Wednesday, March 28, 2012


My next book has just been contracted with Regnery in Washington, D.C. To my knowledge it’s the first full-length account of the 15th U.S. Army Air Force in World War II: “The Forgotten Fifteenth.”

Absolutely everybody who knows anything about WW II aviation knows of “The Mighty Eighth” that flew from England from 1942 to 1945. But other than the Red Tails of the 332nd Fighter Group, hardly anyone walking down the street can name any of the other 28 bomber, fighter, or recon groups of the 15th, which conducted the southern half of the Allied Combined Bomber Offensive. Between November 1943 and May 1945 the 15th flew from bases around Foggia, Italy, with a lasting effect on the course of the war. That reason was summarized in one word: oil.

Hitler’s Balkan petroleum sources lay in Romania, far beyond the reach of UK-based bombers. Therefore, the 15th was handed the major task of turning off the oil flow that fueled about one-third of the Wehrmacht. The importance of the mission—and the cost—already had been demonstrated in a spectacular low-level attack against Ploesti in August 1943, two months before the 15th stood up. Of 177 B-24s on the mission, 54 were lost or interned when they landed with battle damage in Turkey.

However, because the 15th operated in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations, it was largely overlooked in favor of the 8th. The reasons were varied: geographical, institutional, and promotional. Veterans of “the forgotten air force” will tell you that war correspondents much preferred sipping single-malt scotch in London hotels to chugging vino under canvas in not-so-sunny Italy, where (contrary to expectations) the weather was worse than in Britain.

Despite the dearth of PR, the 15th produced many outstanding airmen. The first commanding general was Jimmy Doolittle, who learned the trade of a strategic air commander in Italy before being called to England in January 1944. He was succeeded by Nathan Twining, later chief of staff of the independent U.S. Air Force from 1953 to 1957.

At the cockpit level, the 15th had two posthumous Medal of Honor recipients: B-17 bombardier David Kingsley who gave his parachute harness to a wounded gunner, and B-24 pilot Donald Puckett who remained with his doomed plane rather than abandon some crew members. Both died on missions against Romania in 1944.

Fighter pilots included top guns Captain John Voll (21 victories) and Major Herschel Green (18) as well as 21-year-old Mustang pilot Bob Goebel who almost certainly defeated the world’s top ace, Major Erich Hartmann. Then there was Colonel “Curly” Edwinson whose P-38 group tangled with some unidentified fighters over Yugoslavia with losses on both sides. The strangers were Yaks, and the Soviets were cranky about losing a general in the Lightnings’ strafing attack.

Two special-operations squadrons flew clandestine missions in and out of Occupied Europe, sometimes from bases carved from the land behind enemy lines. Those operations remain almost unknown to the public, even to many students of aviation history.

An unappreciated aspect of 15th Air Force operations is the variety of opponents it faced. Apart from the Luftwaffe, Twining’s enemies included air arms of Fascist Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. In fact, due to MTO geography, the 15th not only fought more Axis nations than the 8th and 9th, but crossed more borders as well. In addition to the nations noted above, the 15th also flew in France, Austria, Albania, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia, and Russia.

In contrast to the 8th, the 15th only attacked Berlin once—the longest mission Twining ever launched, in late March 1945. But the 15th lost 311 aircraft flying against Vienna--more than anywhere else, including the notorious Ploesti oil complex in Romania, with about 235. Munich ranked third with 101 losses, followed by the Weiner-Neustadt complex near Vienna. Another dreaded target was Blechhammer, the synthetic fuel center in present-day Poland. Bomber crews knew the place as “Black Hammer,” with good reason. It tied with Regensburg as the fifth most dangerous name on the 15th’s target list.

When Romania capitulated in August 1944, Ploesti was producing a fraction of the fuel it had previously delivered to the Wehrmacht. The 15th’s persistent oil campaign, conducted between April and August, made a significant contribution to the Allied war effort. At year end, when Hitler’s panzers ran out of fuel during the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, the fliers who turned off the Balkan spigot were partly responsible.

By V-E Day the 15th had lost some 2,500 aircraft including more than 1,800 bombers. Its seven fighter groups claimed nearly 1,800 enemy aircraft shot down while producing 75 aces. The 15th’s mastery of southern European skies was such that it only lost 26 bombers to enemy aircraft in the last seven months of hostilities.

Even less known than the 15th is the MTO’s tactical air force, the 12th—counterpart to the 9th Air Force in Britain. The 12th flew fighters and medium bombers, mainly P-47s, B-25s and B-26s, supporting U.S. ground forces in Italy and Southern France, and also provided troop carrier groups for airborne operations. The 12th deserves a book of its own, and I hope that a qualified author will take a long look at that subject.

Meanwhile, I’d welcome contact with any veterans of the 15th Air Force—which should not be forgotten.