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A story of wartime courage

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Wilsonville resident Duane 'Buck' Buckmaster is a former B-24 Liberator co-pilot who was shot down over Romania during a World War 2 raid on the Ploesti oil refineries. Here is relives his cadet airman days with a flight in a Stearman Kaydet biplane, the standard training aircraft of the U.S. military during the war. (This is the second of a two-part series featuring Wilsonville’s Duane Buckmaster’s World War II experience. The first story appeared in the Oct. 2 issue of the Wilsonville Spokesman.)

Duane “Buck” Buckmaster’s story reads like something straight out of Hollywood.

Only, it was all too real for Buckmaster and the fellow crewmembers of his B-24 Liberator heavy bomber.

Now 93 years old and a resident of The Springs in Wilsonville, Buckmaster has never been able to forget the long seconds as his cockpit filled with smoke and pilot Victor Ullman’s command to bail out rang in his headset.

It happened on D-Day, June 6, 1944, during a long-range bombing effort against Ploesti, Romania, a key German-controlled oil refining sector responsible for some 60 percent of the Nazi war machine’s fuel supplies. Ploesti was a dreaded name among American aircrews. One August 1943 raid against the sprawling complex saw 53 four-engined Liberators — each with a crew of 10 men — shot down in flames over Romania.

Less than a year later it was Buckmaster’s turn.

Nonstop training

Before combat, however, came nonstop training flying out of Pantanella, a temporary airfield near Foggia, Italy. By the time Buckmaster and his crew were finally assigned to combat missions they had trained for more than a year.

At times, though, it seemed like the war was more intense on the home front.

“Here we are in Italy, and we had a squadron commander that I absolutely hated,” Buckmaster said. “The guy was awful. His way of dealing with people, it just seemed to me, was kind of brutal and unpleasant. Fortunately, he was replaced by a guy who was just the opposite, a wonderful man.”

The war was swinging in favor of the Allies by that point in 1944, but nearly a year of hard fighting would remain before the Germans were convinced to finally surrender. Buckmaster and his fellow aviators would play a crucial role in moving the war toward that point.

And nowhere was that more true than Ploesti, Romania, a key German-controlled oil refining sector that was the lifeblood of the German armed forces.

The first raid on Europe’s largest complex of oil and gas refineries took place in late 1942. An Aug. 1, 1943, raid quickly turned infamous when 53 of 178 attacking aircraft failed to return to their base in Benghazi, Libya.

Three full Luftwaffe fighter squadrons defended the sprawling complex, which also housed some of Germany’s best anti-aircraft units.

Buckmaster and the men of the 464th were thrown against Ploesti on D-Day, June 6, 1944, at the same time as beachheads were being carved out on the Normandy coast in France. It was the second attack against Ploesti that Buckmaster’s crew carried out. But unlike the first, this time they would not return to Pantanella.

“It was really a strategic thing,” Buckmaster said. “The Germans were getting their fuel there, so, it was very, very strongly defended. The Italians didn’t have much to do with it, but the Germans had some of their best pilots and airplanes there.”

“Buck had told me in the past they had high and low altitude bombing planned,” added his wife, Sharon Buckmaster. “Obviously the low altitude was more dangerous, but it was also more accurate, he said. He was assigned to high altitude, but at Pantanella they didn’t know where they would be going. At a mission briefing the guy pulls back the curtain there was like this ‘Oh, s—-,’ when everybody realized.”

To the American crews who made the attacks it seemed as if the Romanian complex only got more heavily defended as time went on. And on this day, it was vicious anti-aircraft fire from 88mm cannons and other weapons that ultimately doomed Buckmaster’s craft.

“On the bomb run we got some direct hits from anti-aircraft fire,” he said. “We got one in the bomb bay, where over the bomb bay there were fuel tanks, and we got hit in several other places and then we had fire all over the airplane.”

With fuel tanks placed in the fuselage as well as the wings, the Liberator was more prone to catching fire than the B-17. Buckmaster and his crew quickly realized they were going to have to bail out of the plane if they hoped to survive at all.

“Lt. (Victor) Ullman, who was the pilot, advised the crew we had to abandon the airplane,” he said. “And he did that by interphone, so he turned over the airplane to me. I flew it while he was getting everyone organized and making sure everyone had parachutes and so forth. I went out last.”

Time slowed down at that point. But Buckmaster never remembered pushing the final intercom button signaling the crew to bail out.

“He told me the crew was bailing out, and there was a button I could push to give everyone a signal,” Buckmaster said. “But afterward, no one could remember seeing a signal. I kept control of the airplane because Ullman was basically disabled with head injuries, and finally I decided everyone has had time to get out.”

Finally free to escape the burning plane himself, Buckmaster made his way from the cockpit down to the bomb bay. There he found his flight engineer seemingly hanging onto the stanchion too afraid to jump from the plane.

“I tried to pry him loose and push him out and he was really resisting,” Buckmaster said. “So finally I just went ahead and jumped because everyone else was out of the airplane. Later, on the ground, I encountered Sgt. Pegg, and he was not too happy with me. He said, ‘You were trying to kill me!’ I said, ‘No, I was trying to save you.’ He said, ‘No, I couldn’t buckle the chest chute and you were trying to shove me around.’ He said, ‘Don’t do that again,’ and I said, ‘I won’t.’”

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Duane 'Buck' Buckmaster goes over the controls and cockpit of the Stearman Kaydet biplane he flew in recently, courtesy of Ageless Aviation, a national non-profit group that works to connect veterans with their past.

Taken captive

All but one man parachuted safely to the ground, although with various injuries suffered in the process. The crewmembers were quickly rounded up by German and Romanian troops searching for them. But in Buckmaster’s case, a fairly unlikely party took him captive.

“This kid,” he said, “he’s about 8 years old, and as I’m trying to get up from the parachute landing he shows up, sticks his head from behind the bush and he asked me a question. He said, ‘Russ?’ I figured he meant Russian and said, ‘No, no, American.’”

A big smile came next.

“’Ah, Americanski,’ the boy said,” Buckmaster recalled.

“He came and shook my hand and said, ‘Come with me, I can help you,’” Buckmaster said. “So he took me to a city hall, to the basement, essentially jail.”

Over the next few days the rest of the men were transferred to a POW camp and then moved to a converted schoolhouse in Bucharest. They would stay there the next seven months.

“The schoolhouse was converted into a prison camp, and what I remember most about that was there were cots that we slept on,” Buckmaster said. “There were mattresses infested with everything under the sun, lice, bedbugs, rats, it was not a happy time.”

A few months later Romania experienced a coup as advancing Soviet forces overran the country. Romania officially switched sides in August 1944, but Buckmaster and other POWs would have to wait a little longer to be repatriated.

“The guards laid down their arms at one point and said to the prisoners they could go,” Buckmaster said.

But without transportation and unable to speak the local language, the men still were stuck.

Finally, they hatched a scheme that involved seizing a German Messerschmitt fighter. The senior USAAF officer in the camp, Col. Jim Gunn, announced that since they were stuck he would bring help.

“They could walk out of the prison but they couldn’t do much else,” Buckmaster said. “So they took the senior commanding officer, who was a tiny little guy, and packed him into the bomb bay of a Messerschmitt. It took three of us to shove him in there; there really was no space in there. A Romanian pilot flew that plane to Italy with Col. Gunn in there.”

The Messerschmitt made a low, fast approach to an American airfield in Italy to avoid being shot down. But Gunn was quickly able to help organize an elaborate rescue mission utilizing available B-17 bombers.

“I was sitting there in jail thinking, ‘This is not going to work,’” Buckmaster said with a laugh. “These elaborate schemes never work. But sure enough, it did work and they got about 1,200 men out in just a few days. They converted bombers, put planks down and made them into transports.”

It became a celebrated piece of Air Force lore, still remembered to this day by surviving airmen and their families. It also had the unexpected effect of ending Buckmaster’s ability to eat chocolate.

“When I first met Buck in 1976 he’d been back from the war a long time, but he still couldn’t even look at chocolate,” said Sharon Buckmaster. “Because when they first got out of prison camp one of the first things he got his hands on was a big bar of chocolate. He ate the whole thing and got royally sick, so one of my prouder accomplishments was reintroducing him to chocolate.”

A lengthy recuperative stay in a military hospital followed, after which a trip via tramp steamer took Buckmaster and other servicemen back to the United States.

“I got sick as hell, sleeping down about three levels down in the hull,” he said. “I was on a canvas cot, and when we finally got off that damn ship I was very happy. They picked us up in Naples and then shipped home. I’ll tell you, when that ship got into view of the Statue of Liberty you can’t believe the emotion; that was kind of overwhelming.”

Buckmaster remained a reserve officer in the U.S. Air Force and was recalled for active duty flying transport planes during the Korean conflict.

Just like Romania, Buckmaster remembers the children.

“We met Korean children who were displaced; there were all these kids that were basically orphans,” he said. “We flew quite a few of those folks to the U.S., where they could be assigned with families until things had settled down and their parents, if possible, were relocated.”

He recalls this as a “really great time,” mainly because he was actively able to help those kids in need.

“Those kids, when we picked them up, they had been so scared because they could hardly do anything,” he said. “But we treated them like they were our own kids. I thought they were so great, such cute little kids. Some wound up in orphanages because their parents had been killed, but many of them were restored to their homes and parents. That was a really big thing. I think that’s one of the best things we did.”

“You’ve never told me that story before,” Sharon Buckmaster said, turning to face her husband. “I’ve never heard that.”

“I remember carrying one of those little kids,” Buck replied. “In fact, the kid was so cute I wanted to keep it.”

After Korea, Buckmaster returned to civilian life for good, settling into a solid career as an executive with United Airlines.

He’s now 93 years old, but the memories of combat and the men he served with will remain with Buckmaster forever. Crucially, others will remember his accomplishments and those of his fellow Americans who worked together to win the war.

Two weeks ago, Buckmaster was given a unique opportunity to return to his days as a cadet airman in the U.S. Army Air Corps, thanks to the pilot group Ageless Aviation Dreams foundation, a national nonprofit dedicated to providing “dream flights” to seniors and military veterans.

More specifically, Ageless Aviation tries to provide those flights to seniors and veterans living in long-term care facilities like The Springs, where Buckmaster lives.

“It’s great what this means to these guys,” volunteer pilot Wayne Cartwright with Ageless Aviation, said following Buckmaster’s dream flight on Sept. 25. “What they gave us is nothing less than freedom.”

Josh Kulla can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and 503-636-1281, ext. 113. Follow him on Tweeter, @wspokesman.

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Former B-24 bomber pilot Duane Buckmaster (front seat) and Ageless Aviation volunteer Wayne Cartwright (back) taxi back to Aurora Aviation, which hosted the Ageless Aviation Flight honoring Buckmasters service.



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