When we got to the base, they asked all the Jewish fliers to stay behind. And there were quite a few of us, officers and enlisted men. And this Lieutenant Levine came out, he was the Intelligence officer, and he asked all of us to give him our dog tags so he could change the H on the tag from Hebrew to either P or C for Protestant or Catholic. Because he told us point-blank that if we're shot down and they find the H on our dog tags, we will not live, we will not be put in a stalag. We will either be tortured to death or beaten to death or killed right away or sent, if we're lucky, to a concentration camp. And at that point, none of us would do it. None of us. Oh, I knew what the Nazis were doing. “Nobody knew,” that's bullcrap. We knew what they were doing to the Jews. We knew what they were doing to the Jews in 1941 and even in 1940. Come on. I have a lot of strong feelings about that. No, we knew it. And I knew that if I was going up there, I'd be in deep water if I got shot down. But my feeling was I wanted those sons of bitches to know that the bombs that are dropping, that there's a Jew up there doing it. That was my feeling. Nineteen years old, didn't know any better. I always had the feeling, you know, if we get hit I'll probably blow up anyway, so let them know it's a Jew. And that was the feeling. We didn't even question, there wasn't a guy that said, “Yeah, I'll do it.” We just said, “Fine,” and we walked out. I think he was proud of us. More than anything else, I think he was proud of us. And I'm proud of us when I think about it.
The first few missions, they gave us what we called milk runs. They wanted us to learn how to fly, how to fly in formation, when to clear our guns. That means no flak, not too much, no fighters. By my fifth mission, I realized a mensch ken derharget veren—a man can get himself killed.
(Ideally, that expression should be heard as if spoken with a faux, old world Jewish accent, as my father was wont to do. My father could speak Yiddish and would love to sprinkle his conversations with particularly evocative Yiddish expressions. He was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, but his parents spoke Yiddish in the house and I suspect my father and his two brothers understood Yiddish well before their parents caught on. When my sisters and I were growing up and my parents didn't want us to know what the adults were saying, they would “redt Yiddish.”)
Because what happens is...it happens to others. They crash. They get shot down. And, you know, you reach a point, and people don't talk about it because they don't like to, but when a plane blows up next to you in the air, you don't say, “Oh, poor Joe.” you say, “Boy, that was close! Thank God it wasn't us.”
Another feeling which I don't think people talk about, and this is a general feeling, is that when you fly and it's a big expanse of sky and you see enemy planes, you don't get that involved as in, “Oh, they're after me.” You actually feel like you're almost in a movie. It's that kind of feeling. You're in a movie. When you can shoot your guns, oh, it's a relief. You feel so much better you could do something. But when they're shooting flak and you see the puffs and you see planes hit and you see guys bail out, you just sit there because you can't move; the only way you can handle that is you...you just make it unreal. It's like you're in a big movie. And when you land and you get your coffee and you sit down, then you realize what you went through. Then the terror starts. And that's when guys would usually break down if they broke down. So by the fifth mission, we had lost enough planes so we were a lead crew already. They were glad my pilot had 500 hours so he could be a lead pilot. And that was basically it. And we flew, and we had some pretty rough ones.
One of the most miserable feelings you had was when you landed and were taxiing to your hard stand and the chief, the crew chief and the mechanics, were waiting for the planes that didn't make it, and you'd have to signal to let them know they went down. And you could just see them wilt, just like that. And that, that was a terrible feeling. After that a lot of things happened.
You know, guys got drunk and guys would do a lot of things they shouldn't have done, and that was the way they handled the pressure. Some of the guys—I was not a drinker and I didn't smoke, you know. I was what Mama would say “a good Jewish boy”--they would get big, big barrels—glass barrels—and they would make stills. You'd have guys drunk all the time. Murphy, who was my engineer, broke down. He couldn't take it beyond about thirty-something missions and he broke down. He had a fourteen-year-old daughter. He was about thirty-seven. To me that was an old man in those days. My pilot was twenty-five. I was a big nineteen. And Murphy, he just couldn't handle it. He would urinate in his pants all the time. If we were off one night, he'd be brought in by someone. “Is this Murphy's tent?” And he'd be drunk, and they'd throw him into the tent. He just couldn't take it.
(I suppose Murphy was too aware of his own mortality and what he was risking every time he strapped into his B-24. The attrition rate was so high that he must have realized he was on a suicide run every time he flew. When you are younger, 19 or 25, it is impossible to conceptualize your own death; besides, if you do go down, you die a hero. But when you're 37 and have a teenage daughter, the loss of her future might be too much to bear. I still can't imagine how these men could climb into their planes day after day while their friends and colleagues were dropping out of the sky in unimaginable numbers. The selflessness involved makes our current preoccupation with our own narcissism seem petty, shallow, and ultimately, meaningless.)
Next time, disaster strikes.