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Rockville Centre Army veteran recalls time as member of World War II bomber crew, prisoner of war

Rockville Centre resident Herbert Rosenberg, 97, served overseas in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II and spent more than a year as a prisoner of war.
Rockville Centre resident Herbert Rosenberg, 97, served overseas in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II and spent more than a year as a prisoner of war.
Ben Strack/Herald

“All of a sudden, the plane goes into a dive,” recalled Army veteran Herbert Rosenberg. “I had no idea what was happening. I said, ‘OK, this is it. I’m finished. I’m going to die.’”

Rosenberg, 97, relived, from the kitchen table in his Rockville Centre home, his memories of serving as a flight engineer aboard the B-17 Flying Fortress as part of the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. One of six “gunners” on the four-engined aircraft, he often shot at German planes, which tried to disrupt their missions of bombing different areas of Nazi-occupied Europe.

This time, they were hit. A wing was shattered, and fuel spewed out of the B-17. “I worried about my mother — how she would take the news,” Rosenberg said. “That’s all I cared about, because I was convinced I was going to die.”

But the pilot leveled the plane, and though trying to reach Sweden, which was neutral during the war, the crew was forced to land in Denmark. “We got out and the Germans were standing around the plane pointing guns at it,” he said. They barked at the Americans to pull down their pants. “We stood there, hands up and pants around our ankles, so we couldn’t run.”

Rosenberg grew up in the Bronx, and was a 20-year-old living in Queens when he was drafted into the Army in 1942. Many people he knew were already in the military, and he was happy to be selected. “I said, ‘Oh, good, now we’re going in. How bad could it be?’ I knew nothing about the war in Europe.” He soon learned the harsh realities of serving.

After spending several-month stints in New Jersey, Georgia, California and Mississippi — where he trained for six months — he returned to New York to be shipped to Europe. “Everyone was seasick,” he said of the trip. “Puke, you could hardly walk. It was so slippery.” They arrived in Scotland and later reached England, where the Americans had a base full of B-17s.

He remembered a day on the base when they were forced to run to its slit trench, a sort of bomb shelter, as shrapnel flew overhead. “The Nazis were bombing all parts of England, mostly London, and they paid us a visit,” he said.

The Americans returned the hostility. In 1944, Rosenberg, a sergeant, was part of nine bomb missions over several months before being captured in Denmark. The longest one, he said, was a mission to Poland — 12 hours each way — before which he and his crew were given only a candy bar.

The B-17s were often tasked with bombing ball-bearing plants, he noted. American fighter planes flew alongside them for protection for part of the way, but would turn back for England at a certain point to avoid running out of fuel. “And that’s when the Nazis attacked,” Rosenberg said.

His flight engineer status meant he could man any of the six guns on board — three on the sides, one at the front and back and the “belly gun,” a ball-shaped compartment that hung from the underside of the B-17. Seeing German planes coming from that position, in which he didn’t feel like he was attached to the plane, Rosenberg said, was “the scariest thing I ever saw.” He would shoot at planes, he remembered, never sure if he hit them as they whizzed by.

But becoming a prisoner of war brought a new type of fear.

Taken as prisoners immediately after landing in Denmark, he and his crew stayed there overnight in cells with no beds. They were given a cold wurst, or sausage, to eat. Then they took a ferry and a train to Germany, where citizens scowled at the sight of Americans, who had been bombing them. “The German soldiers had to keep the people away from us, or we would’ve been attacked,” Rosenberg recounted.

The Gestapo, the secret police of Nazi Germany, questioned Rosenberg. He remembered one of them saying to him, “‘You know what we do to Jewish people in this country.’ At this point, I wasn’t aware of what was happening in the concentration camps.”

They also searched him, he said, and he was angered when they confiscated the stick of gum that he would periodically chew, small pieces at a time. “It was like a piece of home, really,” he said of the gum. “You don’t know where you are, what they’re going to do to you. You’ve never been in this situation before. It’s scary, especially being a Jew.”

He and other prisoners of war were crammed in boxcars and taken to the Stalag Luft 17 prison camp near Krems, Austria. Barbed wire surrounded them. Guards watched from towers overhead. The food was awful, Rosenberg added, but the Americans were treated better than the starving Italians, who he remembered seeing dig through garbage for scraps.

He spent 15 months in captivity, he said, before the prison guards marched the camp’s prisoners to a forest and ultimately left. They were freed by American soldiers and returned home. He married his wife, Barbara, who died several years ago, and moved to Rockville Centre in the mid-1950s. The couple raised two daughters, Carol and Joan, and a son, Bob.

“As a boy growing up in the house with my sisters, he didn’t mention it at all, and whenever it was brought up, it was something that he clearly didn’t want to discuss,” said Bob, who lives in Hauppauge.

Rosenberg has become more open about his Army experiences over the last 25 years, Bob added, but does not like to be the center of attention, which he said is a testament to his father’s character, and others of that generation.

Fewer than 500,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were alive last year, according to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Former Rockville Centre Mayor Eugene Murray, who fought in Germany in 1944 as part of the U.S. Third Army, led by Gen. George Patton, died last month at 93.

Rosenberg said that many Americans no longer understand what war is like, and aside from the families of service members, they are not affected by it. “They’ve got a picture in the newspaper or on the television,” he said. “They don’t suffer because there’s a war going on.”

Within the past year, Rosenberg said, after reading books about the war and hearing the perspectives of German civilians who were victims of American bombers, he has begun to pity them, particularly the children.

As Memorial Day approaches, he said, he feels sorry for fellow service members who died in the war, the memories of which have stayed with him for a lifetime. “I can picture myself over there,” he said, “under constant attack.”

“We’ve certainly been very proud of him,” Bob said of his father, “and we’re very thankful that he’s still here with us to still tell these stories.”