Editor’s Note: The following is a revised version of a Lee County Neighbors story originally published on Jan. 20, 1999:
To his friends, Jake Epting was just an average guy. The Tupelo native was a friendly fellow who greeted people with a smile.
“He was a likeable person,” said Guy Gravlee, a Tupelo resident and longtime friend of Epting’s. “He was just an ordinary regular guy. I knew him real well.”
Epting was often called “Little Jake” because of his slim 5-foot-6, 140-pound build. However, he was anything but little when he climbed aboard a huge bomber that bore the name of his hometown and flew into enemy territory during World War II.
The popular Epting was a decorated B-24 pilot during the war. He and his crew flew their missions in a plane he personally named the “Tupelo Lass.”
At a time when 25 missions were enough to rotate a flyer home, Epting and crew of the Tupelo Lass went past that limit to fly in a critical aerial assault — the 1943 raid on the German’s oil refineries in Ploesti, Romania.
Epting is remembered by friends and those who served with him on the Tupelo Lass for his bravery in wartime.
“He was a flying soul,” said Billy Booth, another friend from Tupelo. “He loved flying. He was real lucky to come out of the war.”
Wanted to fly
Booth, who graduated along with Epting from Tupelo High School in 1938, said “Little Jake” seemed destined to become a military pilot. The two, along with Gravlee, eventually served their country in the Army Air Corps in North Africa.
“I knew him from the first grade up. He never missed a day of school,” Booth said. “He went to Mississippi State for a year and he didn’t like it. He wanted to go to Kelly Field (in Texas). It was one of our big air bases then. The war hadn’t started then, but they accepted him. He graduated at the very top of his class, and by the time he graduated the war started.”
Epting was assigned to the 409th Bomb Squadron, 93rd Bombardment Group. The 93rd was nicknamed “Ted’s Traveling Circus” for its leader, Col. Ted Timberlake, and the many missions it flew throughout Europe and Africa.
“I was a little later than Jake was,” said Gravlee, who was a member of the 97th, a B-17 bomber outfit. “My old group commander, Gen. Jake Smart, helped plan the (Ploesti) raid. That came off about the time I got over there. Billy Booth saw him down there in North Africa.”
While stationed in England, Epting met King George VI and Queen Elizabeth when the royal couple visited his base. According to an article documenting the visit, the queen asked Epting his hometown.
“Tupelo, Mississippi, ma’am,” Epting said.
“Oh, yes,” the queen responded, “that’s the lovely little town between Memphis and Birmingham.”
After losing his first plane, Epting returned to England to lead a crew in another plane. With the opportunity to give the plane its own identity, the young airman thought about home and chose the name “Tupelo Lass.”
Epting made an impression on his Tupelo Lass crew.
“He was a very, very nice man, an excellent pilot,” said Arthur Ferwerda, a New Jersey resident who served as a crew chief in the 93rd. “I had often wondered about him because he was rather short. I had thought why he didn’t end up being a fighter pilot.”
Ferwerda said in a telephone interview the crew was a diverse group of men from throughout the country. One member was Ben Kuroki, the only American-born Japanese-American who was allowed to fly in heavy bombers for the Army Air Corps during WWII.
Booth, who was stationed at an air service group in Tripoli during the war, recalls a conversation he had with Epting about Kuroki.
“He said he was the best tailgunner in his class,” Booth said. “When the Army was assigning people, Jake said he told them, ‘If he’s the best gunner around, then I don’t give a damn what he is. I want the best there is’.”
Kuroki, the subject of the PBS documentary “Most Honorable Son,” said Epting asked the crew whether anybody objected to bringing him onboard. Nobody did.
“For the first time since Pearl Harbor, I felt that I belonged,” Kuroki said in the documentary. “Words cannot describe how great it felt to be accepted and respected. There was no bigotry among crewmen. Nobody questioned your religion or your ancestry.”
In 1943, the Tupelo Lass was sent from England to northern Africa to practice low-level flights in preparation for the attack on Ploesti. The low-level flying was necessary for the bombers to sneak into Romania under the German radar.
On Aug. 1, 1943, the Tupelo Lass joined 177 other long-range, low-level Liberators as they took off from from Benghazi, Libya, to start Operation Tidal Wave. The targets were oil refineries located on the edge of Ploesti; they produced more than 50 percent of the crude oil for the Nazis.
The bombers were greeted by German “flak” (anti-aircraft shelling) before reaching Ploesti, but they continued the attack.
In their book “Ploesti,” James Dugan and Carroll Stewart described the fighting the Tupelo Lass faced:
“In ‘Tupelo Lass,’ Jake Epting called off the flak batteries for his gunners. Eight o’clock! Twelve o’clock! Three o’clock! Shoot all over! The plane ahead was chewing the air, but to hell with prop wash. We went as low as we could. It was safer than standing in the range of all those guns. We went into the target at 20 feet.”
It was a miracle the Tupelo Lass survived, according to Kuroki.
“At our height, you could have brought down a Liberator with a shotgun,” he said. “It was like a nightmare. We couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw that blazing tank high above us. Tupelo Lass had to swerve sharply to avoid what was really a cloud of fire. It was so hot it felt as though we were flying through a furnace.”
Kuroki said the Tupelo Lass “flew out intact, banked southwest into a broad Ploesti boulevard, noting ribbons of tracer bullets coming like an illusion of railway tracks. Tupelo Lass lowered to bus-top level and drove down the street going through a million red lights.
“(Epting) is one of the best pilots I’ve ever seen,” Kuroki added. “He pulled us out of a lot of tough spots when we thought we were goners.”
Operation Tidal Wave, unfortunately, was a costly one for the U.S. Army Air Corps. It’s known as “Black Sunday” for the loss of 53 aircraft and 660 air crewmen. It was one of the costliest missions for the U.S. in the European Theater. Five Medals of Honor were awarded to Tidal Wave crewmembers, and numerous Distinguished Service Crosses.
‘Ace of a pilot’
The Tupelo Lass flew to the air base in Tripoli for repairs following the mission. It also gave Epting a chance to catch up with his Tupelo High classmate, Booth.
“I believe there were three planes flying over our field, and one of his engines went out,” Booth said. “He just dropped out of formation and landed. I didn’t know at the time that it was Jake who peeled out of formation.
“When he landed here, he went to our operations shack and he had a letter from home. His mother had written to him. He read it and it said, ‘Bill Booth was over there in North Africa. If you’re ever over there, look him up’.”
Booth said Epting took him inside the Tupelo Lass. After installing a new engine, the Tupelo Lass crew flew back to England.
“It had the heck shot out of it,” Booth said. “He had big ole flak holes in the wings and through the fuselage. They really worked him over, but he made it in. Jake was real proud of those flak holes. They were shooting at him from the buildings and he just barreled right down through Ploesti. It was something to be proud of.”
Epting rotated back to the United States after completing his missions. He was with a B-29 bomber group in Tampa when the war ended.
Ferwerda isn’t sure what happened to the Tupelo Lass. The plane, however, lives on photos posted on Ferwerda’s Web site: http://www.cis.rit.edu/people/faculty/ferwerda/caf/caf.html
“If you look at the Web site, there is a photo of me shaking hands with Ben Kuroki,” Ferwerda said. “That’s the Tupelo Lass we’re standing in front of.”
After his military discharge, Epting moved to Jackson and worked for a securities company. He continued to fly for the company and privately until his death in October 1988 at age 68.
“He was a real ace of a pilot,” Booth said. “Man, he was good. He was sure ‘nuff good.”
Bobby Pepper/Lee County Neighbors