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Friday, February 11, 2011

Uncle Sammy update

Some crew members of Cabin in the Sky
Some time ago, I wrote a post about my Uncle Sammy, my father’s brother who died in World War II. I related the amazing story about how I learned the details of his death more than 50 years after the fact. I included some of the documents and photographs, including one remarkable photo of his airplane in flight shortly before it was shot down. All of the information had been provided to me by a gentleman named Donald Olds, who is the historian of the 453rd Bomb Group Association, which I had come across while web surfing.

Now, I have gathered more information about my uncle and the other airmen who served with him from two recently published books.

The first is “An Emotional Gauntlet”, by Stuart J. Wright, University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. The book tells the story of the crew members of a “Liberator” bomber, nicknamed “Corky”, and its crew members. These young men were members of the 453rd, having trained at March Field, Riverside, California, and at fields in Idaho, before being stationed at Old Buckenham, England in January, 1944 along with many other B-24 crews of the 733rd Squadron.

The 733rd was one of four squadrons (732nd, 733rd, 734th, 735th), of the 453rd Bomb Group, which was one of three groups (including the 389th and 445th), which were part of the 2nd Combat Bomb Wing, one of five Wings of Liberators assigned to the 2nd Bomb Division, one of three divisions of the 8th Air Force.

According to this book, “from January to June, 1944, less than forty-one percent of airmen in the 8th Air Force survived fifteen missions ... Less than twenty-eight percent would survive twenty-five missions.”

The author writes that while at March Field, Lt. Donald Lawry, then “Corky’s” navigator, decided to marry his high school sweetheart. His pilot, Bill Eagelson, was to be his best man. "Bill and Lt. Samuel ‘Sammy’ Borenstein, a navigator from the squadron and one of Donald’s closest friends, went out and bought a wedding present and a card.” The wedding occurred at March Field in November, 1943. “Sammy Borenstein and some of the other officers from the 733rd were also present.”

Shortly thereafter the crews ferried their bombers across the U.S., down the coast of South America, across the Atlantic, up the west coast of Africa and eventually arrived at their bases in England to begin combat operations.

Wright notes that a big part of their mission was to lay the groundwork for the eventual invasion of Europe. He gives an almost day-by-day summary of their actions, which helps give a feel for what my uncles’ life must have been like in the months he had left to live.

February 5, 1944 was the first combat mission for the Group. Their target was an airfield in German occupied France, near Tours. On the 6th, the Group bombed a secret base under construction in Siracourt, France. Though the specifics were unknown to the crews, it was in fact a base preparing to launch V-1's the so-called buzz bombs, one of Hitler’s secret weapons. On the 8th, the officers celebrated Bill Eagelson’s 23rd birthday. On the 10th, they bombed an airfield in Holland, and an installation in Hamburg on the 11th.

February 20, 1944 began what was called “Big Week,” seven consecutive days of bombing intended to weaken the German air force. The USAAF and the RAF began round the clock bombing of aircraft plants and other factories, while escort fighter planes would weed out the German fighters that were lured into the sky in defense.

This is a reminder that the American bombers were not only part of a plan of “strategic bombing” intended to destroy military targets, and later to include targets which critics have charged were civilian and without military importance, but were rather chosen for purposes of vengeance, intimidation, or terror. Whatever, it is also true that, at this point in the war, it was crucial to insure air superiority over France and thus destruction of the Luftwaffe was paramount. The American bombers thus served as bait. By June 6, 1944, D-Day, the German Air Force was unable to hamper the invasion and the USAAF ruled the skies over France, and much of Germany itself.

The author writes that “during Big Week, Allied bombers dropped 18,000 tons of bombs on Germany, halving the planned fighter production for the month ahead and significantly influencing the course of the war. But this military success came at a price — from the 8th Air Force alone, one thousand five hundred eighty-seven American airmen were missing in action [either dead or prisoners].”

On February 22, Lt. Don Lawry, earlier described as my uncle’s close friend, whose wedding he had recently attended, was reported as “missing in action, presumed dead” after another B-24 to which he had been loaned as a navigator, crashed into the North Sea and exploded while returning from a mission.

On March 6, the entire Group joined other groups in a “maximum effort”, bombing Berlin. Wright’s lengthy and detailed description of the mission, based on eyewitness accounts, is breathtaking. He concludes, “The 8th Air Force lost sixty-nine bombers ... the heaviest losses it had so far endured in one day. Another one hundred made it back but needed major repairs.”

My uncle, it seems, was not the only Jewish navigator from Brooklyn in the squadron. Wright reports about Lt. Seymour Cohen, who became “Corky’s” navigator after the death of Donald Lawry. Cohen was born in Brooklyn, but unlike my uncle, he moved with his family to Bayonne, New Jersey, studied law at what is now Seton Hall in Jersey City. My uncle had studied chemistry at Brooklyn College.

Like many other young Jewish American men, Cohen was anxious to volunteer to fight Nazis. Also as a Jew, it was suspected that he was assigned to navigation because of the prejudice that “Jews are good with numbers.” Both of those notions may also have applied to Sam. Although not specifically mentioned in the book, I imagine that he and Seymour Cohen must have been friends.

[While describing the book to one of my friends, a lawyer who, like me, began in the public defender’s office in the mid-‘60's, I mentioned the above facts. He then related that he knew an older public defender named Marv Schwartz, who had been a navigator during the war, and had been the command navigator on the famous Ploesti, Romania oil field raid. Schwartz told my friend that his war experiences had haunted him. In fact, he later exhibited depressive behavior and died tragically.]

Wright also notes that: “there were several thousand Jewish fliers in the 8th Air Force but it was understood that in the event of being captured by German civilians or the military and taken prisoner, they might not have the same chances of survival. Jewish prisoners were more likely to be subjected to physical violence than were other captured airmen — and all airmen, whatever their religion, were vulnerable to lynching in captured by German civilians who sought revenge for Allied bombing.”

All airmen were provided with alternative “civilian” false ID papers, for use if they bailed out over enemy land and wanted to melt in before contacting an underground unit. American dog tag I.D.’s included obvious codes for religion: “C” for Catholic, “H” for Hebrew, etc. The Jewish airmen who bailed out thus had a problem: bury the dog tags and perhaps be called a spy, or keep them and be executed.

Of the more than eight thousand Allied airmen who were POW’s, several hundred were Jews in Stalag Luft I alone. “One survivor testified that when Heinrich Himmler visited the camp, he gave the order” to shoot all the Jewish POW’s, but the other prisoners threatened to riot, and the orders “were not carried out.” (P.171.) “However, in January, 1945, Jewish prisoners ... were moved to barracks on an isolated compound. Chilling rumors circulated that they were to be marched to death camps, but ... this did not happen. Meanwhile, the Jewish prisoners lived in constant fear.”

On March 18th, the 453rd’s Commanding Officer, Col. Joseph Miller, was killed on a mission. The Group was getting the reputation as a hard luck outfit. Miller was replaced by Lt. Col. Ramsey Potts, who was (!) twenty-seven years old.

On March 23, the Group bombed a railroad marshaling yard near Münster, Germany, incurring additional losses. The author observes, “In less than seven weeks the 453rd Bomb Group had flown twenty three combat missions ... and had endured severe losses of aircraft and personnel. A significant number of the original crews had either been killed or were now prisoners of war.... The survivors frequently found themselves sleeping in half-empty huts as the memories of names and faces grew forever hazy.” (P.172).

Nonetheless, despite the losses and recurring bad weather, the Group continued to fly missions. Toward the end of March, they flew several mission to targets in France, including airfields.

Then came the 27th of March. Here’s how Mr. Wright describes my uncle’s last mission. At about ten a.m., twenty-three planes of the 453rd BG began the mission to bomb a Luftwaffe training field near Pau, in southern France. “Corky” had to turn back due to mechanical troubles. But “Cabin in the Sky,” a B-24 from the 735th Squadron, the lead ship of the Group, went on. In addition to the regular nine man crew, it also contained the Group Operations Officer, Maj. Curtis Cofield as the command pilot, and as command navigator, Lt. Samuel Borenstein, from the 733rd.

Struck by flak, “witnesses counted as nine parachutes appeared from the burning 'Cabin in the Sky,' just before it plummeted into the Bay of Biscay, five miles off shore near the Isle d’Oleron at 1559 hours. Five of the crew were seen to be picked up immediately, presumably by enemy surface craft. However, no member of the crew was ever reported to be a prisoner of war and none of them was seen or heard from again. The remains of the ball turret gunner [S/Sgt. Clinton W. Caldwell, Jr.] were recovered by the enemy and were allegedly interred at sea. The remains of six others including Maj. Cofield were later washed ashore adjacent to La Rochelle, France. The other four members of the crew were not accounted for, and it was concluded that they were lost at sea.” (P. 175.)

Major Cofield was replaced as Group Operations Officer by Maj. James Stewart, who had been commander of the 703rd Squadron of the 445th Bomb Group, stationed as nearby Tibenham Airfield. His wartime service is chronicled in a fascinating book by Starr Smith, titled “Jimmy Stewart, Bomber Pilot," Zenith Press, 2005. “An Emotional Gauntlet” covers much of the same time and events from the perspective of the airmen who served under him.

It seems clear from the documentation and many interviews with those airmen that Jimmy Stewart was not merely a movie star celebrity who looked good in a uniform. He flew many of the most hazardous missions as a pilot of a B-24, even after assuming command responsibilities. Wright quotes one of the gunnery trainers at Old Buckenham, a Sgt. Walter Matthau, who claimed to be an aspiring actor after the war, about Stewart’s apparent charisma as he spoke to crews about the day’s coming missions. “I used to like to go to the briefings, because I’d like to see him do his ‘Jimmy Stewart.’” Matthau joined many others in admiration for Stewart’s competence as combat leader.

On the contrary, some made somewhat less kind remarks about Sgt. Clark Gable, who had been a gunner in the 8th Air Force, had flown five missions, been given an Air Medal, and been shipped home for bond drives.

Both books deal with the question of whether the 453rd was a “hard luck” outfit that suffered from low morale, and faces head on the inference that the cause was poor leadership. The deaths of the C. O., Col. Miller, and the G.O.O, Maj. Cofield, highlighted the high casualty rate suffered by the group. Other signs of problems, including an allegedly high number of aborted missions, and forced landings in neutral Switzerland, were subject of rumors. Smith’s book naturally credits Stewart with turning the tide, changing the luck.

Wright, however, points out that the causes of the better “luck” were more complicated than new leadership. By late Spring, the weather had improved, as well as the combat experience of the crews. Early on, German fighter pilots figured out that the pilots of the new group, whose planes were all marked with a black “J” in a white circle on the vertical tails, were green, and they took advantage of them. New equipment, improving bomb and gunnery skills, and most importantly, improved long range fighter escorts by Mustangs, which whittled down the Luftwaffe’s best pilots, accounted for the improvement.

In an epilog, Mr. Wright follows the surviving members of the “Corky” crew into their postwar life all the way to the end. Some were still alive as of the writing of the new Afterward, 2007. The descriptions of the passage of this generation gave me a melancholy feeling, realizing that my uncle Sammy missed a life and all that happened in the sixty-seven years since his death.

Some time after I posted about my uncle, I received a comment from a gentleman named Don Dzikowski, whose great uncle was also on “Cabin in the Sky” when all perished. S/Sgt. Jack T. Myers was the right waist gunner. (Like my uncle, he was not a regular member of this plane’s crew.) Mr. Dzikowski had also contacted Don Olds, received many of the same documents and photos I had, and was in touch with other family members who were trying to reconstruct the memories of their lost relatives. 

Just recently (6/26/2016), I received another email regarding these posts: 

My name is Jim Wrobleski, from St Paul, MN. I came across a WWII  bomber navigator's mission diary at an estate sale here. I learned it is the diary of Fred (Fritz) Stein, of Cold Spring, MN who is deceased. I have attached to this note a picture of his diary entry for May 27, 1944 concerning your uncle's mission over Pau, France that day. I found your blog entry concerning your uncle and thought you might want to have this. I hope so anyway.

In Stuart J. Wright's book, Emotional Gauntlet, he mentions Lt. Fred Stein (at p. 248-249):
On 8 May, the navigator, Lt. Fred Stein, was forced to bail out of his crippled Liberator while returning from a mission over Brunswick, Germany. After bombing the aircraft factory there, the members of the crew (except for pilot Lt. Donald Jones, and his co-pilot, who were able to crash land) all bailed out. Stein landed in an English field. Men of the Home Guard carrying pitchforks and shotguns came up. 

"Exhausted by his flight and disoriented from his parachute jump, Lt. Stein addressed the Englishmen ... 'Am I glad to see you guys!' The problem was he said it in German."

Stein was a Minnesotan, acquainted with many German speakers. He had decided that if he was ever shot down in Germany he would save himself by speaking German. 

Now he was rushed to the police station under arrest ... until it was cleared up and he was permitted to return to his Old Buckenham base. 

In our memories their lives continue to be felt.


  1. Mr Borenstein,

    I happened across the mission diary of Fred Stein, navigator aboard "Flack Hack," one of your uncle's squadron, at an estate sale. I am sending you, via email, his note on the May 27, 1944 mission to Pau.

    Jim Wrobleski
    St Paul, MN

    1. I received the above email the other day. It includes a picture of Fred Stein's note. It says:
      FORM I TIME: 9:50 BOMBS 12-500 LB G.P.
      REMARKS: Pau, located near Spanish border , advanced training field, was covered with direct hits. Blew it all to pieces. Lost our lead crew with Sammy Borenstein, squadron navigator. Bailed out [illegible.] His own fault as he went over known flack area. Good visibility nearly all the way. Several ships fired inaccurate flak at us. Picked up several flak holes.