Ralph Blakely was an Airplane and Engine Mechanic with 515th squadron.
While based at Benghazi-Berka #2, the Liberandos in the middle of July 1943 were preparing for the Great Mission August 1st to Ploesti's oil fields at low level, an extremely hazardous and dangerous mission. Low level flight with twenty-five ton heavy bombers is normally frowned on by the top Brass. But at the time, the lower the better. A fake mock up of Ploesti had been set up in the desert south of "Solouch", which was visited daily by the 376th Bomb Group with their 100 lb. practice bombs. One day the pilot (who flew our bomber often, #84 Chum VII) Capt. Jerry Dufour, who by the way was one of the group’s legendary pilots, invited his ground crew to go along. Jerry always loved company. After thinking this over, I (being a very cautious person) decided why not, why should those guys have all the fun. Well, we took off flying over Benghazi with its incredible damage to shipping in the harbor; then we made a high speed run down the coastal road at the unbelievable altitude of 10 feet. The road was jammed with British truck convoys moving west. Jerry actually blew the tarps off of several trucks. We flew deep into the desert which was littered with wrecked trucks, guns, planes, tanks, and all sorts of war equipment. We reached the target after an extremely low level run. The Captain tried to scrape the belly of the plane on the ground at 165 MPH. After skipping 100 lb practice bombs into the Ploesti mock-up made up of barrels and old gas cans and lime markers, we returned to Berka and a final high speed and low level run. Captain Dufour tried to blow Headquarters tents down with his prop wash, all very exciting and great good fun. But as we all remember, the actual mission was a terrifying thing and far from fun.
"When the Group moved from Endfidaville to San Pan, four of us ground crew members were assigned to change all four engines on plane #55. Sgts. Holden, Hunstall, myself, and Cpl. Gomham labored on these engines. We ran them up and everything checked out fine. You know, it is the practice to slow-time an airplane engine after a change is made. But this time, Engineering told us that we did not have time for any tests and ordered the maintenance men, the squadron dog, and barracks bags aboard, the bags going into the bomb-bay.
"We all got aboard and out to the stand comes an eighteen-year old pilot, who looked like he had never had his first shave. Our first thought was that he must be running out of pilots, and had this young lieutenant ever been checked out on a B-24? Also no radio operator, no navigator, no co-pilot and no crew showed up. A crew chief suddenly became a co-pilot.
"Well, we were off thundering down the runway and up and out over the Mediterranean. So we said, “This kid pilot must be pretty good". After about three hours flying time, we reached the coast of Sicily without any engine faltering. We went over Mt. Etna and to the north was a heavy accumulation of black clouds into which we flew. Suddenly thunder, lightning and heavy hail beat down on the plane. It was pitch black on the outside and lightning lit up the flight deck. With that, I could see all the white faces and wide-open eyes."
"Well, it turned out that we got mixed up and were lost for several hours. The young flyer was real good and finally got us to San Pan. It was sure a relief to see that flashing red beacon at the air field. The operations officer had us listed as missing and had notified Endfidaville, that no one knew what happened to the plane."We often wondered what happened to the kid pilot. Later, old #55 was shot down over Toulon, France. Hope he wasn't the pilot."