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Norbert Nicholas Gebhard

Military

Distinguished Unit Citation/ ETO Ribbon w/ 4 battle stars/ Asiatic Theater Medal/ DFC w/ Oak Leaf Cluster/ Air Medal w/ 3 Oak Leaf Cluster.

Norbert (Norb) Gebhard
Pilot, 389th Bomb Group, Hethel, England

At local 8th Air Force Historical Society chapter meetings I frequently ate dinner with Norb Gebhard and his wife. Norb was a big jovial fellow with an ear-to-ear smile. I liked having dinner with him and listening to his stories. Norb was one of only a couple of B-24 guys in the chapter. Even in their eighties, B-17 and B-24 guys are something like Ford and Chevy guys at a drag strip. Since my father’s group had also flown some missions in B-24s I felt a bit of kinship with Norb.

Norb was assigned to the 389th bomb group, initially as a B-24 co-pilot. As part of the 8th Air Force in England he flew missions into some of the toughest targets in Europe. The B-24 had a little more range than a B-17 so they were often got assigned to more distant targets, exposing them to more flak and fighters. The 389th was also sent to North Africa for missions with the 15th Air Force to the Romanian oil fields and later to support the US invasion of North Africa. Norb said that he had just arrived in Norwich, England when they were told to pack up for a temporary assignment in North Africa.

The 398th, along with two other 8th Air Force groups flew to Benghazi. According to Norb they practiced bombing an imaginary town made of small wood structures in the middle of the desert. The big difference was that they were approaching the target at very low altitude. The B-24, however, was designed to be a high-altitude bomber, operating from 18,000 to 25,000 feet, this is what they had trained for in the states. The idea of flying the B-24 long distances at tree-top level was daunting to say the least.

On August 1, 1943 they found out what this practice was all about. Their mission would be to fly across the Mediterranean, drop down to low level and travel hundreds of miles through hostile territory to bomb the oil refineries near Ploesti, Romania. It was a complex, high-risk mission, but a sizeable percentage of the petroleum fueling the German war machine came through there. Destroying or even crippling the output of these refineries could potentially idle a lot of enemy trucks, tanks and planes.

However, almost from the start, the mission seemed jinxed. While crossing the Mediterranean the plane with the mission leader, and lead navigator abruptly nosed over and dived into the sea. No cause has ever been established for the loss, but sabotage was strongly suspected. The Deputy Lead plane took over and the formation proceeded on. Navigating at low altitude is very challenging. At one point the new lead navigator made an error and lead the formation up the wrong mountain valley, heading them on a course north of their target. The leader of the three-group 8th Air Force contingent, which trailed the 15th, recognized the error and made a command decision to leave the formation and fly up the correct valley to take them to Ploesti.

The Romanian refineries were among the most heavily defended targets in Europe, and the low level approach did little to fool the defenders. Enemy fighters focused their attack on Norb and his group while ground fire punched holes in their formation. At such low altitude the B-24s were vulnerable to a variety of weapons, even small arms fire, which they normally didn’t have to worry about. They hugged the ground, rising occasionally to clear trees and barns.

One B-24 gunner commented that it was the only mission he ever flew where he could shoot back at anti-aircraft gunners. Arriving at Ploesti they climbed a few hundred feet and released their bombs on their target. They were still so low that the bombs had been set to delay their explosion a few minutes so as to not hit the trailing planes in their own formation.

Shortly after the three 8th Air Force groups had left and turned home, the 15th Air Force groups arrived. Their navigator had discovered the error and turned them south to Ploesti. Unfortunately, they arrived just as the previous groups delayed bombs were going off. Despite the chaos, flack and fighters, most of them succeeded in bombing their targets. Every German fighter group in southern Europe had been alerted by this time and they exacted a horrific toll on the bombers for their audacity.

Some B-24s exploded, while some crash landed with their crews since they were still too low to bail out. Those that could, limped home. Of the 178 aircraft that started the mission 58 (about 1/3) would be lost. Though damaged, Norb’s B-24 was one of only 33 still airworthy on return.

Norb was promoted from co-pilot to pilot and eventually squadron leader. He flew many more missions, including a few back to Ploesti, but had high altitude. He completed his tour in February of 1944, but stayed and ferried B-17s and B-24s from maintenance depots in Ireland to bases in England for a time. Eventually, he returned to the states as a B-24 instructor pilot and went on to check out in the B-29 Super Fortress before the war ended.

It’s long been debated as to whether the damage inflicted on the refineries at Ploesti was worth the terrific losses taken by the Army Air Force that day. Oil production was interrupted for a while, but most of the damage was repaired in a month or so. From this prospective it would not seem to have been a good trade off. However, like General Jimmy Doolittle’s Tokyo mission, the low level Ploesti raid impacted the enemy far beyond the damage of the bombs dropped. Both attacks forced the enemy to pull major amounts of men and war material out of an offensive role and deploy them in a defensive role. The Army Air Force would return to Ploesti and other refinery complexes many times but never again at low level. Ultimately oil production would prove to be one of the keys to the defeat of the Third Reich.

Service

People

  • Roy Braly

    Military | Lieutenant | Pilot | 389th Bomb Group
    Took part in Operation Tidal Wave, the raid on Ploesti on 1 August 1943, flying B-24 Liberator 42-40749. B-24D, #42-40749, 'Sack Time Sally'. Shot down by fighters after mission to Bremen, Germany. Copilot Dean Dalton KIA. November 26, 1943.

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Units served with

  • 8th Air Force

    8th Air Force


    Eighth Air Force Bomber Command became the Eighth Air Force on February 1944, it oversaw bombardment of strategic targets in Europe until 1945. ...

  • 389th Bomb Group

    389th Bomb Group

    Group
    The 389th Bomb Group, known in more familiar terms as "the Sky Scorpions", flew strategic bombing missions in B-24 Liberators from Hethel, England. They also sent detachments to join bases in North Africa at Benghazi No. 10, Libya, between 3 July 1943...

  • 565th Bomb Squadron

Aircraft

  • 42-40749 'Sack-Time Sally'

    B-24 Liberator
    The B-24D, 'Sack-Time Sally', flew on the Ploesti oil refinery raid piloted by Lt. Roy E. Braly, returning safely to Libya. Aug 1, 1943. ...

Missions

  • Operation Tidal Wave

    1 August 1943
    Operation TIDAL WAVE. B24D Liberators attack the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania. The bombers flew low to avoid radar detection and dropped time delayed bombs. Out of the 177 B-24s that took part in the raid 167 managed to attack their targets. 57 B...

Associated Place

  • Hethel

    Military site : airfield
    Construction of Hethel airfield began in 1941, and was finished in late 1942. The number of hardstandings was increased from the planned 36 to 50 in 1942, in order to accommodate a full heavy bomb group. The 320th Bomb Group occupied the base for ten...

Events

Event Location Date
Born New Holstein, Wisconsin 20 November 1920

Son of Jerome J and Mary [Boll] Gebhard.

Based Hethel 1943 – February 1944

Assigned to 565BS, 389BG, 8AF USAAF.

Died Texas 16 April 2014
Buried Greenacres Memorial Park Cleburne, Johnson County, TX 19 April 2014

Greenacres Memorial Park
Cleburne, Johnson County, Texas

Revisions

Date Contributor Update
22 February 2021 13:09:17 Al_Skiff Changes to middlename, service number, role, awards, events, person associations, unit associations, aircraft associations and mission associations
Sources

https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/135359157/

Date Contributor Update
22 March 2016 16:00:00 lda01@yahoo.com Changes to biography
Sources

Sources: Presentation by, and conversations with Norb Gebhard, also biographical information he provided me for a profile in the chapter newsletter “Briefing”. lda 3/22/16

Date Contributor Update
27 September 2014 18:20:37 AAM AAM ingest
Sources

Drawn from the records of the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force, Savannah, Georgia / self & Page 274 in the book SECOND AIR DIVISION by Turner Publishing Co, 1998 edition

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