By David H. Klaus (with additional information provided by Dana Bell)
Romanian citizens reported being attacked by “Soviet” bombers shortly after midday on Sunday, August 1st, 1943. They can be excused for their confusion.2
The B-24 Liberators of Operation TIDAL WAVE that penetrated Romanian airspace to attack the oil refineries at Ploesti that day in fact wore a bewildering variety of American national insignia. How this came about is an interesting story.
How They “Should” Have Been Marked
The official requirement for national insignia on Army Air Force aircraft in effect on August 1st, 1943, was an Insignia White star on an Insignia Blue circle, Insignia White horizontal bars on either side of the circle, and a relatively thick Insignia Red outline around the entire marking. This latest version of the national insignia was to be applied, as with previous versions, to both sides of the fuselage, the top of the left wing, and underside of the right wing.
This marking was promulgated in AN-I-9a for implementation between 28 June and 1 September 1942 and therefore should have been applied to all the B-24Ds that attacked Ploesti.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
To best understand the variety of national insignia actually worn on TIDAL WAVE let’s look at B-24 markings in chronological order.
Evolution Of Liberator National Insignia to 1 August 1943
Concerns about confusion between the red center dot of the prewar US insignia and the Japanese “meatball” insignia caused, on 15 May 1942, the red dot to be ordered removed from the US national insignia on all US military aircraft. Therefore, none of the TIDAL WAVE Liberators wore this insignia.
The “As-Built” B-24D Insignia
The B-24s flown on TIDAL WAVE (including a couple of old HALPRO ships that participated in TIDAL WAVE) were delivered to the USAAF with the simplified national insignia consisting of an Insignia White star superimposed on an Insignia Blue circle in four positions (both sides of the fuselage and above the left and below the right wings).
1942, The Eighth Air Force Tones Down National Insignia
From the fall of 1942, many of the early Eighth Air Force Liberators (and other aircraft types) received toned-down national insignia. This policy was adopted by the Eighth Air Force to reduce the visibility of the bright white stars against the dark blue circle and camouflage paint.
The national insignia were modified by overpainting the white stars with gray paint. In some units, in some instances, this was interpreted as 43 Neutral Gray, the same color as the underside camouflage on the B-24Ds. Photos suggest that in other instances a lighter gray was used.
Liberators modified at Lockheed’s modification center at Langford Lodge, Northern Ireland, were painted with the 43 Neutral Gray color. Certainly many early 44th and 93rd Liberators received this color marking as they passed through the Lockheed mod center.
With regards to TIDAL WAVE this applied primarily to the 44th and 93rd Bomb Groups but generally not to the 389th Bomb Group, which having only recently arrived from the US had not had time to tone down their insignia.
Eventually US factories began applying gray/blue insignia, instead of white/blue, on Liberators headed for the 8th Air Force (a practice that continued after all camouflage paint was discontinued, which is another story), but it’s highly doubtful any Stateside-applied markings of this type reached North Africa in time for TIDAL WAVE.
1942, The ETO Adds A Yellow Ring
To improve air-to-air and ground-to-air recognition of US aircraft, in accordance with RAF instructions, on 1 October 1942 a 2” yellow ring surrounding the star and disk was directed for all USAAF aircraft in the European Theater of Operations (ETO).
Although all Eighth AF aircraft were supposed to have the subdued (gray star instead of white star) insignia, photographic evidence proves that not all aircraft actually received the gray stars. Furthermore, dated photos also prove that not all aircraft received the yellow ring outlines prior to their deletion at the time the white bars and red outlines were directed.
In any case, the toned-down star and bright yellow outer ring were highly counterproductive!
1942 Ninth Air Force Markings
Ninth Air Force initially operated in the Western Desert area and Palestine and helped defend the British in Egypt. Their heavy bombers generally arrived in theater wearing the standard white star/blue disk national insignia in the standard four positions. Once they arrived, however, they fell under RAF-dominated higher headquarters control, and were subject to Mediterranean Air Command (MAC) markings requirements.
Intended to significantly improve instant air-to-air and ground-to-air recognition of US-marked aircraft by British forces in the Western Desert, many Ninth Air Force aircraft were marked with a simple white/blue cocarde above and below BOTH wings, meaning the US national insignia was placed in six positions (above and below each wing and on both sides of the fuselage).
This applied to their heavy bombers, fighters, transports, and light/medium bombers, although certainly not all aircraft were so marked. Interestingly, photos show some aircraft with only five stars applied, all in one row on the left vertical stabilizer.3
Over time, application of the additional wing insignia was less frequently seen, and by the time of TIDAL WAVE many Ninth Air Force Liberators had only two wing insignia in the normal positions.
Although in the ETO the white stars were (supposed to be) overpainted with gray, no such regulation was imposed on NATO’s Ninth Air Force’s groups, which continued to use the simple white star/blue disk national insignia in four positions.
October 1942 Operation TORCH Broad Yellow Outer Ring
While the British 8th Army and US Ninth Air Force pushed the German and Italian forces in North Africa westward, away from Egypt, on 8 November 1942 US forces, including Twelfth Air Force landed in far northwest Africa (French Morocco and Algeria) to catch the Axis forces in a massive pincer movement.
You are undoubtedly familiar with the broad yellow outer ring added to the US national insignia specified for all US aircraft participating in Operation TORCH. It was generally about 8” thick (stroke), although there were significant variations.
Much like the famous D-Day black/white stripes, this yellow ring was intended to clearly and instantly identify “friendly” aircraft.
In the TORCH case, this marking was additionally intended to clearly communicate to the defending Vichy French forces that the aircraft were American—and not British. The French detested the British, and Churchill and Roosevelt worked hard to convey the fact that the landings were wholly by United States forces coming to liberate them from the Nazi yoke, and not a British invasion (although all four of the Beatles had already been born4).
This broad yellow ring was limited to the US Naval air forces and the USAAF’s Twelfth Air Force, which together comprised the TORCH air component.
It did NOT apply to the Ninth Air Force, which was moving westward with the British 8th Army from the Western Desert (west of Egypt, that is, not west of the TORCH landings).
May 1943 Mediterranean Air Command (MAC) Adds A Broad Yellow Ring
When the two Allied armies met in their pincer movement in Tunisia in April 1943, surrounding the remaining Axis forces in North Africa, the overall air command, Mediterranean Air Command, recognized common markings among the US 9th and 12th Air Forces were needed.
In May, MAC directed that a yellow ring be applied around the simple US national insignia. Although as stipulated it was very roughly the same width as the TORCH ring, in practice it was applied to Ninth Air Force Liberators with a 3” or 4” stroke.
In any case, the rings in this case were very much wider (broader in stroke) and much more visible than the 2” stroke dictated in the UK.
1943 White Bars & RED Outline
To absolutely ensure confusion, following almost immediately on the heels of MAC’s directive for adding a yellow ring to the national insignia, in June 1943 the USAAF directed a major change in the appearance of the US national insignia.
Quick and accurate air-to-air and ground-to-air recognition of aircraft national insignia was an ongoing concern. Recognizability tests were conducted several times in the years after the US entered the war.
In early 1943 a new series of tests were sparked by a request from North Africa that a yellow ring be added as part of the standard US national insignia. On 9 May 1943 the Air Proving Ground at Eglin Field, Florida, reported that at the threshold of perception, the German cross, standard simple US star/disk, and the yellow-ringed insignia all appeared as “small white circles.” They suggested an elongated (rectangular) marking would be more easily distinguished at a distance.
The solution was to make the US national insignia clearly “rectangular” by adding horizontal white bars to the sides of the blue circle, and surround the entire insignia with a relatively thick red outline.
As noted above, AN-I-9a directed all US flying forces (Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard) to add Insignia White horizontal bars to the simple star and blue circle, plus an Insignia Red outline around the entire insignia.
This new requirement was radioed to the numbered air forces on 30 June 1943, one month before TIDAL WAVE was flown. If regulations had been followed religiously, this is the insignia all TIDAL WAVE Liberators would have worn in the standard four positions.
As I will illustrate, this was frequently not the case. While the Southwest Pacific Area and South Pacific air forces literally refused to paint the red outline due to concerns about confusion with the Japanese hinomaru insignia, the Ninth Air Force had no similar objection, and some 9th Liberators certainly wore this insignia to Ploesti.
White Bars & BLUE Outline
The revised AN-I-9b regulation, which changed the red outline to Insignia Blue (the same color as the blue disk), wai In any case, no TIDAL WAVE aircraft would have carried this version of the national markings since it was not promulgated until long after the mission was completed.
RAF Fin Flash
The Mediterranean Allied Air Command also directed that a RAF fin flash be applied to the outsides of each plane’s fin. In IX Bomber Command this was unevenly implemented, with some B-24Ds receiving a fin flash on BOTH sides of BOTH rudders and some ships only the outboard sides of the rudders.
Although photos exist of Eighth Air Force Liberators (44th, 93rd, and 389th Bomb Groups) in England wearing RAF fin flashes on their fins, these are vestiges of their North African service with Ninth Air Force and were not a normal part of ETO markings. Note some 93rd ships received the fin flashes during their prior deployent to North Africa in December 1942 and retained them until they returned for the TIDAL WAVE operation.
In any case, whatever fin flashes remained on Eighth Air Force ships were removed when the 2nd Air Division white circle/blue “Group” letter marking was applied in the early fall of 1943.
During WW II, operational realities dictated the “regs” weren’t always followed to the letter—or implemented when required. Because maintenance was complicated by the blowing sand of the Libyan desert and supplies were chronically short, it’s no surprise the 9th Air Force’s IX Bomber Command did not fully implement the new national markings directive in time for the TIDAL WAVE mission.
The two 8th Air Force B-24 groups, the 44th and 93rd, were involved in intensive low level training while still in the UK from about the first of June until they departed for North Africa during the last week of June. This involved heavy maintenance activity to both prepare the ships for the trip to North Africa and to ensure they were best able to fly and fight for an extended period away from home base. Repainting insignia was not as high a priority as ensuring the giant Liberators were fully combat-worthy. And, as noted, AN-I-9a was not even issued until the bomb groups were already enroute to North Africa.
Most of the IX Bomber Command (98th & 376th Bomb Groups) aircraft appear to have retained the simple white star/blue disk with broad yellow ring outline as required by the MAC directive in May. TIDAL WAVE photos show most—but no means all—sand-colored Liberators with this marking.
This famous photo of 376th Bomb Group commander K. K. Compton’s Teggie Ann, purportedly taken the day of the TIDAL WAVE mission, clearly shows the simple white/blue cocarde insignia with a broad yellow ring outline.
The 376th Bomb Group’s green-camouflaged Brewery Wagon, lost at Ploesti, was another example of a Ninth Air Force ship with the white/blue simple cocarde with yellow outer ring, although in this case it was slightly narrower than the ones on Teggie Ann.
Just for good measure, here’s another unexpected combination. A significant amount of trading of aircraft and crews among the bomb groups in the last couple of days prior to TIDAL WAVE resulted in this original Ninth Air Force ship, painted in the typical desert camouflage of 49 Sand over 43 Neutral Gray, carried a 389th Bomb Group crew to bomb the Steaua Romana refinery at Campina.
She was lost well to the southwest of Ploesti while attempting to get home. This is B-24D Boomerang (not to be confused with the 93rd’s Bomerang), and clearly displays a somewhat narrower than usual MAC yellow ring around the simple national insignia.
Apparently some Ninth Air Force ships did not receive the yellow outer circle, as shown in this photo of the 98th Bomb Group’s Nightmare. While this photo was most likely taken some months prior to TIDAL WAVE, it was certainly taken at the Benina Main airfield near Benghazi since the wrecked Italian hangar can be seen in the background. The 98th moved to Benina in February 1943. Depending on when this photo was actually taken, it may portray the earliest version of 9th Air Force markings carried to Ploesti.
Some of the 8th Air Force Libs still carried the original simple white/blue cocarde national insignia with the white star overpainted with gray as required in the ETO, with no yellow outer ring. The photo below of Leon Johnson’s famous Suzy-Q taken the day after TIDAL WAVE shows the original star (and the battle damage she sustained in the low level attack).
(Note that the ladder underneath the horizontal stabilizer is not holding up the ship’s tail! This is an optical illusion created when the ladder was put there so the ground crew could start repairing damage to the elevator.)
Even more interesting is the 93rd’s Jerk’s Natural, which wore the original simple white/blue cocarde with the white overpainted with gray—but also with a wide yellow outer ring roughly overpainted with fresh 43 Dark Olive Drab paint. Although she took off for the TIDAL WAVE mission with the rest of the 93rd, her crew turned back early and so she was not actually a TIDAL WAVE veteran.
How did Jerk’s Natural get a WIDE yellow outer ring when the Eighth Air Force required a narrow yellow ring? Good question. It was one of the 93rd Bomb Group’s ships that deployed to North Africa in mid-December 1942 before returning to the UK. Possibly the ring was applied before their return to the UK and painted out after reaching England.
Many TIDAL WAVE ships did in fact have their national markings updated with the white horizontal bars and red outline as per the June 1943 regulation. This photo of the 98th’s famous The Sandman (the subject of several of the most famous TIDAL WAVE attack photos), although of poor quality, clearly shows the addition of the white bars and red outline to the white/blue simple cocarde.
The two photos below of the 44th Bomb Group’s famous Flak Alley show how the star-and-bar national insignia evolved. The first photo shows Flak Alley soon after she arrived at the 44th and well before the remarkable nose art was applied (and there’s a really interesting story about the original version of the nose art I’ll save for another time . . . ). Note the simple cocarde with the white star overpainted with 43 Neutral Gray paint.
The photo below shows Flak Alley in early October 1943, soon after the 44th returned to England after their second deployment to North Africa (TIDAL WAVE was their first deployment there). Although not readily visible in this scan, the original photo clearly shows the red outline, although it should have been changed to blue by the time this photo was taken.
Flak Alley most likely wore this version (red outline) of the national insignia to Ploesti.
Undoubtedly the most colorful variation was the new insignia with a slightly undersized red outline superimposed on the MAC simple cocarde with a wide yellow ring. This arrangement resulted in the yellow being visible at the top and bottom of the central blue circle and red outline, as shown in these famous photos of the 98th Bomb Group’s Lil Jughaid taken during the mission:
This was not the only Ninth Air Force ship with this type of insignia, as shown in the photo below, also taken during the mission:
I’m sure your sharp eyes have already picked up on two salient points revealed in pics of the two aircraft above. First, only the fuselage insignia have been updated; the wing insignia remain the standard MAC simple white/blue cocarde with broad yellow outer ring. Furthermore, Lil Jughaid has the post-May 1942 standard wing national insignia positions of left wing top and right wing bottom, while the lower ship has the MAC insignia on the tops of both wings (and probably below both wings).
Oh, and there’s another difference: Lil Jughaid has the standard RAF fin flash on both sides of each rudder, while the lower plane has them on only the outsides of each fin (even though the left fin is not visible in the lower photo).
Some TIDAL WAVE ships wore a simplified version of the new insignia. Think about this: it was easy, and therefore quick, to add the white horizontal bars to the existing simple white/blue cocarde. It was much more difficult and time-consuming to measure out and apply a uniform red outline around the entire insignia. When multiplied by the four national insignia on each aircraft, the time involved became significant, and when time was short, easy to put off until later.
Although of horrible quality and taken well after the TIDAL WAVE mission, this color shot of what is reputedly the 98th Bomb Group’s The Squaw clearly show the simplified update of the NATO white/blue cocarde with broad yellow ring and white horizontal bars, but with no outline, red or otherwise, to the insignia.
I wish the original photo was of much better quality, because although you can see vestiges of the yellow ring in the photo above, when it’s enlarged the quality drops so much it’s very difficult to make out in the photo below. But at least you can see there’s no outline around the horizontal bars.
This simplified (no outline) star-and-bar national insignia was occasionally seen in most theaters of war during the fall and winter of 1943.
This shot of the 44th Bomb Group’s Calaban taken on 2 August 1943, the day after the mission and showing some of the combat damage she sustained, illustrates an example of an 8th Air Force ship with incompletely applied new markings.
This enlarged portion of the shot above gives a little more detail. Unfortunately the original print is considerably clearer than this scan, but it does clearly show the red outline around the blue disk terminates at the bottom of the white horizontal bar and does not outline the bar itself.
At least one ship (the 98th Bomb Group’s Boiler Maker II, lost at Ploesti) had almost the opposite of what you might expect during the transition from the simple white/blue cocarde to the new star & bar with red outline. This plane had the white horizontal bars added to the fuselage insignia, but with a very thin red outline outlining only the bars—but not the central blue disk. I acknowledge the outline could be yellow, but there was absolutely NO reason for the 44th to have applied a yellow outline to their national insignia upon arrival in North Africa since the new markings regulation (bars & red outline) were already known by the time they arrived there.
This magnification of the above photo very clearly shows this odd combination of white star, blue disk, broad yellow MAC outer ring, white horizontal bars, and thin red outlines to the entire white bars—including the inboard edges nearest the blue disk!
Finally—and I’ve saved the coolest for last—is this shot of the upper left wing of one of the TIDAL WAVE losses after crashing and burning in a Romanian cornfield. This photo is usually published reversed; it’s shown here right-way-round.
I’ve never seen such an insignia on a combat aircraft.
Apparently the new national insignia was only partially painted when she took off for Ploesti; only a white center and red outline actually applied. This is extremely abnormal, since the new markings regulation called for the existing white star/blue circle to be modified with the addition of horizontal white bars and a red outline. Why the ground crew elected to start from scratch is a puzzle.
You are probably suspicious, as I was, that the photo quality or possibly the film type caused the blue of the national insignia to “disappear.” This would make a lot more sense than starting with a full white background and red outline, then adding the blue disk. Here’s a magnified version:
One trick for finding “hidden” information in aircraft photos is to invert the image (light become dark and dark becomes light)—which frequently reveals details not visible in the original photo. Here’s the inverted version of the photo above, and absolutely no vestige of a blue disk is visible here either:
Weird. Very weird.
Now can you see why the Romanian citizenry was confused about who was attacking?1
Seriously, I hope this rather long article has clarified some of the confusions and gaps in your knowledge of the wide variety of national insignia displayed on TIDAL WAVE Liberators.
1 The title is of course a joke. There was no American plan for different aircraft to wear different versions of the US national insignia, although that is the way it actually happened.
2 The Soviet air force had attacked Ploesti and other parts of Romania numerous times in 1941 and 1942, with a number of attackers shot down. The USAAF’s HALPRO mission of 12 June 1942 was completely ineffective, and no American aircraft were lost over Romanian territory. Therefore, the people of Romania were familiar with newspaper and magazine photos of Soviet star insignia on aircraft shot down over their country, as well as in the Crimea during Romania’s active support of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Mistaking the US white star for the Soviet red star is understandable in this situation.
3 Obviously a joke. Photos show a very few aircraft with TWO underwing cocardes and only one overwing cocarde; some with the opposite. These variations were quite rare, however. When you spend as much time as I do researching and writing this stuff, silly jokes seem to appear out of nowhere.
4 I promise, no more stupid jokes. Until the next time.
FOR SERIOUS SCALE MODEL BUILDERS ONLY:
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PYN-up B-24 Ploesti Heroes #1. Of the many, many famous Liberators that participated in the famous low level bombing mission against the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania, one of the most famous (or infamously maligned) was Lt Brian W. Flavelle’s B-24D-70-CO "Wongo Wongo" from the 513 BS/376 BG. Wongo and her crew are fully entitled to be called "Ploesti Heroes" even though they did not make it to Ploesti. It was the lead aircraft of the second section in the 376th Bomb Group formation enroute to Ploesti. The victim of a significant historical inaccuracy (some would say cover up), the less than expected results of the first wave of B-24s at Ploesti was attributed at the time by the Air Force to the loss of this crew, which was purported to the the "lead plane" carrying the "lead navigator." For unknown reasons, just short of the island of Corfu south of the east coast of Greece, Wongo stalled, then dove into the sea and exploded. Although the historical record shows Flavelle and his young navigator were the LEADs for the entire formation and therefore caused the various screw-ups that occurred later, this has been thoroughly debunked by both Colonels Keith Compton (376th commander) and John Kane (98th commander) in later years. In a 2000 interview, Compton clearly stated he flew the mission lead plane with Brigadier General Uzal Ent, the mission commander, aboard, and that he in fact led the entire mission under General Ent’s orders. The full story of this pathetic episode is told in the instruction sheet. The second Ploesti hero is B-24D-65-CO, 566 BS 389 BG, "Fightin’ Sam," flown by Capt Tom Conroy. "Sam" was nearly brand-new ship when the Ploesti mission occurred, and this decal set allows you to model it as flown to Ploesti and with several major versions of later markings.
PYN-up Decals B-24 Ploesti Heroes #1. B-24D-65-CO, 566 BS 389 BG, Fightin’ Sam, Capt. Tom Conroy, Ploesti, Rumania, 1 August 1943; B-24D-70-CO, 513 BS, 376 BG, Wongo Wongo, Lt Brian W. Flavelle, Berka 2, Benghazi, Libya, 1 August 1943.