Lorraine Croft is reflected in a photo of her husband, George, who was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross medal last month.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Pushing its way through dense smoke and clouds, the B-24 Liberator was using new nonvisual bomb sighting techniques for the first time as it joined 605 bombers targeting oil refining and storage facilities at Ploesti, Romania.
Flying from its base in Pantanella, Italy, “The Flak Man,” piloted by 1st Lt. James Jatho and 2nd Lt. George Croft, encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire that severely damaged the plane and knocked out one of its four engines.
Despite the damage, the pilots managed to hold the course, and their payload was successfully released over the Uniera Sperantza refinery.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
After dropping the bombs, the plane began losing speed and altitude, and soon lost contact with the rest of the squadron, including the 334 fighters that were escorting the heavy bombers.
Over the Adriatic Sea, radio operator Tech. Sgt. William Magill managed to dial in the Pantanella base homing signal and the rest of the crew managed to coax enough power from the remaining three engines to successfully guide the damaged plane back to base without further damage to the plane or injuries to the crew.
The next day July 16, 1944 flying in a replacement B-24, the crew took part in a raid on Weiner Neusdorf in Austria, but this time, their luck ran short.
Their plane was shot down with Magill being killed in action.
The rest of the crew parachuted safely, but were taken prisoner on the ground and held in Barth Stalag Luft I prisoner of war camp near the Baltic Sea for the remainder of World War II.
“I wrote a lot of letters,” said Lorraine Croft from her Kenai home last week.
“He was writing regularly,” she said of her husband. “Then I didn’t get a letter for two weeks.
“One morning, the doorbell rang and the Western Union man was standing there.
“He said (the telegram) had five stars, which meant bad news. It said MIA, not KIA. Surprisingly I was happy. It meant George was missing, not killed in action. He was alive,” she said.
Liberated by the Russians, George Croft came home to St. Paul Minn., where Lorraine rented a small house for herself and the couple’s two little boys, Larry and David.
“It was our fourth wedding anniversary,” she said.
After the Romanian refineries bombing run, one of the crew members, Staff Sgt. William Maxson, the tail gunner, contracted malaria and missed the next mission when the crew was shot down.
About 30 years later, at a military reunion, he mentioned the Distinguished Flying Cross he had received for the refinery bombing.
“None of the others got it,” Lorraine said.
“They went right back up the next day and were shot down. Somehow their award fell through the cracks,” she said.
Her husband, George, died of Leukemia in March 2000, and earlier this year, some 60 years after the war, Lorraine was contacted by the U.S. Air Force, inviting her to a ceremony in Washington, D.C., where the crew of The Flak Man was to be awarded for its “heroism and extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”
Lorraine, son Larry and daughter Louise Miller went to Washington for the ceremony honoring the crew.
“Three of the crewmen are still living,” Lorraine said.
General T. Michael Moseley, chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, presented the medal honoring Croft, Jatho, Magill, 2nd Lt. Theodore Bell, Staff Sgt. Frank Celuck and Staff Sgt. Daniel Toomey posthumously and 1st Lt. Edward McNally, Tech. Sgt. Jay Fish and Staff Sgt. Robert Speed, who are still living.
Lorraine Croft said, for the several days they were in Washington, the Air Force assigned a lieutenant colonel to be the personal escort for Lorraine, her son and daughter.
“It was wonderful. He would come by each morning and accompany us wherever we wanted to go,” she said.
Though none of the Croft children followed their father into the Air Force, Larry served as an aircraft mechanic for 4 1/2 years in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War; Davy was a chief mechanic in the Navy for 22 years; and another son, Stephen, who now lives in Nikiski, served in the Army for one year.
Lorraine and Larry said George Croft never was one for medals he kept his military service decorations tucked away in a box but he would have been proud to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Phil Hermanek can be reached at email@example.com.
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