By ESTHER MCCOY, For The Times Leader
SMITHFIELD — The Smithfield Alumni Association held its annual dinner recently, and Ralph Pietrangelo of Gulfport, Miss., was not in attendance as in years past.
He has been ill, and at age 93 cannot travel to see other graduates from Smithfield High School.
He has earned the right to decline traveling by air if he wishes now, as he covered many miles on hazardous trips during World War II as a B-24 navigator with the Army Air Corps.
During World War II, seven refineries in and around Ploesti, located in the center of Romania, produced much of the fuel that fed the Axis war machine, with nearly one-third of Hitler’s motor fuels produced there.
As captain with the 389th Bomb Group “Sky Scorpions,” Pietrangelo was a navigator on one of the 178 B-24 Liberator bombers that took off from Libya on Aug. 1, 1943.
This was Pietrangelo’s fourth combat mission, a run that was conducted at low altitude — less than 100 feet above the ground.
It was noted that at that altitude, the German and Romanian gunners did not have much time to aim, but when they did, their fire was devastating.
And many of the B-24 Liberators were shot down or damaged enroute to targets.
Due to thunderstorms, difficulty in low-level navigation, smoke from preceding hits, plus the unanticipated strength of enemy air defenses, three of the five bomb groups were unable to stay in formation and had difficulty navigating to the target, according to Pietrangelo.
Pietrangelo’s group was not one of those.
First following two other groups down the wrong railroad tracks, the 389th bomb group recognized the error and corrected the heading.
As a result, the Sky Scorpions arrived over their target, made their hit, and the Romanian refinery was destroyed. It would not produce another drop of fuel for the rest of the war, it was noted.
Coming off target, most of the bombers were out of position and formation integrity was abandoned. It was every plane for itself, he noted.
Pietrangelo directed his pilots to fly back into the clouds, where they were obscured from view because German fighters shot down more Liberators on the way out.
Pietrangelo’s crew had no injuries but the B-24 had taken quite a bit of ground fire. One engine was shot out and crossing Sicily, a second motor caught fire.
The crew threw out guns, ammunition, radios and anything that would lighten their aircraft, with pilots nursing the crippled bomber on the two remaining engines, he noted.
But it had reached its limit and had to be ditched in the Mediterranean Sea.
After floating on rafts for several hours, they were rescued when their distress calls were heard.
When returning to Hethel, England, the Royal Air Force base they called home, Pietrangelo learned that only 10 of the 389th’s 44 bombers returned.
Overall, 54 of the 178 did not return, with more than 300 American navigators killed in action.
Five Medals of Honor were awarded by Congress, the most in any single engagement in U.S. history, and every crew member received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Pietrangelo went on to fly 28 combat missions — three more than required — in a B-24 named “Fighting Sam.”
He was the lead navigator on 12 of those missions and he said he recited the 23rd Psalm on each mission and that God kept him alive for a reason.
The writer of Pietrangelo’s tale, Allen Baker, notes that he has known Pietrangelo since Baker was in elementary school, as he grew up with his son, Greg.
“I had absolutely no idea he was one of the brave American heroes I studied at the United States Air Force Academy, on some of the most famous missions in World War II. Lead navigator, no less! I always looked up to him. I just never knew how far up I was looking,” he wrote in the end.
“And I might add that I knew Pietrangelo when I was young and he worked for my dad, J. Donald McHugh, at Bradley Mining.
“I looked forward to seeing him every year at the alumni but missed him this year,” Baker added.
CAPT. RALPH?“Pete” Pietrangelo earned many medals during his time as a navigator with the 389th Bomb Group during World War II.