Pioche-raised Roscoe Wilkes became a respected judge and district attorney in Lincoln County.
Not too many local veterans of U.S. military service have published stories of their wartime experience, but the late Judge Wilkes did. One, in particular, is found in his book High Desert Tales.
Graduating in 1936 from Lincoln County High School, Wilkes worked in the mines of Pioche. He eventually went to college and earned a teaching degree, returning to teach at Pioche Elementary.
After the U.S. entered World War II, Wilkes joined the Army Air Corps (forerunner of the Air Force) in 1942 and was assigned to a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber as a navigator.
By May 1944, he had flown 29 missions. Now number 30 was on tap.
Lt. Wilkes wrote that “My war experiences do not justify claiming to have done anything outstanding or heroic. I do claim to have given an honest effort to perform all tasks assigned to me to the best of my ability and to have been a reliable American soldier, nothing more.”
The early morning briefing of May 5, 1944, at the air base in Italy had several squadrons gathering.
The rich oil fields of Nazi-held Ploesti, Romania, and its 10 refineries, 30-miles north of Bucharest, had been severely damaged in numerous raids in the summer of 1943 but were still operating at full capacity by the time Wilkes’ B-24 went there, again. From March to August 1944, B-24s from the 15th Air Force under Gen. Nathan Twining conducted numerous bombing runs on Ploesti. This would be another.
They were to find out that Ploesti, essential to Hitler’s extensive war machine, had become the third-best defended spot in Europe, and bombing it was always costly.
Wilkes writes that gasps and sighs drowned out further remarks when the announcement was made for the target for the day. “We knew we would be in for a first-class dogfight, no question. Those oil fields and refineries would be heavily defended.”
Seven hours of flight time to the target. Each crew member knew what his duties were and were prepared to perform them. They had done it 29 times before anyway, but this was no time to get cocky.
The target was in sight. The ground-based enemy anti-aircraft fire was busy. The bomb-bay doors were opened. Ack-ack fragments peppered the plane’s metal exterior like hailstones on a tin roof.
“Then over the intercom: ‘Eleven o’clock high-fighters.’ Then another voice: ‘Five o’clock low-ME109, maybe they won’t hit us. Seconds later there was a heavy thud. A bit of silence was interrupted by a waist gunner on the intercom. ‘We’re on fire back here; it’s bad.’ The pilot ordered, ‘Bailout.’ There was no discussion.”
Wilkes bailed out the nosewheel door at 27,000 feet.
He notes in his book that floating down in his parachute took a “goodly piece of time” from that altitude. “I recall how quiet it had become, so very, very quiet. It was an extraordinary beautiful spring day with only a few stately white clouds to be seen … what a view!”
Suddenly Wilkes saw a German ME109 coming at him with a very slight downward slant. He wrote, “As the fighter closed in, the pilot slowed down, lowered the wing closest to me, put the plane in a steep bank, and circled 360 degrees around me. While doing so I saw his arm swing upward, waving at me. He then straightened the plane and flew away. I do believe I can step into that pilot’s mind and reveal his mindset, his thinking: ‘That guy out there is a fellow airman who has fallen on hard times. He has all the trouble he needs … I will not give him more.’”
Wilkes landed in enemy territory and was later taken prisoner by the German Army occupying Romania and held in a prisoner of war camp in Bucharest for five months before being released when the Soviet Red Army entered the city August 31, 1944.
He does not mention what happened to any of the others of the 10-man crew of his plane that day, although it is known at least two others escaped.