Now ninety-seven, Si Spiegel is one of few American World War II B-17 pilots still alive. Spiegel, a Jew who grew up in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, enlisted in the army without telling his parents, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. To his disappointment, he was assigned to an aircraft-mechanic school; he instead wanted to fight Nazis, and to that end applied to be a pilot. Laurie Gwen Shapiro tells his story:
He was accepted into pilot training, which took him to Nashville, then California and then, as a cadet, to Hobbs, New Mexico where he’d learn to pilot a B-17, the massive bomber known as the Flying Fortress. . . . Then he left New Mexico and went to meet his crew, a motley collection of “leftovers.”
“We had five Catholics, two Jews,” he said. “Catholics weren’t treated too well, either. We had a Mormon, too.” Mr. Spiegel said the only WASP was a ball-turret gunner who had gotten into trouble with the law in Chicago.
Over the next year, Mr. Spiegel would carry out 35 missions, all of them in daylight, which conferred a strategic advantage but often resulted in significant casualties. Their odds of survival were terrible. Over 50,000 American airmen lost their lives in World War II, mostly on B-17s and B-24s. The Eighth Air Force suffered 40 percent of all casualties in the air war.
His plane was shot down over Berlin in February 1945, and he managed to crash land in Soviet-occupied Poland, from which he and his fellow crewmembers—tired of waiting for repatriation and eager to rejoin the fight—would make a daring escape. Shapiro continues:
Looking back, having spoken to other Jewish GI’s, [Spiegel] believes now that many Jewish soldiers were denied promotions because of anti-Semitism. He has some thorny memories: many heroes in the Army Air Corps joined the commercial airline industry after the war, which was then based in New York. But here too, Mr. Spiegel said he faced discrimination. “They weren’t taking Jews after World War II,” he recalled. “They were blatant.”
In the years after the war, Spiegel worked at a brush factory, and then made a fortune selling artificial Christmas trees.
More about: American Jewish History, Jews in the military, World War II