In the summer of 1943, it became apparent to the country’s top military strategists that in order for the United States to defeat Hitler and his German army, the oil refineries at Ploiesti, Romania must be destroyed in advance of the invasion of Italy following the withdrawal of the Italian government from the war and the taking over the ancient country by German forces.
Operation Tidal Wave was planned to destroy or severely cripple oil production by the Axis powers. One of the participants in the bold mission was Dublin’s Mack Fitzgerald. After Mack, a native of Fitzgerald, Georgia, received his training as a flight engineer and gunner aboard a B-24 Liberator bomber, he and his crew were deployed to Europe, from where they were deployed to Bengasi, Libya in North Africa, located some 1200 miles from Ploiesti, Romania and within the range of the bombers.
“The Liberators were to conduct low-level bombing practice runs over the Sahara Desert in preparation for attacks in the Italian/Romanian theater. Although designed for high altitude bombing, low level missions were critical for accuracy,” Fitzgerald recalled.
“Because of the nature of the planned mission, volunteers were asked to participate. All the airmen in the 98th Bomb Group volunteered for the mission except one. The men were told that if all the men were killed in their efforts to destroy the oil refineries and the destruction of the refineries was successful, the mission would still be considered a success. It was estimated that the destruction of the oil refineries would shorten the war by at least six months,” Fitzgerald remembered.
“The lead navigator's plane went down in the sea. This created many problems for the large number of aircraft that were expecting to be led to Ploesti by the lead navigator. Waves 1 and 2 got off course by making a wrong turn. Wave 3 more closely followed the plotted route arriving 1st at the destination instead of last as previously planned,” Fitzgerald recollected..
The bombs of the first wave had longer fuses to create one mass explosion with the bombs of all three waves detonating at one time.
“Wave 3 had to drop their bombs first. By the time the aircraft of waves 1 and 2 arrived at the refineries, they had to drop their bombs into an already exploding scene,” said Mack, who remembers seeing parts of the refineries up in the air higher than his airplane.
Mack's plane, hit by anti aircraft fire, lost 2 engines. Hubert Womble, the pilot, had no choice but to make an emergency landing in an open field. The pilot’s foot was amputated in the crash and the bombardier was left trapped in the plane. Those who escaped fanned out in pairs. Mack and his buddy, Sgt. Reid eventually turned themselves over to a Romanian farmer. Still suffering from shrapnel in his foot, Mack was taken to a Ploiesti hospital for badly needed care.
From the hospital, the men were taken to a makeshift prison near Timisul, Romania in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. One hundred and ten prisoners were confined in a small, cramped quarters.
Living off a diet of thin soup and crusted brown bread with occasional exercise, Mack and his fellow prisoners made it through one day at a time. Each and every escape attempt was unsuccessful. On some days, the men survived by the simple presence of a radio.
“Some time after, we began to get Red Cross food parcels with dried milk, candy bars, spam, soap and cigarettes,” Fitzgerald looked back as he also remembered wearing Romanian army clothes instead of the uniform he had on when his plane crashed. Life in prison was made somewhat normal by the camp commander, who allowed the men to attend church and write postcards home.
On the last day of August 1944, elements of the Russian army began to move into the Timisul area from the north. Prison guards came in to the barracks and told Mack and the prisoners that the war, for them at least for them, was over and the men were free to go.
Arrangements were made and B-24s began arriving in Romania to pick up the 110 Americans to fly them aboard Liberator bombers back to Italy after 13 months of imprisonment. Mack returned home to the states and back to duty.
Mack’s life turned dramatically when he was summoned to Atlanta to visit his father, who was undergoing surgery. While he was in the hospital, he met a beautiful student nurse, Deedy DeLoach. They fell in love and married soon thereafter.
After a short recuperation period, Mack was assigned to Cochran Field , an Army Air Corps training field south of Macon, Georgia. Shortly thereafter, Mack’s request for a transfer down the road to Warner Robins was granted. As the war was coming to a close in July 1945, Mack Fitzgerald was discharged from the Army Air Corps in July 1945. During his three and one half years of service in USAAF, Fitzgerald, received several medals, including, the Purple Heart, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal and the POW Medal.
After a series of odd jobs, Mack went to work back home in Fitzgerald with Sears, for whom he had worked in Macon before the war. And he was home, home!. Mack and his family moved to Tifton in 1968 and in 1972 to Dublin, where he retired in 1980 after 25 years of service.
The Raid on Ploiesti was deemed as a failure because of "no curtailment of overall product output" in oil production. The daring and difficult raid on Plioesti became one of the costliest for the American Air Force in Europe. At least 53 aircraft and 660 pilots and crewmen were lost. Considered the worst single day loss in the war, that day will be forever known as "Black Sunday".
But for Mack Fitzgerald, his family and friends and all of those people who have been blessed by his friendship and service to his community, that day is not the true story of Mack Fitzgerald.