National Geographic : 1946 Feb
From Africa to the Alps i NationalIBound for B n Soy It. S. Arim Asir Higorhcs, OlcYuial Bound for Balkan Targets, Mustang Pilots Climb High over Yugoslavia INSIGNIA of three famous Mediterranean Allied Air Forces fighter groups adorn the tails of these P-51's. The black-and-gold checkerboard design is the insignia of the 325th Fighter Group. The diagonal red stripes represent the 31st, and the solid red tail is the badge of the all-Negro 332d. Starting in Mediterranean combat as a dive bomber, known as the A-36 Invader (Plate V), the improved P-51 Mustang became a top-notch long-range fighter. Extra fuel in wing tanks gave Mustangs a range of about 1,500 miles, enabling them to escort heavy bombers all the way from bases near the heel of the Italian boot to the target and return. On longer missions-such as Berlin, which Italian based heavies attacked only once-the bombers flew some 200 miles north to meet their escort. Mustang-escorted Flying Fortresses and Liber ators contributed heavily to the European victory by attacking German targets from British and Italian bases and blasting at refineries centering about Ploesti, Romania, which produced about 30 percent of the Axis oil supply. In a 4-month campaign American heavies, aided by RAF night bombers, braved a ring of 250 anti aircraft guns and an efficient smoke screen to drop 12,870 tons of bombs on Ploesti. When Romania surrendered on August 23, 1944, the refineries were reduced to 10 percent of their normal capacity. The Ploesti attacks cost us 252 bombers and 39 fighters. Of more than 2,200 American airmen shot down and taken prisoner in Romania, almost half were returned to Italian bases in "Operation Reunion," a dramatic air rescue. Escaping in a German plane flown by a friendly Romanian pilot, one American returned to Italy and organized the rescue. While Mustangs flew overhead, Flying Fortresses landed at Bucharest after the Russian occupation, loaded the airmen aboard, and took off for Italy.