A recent photo of Sternfels, who, at 97, is as sharp as ever.
The most daring of 50 World War II missions flown by U.S. Air Force pilot Robert W. Sternfels involved the bombing of petroleum refineries in Ploiesti, Romania, known as Operation Tidal Wave. The refineries provided oil to the Nazi war machine. Close to 50 B-24 Liberators were destroyed in the air strike, each with a 10-man crew.
The bombing remains the second most costly battle in Air Force history. In the battle, five Medals of Honor were awarded, three posthumously.
Sternfels received several decorations, including a Silver Star, the third highest honor for valor in combat.
“He was awarded a Silver Star for basically taking over the lead for over a 100-plane formation, leading the charge, so to speak, in Ploiesti,” said Charlie Quilter, president of the Patriots Day Parade planned for March 4 where Sternfels will be honored as patriot of the year.
“Bob really was one of the lucky ones. I realized he was really one of the few survivors of Operation Tidal wave,” said Quilter, a former Marine Corps fighter pilot. “I had met him years ago,” he said, and that the two former pilots “had a connection.”
In all, Sternfels is credited with 50 missions completed, twice the average number of missions for pilots back then, according to Quilter. “It’s a small miracle.” Sternfels was promoted to major at the young age of 23.
The parade committee celebrated Sternfels and other parade honorees at a brunch earlier this month.
“I didn’t expect it at all. I’m thrilled,” said Sternfels, 97, about the award. The longtime resident first settled in Laguna Beach in the ‘50s.
A native of Detroit, Sternfels at 18 became a dentistry equipment salesman. His interests lay elsewhere. Spending close to half his pay, he took flying lessons in small single engine planes. Immediately after the U.S. joined the war, Sternfels enlisted.
“I enlisted just after the attack on Pearl Harbor. I enlisted in the Air Force, because I had this idea that pilots got special treatment and were pampered in a way,” said Sternfels.
Nine months later, he was training with the legendary B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers. He would later be assigned to pilot a B- 24 Liberator. Sternfels and his crew were assigned an aircraft that lacked the usual olive drab paint job, but instead was a neutral beige, which led to it being christened “The Sandman.” That plane and crew would eventually end up at an airfield just south of Benghazi, Libya, in May of 1943. Sternfels flew on dozens of combat missions assigned to the 345th Bombardment Squadron.
After the war, Sternfels went on to marry Nancy Barker, who was introduced to him by his wingman and navigator from the war. The two were married for 67 years until her death in 2010. They have two sons, Robert and Mark.
Sternfels went back to sales work along the west coast and eventually retiring after 42 years.
The 51st Patriots Day Parade sets out at 11 a.m. and will follow its usual path, starting at the high school and ending in front of City Hall on Forest Avenue. Sternfels won’t be marching, but taking the luxury route in a Cadillac convertible from a fitting year, 1941.
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