Decorated War Pilot Returns to the Spotlight

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By Charlie Warner, Special to the Independent

The most daring of 50 World War II missions flown by U.S. Air Force pilot Robert W. Sternfels involved the bombing of petroleum refineries in Ploiesti, Romania, known as Operation Tidal Wave. The refineries provided oil to the Nazi war machine. Close to 50 B-24 Liberators were destroyed in the air strike, each with a 10-man crew.

Robert Sternfels pilots a B-24 in an airstrike at an oil refinery at Ploiesti, Romania, Aug. 1, 1943.Photo from the 44th Bomb Group Photograph Collection.
Robert Sternfels pilots a B-24 in an airstrike at an oil refinery at Ploiesti, Romania, Aug. 1, 1943.Photo from the 44th Bomb Group Photograph Collection.

The bombing remains the second most costly battle in Air Force history. In the battle, five Medals of Honor were awarded, three posthumously.

Sternfels received several decorations, including a Silver Star, the third highest honor for valor in combat.

“He was awarded a Silver Star for basically taking over the lead for over a 100-plane formation, leading the charge, so to speak, in Ploiesti,” said Charlie Quilter, president of the Patriots Day Parade planned for March 4 where Sternfels will be honored as patriot of the year.

“Bob really was one of the lucky ones. I realized he was really one of the few survivors of Operation Tidal wave,” said Quilter, a former Marine Corps fighter pilot. “I had met him years ago,” he said, and that the two former pilots “had a connection.”

Photo from the 44th Bomb Group.Photograph Collection. Photo courtesy of the Warbirds News website.
Photo from the 44th Bomb Group.Photograph Collection. Photo courtesy of the Warbirds News website.

In all, Sternfels is credited with 50 missions completed, twice the average number of missions for pilots back then, according to Quilter. “It’s a small miracle.” Sternfels was promoted to major at the young age of 23.

The parade committee celebrated Sternfels and other parade honorees at a brunch earlier this month.

“I didn’t expect it at all. I’m thrilled,” said Sternfels, 97, about the award. The longtime resident first settled in Laguna Beach in the ‘50s.

A native of Detroit, Sternfels at 18 became a dentistry equipment salesman. His interests lay elsewhere. Spending close to half his pay, he took flying lessons in small single engine planes. Immediately after the U.S. joined the war, Sternfels enlisted.

“I enlisted just after the attack on Pearl Harbor. I enlisted in the Air Force, because I had this idea that pilots got special treatment and were pampered in a way,” said Sternfels.

Nine months later, he was training with the legendary B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers. He would later be assigned to pilot a B- 24 Liberator. Sternfels and his crew were assigned an aircraft that lacked the usual olive drab paint job, but instead was a neutral beige, which led to it being christened “The Sandman.” That plane and crew would eventually end up at an airfield just south of Benghazi, Libya, in May of 1943. Sternfels flew on dozens of combat missions assigned to the 345th Bombardment Squadron.

A recent photo of Sternfels, who, at 97, is as sharp as ever. Photo courtesy Patriots Day Parade Committee.
A recent photo of Sternfels, who, at 97, is as sharp as ever.
Photo courtesy Patriots Day Parade Committee.

After the war, Sternfels went on to marry Nancy Barker, who was introduced to him by his wingman and navigator from the war. The two were married for 67 years until her death in 2010. They have two sons, Robert and Mark.

Sternfels went back to sales work along the west coast and eventually retiring after 42 years.

The 51st Patriots Day Parade sets out at 11 a.m. and will follow its usual path, starting at the high school and ending in front of City Hall on Forest Avenue. Sternfels won’t be marching, but taking the luxury route in a Cadillac convertible from a fitting year, 1941.

 

 

 

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4 COMMENTS

  1. My father was Capt. John S. Young, copilot on the Hail Columbia with Col. John Kane. I would very much like to connect with Maj. Sternfels and ask him if he remembers my father and, of course, other details of the mission, as I have not read his book, which I just now ordered, if he cares to do so. Sincerely, John S.Young, Jr. ~ P.O. Box 7113, Covington, WA, 98042-0040 ~ 253 670-5822 ~ [email protected]. Many thanks, JSY, Jr.

  2. I came across an August 30 1943 edition of Time magazine with a featured article about the mission in Romania and the Sandman. I think it was owned by the pilots wife or close family? It has signatures and personal information written on it. It is in perfect condtion. I was wondering if there was someone out there who would like to have it? The pilots family perhaphs?

    Kandi Cook [email protected] 657 253 9824

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