Ernest Frank Baron, known as Frank, was born on Sunday, June 26th, 1921 in Pocatello, Idaho. Frank’s 26-year-old father, Ernest Eugene, worked for Ryan’s Produce company in Pocatello and was originally from Boston, Massachusetts. Frank’s 24-year-old mother, Blanche Stoker, was a homemaker who was taking care of Frank and his two older sisters, Ruth and Edna.
Details about Frank’s early life are scarce. He lived in Pocatello until sometime before 1930, when his mother took him and moved to Ogden, Utah. In the 1930 Census, it lists them as living at 321 24th Street in Ogden. In the late 1930s, Frank was joined in Ogden by his sister, Edna, who had married and lived on Eccles Avenue. In 1940, Frank’s mother married Eugene Thurston, and the lived in a nice home located at 1920 Grant Avenue.
Frank grew up to a be fine image of a man. He was 5’10”, a solid 175 pounds, with brown hair and grey eyes. He graduated from Ogden High school and worked as the chef at Ross & Jack Cafe, a nice eatery located at 364 25th Street. There is no doubt that Frank was kept busy cooking, as Ogden was the railroad “Junction City”. Everybody who traveled from the east coast to the west coast by train, stopped in Ogden. Thousands of people every day, spent their time waiting for their next train on Ogden’s famous, and infamous, 25th Street.
Like millions of patriotic Americans, in the shadow of December 7th, who wanted to do their part for our country’s defense, Frank registered for military service in February 1942. He was inducted in September 1942 into the United States Army Air Force, with the service number of 39832837. Frank was sent to Shepperd Field Texas for his basic training and then onto Harlingen Army Gunnery school, where he graduated and received the silver wings of an air crewman. Initially Frank was stationed at Salt Lake Air Base and then on to Davis Monthan field in Tucson, Arizona. At some point he met up with his crew and trained with them on the B-24 Liberator, a massive bomber that held a crew of 10 and was slated to be used for strategic bombing in both the Pacific and European theaters of war. Frank continued his training with his crew at Alamogordo and Clovis, New Mexico before being sent overseas in the late spring of 1943. Frank was heading east, to fight the Nazis, but he was able to take a furlough and go back to Ogden in May 1943, to see his mother, before heading onto England.
Frank was assigned to the 329th Bomber Squadron (BS), 93rd Bomber Group (BG) Heavy, 8th US Air Force, which at the time was based out of Hardwick, England. The 329th BS also flew missions to the European continent, bombing strategic targets in places in continental Europe that supported the German war effort.
The 329th’s Squadron symbol, made into a patch that the aircrews wore on their leather flight jackets, was a stylized cartoon of a squirrel dressed in full-flight regalia. The squirrel had a leather flight cap, with goggles, a flight jacket and a long white scarf that seemed to be flowing in the wind. The squirrel was sitting on top of a red bomb, in in a circle with a blue background. It was a whimsical and innocent symbol that contrasted greatly with the death and destruction its members experienced on almost a day to day basis.
Frank was assigned to a B-24D Liberator that the crew named the “Lady Jane”, after the pilot’s wife: Jane Wehrle Meehan. The Lady Jane had the tail number 42-40804 and was not made complete until a scantily clad woman, sitting on one leg with the other leg dangling down, was painted on the side of the B24’s nose. Next to the painted beauty was the name, “Lady Jane”, done in an art deco type font. Frank was assigned as a gunner on the Lady Jane and his fellow crewmen, the guys that he flew with and battled many dangers in the sky with, was:
Ralph W Egle - Co-Pilot
Anthony L Galasso- Radio Operator
Carl T Israel- Bombardier
Vernie F Johnson- Engineer/Top Turret Gunner
Leonard J Kramp-Gunner
William E Meehan Jr.- Pilot
George H Parker- Tail Gunner
Pharis E Weekley- Navigator
Laurence “Larry” A Yates- Gunner
Operation Tidal Wave
The generals in charge of strategic planning decided to attack the resources most essential, yet most vulnerable, to the German’s ability to wage war. The resource they looked at was oil, and the synthetic production of oil. At that time, Germany received about one-third of its oil resources from their Axis ally, Romania. The Romanian oil fields, and production facilities in and around the city of Ploesti, supplied vast amount of oil resources that kept the German juggernaut fighting in the war. The U.S. Army Air Force Strategic Command designed a plan to bomb these facilities and named it “Operation Tidal Wave”.
The plan called for the 9th US Air Force, based out of North Africa, to attack the oil refinery facilities dotted around Ploesti. The effort would take many air groups, over 170 bombers, which the 9th did not have at the time. The 8th Air Force, based in England, would send three bomb groups to the 9th: the 44th BG, 389th BG and Frank’s 93rd BG. These groups were on a temporary assignment for the mission to Ploesti only.
Frank’s Lady Jane landed at the hot dusty airfield in Benghazi, Libya, along with the rest of his squadron in July of 1943. They commenced training by flying at extremely low altitudes and the bombing accuracy at such a low altitude. The plan to bomb at very low altitudes, which was envisioned in the planning by Colonel Jacob E. Smart. In a research report titled: “1 AUGUST 1943 – TODAY’S TARGET IS PLOESTI: A DEPARTURE FROM DOCTRINE” by Robert J. Modrovsky, Lieutenant Colonel, USAF, it describes the low-level strategy:
“Colonel Smart’s solution was to have the B-24s conduct their mission at low altitude - meaning “at tree top level”. He reasoned that the advantages would be that: (1) it would permit the greatest possible selective targeting and the most accurate bombing; (2) it would reduce civilian casualties; (3) it would give enemy antiaircraft gunners only a fleeting shot at the B-24s; (4) it would allow the B-24 gunners a chance to fire back at ground units; (5) it would deprive enemy fighters of half their normal sphere of attack; (6) it would bring the B-24s under the lowest level reached by German radar; (7) it would give the B-24s their best chance of surviving a crash landing; and (8) it would be contrary to the American doctrine of high-altitude bombing, and thus come as a complete surprise to the Germans.”
Therefore, during the training, Frank and all the gunners on the B-24s would practice shooting at ground target while they were flying at more than 200 miles per-hour. Another element of the plan, to achieve the element of surprise, was keeping strict radio silence by the aircraft. The air crews practiced the low altitude flying and bombing without the use of the radio, relying on visual signals.
In the early morning hours of Sunday, August 1st, 1943, the desert air around the airfield at Benghazi filled with the sound of many four engine bombers starting up. Frank was in the Lady Jane, he must have had a nervousness that was mixed with excitement of flying one of the longest combat missions ever flown to date. I can imagine the "butterflies in the stomach" feeling that must have been in a widespread epidemic with the flight crews of the B-24s. Frank would have checked and rechecked his Browning .50 cal. machine guns, and ensured that the ammo was full and where it was supposed to be for an easy reload. The Lady Jane begrudgingly rose off the airfield, leaving a plum of dust in its wake, and struggled to get to altitude with the large load of fuel and bombs weighing it down. The Lady Jane joined the other B-24s in the 329th BS, and then the other groups that made up the 93rd BG. The groups all headed toward the Mediterranean Sea, on the first track towards their target. In total 179 B-24s, carrying 1,790 men, made up the entire force that was to bomb Ploesti. On the flight to Ploesti, 15 bombers aborted the mission for various mechanical reasons, and returned to base. That left 164 B-24s for the bombing mission.
Lady Jane’s crew was assigned to a section known as “Section Group C”, which was a 13-plane flight of B-24s assigned to hit the target White III, the Unirea Sperantza/Standard Petrol Block refinery. Four of the thirteen planes assigned to Group C aborted the mission on the way to the target. That left nine B-24s in Group C to finish the mission. Lady Jane’s pilot, Lt. Meehan, had his hands full flying the B-24 in the assigned position of tail end Charlie, the last bomber in his formation. The Lady Jane flew over the Mediterranean, skirted Greece and entered Albania and then into Romania. The best way to relate what Frank, and the crew of Lady Jane, experienced next, is related by a veteran who was there. In EyeWitnesstohistory.com’s article, “Bombing Raid on Ploesti, 1943” Captain Phillip Ardery describes the bombing attack:
“Captain Phillip Ardery was a squadron leader during the attack. We join his story as his B-24 approaches the target and he observed the action from the co-pilot's seat:
We were very close behind the second flight of three ships. As their bombs were dropping, we were on our run in. There in the center of the target was the big boiler house, just as in the pictures we had seen. As the first ships approached the target, we could see them flying through a mass of ground fire. It was mostly coming from ground-placed 20 mm. automatic weapons, and it was as thick as hail. The first ships dropped their bombs squarely on the boiler house and immediately a series of explosions took place. They weren't the explosions of thousand-pound bombs, but of boilers blowing up and fires of split-open fire banks touching off the volatile gases of the cracking plant. Bits of the roof of the house blew up, lifting to a level above the height of the chimneys, and the flames leaped high after the debris. The second three ships went over coming in from the left and dropped partly on the boiler house and partly on the cracking plant beyond. More explosions and higher flames. Already the fires were leaping higher than the level of our approach. We had gauged ourselves to clear the tallest chimney in the plant by a few feet. Now there was a mass of flame and black smoke reaching much higher, and there were intermittent explosions lighting up the black pall.
Phifer, the bombardier, said over the interphone, 'Those damn bombs are going off. They ain't supposed to do that.'
'That ain't the bombs,' I answered, ..that's the gas they're cookin' with.'
We found ourselves at that moment running a gauntlet of tracers and cannon fire of all types that made me despair of ever covering those last few hundred yards to the point where we could let the bombs go. The antiaircraft defenses were literally throwing up a curtain of steel. From the target grew the column of Flames, smoke, and explosions, and we were headed straight into it. Suddenly Sergeant WeIls, our small, childlike radio operator who was in the waist compartment for the moment with a camera, called out, 'Lieutenant Hughes's ship is leaking gas. He's been hit hard in his left-wing fuel section.'
I had noticed it just about that moment. I was tired of looking out the front at those German guns firing at us. I looked out to the right for a moment and saw a sheet of raw gasoline trailing Pete's left wing. He stuck right in formation with us. He must have known he was hard hit because the gas was coming out in such volume that it blinded the waist gunners in his ship from our view. Poor Petel, (a) fine religious, conscientious boy with a young wife waiting for him back in Texas. He was holding his ship in formation to drop his bombs on the target, knowing if he didn't pull up he would have to fly through a solid room of fire with a tremendous stream of gasoline gushing from his ship. I flicked the switch intermittently to fire the remote-control, fixed fifty caliber machine guns specially installed for my use. I watched my tracers dig the ground. Poor Pete. How I wished he'd pull up a few hundred feet and drop from a higher altitude.
As we were going into the furnace, I said a quick prayer. During those moments I didn't think that I could possibly come out alive, and I knew Pete couldn't. Bombs were away. Everything was black for a few seconds. We must have cleared the chimneys by inches. We must have, for we kept flying - and as we passed over the boiler house another explosion kicked our tail high and our nose down. Fowble pulled back on the wheel and the Lib leveled out, almost clipping the tops off houses. We were through the impenetrable wall, but what of Pete? I looked out right. Still he was there in close formation, but he was on fire all around his left wing where it joined the fuselage.
I could feel tears come into my eyes and my throat clog up. Then I saw Pete pull up and out of formation. His bombs were laid squarely on the target along with ours. With his mission accomplished, he was making a valiant attempt to kill his excess speed and set the ship down in a little river valley south of the town before the whole business blew up. He was going about 210 miles per hour and had to slow up to about 110 to get the ship down. He was gliding without power, as it seemed, slowing up and pulling off to the right in the direction of a moderately flat valley: Pete was fighting now to save himself and his men. He was too low for any of them to jump and there was not time for the airplane to climb to a sufficient altitude to permit a chute to open. The lives of the crew were in their pilot's hands, and he gave it everything he had.
Wells, in our waist gun compartment, was taking pictures of the gruesome spectacle. Slowly the ship on our right lost speed and began to settle in a glide that looked like it might come to a reasonably good crash-landing. But flames were spreading furiously all over the left side of the ship. I could see it plainly, as it was on my side. Now it would touch down-but just before it did, the left wing came off. The flames had been too much and had literally burnt the wing off. The heavy ship cartwheeled, and a great shower of flame and smoke appeared just ahead of the point where last we had seen a bomber. Pete had given his life, and the lives of his crew, to carry out his assigned task. To the very end he gave the battle every ounce he had.”
In the Lady Jane, Frank and his crew were battling in every direction, they must have sustained heavy damage and crewmen were likely killed or wounded at their positions in the B-24. The Lady Jane reached its target and dropped its bombs. A crewman on another aircraft witnessed what happened to the Lady Jane next and described it as, “This aircraft (the Lady Jane) crashed and burst into the flames from an altitude of 300 feet.” Another report states that the Lady Jane, “Crashed near Ploestiori, (near a) village north of (the) Concordia-Vega refineries.”
As it was described in Captain Phillip Ardery’s account of the battle in the air over Ploesti, I am sure that everyone aboard the Lady Jane gave every ounce they had to the very end. In the twisted wreckage that was once Lady Jane, nine crewmen had perished, including Ernest Frank Baron. One crewman, Gunner Lawrence “Larry” A. Yates, had somehow survived the crash and was taken prisoner. The August 1st, 1943 bombing mission to Ploesti was forever known as “Black Sunday” by those fortunate few who survived it.
The Romanians, although their country was allied with Germany, did not agree with the alliance. They gave the dead aircrews, from the Ploesti Raid, a respectful burial in the prominent “Hero Section of Bolovan Cemetery”. Frank was initially buried there and on May 8th, 1948, he was returned to Utah.
In the months after the bombing mission to Ploesti, Frank’s mother Blanche, would have received a Western Union telegram informing her that Frank was listed as missing in action since August 1st, 1943. Then several months later, she received word that the Romanian Government had reported, through the International Red Cross, that Frank had been killed in action on the mission to Ploesti.
On January 5th, 1944, at a ceremony held at Hill Field Air Base, Frank’s mother was given the Distinguished Flying Cross, awarded to Frank posthumously, for his actions during the bombing over Ploesti. Frank’s citation for the award read:
“S/Sgt. Baron’s heroic and meritorious actions during the bombing operations over famed Ploesti, Rumanians oil refineries, in the face of fierce axis anti-aircraft and fighter plane resistance.”
Frank’s stepfather Thurston, and his sister Edna, were in attendance. The Distinguished Flying Cross was added to the Purple Heart that was awarded to Frank, in recognition of the injuries he received by hostile action that ended his life.
On Wednesday, May 25th, 1949, a memorial service was conducted at the Ogden City Cemetery. Bishop Thomas L. Checketts presided over the ceremony, with the family and friends of Ernest Frank Baron in attendance. Frank was remembered, honored, and grieved on that spring day before he was placed in his final resting place.
Frank’s mother, Blanche, filled out the application for Frank’s headstone on the day that he was laid to rest. She requested a simple, flat granite, marker with the inscription:
“ERNEST F. BARON
S SGT 329 AAF Bomb SQ
JUNE 26, 1921 AUG. 1, 1943
WORLD WAR II”
General George S. Patton is quoted as saying: "It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.”
I thank God that we had people like Frank, who willingly and enthusiastically entered the service of our country. I am not sure that Frank understood at the time, that what he was doing was in service of the millions of Americans yet to be born, but it was. All Americans benefit today from what Frank, and his generation, gave us in their service and sacrifice. At the time of this writing, August 1st, 2020, it is the 77th anniversary of the Ploesti bombing raid and Frank’s death. I will remember him, and all the others, and be grateful for what they gave me and the price they paid for it.
Story by Troy Burnett- 08/01/2020
http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/pfploesti.html "Bombing Raid on Ploesti, 1943," Eyewitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2008). Details on Operation Tidal Wave and the Ploesti Raid
https://www.ww2online.org/view/ben-kuroki#segment-6 Veteran interview with info on the Ploesti raid on Aug 1st 1943
https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a395189.pdf 1 AUGUST 1943 – TODAY’S TARGET IS PLOESTI: A DEPARTURE FROM DOCTRINE” by Robert J. Modrovsky, Lieutenant Colonel, USAF
https://media.defense.gov/2016/May/18/2001540805/-1/-1/0/AFD-160518-001-011.PDF Information about SSG Larry Yates Jr.’s experience after surviving the crash of the Lady Jane.
https://www.fold3.com/page/638232071-ralph-w-egle/photos Photo of route taken by the Lady Jane
http://www.americanairmuseum.com/person/214743 information in the Lady Jane’s crash
https://www.fold3.com/image/38291510 Witness information in the Lady Jane’s crash
https://www.fold3.com/image/677270631 Lt. Meehan’s obit detailing the naming of the Lady Jane
https://www.warhistoryonline.com/instant-articles/black-sunday-ploesti-raid.html Map of route taken by the bombers
https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/over-cauldron-ploesti-american-air-war-romania “Hero Section of Bolovan Cemetery”.