He Bombed the Nazis, Outwitted the Soviets and Modernized Christmas

The 97-year-old Si Spiegel is at his home in New York. The New York Times has a story by Carly Zavala.

He thought that we have to get behind the Russian front as he looked at the ruined landscape after the B-17 he was piloting lost two of its four engines.

He had dropped his bomb over Berlin, but he would not make it back to the base in England because he had been hit with flak. No pilot wanted to be shot down over Germany.

As a skinny teenager from Greenwich Village, Spiegel bluffed his way into the cockpit, trusting that he would figure it out as he went. This was the same thing. He told his crew that they could get their parachutes ready, but they were not allowed to bail out unless he gave them the order. They would try to land.

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One of the last bomber pilots of World War II is still with us. I met him on a cold December morning. He talked about Eleanor Roosevelt's love of aviation in front of her sculpture. I was working on a biography of Amelia Earhart. He smiled when he saw the Lower East Side address on my business card. The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union building where my grandparents lived was the same place where his union parents lived.

He invited me for coffee. There aren't many living aviators from that era, after all, so I started doing research for my book, which evolved into a series of conversations over weeks and then months. His charm and sharp memory were matched by his strength, which was 888-282-0465 888-282-0465 888-282-0465 888-282-0465, he would happily talk for hours but only if they didn't conflict with his regular gym workouts.

He needed an audience for his stories, and he was 95 at the time. He flew dozens of critical and dangerous missions during the war, had saved his crew by crash-landing an enormous bomber in no-man's land, and then helped organize a daring escape back out.

The king of the artificial Christmas tree is probably Spiegel.

The first year of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and the last year that Ellis Island was an immigration station were when Si Spiegel was born. Si wore button-up underwear during the Jazz Age. He remembers when his family got their first phone. Whenever the president gave an address, they would crowd around the radio. oosevelt was our hero, he said.

He was listening to the radio on Amelia Earhart's disappearance. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, Si was 17 years old and living near his father's hand laundry.

He wanted to fight the Nazis after graduating from Textile High School, so he went to work in a machine shop. Spiegel enlisted in the Army without telling his parents. He was a tall and heavy youth. He was sent to the aircraft mechanic school on Long Island after they noted his machine-shop skills. He was down.

He wondered how he would fight Hitler with a wrench.

The officer in the hangar suggested that he go to Mitchel Field. They might take him as a pilot. The one at Mitchel Field was empty. It changed his life.

There were only two of us that day, and I signed up in an unusual place already in uniform. The other fellow was defeated by the eyesight tests. I had perfect vision.

He was accepted into pilot training, which took him to Nashville, Tennessee, then California, and then to New Mexico, where he would learn to pilot a B17, the massive bomber.

Many military men smoked when not on duty, but Spiegel, still a teenager, never smoked or drank much. I was too shy to take advantage of the many opportunities I had as a new pilot.

A girl named Frankie Marie Smith was something that was of interest to Hobbs. She was young and beautiful. Back in high school, Si would have never thought he would have a chance with a girl like that. He was a lieutenant who flew a B-17.

They were married in Lovington, New Mexico, within weeks. Her father wanted us to get married in the Church of God. When they parted, he was given a photo he would carry. He left New Mexico and went to meet his crew.

He said that they had five Catholics and two Jews. Catholics weren't treated well. We had a Mormon as well. The only WASP was a ball-turret gunner who had gotten into trouble with the law in Chicago. He recalled that a judge told him he had two choices. You can join the Army or go to jail.

All of his crew members have died, but Spiegel still has their stories. Danny was shot down on another plane and held as a prisoner of war for a year. Dale Tyler was from Utah and his family had 13 children. Harold Bennett was my top turret man. A person died in a training accident. His chute did not open.

The base of operations for the U.S. 8th Air Force would be in an English town called Eye, 100 miles northeast of London.

When the Germans were retreating, the first flight in formation for Spiegel was a short one over Belgium. He said that they were bombing them to stop the bridge from blowing up. Airmen would call it a milk run because it was a mission with little danger. I thought, oh, this is great!

In the next year, Spiegel would carry out 35 missions, all of them in daylight, which gave them a strategic advantage, but often resulted in significant casualties.

Their odds of survival were terrible. More than 50,000 American airmen were killed in World War II. 40% of the casualties in the air war were suffered by the 8th Air Force.

When reflecting on his war years, Mission 33 is what he often relives.

The Berlin Mission was a maximum-effort campaign that began on Saturday, February 3, 1945. The Third Reich's Luftwaffe headquarters was hit by a force of 1,437 bombers and 948 fighters.

They said we were bombing Berlin headquarters. He said he had never thought about where the bombs were dropped. He realized that this wouldn't be a precision raid against a military installation. He said that they were bombing civilians with 2,000 planes. Our command wanted to end the war.

Over the years, he had thought about this a lot. He agrees with what he thought back then. We dropped bombs and came back. I have gone to a lot of reunions and never heard any regret.

The plane had an engine malfunction early in the flight. He lost the second engine over the target in Berlin.

He could keep up with the formation if one engine was gone. It was impossible with two. They would have to fly through a flak area to get back to England. They could shoot us from the ground because we would be losing altitude.

The German forces retreated to Germany and the Soviets were coming across Poland by this late stage of the war. The Soviets had taken Warsaw. He asked Ray Patulski to take him to Warsaw. If they got past Russian lines, they would be safe. He told his crew to throw everything out of the plane as they lost altitude.

The radioman made contact with England and said that there was no one hurt and two engines were out trying to land in Warsaw. The Brits would inform the authorities in the US. The last person to hear from the plane was that person.

The men reached Warsaw at 1:40 p.m. The city was destroyed. The bridge was torn and twisted across the Vistula River. They were looking for a place to land when they spotted a plane with a red star. It was not very far from the ground.

Spiegel fired flares as a friendly gesture. The pilot of the Soviet plane gestured to follow him and led them over the forest. They landed in a frozen potato field in the village of Reczyn. The aircraft would never fly again.

At one point, the Nazis held a lot of Poland, but they didn't know if any Germans were still there. He and his co-pilot, Bill Hole, left through the hatch.

Amerikansky! Spiegel yelled. Some of the villagers yelled. Benzine! Benzine! They wanted the benzine that was leaking out of the plane to be collected with buckets. The crew allowed them to have it.

The Americans were taken to Plock, a small city north on the Vistula, where the Russians took over and treated them as heroes after the successful raid on Berlin. The Red Army took over an abandoned German airfield in the Polish city of Torun. There was a plane that made a landing at Torun. They expected to stay until the rescue plane arrived.

The Americans were not prisoners, but they were not allowed to leave until Moscow approved. The other pilot, a fiery Illinois officer named George Ruckman, had lost one engine to flak and blew a tire while landing.

The Americans did what they pleased despite being in confinement. The crews would go down to the Vistula and spend the day target shooting with rifles lent by the Russians. At Torun, life was mostly waiting. They were hoping for the C-47 plane. The official status of those flying on the B17 is missing in action.

The pilot came up with a plan to escape. They would send a team to Torun to collect an engine and a spare tire for the plane that was wrecked 70 miles away. It would require courage and stealth.

The American crews bartered with the Soviet soldiers. Several revolvers and a $10 fountain pen paid for the gasoline for their secret flight, a $75 wristwatch given to a Russian officer secured a Ford tractor to haul the second engine back, and a Ford tractor was used to haul the second engine back. According to war records, the Ruckman bribed Russian MPs to overlook the cutting down of two telephone poles because he had $30 in his wallet.

The crews worked in plain sight of the other Russians, who seemed more concerned with the possibility that German snipers were still in the area. The Americans were too worried about attention to drink with the Russian officers in Torun, toasting Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill on the day villagers hoisted the plane in the potato field.

The Americans jumped into the jury-rigged plane and began to taxi along the frozen ground on St. Patrick's Day in 1945. A guard waved to stop. The Russians did not chase them as they left the field. They may have been relieved that they didn't have to feed us.

The 19 men decided to head south and land at an American air base in Italy, eight hours after their plane broke down.

The Red Cross gave the crew candy, cookies, and much-needed items, but they hadn't brushed their teeth in a while. The escape plane was checked by the U.S. Army staff and it was fine.

After months of fearing that his brother and father would be killed in action, the family in New York received a telegram from Italy just before the birthday of their younger brother and father. There are letters following. Happy birthday. Love.

His belongings had already been sent to New York after he made it back to England.

On August 31, 1945, he returned home.

He was welcomed into his home on West 11th Street. Military men were gods in Times Square. Despite his 35 missions and multiple awards for bravery and exemplary behavior, Spiegel went to war as a first lieutenant and returned as one.

He believes that many Jewish soldiers were denied promotions because of antisemitism. He has a difficult recollection of when the Army Air Corps joined the commercial airline industry in New York. He said he faced discrimination. He said that they weren't taking Jews after World War II. They were blatant.

They moved back to New Mexico after he joined her in New York. There is a radio program on country and western. He went by the name Muddy Boots. The marriage soured soon. They had no children, and he went back East.

After the war, he joined the Good Neighbor Chorus and made new friends. He went to Camp Unity in New York in 1949.

He met a woman named Motoko. He was fascinated by the girl with pigtails. She talked about her time in an internment camp. It was quite shocking.

She told him that her family of six had been sent from Los Angeles to a camp in Wyoming. She was kept behind barbed wire and watched by armed guards. Many Japanese Americans went back to California after the war. The one-way ticket to New York was chosen by Ikeda.

After divorce,Motoko was a mental refreshment. She was a good person and I liked her for that. I wanted to learn more about her.

They married in the Municipal Building around Thanksgiving in 1950, and a daughter, Kazuko, was born in 1951. His family was accepted by his parents. Motoko was better at Jewish food than my mother. She could cook in any language.

After graduating from school, he found a job at a brush manufacturer in Mount Vernon for only $1.80 an hour.

His luck changed at the Westchester factory.

In the late 1950s, designers were using millions of small multicolored brushes, which when assembled in department store windows looked like miniature pastel waves. The fad of making brushes that could sell for $12,000 each died after American Brush Machinery fabricated machines to make them.

The machines could be used to make Christmas trees. The first ones were made out of green plastic and didn't look like Scotch pines. Business was slow. Few people owned fake trees in the mid-century America. Spiegel was sent to close the factory, but he reported that there was a lot of money to be made. One boss thought he was out of his mind, but the other gave him his own division.

He brought in real trees to study. He tinkered with his machines to speed up the process and soon he was selling perfectly shaped fakes.

American Tree and Wreath was able to produce hundreds of thousands of trees a year by the mid-1970s.

He retired as a multimillionaire after selling his artificial tree company.

He wanted to travel with Motoko and have fun. She was inspired by new places and became an accomplished painter. After her death, he was drawn to military reunions and the company of veterans.

He enjoyed the camaraderie of the airmen, who understood his night terrors and late-diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, when he became involved in a couple of Army Air Corps historic associations. The society gatherings continued until about 2012 He is the only one who was in World War II.

His daughter introduced her father to the woman who would become his third wife, JoAnn, a real estate agent she had met in Westchester social circles. They were married for a few years before she died, though they traveled in Europe together twice, including a visit to Reczyn, the tiny village where he belly-landed in 1945.

A doorman and a magnificent view of Central Park are some of the perks of living in a large apartment building. Although artificial trees descended from his designs, he doesn't keep a tree himself.

He raised his children to be proud of their Jewish heritage and still makes Hanukkah latkes for them. When his children were young, they always had a tree, first a real one, and then the best of his fakes. Do you think Christmas trees are a religious symbol? They were pagan symbols. My kids liked them.

He closed his eyes when he was asked what he wanted his legacy to be.

The war was the most exciting time in his life. Who is left to talk about it?

He said he could tell you this. We fought against the fascists. Hitler wanted a master race.

He is surrounded by pictures of his children and he is worried about racism. I never thought of fascists as a threat to our nation's democracy. All I am trying to do is stay alive.

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