As the formation of 178 B-24 bombers lifted over the Mediterranean Sea and headed for Romania, U.S. military officials envisioned a decisive blow over the Axis powers in World War II.
But a series of mistakes doomed the mission. Only 34 planes ever made it back to the base in Libya. The raid was a failure.
Still, even in failure, heroics shine through.
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That failed mission in 1943 known as the Ploesti Raid is the backbone of a new historical novel by Indianapolis author Paul Hagan. “Heading One-Two-Seven” weaves a story about the men sacrificing everything for the greater good of their country and helps reveal a forgotten contribution to the Allied victory during the war.
Hagan will be appearing from 1 p.m. Saturday at Wild Geese Book Shop in downtown Franklin.
“That’s the kind of sacrifice we need to be aware of,” he said. “We should care. We don’t have too many of (the men who were there) left. When they’re all gone, the story is all gone, too.”
The Ploesti Raid, known in military circles as Operation Tidal Wave, took place on Aug. 1, 1943. U.S. bombers departed from Northern Africa intent on crippling the Nazis. The idea was to knock out their ability to produce fuel, as Ploesti, Romania, was an area ripe with oil refineries.
Destroy it, and the Axis powers couldn’t sufficiently power their war effort.
But on the day of the raid, the mission started falling apart. First, one of the bombers in the lead group plunged into the sea for unknown reasons. Confusion abounded, and the mission’s order of radio silence only made the effort more disjointed. A wrong turn sent the contingent off course, and air defenses in Romania ripped through the confused formation.
As a result of the botched raid, 310 U.S. airmen were killed and 108 were captured. Still, the attack managed to knock out 40 percent of Axis oil production from the area.
Hagan first became fascinated by the Ploesti Raid when he was a child, on a 1950s television program called “Air Power.” On it, he watched Walter Cronkite tell the tale of the mission.
“It was such an unmitigated disaster. But it was a necessary thing to have done,” he said.
Throughout his life, Hagan worked for the Indiana University school of medicine as the associate director of the office of visual media. After his retirement in 2004, he had three goals: play golf, travel and write a book on the Ploesti Raid.
He modeled his approach after Michael Shaara’s “Killer Angels,” a historical novel based on the people and events at the Battle of Gettysburg.
The problem was, Hagan wasn’t a historian.
“(Shaara) was a natural historian. I am not. I don’t even consider myself to be an author. What I am is a storyteller. So I took the research that had been done, and looked for the consistencies,” he said.
That process made this story easier to tell. Hagan pored over first-person accounts and other historical archives about the raid. He followed flight diagrams of every plane that flew in the mission, and how the waves of planes were arranged.
He interviewed veterans who had been on the raid, and bombers who had flown in similar raids after the fact.
During his research, he learned some interesting things.
The prevailing story had always been that the mission failed because the navigator crashed into the Mediterranean Sea before they ever reached Europe. But the lead navigator was reportedly not in the lead bomber; it would not make sense for the navigator of the mission to be lagging behind other planes, Hagan said.
“Where else would you put the lead navigator?” he asked.
The novel invents characters from a composite of men who were actually involved in the raid, interacting with the real people and situations from the historical record.
Hagan wove in much of what he knew from his upbringing into the story. His main character was from Missouri, just like he was. That character went to Missouri University and wanted to get a job with McDonnell Aircraft, a small aircraft company outside St. Louis.
“Everything in there has some basis of reality,” he said. “There was enough information on the key characters that I could follow them and then weave this all in there.”
Since its release last year, Hagan has received feedback and kudos from military historians and leaders. He embarked on a series of signings and promotions, which brought him to Franklin.
Hagan will be signing copies of the book and answering questions during the event Saturday. He hopes that through his book, people will learn about an underappreciated World War II moment and further understand how special the veterans who flew in the mission were.
“That was the greatest generation. They did things because they had to be done. I don’t know today if you have that same kind of commitment among people,” he said.
What: An appearance by Indianapolis’ Paul Hagan to sign and discuss his book “Heading One-Two-Seven,” a historical novel based on the failed Ploesti Raid of 1943.
When: 1 to 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Wild Geese Book Shop, 107 S. Water St., Franklin
Information: wildgeesebookshop.com or pnhbooks.com