Missing in action since 1 August 1943
Son of Leon D. Pemberton, 315 Devonia St., Harriman
Memorialized at Sicily-Rome American Cemetery, Nettuno, Italy
Aircraft B-24D, Serial number 42-40663, Nickname Maternity Ward, departed from Benina, Libya on a combat mission to Ploesti, Rumania.
Pilot, 1st Lt John Vernon Ward
Co-Pilot, F/O Andrew L. Anderson
Navigator, 2nd Lt Beverly S. Huntley
Bombardier, 2nd Lt Harry C. Crump Jr.
Engineer, T/Sgt James John Toth
Assistant Engineer, S/Sgt Kenneth L. Turner
Radio Operator, T/Sgt Leon D. Pemberton
Assistant Radio Operator, S/Sgt Harold W. Scott
Gunner, S/Sgt Robert Earl Long
Armorer Gunner, S/Sgt William J. Fay
Local Resident Dies In One Of The Most Daring Air Raids Of World War II, Operation “Tidal Wave” by Micheal W. Nance, Morgan County Today, 7 Feb 2017
Leon David Pemberton a resident of Lancing, Tennessee would, as a result of the United States entry into World War II, see more of the world than he ever imagined. His entry into the Army Air Corps would take him many places inside the United States and throughout the world. He must have been awestruck by some of his travels which took him to the ancient wonders of the world. He visited the Pyramids and the Sphinx in Egypt, and came into contact with different cultures that appeared alien to a young man from East Tennessee. Prior to deploying for a conflict, most soldiers experience a gambit of emotions and endure difficult circumstances.These emotions include the terrible feeling of being homesick and the fear of how he or she will perform in combat, as fellow soldiers deeply depend upon each other. Although this story ends in tragedy T/SGT Pemberton would prove that he was all any nation could ask for in a soldier.
Pemberton, like most military age men found themselves in military service after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It has often been said that Morgan, Scott and Fentress counties are literally cleaned out of military age men once a conflict begins. This has been the case both before and after World War II and the young Pemberton was no exception. Pemberton had been inducted into the Army Air Corps as a combat radio operator for a B-24D Liberator. The Army Air Corps was the forerunner of the United States Air Force which wouldn’t be created until 1947. Training to be a radio operator in a B-24D required the 10 man crew to train in various locations throughout the United States. Below is a letter he wrote home during that training:
Pueblo, Army Airbase Oct, 25,1942
Looks like hopes of coming home are useless as we are short of combat radio operators, so they picked the 7 that passed the examination to fill in on the combat crews to go across. Am not sure yet whether we will get furlough, but I think not. If we don’t get furlough that will mean we will go across soon.
Yes, I knew Lizza, I hated to hear about her dying. I have already written J.D. a letter to the other place he was at. They will probably forward it on to him.
In the letter above when David mentions J.D. he is referring to his uncle J.D. Pemberton who is also serving in the Army in a different location. The B-24 D Liberator that Pemberton flew on was produced by Consolidated San Diego and required a 10 man crew to conduct combat missions. The crew makeup consisted of a pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, navigator, radio operator, flight engineer, top turret gunner, rear gunner, and a left and right waist gunner. The B-24 D could carry 5000 pounds of bombs and was armed with the trusty Browning .50 caliber machine guns that are still used by our military forces today. Flying in a B-24 without being shot at could be harrowing enough, as the B-24 was much more prone to accidents than its predecessor the B-17. In 1943, 298 B-24 accidents occurred killing 850 Airmen of the Second Air Force. Pilots had reservations regarding ditching the B-24 in the water as well. The high wings of the aircraft combined underbelly made ditching in the water a high risk exercise under optimal conditions.
As 1943 arrived the allies sought to drain the German military of the necessities of war. One of the most attractive targets was the Oil Refinery at Ploesti which was located near Bucharest, Romania. It was thought that a successful attack on this refinery facility would cripple the German military and abbreviate the conflict in Europe as much as six months. Some military estimates proposed that the Germans were obtaining over half of their oil for military use from this complex. The refinery complex consisted of over 35 refiners and produced gasoline in an amount of 400,000 tons per year. The Germans had also realized the importance of Ploesti and encircled the complex with over 240 88mm anti-aircraft guns as well as having a complement of over 100 German fighter planes stationed around the city. It had been the policy of the United States Air Force during World War II to focus on high altitude bombing. High altitude bombing had its disadvantages, namely inaccurate bomb delivery and being spotted by German radar well before reaching the target. General Hap Arnold tasked Colonel Jacob E. Smart to plan an attack on the German held oil refinery at Ploesti. Colonel Smart, although widely respected, had no combat experience. He did, however, make certain that his planning staff included airmen with combat experience. Absent from the planning staff were any pilots who would actually be flying the mission . Other authors have speculated on the reason Smart sequestered the assigned pilots.[7.] I believe Smart realized how dangerous the mission really was and did not want to destroy the morale of the pilots prior to the mission.
Colonel Smart’s plan; “Operation Tidal wave” called for a low level bombing run on the refinery near Ploesti, Rumania the planes would be less than 200 feet off of the ground when they reached the target. This plan hoped to avoid German radar and provide accurate bomb delivery. The plan called for the Ninth and Eighth Air Forces to conduct the raid.
T/SGT Pemberton by February of 1943 had left the States and wrote the following letter home:
North Africa April 29, 1943
Sorry I haven’t written you sooner, but I have been awful busy the last month. Have been flying practically every day.
Since I have left the states I have seen quite a bit of the countries. I have visited Accra Africa, Cairo Egypt, Alexandria, Palestine, and Jerusalem while on passes. I visited the pyramids and sphinx. Along the Suez Canal there is lots of pretty scenery. The Egyptians appear to be uncivilized. They live in the streets, along river banks as very few have houses to live in.
I will be stationed permanently here for awhile. It is not bad, awful hot in the day time, dusty also. We are sleeping in tents, eating outdoors and our food is terrible, we do not have any cold water as there is no easy way to get ice over here. We do not have electricity, we burn candles for light at night. We have a Post Exchange, but all they have in it is shoe polish. They have cigarettes and tobacco, but it is English made I could really go for a good Lucky Strike now and a good pipe, some American tobacco for it, and a couple of boxes of candy.
How many of the bonds have you gotten since I left, and have you been getting the allotment I made? Tell Jean she would be in bad shape if she were over here as I haven’t seen a coca cola in a month, and if they did have them you would have to drink them hot! Where is J.D. now? Do you see Arminda pretty often? When was the last time Helen was home? Have you seen Nellie’s babies lately? How is mama and papa feeling? How are you feeling now, fine I hope? I must close now as I am awful busy, write soon.
Lots of Love
Colonel Smart’s plan had evidently leaked out among the airmen in the form of rumors. The small talk that was being circulated when the pilots arrived in Africa ran the gambit of emotions. Some rumors called the mission a certain suicide, while others indicated everyone would receive a silver star. The rumors did quantify the anxiety associated with low level bombing, and Pemberton suspected he would be present during operation “Tidal Wave”.
By the Morning of August 1, 1943 T/SGT Pemberton was on airbase near Benghazi, Libya. By all accounts the base was Spartan in its amenities, but was located within the the B-24’s roundtrip range to Ploesti. The flight path of Operation Tidal Wave called for the bombers to leave Benghazi, fly across the Mediterranean Island called Corfu, on through Albania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and finally to the target– the oil refinery near Ploesti. On the return trip the aircrews were to back track the same flight path for a grand total of 2,400 miles.
T/Sgt. Pemberton initially wasn’t assigned to the mission on the morning of August 1, 1943, but fate interceded and he was assigned at the last minute to the aircrew of the Maternity Ward, due to three of the crew members being ill. T/SGT Pemberton was one of three last minute assignments to the aircrew. The aircrew of the Maternity Ward on that fateful morning consisted of: Lt. John V. Ward, pilot; Lt. Andrew L. Anderson, co-pilot; Lt. Henry C. Crump, Jr., bombardier; Lt. Beverly S. Huntley, navigator; T/SGT Leon David Pemberton, radio operator; Staff Sgt. Kenneth L. Turner, gunner; Staff Sgt. Harold W. Scott, gunner, Staff Sgt. William J. Fay, waist gunner, Staff Sgt. Robert E. Long, tail gunner, and Sgt. James J. Toth, top gunner.
With the crew in place the Maternity Ward lifted off from Benghazi as a part of an 178 plane B-24 armada which consisted of the following: 28 planes of the 376th Bomb Group, 37 planes of the 93rd Bomb Group, 48 planes of the 98th Bomb Group (which included the Maternity Ward), 36 planes of the 44th Bomb Group, and 29 planes of the 389th Bomb Group. By 8 am all the planes had lifted off and massed into formations and began the seven hour journey to the target.
The Libyan desert had been a terrible place to conduct maintenance on the aircraft. Ten of the B-24’s had to return to North Africa due to various mechanical issues and at least one plane crash landed shortly after takeoff. The mission variables continued to go from bad to worse; unforeseen cloud formations broke the formations up, but bigger issues were also afoot. Unknown to the American forces the German military had compromised the United States military codes and had already been alerted that a large body of American aircraft had taken off from Benghazi. [7.] The efforts to avoid German radar had also failed. A radar station near Sofia, Yugoslavia had discovered the formation and had already passed the information along to German Forces near Ploesti. When the planes reached the target area anti-aircraft fire was so intense a number of planes deviated off course and dropped bombs on targets of opportunity. Also the Germans had moved up the dreaded Q-train. The Q-train was a train with collapsible boxcars, that when collapsed revealed anti-aircraft guns. As fate would have it the flight path to target ran parallel with where the Q-train was located. The Q-train hit several B-24’s before it was finally disabled by turret gunners. By the time the 98th Bomb Group and T/Sgt. Pemberton reached the target area black smoke and flames coming up from the ground literally enveloped the cockpit, the result of previous aircraft dropping bombs. The flames reached so high in the air that some B-24’s blew up from the fuel tanks catching fire. In all 300 men occupying 35 planes crashed or were shot down near Ploesti. The crew of the Maternity Ward survived dropping her bombs on the refinery, while having bombs of other aircraft blow up underneath her while she was only 100 feet off of the ground, the crew also survived countless attacks by German aircraft. By 3:00 pm the Maternity Ward had one engine out, full of bullet holes, but still airworthy she slowly turned course to head home.
The Maternity Ward finally made the coast and gained altitude out over the Mediterranean Sea, everyone was most likely relieved as it had been the past practice of German fighters to turn back when the coastline appeared. I can only imagine the atmosphere inside the plane, having survived the raid and clear water in front of them. Everyone on the crew must have entertained the thought of another mission in the win column. With North Africa as the destination, the Maternity Ward linked up with the B-24 Cornhusker a welcome companion for the flight home. Out of nowhere eight German fighters appeared consisting of; six FW-190s and two ME-109s. The fighters first pursued the Cornhusker acting as a pact of hungry wolves over wounded prey. The Cornhusker became the first victim hitting the water with two smoking engines. Now, the crew of the Maternity Ward was all alone. The fighters pursued the Maternity Ward without pause, wounding T/Sgt. Pemberton and Sgt. Long. The plane had also sustained damages; the hydraulic system was disabled, communication system disabled and the bomb bay gas tank was afire. T/Sgt. Pemberton had to be ordered not to go into the rear of the burning plane to help Sgt. Long. Lt. Anderson who gave Pemberton that order, knew all to well that this flight was coming to an end.
Everyone now considered abandoning the plane, but soon a terrible truth was discovered. T/Sgt. Pemberton’s parachute had been shot up and Sgt. Long also was unable to bail out. Lt. Ward and Lt. Anderson made the conscience decision to stay with the plane and attempt to land the crippled B-24D on the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, as they were unwilling to leave their comrades behind. After narrowly pulling the plane out of a dive and accomplishing a 600 feet per minute decent everyone braced for impact. T/Sgt. Pemberton had braced himself against the armor plate behind the pilots seat after opening the top hatch. When the plane hit the water the bomb bay burst into flames and the nose of the plane broke off. As the plane sank into the water tail first, Lt. Anderson from the pilots seat reached for Pemberton and discovered that the top turret had broken free and trapped him, he could not be saved. In the waters of the Mediterranean Sea and far from home, a young Pemberton succumbed to the water, he remains entombed in the Maternity Ward, a plane until this very morning he had not known. Ward and Anderson survived the crash only to spend fifteen harrowing days at sea where they eventually landed on an island and were captured by some American friendly Italian soldiers. Eventually, Anderson and Ward would spend two years as German POW’s in StalagLuft III, located in Sagan Germany. They were both liberated in 1945.
In closing; T/Sgt. Pemberton gave his life in operation Tidal Wave. He received the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross as a result of his actions.The raid on Ploesti was successful, although we greatly underestimated the Germans ability to repair the refinery. The Germans restored the refinery to almost pre-raid conditions in less than 90 days. The Allies never gave up on Ploesti, in less than a year they had effectively shut down the refinery through numerous air attacks. The Pemberton family was one of many families who lost someone and saw their lives turned upside down because of the war. The grandmother of David Pemberton received the below letter in July of 1944. Imagine how Miss Scott felt to have her hopes up to see her son Harold again, only to find out later he died on that fateful day in 1943.
Mrs. Pemberton received the below letter shortly after Christmas of 1943:
243 Park Avenue Allendale, N.J. Jan 5, 1944
Dear Mrs. Pemberton,
The War Department sent me a list today and I notice your son and mine were on the same bomber.
My son is still reported missing and I’m wondering if you have heard anything about yours. The day before Christmas I received a letter from one of my sons at an air base in England saying: “Now Mrs. Scott for a ray of sunshine , we hear here that Harold is a prisoner of war.” The Adjutant General, though, informs us his name, as yet does not appear on list of prisoners.
I’ll surely appreciate hearing from you now, Cordially,
(Mrs.) Estiel M. Scott