Laguna’s Patriots Day Parade will honor WWII pilot who flew daring raid


Bob Sternfels flew 50 missions as a pilot with the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, but one particular mission stands out — an air raid on refineries that supplied the German military near Ploesti, Romania, on Aug. 1, 1943.

“What happened I’ll never forget,” Sternfels said in an interview. “That is the only time in my life when I wondered whether I was going to get through the situation.”

The 96-year-old Laguna Woods resident, who received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service during the mission, which temporarily halted more than 40% of Ploesti’s refining capacity, will be celebrated as the Honored Patriot at Saturday’s 51st Laguna Beach Patriots Day Parade.

The parade, which honors citizens who have served the community or the nation in time of war or national emergency, will begin at 11 a.m. on Park Avenue near Laguna Beach High School. It will proceed along portions of Glenneyre Street and Forest Avenue before concluding in front of City Hall.

In addition to Sternfels, this year’s honorees include grand marshals Aria and Makenzie Fischer, sisters who were on the U.S. women’s water polo team that won gold during last summer’s Rio Olympics; Citizen of the Year Douglas Miller, a painter, photographer and musician; Artist of the Year John Barber, who specializes in glass blowing; junior citizens of the year Wyatt Shipp and Madison Sinclair, both seniors at Laguna Beach High; program cover artist Jared Ghetian, a Laguna Beach High senior; and essay contest winner Claire Tigner, an eighth-grade student at Thurston Middle School.

For Sternfels, the parade offers a chance to return to Laguna Beach, where he and his wife, Nancy — who raised two sons together — spent a portion of their 67 years of marriage.

She died in 2010, and Sternfels moved to Laguna Woods four years ago.

Photos of Sternfels’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren adorn his apartment, along with paintings of “The Sandman,” the B-24 bomber that Sternfels flew during the raid. A replica of the bomber, which Sternfels’ son Robert built for a Christmas present, sits in a glass case.

Sternfels, who was born in Detroit in 1920, enlisted in the Army after the attack on Pearl Harbor and proved a quick study, rising through the ranks of lieutenant and captain to, at age 23, a major who commanded a squadron, according to the Patriots Day website.

He had flown 15 missions before Ploesti, which deviated from typical formations because aircraft flew at an altitude of 250 feet instead of 20,000 or 25,000 feet, Sternfels said.

The attack, which employed 177 B-24 bombers, had to be carried out at very low altitudes to increase bombing accuracy, making crews extremely vulnerable to enemy anti-aircraft fire, the Patriots Day website said.

“The Germans learned what we were going to do and set up machine guns,” Sternfels said.

Allied forces had estimated that the refineries at the heart of the bombing mission produced a significant portion of Germany’s petroleum needs.

Aircraft traveled more than 1,000 miles from their station in Benghazi, Libya, to Romania, said Sternfels, adding that he was in the air a total of 14 hours and 20 minutes.

Smoke from burning refineries filled the sky. In one of the most recognizable photos from the mission, “The Sandman” is seen emerging from a plume of smoke.

The mission is generally considered one of the costliest in the European Theater for the U.S. Army Air Forces — the military aviation service of the U.S. during and immediately after World War II and predecessor of the Air Force. Dozens of aircraft and hundreds of crewman were lost.

Parade President Charles Quilter, who flew attack missions during the Vietnam War and studies military history, considers Ploesti “one of the fiercest aerial battles” of World War II.

Quilter lauded Sternfels’ perseverance through 50 missions.

“In my opinion, he is extremely fortunate to survive that number of missions,” Quilter said. “It’s a tribute to his skills as a pilot and a large amount of luck.

“Speaking as a combat pilot, you make your own luck by being good at what you do. You stand in awe for the courage to get in an airplane, fly over enemy territory and attack strategic targets.”



What: 51st annual Laguna Beach Patriots Day Parade

When: 11 a.m. Saturday

Where: Parade will begin at 11 a.m. at 625 Park Ave., in front of Laguna Beach High School, then progress along Glenneyre Street and Forest Avenue to City Hall, at 505 Forest Ave.


Twitter: @AldertonBryce