Recognition of Two Remarkable Individuals
2019 marked the 75th anniversary of the Battle for Oil, the large effort of the Fifteenth Air Force to destroy the Axis's supply of fuel. From April to August 1944, the primary foci were bombing missions of the oil fields and marshalling yards in and around Ploesti, Romania. The Battle for Oil was a big success but came at a very high cost in terms of men and materiel, especially the 450th Bomb Group, which accounted for more POWs in Romania than any other bomb group of the Fifteenth. Over 10,000 sorties were flown to Romania in that timeframe with 478 planes, 367 of which were bombers, shot down by enemy fighters and flak. Of the 3,781 airmen shot down, only 1,185 survived, 133 of which were 450th airmen. The vast majority of the POWs were incarcerated in three camps controlled by the Romanians.
In discussions and conversations this past year all across the 450th family about those missions and POW camps, two Romanian names were consistently brought up as critical to the POWs' daily survival and ultimate repatriation to Fifteenth Air Force headquarters: Princess Catherine Caradja and her cousin Captain Constantin Cantacuzino of the Romanian Air Force.
In recognition of their extraordinary efforts in protecting the POWs, a group of family members of the 450th Bomb Group are working with Anna Rita Morleo, a civic leader of the City of Manduria and our main contact, to create and dedicate plaques for the Princess and the Captain. We are seeking donations from interested parties to honor these two remarkable individuals to underwrite the costs of the plaques' production and their installation. They will be placed inside Cottontail Park in Manduria, where trees, now numbering over 50, have been dedicated to the brave airmen of the 450th.
If enough funding can be raised, a permanent exhibit of the stories of the Princess and the Captain will be created and displayed at the Museo Civico di Manduria, a museum of the 450th bomb group and the people of Manduria.
Donations of any amount can be made through a special paypal account by CLICKING HERE
Princess Catherine Caradja
Operation Tidal Wave, the infamous raid on Ploesti in August of 1943, left the fields of central Romania strewn with downed American aviators. Many of them were wounded, some severely. They were hunted by the local constabulary, the Romanian army, and German troops and were soon picked up and hauled off to prison camps. ?A few of the lucky ones found their way to a lady of about 50 years of age, dressed in a white nurse's uniform with a blue cross. She personally took charge of them, dressed their wounds, gave them shelter, and shielded them from their pursuers. She cared for them in a complex of orphanages known as St. Catherine's Crib, which she had operated for more than 20 years. When they were well enough to travel, she helped as many of them as she could to escape to Italy.
She also showed nothing but kindness and compassion to the downed airmen whom she encountered in POW camps during the war. She continually made efforts to ease their burden of captivity, continually visiting them in their camps, and bringing them gifts of soap, toothpaste, and cigarettes. ?She also helped them get into contact with the International Red Cross so their loved ones would be informed that they were alive. She came to be much loved by the POWs.
Princess Catherine first became known internationally as a result of her opposition to Nazi occupation of Romania during World War II. After the war, her rank, demeanor and connections, which had fortified her against most Nazi reprisals, were of little use against the Communists. Her orphanages and foundation were nationalized in 1949, and in the winter of 1952 the princess was forced to flee. In December 1955, the Princess received a visa to come to the United States. She lived in Texas but traveled extensively across America, speaking at various venues. She found more than 500 of the former prisoners of war from Romania and organized a reunion in Dallas, Texas, on August 28, 1972, an event that continued to be held each year for many years, with the Princess as the guest of honor and main speaker. ?
In 1991, after the revolution of 1989 overthrew the Communists, the new Romanian government restored about 20 acres of Princess Catherine's former estate to her. She returned to her native land a few months later, at age 98, to take up residence at her old orphanage. She died there about two years later at the age of 100. On her death, she was given the honor of a memorial service in Bucharest's historic Kretzulescu Church and was buried in the family tomb near her mother, two daughters, and grandparents. One of her boys, William J. Fili of the 720th Squadron, wrote, “By her very presence she encouraged us to feel like human beings again. We knew someone cared.”
Captain Constantin Cantacuzino
On August 27, 1944, four days after King Michael's coup that ousted the Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu and put Romania on the side of the Allies, the new Romanian War Minister agreed to let Lt. Col. James Gunn, the commanding officer of the POWs in Romania, fly a plane to Italy. Thus began Operation Reunion, the repatriation of the POWs in Romania. After 30 minutes in the air where Gunn sat in the engineer's seat of an old Italian light bomber, the pilot turned back to Bucharest claiming the right engine was acting up.
As a frustrated Gunn stepped out of the aircraft, he was met by Romanian Air Force Captain Constantin Cantacuzino, a Messerschmitt pilot of considerable renown and a member of the Royal family. Bazu, as he was called, told Gunn in perfect English that he would fly him to Italy if the colonel would agree to lie prone in the fuselage aft of the cockpit of his Messerschmitt. Gunn eagerly agreed. After much haggling with the Romanian government, Gunn and Bazu returned to the airfield, and Bazu took him aside and whispered to him that the plan to leave in several hours was now too widely known. He suggested they broadly announce that they would leave early the next day, but instead take off immediately after the plane was made ready, which included painting a large American flag on both sides of the fuselage of the German-made Messerschmitt. As they waited, Gunn and Bazu discussed the flight details. Gunn drew Bazu a crude map of the flight route to his home base in San Giovanni near the Fifteenth AF Headquarters.
To fit Gunn into the fuselage, the plane's radio was removed. Gunn was provided warm clothing and under the pretext of trying out the arrangement, Gunn crawled in. Bazu replaced the cockpit cover to the radio cabin, jumped into the cockpit, and off they went. The time was 5:20PM on August 27. For safety, Bazu flew at 20,000 feet. Gunn, without oxygen, assured Bazu he'd be fine for the length of the flight but would kick on the cockpit wall if he got into trouble so Bazu would know to drop altitude. The flight was uneventful as Bazu easily followed the crude map. As previously agreed, he lowered his wheels and flaps and circled the field once, rocking his wings slowly as he came in to land, touching down at 7:20PM.
Bazu opened his cockpit hatch, stood up with a white flag, and carefully climbed out. Speaking in perfect English to calm down the many confused onlookers pointing rifles at him – he was in a Messerschmitt but painted with American flags! – he confidently removed the cockpit panel. The Americans were shocked to see Colonel Gunn pop out of the cockpit, stiff and still a bit dizzy from hypoxia, but all in all in fine shape. After a quick meal and salutations from everyone at the base, Gunn telephoned Fifteenth Air Force Headquarters to inform them of the situation in Bucharest. He was told to come to Bari immediately with Bazu– a one-hour drive – to meet with General Nathan Twining, commander of the Fifteenth Air Force
Planning for an evacuation began immediately upon their arrival. Bazu was integral to leading the Air Force advance unit to the airdrome outside of Bucharest that housed the POWs that had been gathered from the three camps around Bucharest and Ploesti. The next day, every one of the ~1,100 POWs was safely flown to Fifteenth Air Force Headquarters in Bari in the bomb bays of B-17 Flying Fortresses.
Sadly, Captain Cantacuzino's fate was not as celebrated as the Princess'. ?Romania's slide into a Communist dictatorship was a disaster for the Romanians who had helped to free the downed airmen. When Romania's Communist regime confiscated private properties, Prince Constantine “Bazu” Cantacuzino, the intrepid fighter ace, lost all his land. His wife left him. But his spirit did not die. ? In 1952, Bazu defected and settled in Milan, then Spain. With financial assistance from the Romanian community there, he purchased a biplane and eked out a living as an aerobatic pilot. He flew it at air shows for the rest of his life. He tried repeatedly without success to obtain permission to immigrate to the United States. In Spain his health problems got worse and he died there on May 26, 1958 at the age of 53. The intrepid prince's heroic role in rescuing nearly 1,200 allied POWs has never been recognized or honored by the United States in any way.