World War II was raging across the world in the summer of 1943. In Europe, the Allies were looking for ways to disrupt the German war machine. Oil was integral to that machine, and the German-controlled oil fields in Romania were chosen as a prime target. Thus, the Allies began to plan one of the first large-scale bombing operations in the European Theater, Operation TIDAL WAVE.
The targets were the oil refineries around Ploesti, Romania. The plan was to launch multiple large waves of B-24 Liberator bombers on Aug. 1 from bases in northern Africa, fly across the Mediterranean, and cripple the German military by taking out the refineries. There was a lot of planning, and a lot of practice in the desert around Benghazi, Libya. However, a plan rarely survives contact with the enemy.
“The mission didn’t go quite as planned, which significantly impacted the number of lives that were lost,” said Christine Cohn, a historian from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) who has spearheaded the agency research on Operation TIDAL WAVE.
A whole wave of bombers got confused and off-course causing them to approach the targets from the wrong direction at the wrong time. Plus, the Germans somehow learned of the attack ahead of time, so they were prepared before the first wave showed up, filling the air with anti-aircraft fire and setting off massive smoke bombs to obscure visibility.
“It was difficult for the later waves to fly through this inferno with almost zero visibility,” said Cohn.
Many of the B-24s were damaged during their bombing runs and several of them crashed in Ploesti and the surrounding countryside. Overall, however, the bombers did achieve their goal.
“It was deemed a success because the units completed the mission objective,” said Cohn. “They bombed their targets and many did return safely. Yes, they lost a lot of men. Yes, they lost a lot of aircraft. But they learned much from the mission.”
Unfortunately, Operation TIDAL WAVE didn’t have the effect the Allies were hoping for. Many of the refineries were back up and running within days or weeks. It caused a hiccup in German oil production, but not the major impact the Allies wanted.
Recovering Those Lost
Not all those Airmen whose aircraft were shot down were killed. There were some who were captured by the Germans or Romanians and taken to POW camps after receiving medical treatment. In total, 225 men were killed in Romania during Operation TIDAL WAVE.
The German military probably recovered most of the bodies from crashes inside the tight ring around the refineries they directly controlled, but Romanian citizens collected the bodies from the many crashes outside of that ring. Most of the Airmen were buried in Bolovan Cemetery there in Ploesti, though some were buried in smaller cemeteries in villages outside the city limits.
After the war, the American Graves Registration Command (AGRC) began recovering and accounting for these men. American teams disinterred the remains at Bolovan Cemetery and those they could find in the villages’ cemeteries. By 1951, 80 men were still unaccounted for from Operation TIDAL WAVE, but AGRC had 89 sets of unidentified remains thought to be from that mission. Most of these were buried as Unknowns at what is now Ardennes American Cemetery and Memorial in Belgium, though some were buried at Henri-Chappelle American Cemetery and Memorial, also in Belgium.
“Based on my research, it appears that the Romanian citizens were as careful as they could be with the American remains in the recovery and burial process, and that the American identification staff worked carefully and thoroughly during the efforts to identify whom they could,” said Cohn. “I was impressed with the amount of time and commitment that was provided to these particular sets of remains that still are unidentified.”
DPAA Accounting Efforts
In 2017, the first two caskets of remains believed to be from Operation TIDAL WAVE were disinterred and sent to DPAA’s laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. The Ploesti Project was born.
DPAA’s scientists weren’t sure what kind of condition the remains would be in, so these first two caskets were test cases to see if DNA could be extracted and Ploesti remains identified. Partnering with the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System’s DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL), DNA was able to be extracted.
The success with DNA extraction triggered 13 more disinterments in 2018, and then the bulk of the remaining Ploesti remains were disinterred between the summer of 2019 and fall of 2020. Most of the Ploesti remains are now in the DPAA Offutt lab.
While the test cases and disinterments were happening, there was also a push by the Army Casualty Office to collect family DNA reference samples (FRS).
“The FRS collection process was happening all along, with the earliest requests for FRS submitted in 2014,” said Dr. Mark Russell, DPAA European Mediterranean Chief of Research.
David Bass’s uncle, Tech. Sgt. Alfred Turgeon, is one of the nine Ploesti airmen accounted for so far.
“My aunt, Joan Mackie, was Fred’s closest living direct relative and was contacted by phone sometime in 2016 or early 2017 regarding providing a DNA sample for possible future use in ID’ing Alfred’s remains,” said Bass. “Joan and her son Phil both provided DNA samples via the Individual DNA Kit sent to them in 2017. I provided a DNA sample while attending the Family Member Update in Louisville, Kentucky, on May 19, 2018.”
FRS collection for the Ploesti Project has been very successful.
“We have 94 percent FRS coverage for this project, which is very high,” said Dr. Megan Ingvoldstad, Ploesti Project lead at DPAA’s Offutt lab.
Despite the success obtaining FRS, the Ploesti Project is not free of issues.
“There are multiple challenges,” Ingvoldstad said. “The lab has received 86 caskets, which have all been completely inventoried with specimens sent to AFDIL for DNA testing and analysis. Out of those, approximately 10 appear to represent one person. The rest are commingled. For example, one casket has been shown to contain at least 8 different DNA sequences.”
“Additionally, due to the nature of high-speed aircraft crashes, all of the remains, in addition to being commingled among individuals, are also fragmentary. That fragmentation adds an additional layer to the puzzle of reconstructing these service members.”
It also doesn’t help that most of the remains are biologically very similar.
“Another challenge has to do with biological profiles,” said Ingvoldstad. “All of the unaccounted-for service members from Operation TIDAL WAVE are young white males, so their living statures, chest radiographs, and dental work are all playing important roles in individuation.”
Record-keeping advances are helping to mitigate some of these challenges.
“This is the first DPAA commingled project where the entire inventorying process is completely paperless,” said Ingvoldstad. “A program called ‘CoRA’ has been developed through a partnership between DPAA anthropologists and the University of Nebraska Omaha. It makes the inventorying and DNA nomination processes much more efficient and easy to track.”
Another issue is the possibility that not all of the remains are from the unaccounted-for.
“Due to fragmentation, it’s very possible that partial remains of service members who were identified after the war by AGRC are represented here,” said Ingvoldstad. “We need to discover the remains that can be attributed to past identifications and the remains of the 80 Airmen that we’re still trying to account for.”
It’s also likely that not all who are missing will be identified from the remains currently in the lab.
“I think it’s possible that there will still be men missing once we finish processing all the remains,” said Cohn. “DPAA is developing next steps in the event that not all missing Airmen are identified from the Unknown remains”
However, Bass encourages families not to lose hope on their loved one being accounted for.
“Keep the Faith!” he said. “The DPAA is doing amazing work. Attend the Family Briefings. Get to know other Gold Star Families, especially those sharing a similar branch of service, mission, story, place or detachment as your loved one. Stay in touch with your Case Manager. Lobby your state and federal representatives to support the [Department of Defense] funding of the DPAA and their mission. Become an advocate for our missing service members. Keep up to date on the DPAA web site and Facebook page. Engage generations of your family to know your missing service member.”
DPAA has also produced a video about Operation TIDAL WAVE that can be seen here.