Retired Air Force General Jacob E. Smart died Nov. 12 at his home in Ridgeland, S.C. He was 97.
Smart planned the audacious low-level raid on Romania’s Ploesti oil fields and refineries during World War II. A third of Nazi Germany’s oil was produced and refined at the Ploesti fields.
The legendary raid was flown by B-24 heavy bombers based 1,000 miles from Ploesti in Libya. Some flew over the oil fields at only 200 feet; all endured “merciless fire from almost every conceivable ground defense weapon,” according to one official history. While several of the 180 bombers launched from Libya experienced mechanical problems and crashed or turned back before the raid, most reached their target. More than 50 were shot down, another 50 had severe battle damage, and 550 men were killed, went missing or became prisoners of war, according to a friend of this writer who subsequently spent 13 months in a German prison camp.
Five of the Ploesti raiders received the Medal of Honor, apparently the most ever awarded for a single military action.
Then-Col. Smart was chief of Army Air Corps flight training as the United States entered World War II. He became a war strategy aide to Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold and was involved in the 1943 Casablanca Conference with President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, where he proposed the Ploesti raid. As Smart recalled later, Churchill turned to Arnold and said, “Get it done,” whereupon Arnold turned to Smart and said, “You get it done.”
Smart later became commander of the 97th Bomb Group stationed in Italy. He flew 29 combat missions until he was shot down over Austria. He was captured and became a prisoner of war in Germany, where he was regarded as an important catch. He was interrogated harshly about plans for D-Day – which he knew – but revealed only that the invasion would occur “any day now,” as he later told it.
Smart was born in Ridgeland, where his father was a railroad conductor. He was a 1931 graduate of the Military Academy at West Point, at which time he joined the Air Corps as a pilot. After the war he was Arnold’s executive assistant and a key planner for separation of the Air Force from the Army as an independent service. A revered strategist, he changed the war in Korea by introducing highly-successful interdiction bombing of supply lines, fuel depots, railroads and hydroelectric plants, many deep within North Korea.
After his retirement to Ridgeland, he spent a decade writing a detailed, 1,100-page account of the coastal South Carolina men and women who participated in World War II.
— Thomas F. Norton