This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The American Jewish community and other institutions have done a commendable job of capturing the Holocaust story as seen through the eyes of survivors, liberators and others for the benefit of future generations. But I am concerned that as a community we have done a less effective job of conveying the experiences of courageous American war veterans, including hundreds of thousands of Jews, who put their lives on the line and were pivotal in bringing an end to the Nazi horrors in Europe.
This other challenge is or should be personal, familial. My adult children need to know about their late grandfather, Lt. Col. Maurice Raffel, z”l, a highly decorated B-17 pilot who from July-November 1944 flew 50 combat missions across Europe with the 483rd Bombardment Group. I started the process while he was still alive by taping an in-depth interview with him in the presence of my children. A copy of the tape is in the archive of the Veterans History Project located in the Library of Congress.
Still, I wanted this connection to be more visceral. When I discovered that a restored B-17 would be flying into an airfield near our hometown of Harrisburg, Pa., and offering rides to paying customers, I arranged for my son and nephew to go up with their grandfather for a 20-minute flight over the city. The organizers refused to accept any payment, and my father, a “celebrity” at the event, was interviewed by two local television stations. He passed away some seven months later. It was a deeply emotional experience for me, and I am hoping it planted lasting memories with his two grandsons.
Several months ago, quite out of the blue, I was contacted by Martin Weinstein, the sole surviving member of my father’s 10-person crew, the navigator, and the only other Jew. My father often talked about him with great fondness. His family and mine met together for brunch near his home on Long Island and shared riveting World War II stories. My children heard Weinstein describe their grandfather as one of the greatest men he had met in his lifetime, a genuine hero. In his autobiography, Weinstein describes my father as “a Jewish giant who gave everyone a sense of security with his take-charge attitude and his obvious competence as a pilot.”
Like many vets, my father suffered from nightmares for years after the war, waking up in the middle of the night with recurring visions of a bright light coming at him through a long tunnel — perhaps echoes of the heavy anti-aircraft fire he experienced on many of his missions. Indeed, I have several large chunks of jagged metal from exploding flak, which were pulled out from under his seat after a mission to Ploesti, Romania. This was the site of the heavily guarded Nazi oil refineries, and the bomber crews dreaded assignment to that target.
Having joined the military in his teens, Weinstein flew 47 bombing missions, and, as it turned out, the first one was to Ploesti. In his book, Weinstein wrote that he was out to “strike a blow against Hitler and the Nazis for Mom and FDR.” He sure accomplished it, and then some.
World War II was still a time of racial segregation in America. The U.S. military was no exception. My father talked glowingly about the Tuskegee Airmen, the exclusively African-American fighter pilots who flew escort in protection of the all white B-17 and B-24 heavy bomber crews. I eagerly went to see the movie “Red Tails,” which tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. In the movie, these African-American fighter pilots are based in Foggia, Italy, which also happened to be my father’s base. At first the Tuskegee fighter pilots suffer racist harassment from their fellow American servicemen. So when they encounter a group of white B-17 crewmen on the streets of Foggia and are asked whether they flew escort during a particularly difficult bomb run over Ploesti, the Tuskegee Airmen grow tense anticipating yet another negative experience. Instead, the white B-17 crewmen warmly express their appreciation and offer to buy them drinks. Obviously, this hit close to home for me. With tears in my eyes, I turned to my wife and said, “I’m going to find a Tuskegee Airman and buy him a drink in my father’s memory.”
It wasn’t easy. It took some time. Out of the almost 1,000 African-American fighter pilots who flew in World War II, only a couple dozen remain alive. I finally was able to have a conversation with Col. Charles McGee from Bethesda, Md., who, coincidentally, had turned 95 the day before. I didn’t realize when we spoke that he is not just any fighter pilot. A member of the Aviation Hall of Fame, Col. McGee flew more combat missions than any other Tuskegee Airman — a total of 409 in WWII, Korea and Vietnam.
During our conversation we discovered that, not only did McGee and my father fly out of Foggia during the same period, they actually participated in combat missions together, including at least one over Ploesti. We are in the process of planning to meet, and I hope to include my family and maybe his as well. The drinks, and more, will be on me.
Postscript: My children also know that after the war their grandfather desperately wanted to be a commercial pilot, but, despite his superior qualifications, was turned down again and again; the one obstacle he faced with the major airlines was his Jewish identity. They also are aware that he was approached by the Haganah office in New York during Israel’s War of Independence and was ready to go. But my late mother, pregnant with me, vetoed those plans.
We should continue to look for ways to honor and preserve the recollections of these inspirational WWII vets from the Greatest Generation, both those still with us and those who are not.
Martin J. Raffel recently retired as senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). He now consults for the JCPA and for the Israel Policy Forum.