08/02/2021 | News release | Distributed by Public on 08/02/2021 02:01
Army Maj. John Jerstad spent nearly a year flying over Europe during World War II. By the summer of 1943, he'd completed all of his required missions, but he decided to volunteer for one more. He never returned from that mission, but his bravery during its execution earned him the Medal of Honor.
Jerstad was born Feb. 12, 1918, in Racine, Wisconsin, to Arthur and Alice Jerstad. He was active in the Boy Scouts when he was young and had a sister named Mary. After high school, Jerstad went to Northwestern University. During his years of study, he also ran a summer camp for kids in his hometown, according to the Racine Journal Times. His sister told the newspaper in 2008 that Jerstad had taught school in Missouri for a year before enlisting in the Army as an aviation cadet in July 1941.
After training in California and Arizona, Jerstad was commissioned as a pilot on Feb. 6, 1942, and began his flying career with the 98th and 93rd Bomb Groups at Barksdale Air Field near Shreveport, Louisiana.
In October 1942, Jerstad was deployed with the 93rd to Europe, where he flew B-24 Liberators with the 328th Bomb Squadron. He took part in more than two dozen missions over the next few months and was promoted to major in April 1943.
A month later, he was reassigned to the headquarters of the 2nd Bomb Wing as a wing operations officer. He was involved in planning Operation Tidal Wave, a daring raid over Ploesti, Romania, to take out oil refineries and installations that supplied about two-thirds of Germany's petroleum production at that stage of the war.
Jerstad wasn't required to fly this mission because he was no longer directly connected to the 93rd Bomb Group that would carry it out, but he volunteered for it.
On Aug. 1, 1943, the 25-year-old Jerstad served as co-pilot of the lead aircraft, called Hell's Wench, for the low-level raid. More than 175 bombers took off on the more than 1,000-mile journey from Benghazi, Libya. According to the National Museum of the Air Force, clouds caused the formation to break into two groups, and a wrong turn also caused confusion. The bombers arrived near the target site disorganized and without the element of surprise. The area ended up being heavily defended, and they immediately faced heavy antiaircraft guns.
The bombers needed two pilots each to control the planes since the B-24s were hard to manage at low altitudes. That day, Jerstad was flying with Lt. Col. Addison Baker, who was the squadron's commander.
Three miles from the target, Jerstad and Baker's bomber was hit and caught fire. The pair knew they were flying over a field where they could force a landing, but they wouldn't complete their mission if they did. Instead, they kept flying to the target and successfully released their bombs.
By then, the fire that continued to burn in their plane became overwhelming, and they crashed into the target. However, according to the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force, prior to the crash, both pilots tried to climb out of their dive in a vain attempt to give other crew members a chance to bail out. Unfortunately, no one survived.
The raid destroyed 42 percent of the refining facility, striking a heavy blow to the Germans for several weeks. However, it took a heavy toll on the Allies, too. Fifty-four bombers were lost, and 532 of the 1,726 personnel involved had died, were missing or were taken prisoner.
Jerstad's bravery during the raid was quickly honored. On Nov. 21, 1943, Gen. Uzal Ent, the leader of the Ploesti mission, gave Jerstad's Medal of Honor to his parents in a ceremony at Holy Communion Church in Racine. Baker and three other men - Lt. Lloyd Hughes, Col. Leon Johnson and Col. John Kane - also received the nation's highest honor for the mission.
Jerstad was listed as missing in action for a long time. According to the Racine Journal Times, the Army called his parents seven years after his death to say they had finally found his remains.
The fallen pilot was buried at the Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium alongside more than 5,100 other fallen Americans from World War II.
In Jerstad's hometown, his legacy lives on. A duplicate of his Medal of Honor is on display at the Racine Veterans Legacy Museum. An elementary school was also named for Jerstad and Marine Corps Pfc. Harold Agerholm, another local World War II Medal of Honor recipient. Jerstad Avenue on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska is also named in his honor.