James McClain was a Navigator on the B-24D “Liberator” during Operation TIDAL WAVE, a daring low-level attack on the Ploesti, Romania oil refineries on August 1st, 1943. McClain was born in Des Moines, Iowa in 1923, and attended high school in Waterloo, Iowa. He attended college at Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In response to the attacks on Pearl Harbor, McClain enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942. He attended Navigator training and, upon graduation in July 1943, was assigned to the 564th Squadron, 389th Bomb Group, in Benghazi, Libya.
On his third combat mission, McClain’s B-24D was hit by enemy anti-aircraft artillery, and his crew executed a forced landing in a field in Southeast Sicily. A Canadian infantry unit, which mistook the crew for Germans, fired at them until the unit realized their mistake. Within six days of crash landing, McClain’s crew managed to acquire a different B-24D, “Daisy Mae,” and fly it back to Benghazi. His crew then began to practice low-level, formation bombing runs on fake targets outlined in the desert floor for two weeks in preparation for the famous Ploesti Raid.
This raid on August 1st, 1943, was only his fourth combat mission. McClain’s crew took off in a B-24D named “Old Blister Butt” headed for the Steaua Romana Refinery located in Campina, Romania. The first part of the mission was uneventful until they encountered towering cumulus clouds over the Balkan Mountains. The lead group scattered, but McClain’s group stayed together despite the deteriorating weather conditions. Once on the bomb run, McClain’s crew descended to an altitude of 250 feet and prepared to attack their target, when they were met with a barrage of heavy ground fire and flak. The refinery exploded directly in front of their airplane, belchingfire-laced black smoke and debris. While being fired upon, McClain returned fire with his fifty-caliber nose gun into the smoky abyss. They released their bombs and remained low-level to avoid enemy fire. Despite being instructed not to play “nursemaid” to any damaged aircraft, McClain’s crew elected to turn around to escort another B-24D named “Old Irish,” back to safety. After flying over fourteen hours, “Old Blister Butt” returned safely to Benghazi without a single scratch. Of the 178 aircraft that took off that day, only eighty-eight returned, and 579 of 1,763 men were killed, wounded, shot down, or missing in action. The Ploesti raid was the most highly decorated mission in U.S. history, with five Medals of Honor awarded.
Upon completing the twenty-five required combat missions, McClain was eligible to return home. Instead of rotating back to the United States, he volunteered to remain and work on General Timberlake’s staff as the Wing Navigator in England. In late 1944, he returned to the United States as the Instructions Squadron Commander at Hondo Field, Texas. After the war ended, he attended The University of Iowa, earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics and History. He was released from his reserve commitment in 1962. McClain was awarded three Distinguished Flying Crosses for heroism during World War II. He was married to Sylvia, the love of his life, for twenty years. After his military service, he worked in sales, retiring as a successful sales consultant three months shy of his seventy-eighth birthday.
On August 1st, 1943, Capt McClain and crew aboard their B-24D, “Old Blister Butt,” took off from Benghazi, Libya for the dangerous low-level bombing mission forever remembered as the “Ploesti Raid.” Of the 178 airplanes that took off that day, only eighty-eight returned.