Major John L. “Jack” Jerstad could have just gone home to Racine, Wisconsin 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 BG 8th AF 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. Jerstad also volunteered to fly the low level mission, and in a quirk of fate wound up in the cockpit as co-pilot of the lead 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, 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 (co-pilot) and his boss, group commander Lt. Col. Addison Baker (pilot), noticed that Ploesti – the target — was still to the north. They broke off from the larger composite wing and pointed their B-24, nicknamed “Hell’s Wench,” toward the target, taking the rest of the planes of the 93rd BG with them.
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.
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.
“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.” (Duane Schultz “Into The Fire: Ploesti, the Most Fateful Mission of World War II”)
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 slewed 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.
Article Courtesy of Mighty 8th Museum archives
MEDAL OF HONOR CITATION
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty. On 1 August 1943, he served as pilot of the lead aircraft in his group in a daring low-level attack against enemy oil refineries and installations at Ploesti, Romania. Although he had completed more than his share of missions and was no longer connected with this group, so high was his conception of duty that he volunteered to lead the formation in the correct belief that his participation would contribute materially to success in this attack. Maj. Jerstad led the formation into attack with full realization of the extreme hazards involved and despite withering fire from heavy and light antiaircraft guns. Three miles from the target his airplane was hit, badly damaged, and set on fire. Ignoring the fact that he was flying over a field suitable for a forced landing, he kept on the course. After the bombs of his aircraft were released on the target, the fire in his ship became so intense as to make further progress impossible and he crashed into the target area. By his voluntary acceptance of a mission he knew was extremely hazardous, and his assumption of an intrepid course of action at the risk of life over and above the call of duty, Maj. Jerstad set an example of heroism which will be an inspiration to the U.S. Armed Forces.