OMAHA, Neb, OMAHA, Neb –
Forensic anthropologists at Offutt Air Force Base have identified the remains of a missing World War II pilot who earned the Medal of Honor for his role in a spectacular 1943 raid on German oil refineries in Ploesti, Romania.
DNA samples from relatives of Lt. Col. Addison Baker matched bones buried for decades at a U.S. military cemetery in Belgium, in a grave marked “unknown,” the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced recently.
Lt. Col. Addison Baker, 36, died in the famous "Black Sunday" raid on the Ploesti oil refinery complex Aug. 1, 1943.
Baker, 36, of Akron, Ohio, piloted Hell’s Wench, the lead aircraft in a wave of 32 B-24D Liberators from the 93rd Bomb Group that flew at treetop level to attack the oil complex known as “Hitler’s Gas Station” — deep in enemy-held territory.
One hundred seventy-eight of the twin-tailed B-24 Liberators took off from a rustic desert airstrip near Benghazi, Libya, early on the morning of Aug. 1, 1943. Fifty-four crashed, were shot down, or failed to return, 22 of them near Ploesti.
Of the 1,763 airmen who took off, 310 were killed, and 190 were taken prisoner.
Historians called the raid “Black Sunday.” A survivor described it as being “dragged through the mouth of Hell,” according to Ploesti historian Duane Schultz.
Eighty crewmen could not be identified, even after the war. Baker was the most senior, and the most decorated, among the unknowns — until the Armed Forces DNA Lab in Dover, Delaware, confirmed his identity April 8.
“My heart flipped over. I was sort of stunned,” said George Baker, 82, of Cary, North Carolina, whose father was Addison Baker’s first cousin. “Here’s this one of many brave airmen, who happened to be my relative. They’re finally being properly identified.”
Since 2017, the accounting agency has been exhuming 88 graves marked “unknown” that are associated with the Ploesti raid from the Ardennes and Henri-Chapelle American cemeteries in Belgium.
Caskets have now been disinterred from all but two of the graves and shipped to the accounting agency’s Offutt laboratory, said Megan Ingvoldstad, the forensic anthropologist in charge of the Ploesti project. The two remaining caskets are expected to arrive sometime this summer.
She and her team have individually catalogued more than 6,000 bones and bone fragments.
“It’s kind of like a giant jigsaw puzzle,” she said. “If I want to create an individual, I have to do a lot of assembly first.”
Their work has been aided by CoRA (short for Commingled Remains Analytics), a computer program developed by students from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. CoRA analyzes the characteristics of individual bones and groups those that are mostly likely to belong to the same person.
It can sometimes be hard to extract DNA from bones as old as these, but Ingvoldstad said the Ploesti remains have yielded useful DNA samples. And DPAA has received family reference samples from relatives of all but five missing Ploesti airmen.
Addison Baker was the 17th identified so far, she said. Ten more have been tentatively ID’d, pending final approvals and family notifications.
The DPAA anthropologists often know little or nothing about the people they are tasked with identifying. But Ingvoldstad said she recently read Schultz’s 2007 Ploesti book “Into the Fire” and knew about Addison Baker’s prominent and heroic role.
“Most of the time, we’re working in the blind,” Ingvoldstad said. “When we have a personal element — putting a face to a name — that’s been really interesting.”
Addison Baker was born in Chicago in 1907 and moved to Akron, Ohio, as a youth when his father took a job with the BFGoodrich tire company. He joined the Army in 1929 and earned his pilot’s wings two years later.
Baker served in the Ohio National Guard during the 1930s while operating a filling station in Detroit. He enjoyed racing Model T Fords.
“He loved speed,” George Baker said. “My dad said he had a very adventurous spirit.”
Baker was called to active duty in November 1940 and trained as a B-24D Liberator pilot. He was assigned to the 93rd Bomb Group, where he served as a squadron commander, then as the group’s operations officer.
That’s how he came to be in the pilot’s seat of Hell’s Wench, alongside Maj. John Jerstad, leading the wave of 93rd Liberators who called themselves the “Flying Circus.”
They were trailing another wave from the 376th Bomb Group, led by Col. Keith Compton — who a quarter of a century later would cap his career at Offutt, as vice chief of staff for the Strategic Air Command.
But Compton made a fateful navigational error as the Liberators approached Ploesti, turning toward the target 20 miles too soon. Because of enforced radio silence, no one could tell him of the mistake.
Baker followed for a few minutes. But seeing smoke of the already burning oil complex off to his left, he veered toward the fire.
The improvised route saved the attack but took the Flying Circus into a thicket of German anti-aircraft guns in the most heavily defended quadrant of the Ploesti complex.
Dodging intense enemy fire and a gauntlet of barrage balloons, Baker and Jerstad aimed for the nearest refinery, Columbia Aquila. Bullets pierced their wing tanks, setting the plane on fire. A huge shell shattered the Plexiglas nose cone, killing the bombardier.
Other pilots motioned for Baker to ditch in the farm fields and save his crew.
But before the mission, Baker had briefed his men: “I’m going to take you to this one even if my plane falls apart.”
He did just that. Baker and Jerstad continued their beeline for the refinery.
Moments after clearing the Columbia Aquila’s twin smokestacks, the bomber climbed to 300 feet as crew members leaped from the blazing fuselage. Then the right wing collapsed, and Hell’s Wench plummeted into a railyard.
It narrowly missed hitting another bomber called Queenie, piloted by Lt. Col. George Brown. Brown later became a four-star general and served in the mid-1970s as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“Flames hid everything in the cockpit,” Brown would say later, according to the website HomeofHeroes.com. “Baker went down after he flew his ship to pieces to get us over the target.”
For all the airmen lost, the raid had little impact on German oil production. Most of the Ploesti refineries were soon operating again.
Still, it was considered a qualified success, Christine Cohn, the chief historian for the Ploesti project, said in an article on DPAA’s website.
“The units completed the mission objective,” Cohn wrote. “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.”
Baker’s men were in awe of his heroism. His co-pilot was awarded the Medal of Honor — the nation’s highest award for valor — within weeks.
But Baker’s award was held up for months, according to HomeofHeroes.com, while higher-ups debated whether he should be disqualified because of his decision to break formation and bomb a target of opportunity instead of following Compton on his mistaken route.
Finally, on March 11, 1944, Baker’s widow, Fran, was presented with the honor. The Medal of Honor citation praised his “extraordinary flying skill, gallant leadership, and intrepidity.”
Romanian civilians gathered the broken remains of the men who died in the crash for burial in a local cemetery. They collected dog tags and turned them over to the International Red Cross so the men could be accounted for — a move that nevertheless complicated efforts to identify the bodies after the war.
Those still unidentified were reburied in Belgium, where they remained until 2017.
DNA technology now offers the hope that many of them may be returned to descendants who may know these long-lost airmen only from faded photos and family stories.
“It really brings a personal touch to know that these remains are being identified,” said Jim Root, president the 93rd Bomb Group Association. “We still hear new stories all the time.”
To view the Omaha World Herald story, visit https://omaha.com/news/state-and-regional/offutt-lab-ids-mia-medal-of-honor-recipient-from-1943-raid-on-hitlers-gas-station/article_43dafff8-ca71-11ec-a3a3-ab3103304836.html