrows in farm fields with their wingtips.
The bombers were hard to manage at such low altitude, so it took two pilots to control one; in the case of “Hell’s Wench,” both Jerstad and Baker had to manhandle the rudder pedals and the wheel-stick in order to fly the plane.
Due to faulty intelligence, they didn’t know they were flying into one of the best-protected targets in Europe, a gauntlet of anti-aircraft batteries, ME109 fighters, even small arms fire that registered deadly effectiveness against such low-flying aircraft. The Americans were flying so low that some of the German flak towers were actually firing down on the bombers as they passed by.
For the enemy, it was a turkey shoot. One American later compared it to Tennyson’s poem, Charge of the Light Brigade. (“Cannon to right of them, cannon to left of them, cannon in front of them, … into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell, rode the six hundred.”)
American losses were staggering: 54 planes, along with 500 airmen, dead, wounded, captured or missing, the result of the low-level approach and a largely uncoordinated attack, despite months of planning.
As it turned out, Jerstad, Baker and the crew of Hell’s Wench were in the lead, guiding the rest of the bombers to the target; thus they also were among the first casualties.
“Hell’s Wench” sliced into a barrage balloon cable, crippling one wing, then took a direct hit from a German 88 in her plexiglas nose cone, along with probably dozens of other small- and large-caliber rounds. The cockpit was a mass of flame, but Baker and Jerstad kept flying toward the target anyway.
Historian Duane Schultz describes the final three minutes of Hell’s Wench’s existence, in his book, “Into The Fire: Ploesti, the Most Fateful Mission of World War II”:
“The two men held the plane on course even after they jettisoned the bombs. There was no need to go on the target then, except to lead the formation there. And for that, they somehow kept Hell’s Wench going.”
But it wasn’t over. In a last ditch attempt to save the crew …
“… Baker and Jerstad pulled their plane up in a climb to 300 feet. At that point, a few men – variously reported as three or four – jumped out, their bodies afire, flames spreading out in the wind. The plane slued over its right wing and plummeted to the ground, missing a bomber in the second element by a mere six feet.”
Everyone aboard “Hell’s Wench” died that day.
Both Baker and Jerstad were awarded the Medal of Honor: Jerstad for volunteering for a mission he didn’t have to fly; both, for taking the crippled “Hell’s Wench” into the maelstrom rather than trying for a crash landing in an available open field; and, finally, for climbing out of their dive to 300 feet, in their vain attempt to give other crew members a chance to bail out.
The Ploesti raid was such a near thing it might not have come off at all had Baker and Jerstad not independently decided to swing Hell’s Wench toward the target to initiate the attack. But it did come off, thanks to their bravery and initiative, thus reducing Ploesti’s oil refining capacity by 40 percent, at least for a few weeks.
The raid was supposed to have shaved six months off the length of the war, but it didn’t. In the end, it barely made a dent in Hitler’s war-making capacity. Ploesti was repaired, back up and running, fueling the panzers on the Eastern and Western fronts.
Jack Jerstad never made it home to Racine, and the air corps never again tried a major hedgehopping bombing raid like Ploesti.
It just cost too much.