Air Force honors pilot for World War II exploit
Walter T. Holmes was part of historic long-range bomber raid.
By John Andrew Prime
Just days shy of his 90th birthday, Texan Walter T. "Tom" Holmes Jr. again was a determined, carefree pilot Monday as he basked in the glory of his part in a historic battle of a bygone war.
"I am so happy to be back on Barksdale Field," he said to more than 100 people, many relatives and current and past peers in flight suits, there to see him presented the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest award for bravery in the attack on Nazi-controlled oil fields in Romania. "This is where I started."
Holmes was a B-24 pilot in Operation Tidal Wave, one of the U.S. Army Air Corps' most harrowing exploits. The raid Aug. 1, 1943, on Ploesti pioneered strategic bombing. In it, 179 of the big, four-engine bombers flew an 18-hour, 2,400-mile, treetop-level mission against the world's largest oil and gas refineries, which produced the bulk of the high-octane fuel for the Nazi military.
More than 50 of the bombers were shot down or ran out of fuel and crashed on the return leg of the mission; another 55 were too battle-damaged to fight again. More than 500 crew members were killed, wounded, taken prisoner or interned in neutral countries where they were forced to land their airplanes.
It was a costly mission. But as one of its planners, Gen. Lewis Brereton, a former Barksdale officer, said, even if every bomber was lost, "it would be worth it."
Holmes agreed of the importance of the raid but regrets the cost in comrades.
"We were very patriotic," he told the crowd in Patrick Hall, Barksdale's former officers club. "It's still hard we lost so many young men."
Maj. Gen. Floyd Carpenter, vice commander of 8th Air Force, presented the medal, which supersedes a Silver Star that Holmes was erroneously awarded in lieu of the more important honor he merited.
Carpenter, who flew an epic war mission of his own, firing missiles from a B-52 in anger against the forces of Saddam Hussein in September 1996, joked a little with Holmes.
"One of the first things you learn in the military is to never volunteer. And he did it not once, but twice."
Holmes volunteered to join the Army's flight service in early 1941, when war clouds were gathering around the world but before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, thrusting this nation into the conflict.
Holmes volunteered the second time, offering to go with 8th Air Force planes and crews from England to help out the 9th Air Force, which was in Libya preparing for attacks in the Mediterranean war theater.
Actually, Holmes, operations officer for his 44th Bomb Group which spent much of its formative time at Barksdale Field, didn't have to go on the Ploesti mission. But he volunteered a third time when he learned a crew that was ready to go lacked only a pilot. So he wound up in the command seat of the bomber named "Wing and a Prayer."
It also marked Holmes' 32nd and final mission at a time when the 25th mission normally was your ticket home. He was back in Texas for Christmas 1943.
"That's a heck of a finis flight," said one flier in the crowd, retired Brig. Gen. Peyton Cole, a former 2nd Bomb Wing commander, using the term for a flier's final mission. Cole also was glad Holmes' medal was upgraded by the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records after 66 years.
Holmes had about two dozen family members in the crowd, as well as many fellow congregants from his church in Jasper, Texas, but also a handful of fellow fliers from the Ploesti mission.
"There are several things that stand out about that mission," said George Temple, of Monroe, who was navigator on an airplane that flew off the right wing of Holmes' airplane as they flew at treetop level through withering anti-aircraft artillery fire to attack the Creditul Minier refinery.
"But I watched a plane go in and blow up that I had been transferred off of the night before. Another man ... ." His voice trailed off. "That sticks in your head."
The raid on Ploesti pronounced Plo-yesht remains one of World War II's greatest exploits, resulting in five Medals of Honor, the nation's highest award for bravery. Only two recipients lived: Col. John Riley "Killer" Kane, of the 98th Bomb Group, and Col. Leon Johnson, who led the 44th Bomb Group in which Holmes flew. At least one of the Medal of Honor recipients killed in the raid, Maj. John Jerstad, also served at Barksdale with the 98th and 93rd Bomb Groups in 1942.