TFH 8/1 Flight 4: Colonel John R. Kane and “Hail Columbia”

John Riley Kane was born in McGregor, Texas on January 5, 1907. He graduated from Baylor University and later joined the United States Army Air Corps in 1931 as an aviation cadet. He earned his pilot’s wings and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1932. He was one of the more experienced pilots with the United States Army Air Forces as they ramped up for a long war.

He arrived overseas for combat in the Europe, Africa, and Middle East theaters in July 1942. Over the next year, he flew 43 combat missions against the Nazi Germans and their allies and became the commander of the 98th Bombardment Group (Heavy). The group styled themselves as the “Pyramiders”, as they were based in Egypt.

The 98th’s success and tenacity in combat were well known to the enemy. In fact, German military intelligence tagged their commander by the nickname by which he’d be known for the rest of the war: “Killer Kane”.

Kane, the 98th Bombardment Group, and their Consolidated B-24D Liberators were selected for Operation TIDAL WAVE, the attack on critical petroleum industries and infrastructure surrounding Ploesti, Romania on August 1, 1943 – seventy years ago today.

As the 98th’s planes approached Ploesti for their bomb run, Colonel Kane had their target area in sight when, as he wrote later, “all hell broke loose, the whole area burst into flames.” One or more of the groups in front of him had bombed their target. Surprise was lost. Kane decided to press ahead to the target that his group had specifically trained to attack rather than find another target. There was one more hellish obstacle in the way though.

The Germans had packed a train with antiaircraft weapons, and the 98th was flying parallel to the rail line that the train was using. Those moments are described in Into the Fire: Ploesti, the Most Fateful Mission of World War II:

The Germans called it Die Raupe, the Caterpillar, a special, very deadly train. At first glance, it looked like an ordinary string of freight cars pulled by a locomotive….But the freight cars contained several dozen antiaircraft guns of various calibers. Die Raupe was heading west, towards Ploesti, on tracks the length of a long narrow valley, and it was moving at top speed.

That valley was the 98th’s approach path to the target.

As they approached the train, the tops and sides of the freight cars peeled open and German guns started firing. “We had to shoot our way in,” Kane wrote. 

The gunners aboard the train let loose with everything they had, hardly needing to aim. The American bombers were so big, so close, and so low that they were difficult to miss. Even worse for the Americans was that the speed of the train made the relative speed of the bombers seem preposterously slow. The duel with the train was a slow motion nightmare.

Gunners aboard all of Kane’s remaining planes trained their machine guns on the flak train, and managed to destroy it, but not before many of the group were severely damaged. The target was next.

Kane pulled up to 200 feet for the bombing run. The 98th was on course and on target, if a bit late. His bombardier trained his sight on the Astra-Romana refinery, the one assigned to his group. Some of its buildings were already burning from the bombs dropped by the 93rd. 

Hail Columbia released its bombs and Kane immediately dropped altitude, as low as he could, but at the same time some of the delayed-action bombs dropped earlier by the 93rd started exploding beneath them. “I didn’t think I was going to live through it,” recalled Norm Whalen, the navigator. 

I knew I was going to die in the antiaircraft fire, in the flames shooting up from the refineries, from the bombs exploding from the groups that had been there before us and dropped indiscriminately. It was like the Charge of the Light Brigade. We knew it was a disaster, and that in the flames shooting up from those refineries, we might be burned to death, but we went right in.

After clearing the target area, Kane found Hail Columbia flying on just three engines as a German shell had destroyed the fourth. He couldn’t keep up with the rest of the planes in his group and fell behind. He kept his plane around a rendezvous point for damaged aircraft until three comrades arrived; the four planes would be better able to protect themselves as a group while escaping enemy territory.

Kane and Hail Columbia did make it to safety by landing on Cyprus, and the brave Colonel became the first Medal of Honor recipient from the attack, just eight days later.

From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (G-L):

KANE, JOHN R. (Air Mission)

Rank and organization: Colonel, U.S. Army Air Corps, 9th Air Force. Place and date: Ploetsi Raid, Rumania, 1 August 1943. Entered service at: Shreveport, La. G.O. No.: 54, 9 August 1943. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry in action and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty on 1 August 1943. On this date he led the third element of heavy bombardment aircraft in a mass low-level bombing attack against the vitally important enemy target of the Ploesti oil refineries. En route to the target, which necessitated a round-trip flight of over 2,400 miles, Col. Kane’s element became separated from the leading portion of the massed formation in avoiding dense and dangerous cumulous cloud conditions over mountainous terrain. Rather than turn back from such a vital mission he elected to proceed to his target. Upon arrival at the target area it was discovered that another group had apparently missed its target and had previously attacked and damaged the target assigned to Col. Kane’s element. Despite the thoroughly warned defenses, the intensive antiaircraft fire, enemy fighter airplanes, extreme hazards on a low-level attack of exploding delayed action bombs from the previous element, of oil fires and explosions and dense smoke over the target area, Col. Kane elected to lead his formation into the attack. By his gallant courage, brilliant leadership, and superior flying skill, he and the formation under his command successfully attacked this vast refinery so essential to our enemies’ war effort. Through his conspicuous gallantry in this most hazardous action against the enemy, and by his intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, Col. Kane personally contributed vitally to the success of this daring mission and thereby rendered most distinguished service in the furtherance of the defeat of our enemies.

Second Lieutenant Norman M. Whalen, Kane’s aforementioned navigator, received the Distinguished Service Cross for his own gallantry during the mission. The following synopsis of his award is from Military Times’ Hall of Valor:

Second Lieutenant (Air Corps) Norman M. Whalen, United States Army Air Forces, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving as Navigator of a B-24 Heavy Bomber in the 344th Bombardment Squadron, 98th Bombardment Group (H), NINTH Air Force, while participating in a bombing mission on 1 August 1943, against the Ploesti Oil Refineries in Rumania. During a long and hazardous attack against a vital enemy oil installation made at low-altitude by a formation of B-24 type aircraft, Second Lieutenant Whalen remained steady as he directed his airplane through heavy enemy fire against impossible odds, performing his duties valiantly. When his bomber was badly damaged he successfully plotted a course to Cyprus for emergency landing. The personal courage and zealous devotion to duty displayed by Second Lieutenant Whalen on this occasion, even when confronted with practically certain destruction, exemplified the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, the 9th Air Force, and the United States Army Air Forces.

The nine other men aboard Hail Columbia – Staff Sergeant Neville C. Benson (Waist Gunner), First Lieutenant Raymond B. Hubbard (Radioman), Second Lieutenant Harold F. Korger (Bombardier), Sergeant Joseph W. LaBranche (Gunner), Technical Sergeant Frederick A. Leard (Waist Gunner), Sergeant William Leo (Gunner), Staff Sergeant Harvey L. Treace (Gunner), Technical Sergeant Fred Weckkessler (Flight Engineer/Top Turret Gunner), and First Lieutenant John S. Young (Co-Pilot) – all received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

“Killer Kane” returned to the United States in 1944 and served domestically for the rest of the war. He remained in uniform after the war, transitioned to the United States Air Force, and retired in 1954. Kane passed away on May 29, 1996 and rests in peace at Arlington National Cemetery.

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