The Lost Airman: A True Story of Escape from Nazi-Occupied France

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9781592409723: The Lost Airman: A True Story of Escape from Nazi-Occupied France
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The remarkable, untold story of World War II American Air Force turret-gunner Staff Sergeant Arthur Meyerowitz, who was shot down over Nazi-occupied France and evaded Gestapo pursuers for more than six months before escaping to freedom.

Bronx-born top turret-gunner Arthur Meyerowitz was one of only two crewmen who escaped death or immediate capture on the ground, when their plane was shot down near Cognac, France, in 1943.

After fleeing the wreck, Arthur knocked on the door of an isolated farmhouse, whose owners hastily took him in. Fortunately, his hosts had a tight connection to the French resistance group Morhange and its founder, Marcel Taillandier, who arranged for Arthur’s transfers among safe houses in southern France, shielding him from the Gestapo.

Based on recently declassified material, exclusive personal interviews, and extensive research into the French Resistance, The Lost Airman tells the tense and riveting story of Arthur’s hair-raising journey to freedom—a true story of endurance, perseverance, and escape during World War II.

INCLUDES PHOTOGRAPHS AND MAP

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About the Author:

Seth Meyerowitz, the grandson of U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Arthur Meyerowitz, is a web entrepreneur and the president of a global online marketing company. After traveling the United States speaking on behalf of Google for its Get Your Business Online program, his web and marketing savvy allowed him to unearth the declassified saga of his grandfather.
 
Peter F. Stevens is an editor, journalist, and author of eleven books.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Prologue


A Needle in A Haystack

On June 18, 1944, a young man lurched across the searing sand of Rockaway Beach, New York. As he picked his way through a maze of blankets, beach chairs, and umbrellas, throngs of beachgoers stared at him. He looked out of place in long pants hiked up to his ankles and a sweat-dampened, white button-down shirt embroidered with his name. Among the crowd in bathing suits and trunks, it was not his attire that caught people’s attention. It was the cardboard sign he held aloft. He was looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

The young man had received a frantic telephone call an hour ear- lier at the beachfront candy store where he worked. An urgent voice had launched him out into the sweltering heat with a message he had hastily scrawled on the cardboard. He was hoping to find someone, a husband and wife whom he had never met, had never even seen.

Scores of men and women were watching the candy clerk as they enjoyed the hot summer day, some casting brief glances, others staring intently. They instinctively understood the sign’s message. America had now been at war with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan for some two and a half years, and most people on the beach knew someone in uniform. Many had lost a loved one in action. As more and more beachgoers realized what the young man was doing, they stepped aside to let him pass. A handful of the more curious ones trailed him down the shoreline.

Frequently wiping his brow, squinting from the sunlight, he wan- dered up and down the beach for more than an hour, his face flushed from the heat and visibly sunburned. As the minutes dragged on, he could not help but think that he had been dispatched on a well- intentioned but futile errand. He wondered what the chances were that his message would find the two total strangers in the dense crowds. Still, he kept walking, with the sign over his head, through the forest of umbrellas.

He stopped to take a few long breaths, his arms aching from hold- ing up the sign. Several yards behind him, a middle-aged couple and a pretty, black-haired young woman stumbled through the thick white sand toward him. Tears streamed down their sun-darkened faces. They had spotted the words hastily scrawled on the cardboard sign.

Chapter 1

“Just A Milk RuN”

December 31, Early Morning of New Year’s Eve, 1943
Seething Airfield, Norfolk, England
 

An icy gust slapped against Staff Sergeant Arthur Meyerowitz as he stepped outside from the 448th Bomb Group’s aluminum-walled mess hall just after 5 a.m. Wincing, he turned up the fleece collar of his leather bomber jacket and tugged his cap and earmuffs tightly. He peered for a few moments at the neat rows of cylindrical barracks arrayed on frost-cloaked farmland along the southern flank of Seeth- ing Airfield, home to his unit, the 715th Squadron, in Norfolk, England. He lingered on the mess hall’s stoop as other airmen and pilots brushed past him.

A hell of a way to spend the last day of the year, he thought, but he had to do the premission checks for Harmful Lil Armful, a B-24 Liberator in the 448th Bomb Group. He had been up since 2:30 a.m., when he had been rousted from sleep by an officer’s flashlight and ordered to go out with Harmful Lil Armful, whose flight engineer and top-turret gunner, Sergeant George Glevanick, had just been rushed to the base hospital. Now, after the premission briefing and breakfast, Arthur steeled himself for his second mission.

His maiden mission had come on December 24 aboard a B-24 named Consolidated Mess. The target was a Nazi V-1 missile site at Labroye, a relatively short hop across the English Channel in the Pas-de-Calais, in northern France. With luck, Arthur might be back at Seething in time for the New Year’s Eve parties that he had planned to attend on base and in Norwich, some ten miles away on the east coast.

Lucky bastard, he mused about Glevanick, shivering. At least Glevanick was guaranteed to make it into 1944. Then Arthur lowered his shoulder against the raw wind and stepped off the stoop onto a muddy path that wound toward three concrete airstrips.

A few yards from the mess hall, Arthur spotted a group of young Englishwomen, slowed down, and removed his cap and earmuffs as he passed them. Despite the early hour, they were waiting to pick up their 8th Air Force boyfriends who had two-day passes for New Year’s Eve and Day. Usually, the girlfriends had to stand outside the main gate, but they had been allowed on the base for the holidays after a security check.

As they waited for their airmen to emerge from the building, the women were chatting amid a swirl of cigarette smoke. Running his hand through his dense, dark hair, Arthur shot them a grin. Several smiled back at the handsome twenty-five-year-old airman.

A pretty blonde spotted Arthur’s shoulder patch, which was embla- zoned with the image of a grinning, muscular rabbit clad in a super- hero’s costume and cape who was perched atop a light blue bomb.

“The 715th, is it? Where are the Rabbits off to, then, in such a rush so close to New Year’s?” she called out.

“We’ve got a date with some Germans,” he replied.

“Good luck—and give the bastards our regards,” another woman chimed in as Arthur picked up his pace and waved.1

Attention from women was something Arthur was used to. The five-foot ten-inch, 160-pound staff sergeant possessed the street smarts and swagger of his Bronx neighborhood, and he exuded a con- fidence to which women were drawn. Before enlisting in the Army, Arthur had loved dressing stylishly, heading to the Garment District and stretching part of his paychecks into good deals on fashionable clothes. His family was accustomed to seeing beautiful young women on his well-tailored sleeves.

At Norfolk, Arthur enjoyed chatting with attractive Englishwomen, but it never went beyond a few pints and dances in town or on base. Tucked in the breast pocket of his flight suit, his wallet held a snapshot of Esther Loew, his dark-haired, dark-eyed girlfriend back in the Bronx. An aunt had introduced him to the pretty twenty-one-year-old Esther before he had shipped out to England, and he was quickly smitten, so much so that he had considered marriage. He had decided, however, that with the casualty rate of bomber crews in the European and Pacific theaters of operation reaching the highest of any service branch—even more than the submarine fleet—he could not justify making her another in the sadly burgeoning ranks of young war widows. Still, she intended to wait for him, and he could not talk her out of it.

Arthur carried another memento of home besides Esther’s photo. Around his neck was a thin gold chain with a chai, the Hebrew sym- bol for “life.” His mother had given it to him before he had left for England.

As the rows of B-24s lining the airstrip materialized through the mist and freezing rain, Arthur had no time to think of Esther and of his parents and brother back in New York. Harmful Lil Armful had to be inspected, and his crewmates depended on Arthur, the flight engineer, to make sure that the plane was fit to fly. Everyone knew that the Allied invasion of Fortress Europe loomed. The waves of American and British bombers pounding German targets in France around the clock were “preparing the ground” for Operation Overlord, the largest amphibious assault in history. What no one except the top brass knew yet was where and when the Allies would strike across the British Channel.

A few hours earlier at the mission briefing, the 448th’s charismatic commander, thirty-seven-year-old Colonel James M. Thompson, had unveiled a huge map of Europe and thrust a pointer at three red- circled spots. Silence enveloped the crowded room as the pilots and crews waited to hear Thompson, whose neatly parted salt-and-pepper hair and trim Clark Gable mustache made him the very picture of a tough pilot and leader, speak in his no-nonsense Texan drawl. From airfields across eastern and central England, 250 B-17s and B-24s, including Harmful Lil Armful, would be escorted by hundreds of P-47

Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang fighter planes as they unleashed a daylight strike against the Nazi airfield at La Rochelle/Laleu, south- west of the Brest Peninsula. If the clouds over the site proved too dense, the secondary target was another Nazi airstrip, at Château- bernard.

Thompson, a nerveless pilot who had racked up fifty-five missions over Europe and had earned a reputation for never sugarcoating danger for his men, told the assembled airmen that German flak and fighter attacks all the way into and out of the target run would be intense.

Arthur knew they would soon be “in the soup” over France. Arthur could never have envisioned that he would see France or England, let alone go to war. Still, the eldest son of David and Rose Meyerowitz had always thirsted for adventure.

Arthur was born on August 15, 1918, in the Bronx, in a tough neighborhood largely composed of Jewish, Irish, and Italian families crowded into old, yellow-brick, flat-roofed apartment buildings that clotted Findlay Avenue. At 1205 Findlay Avenue, built in 1915, the Meyerowitz family lived in a third-floor, one-bedroom apartment. David and Rose had a second child, Seymour, on August 11, 1927. When Seymour was old enough, he and Arthur shared a Murphy bed in the living room.

Forty-three-year-old David Meyerowitz had emigrated from Roma- nia to New York as a boy and had been compelled to leave school at eighth grade to help the family survive. He went on to work as a driver and salesman in the wholesale bakery business and to marry Rose Blumen- thal, a vivacious, dark-haired woman born and raised in the Bronx. With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, times turned increasingly tight for the Meyerowitz family and their Findlay Avenue neighbors. David always managed to keep his family fed, housed, and clothed, but money was always short. He and Rose were constantly juggling the bills, unable to think about moving out of their apartment.

To survive on Findlay Avenue, Arthur learned how to use both his instincts and his fists. He had to because on the corners of Find- lay and adjoining streets, Russian and Eastern European Jews, Irish, and Italian kids claimed patches of local asphalt as their personal turf. In Arthur’s building people watched out for each other, and when a job was lost or an illness struck families, neighbors helped out as best they could.

Raised to respect women and imbued with a strong sense of right and wrong, Arthur was never afraid to stand up to bullies. Once, when the din of a man beating his wife echoed down the third-floor hallway of the apartment complex, Arthur rushed toward the noise and started banging on the neighbors’ apartment door. The husband opened it, red-faced and sweating. In the small living room, his wife was sobbing, her clothes disheveled, bruises rising on her face.

Arthur, clenching his fists at his side, glared at the older man, who backed away a step as Arthur stood in the doorway, saying nothing, his eyes still fixed on the neighbor. Then Arthur leaned forward, jabbed a finger just under the man’s chin, and nodded in the direction of the cringing woman. Arthur turned around and waited for the door to close. He lingered in the hall, listening as the man and the woman talked in low, almost hushed tones. There were no more slaps or shouts.

Over the following days and weeks, it became apparent that the husband had gotten the message: if he threatened his wife again, his tough young neighbor would give him a dose of the same. The beat- ings stopped.

Arthur graduated from Robert Morris High School, built in 1897 as the first public high school in the Bronx, and the education he received in the soaring Gothic brick structure complete with turrets and spires was rated as one of the finest offered by any of the city’s public high schools. In the school’s sprawling auditorium, Arthur and the rest of the student body gathered for daily assemblies amid the hall’s ornate columns and a commemorative World War I mural that would earn the school a place on the National Historic Register. Arthur saw that masterpiece daily for four school years. The mural had been rendered by renowned French artist August Gorguet and entitled After Conflict Comes Peace. At the time, the vivid images of war-scarred France did not matter much to the teenager.

After his 1936 graduation from Morris, Arthur immediately began working; any thought of college was out of the question with the Depression still battering the nation and the family needing every dol- lar. He sold electrical fixtures for Jack Meyerowitz, his uncle, and dou- bled as a receiving and shipping clerk and supervisor of ten men for a wholesale lampshade company in Brooklyn for three and a half years. Although fortunate to have any work in the midst of the Depression, in 1939 Arthur was employed only for twenty-eight weeks, earning $400. Fortunately for the family, his father worked all fifty-two weeks and brought home $1,560, but there was never much left over after the bills were paid.

Wanting to contribute more and finding his life too sedate despite his busy social calendar, Arthur began to think about other avenues for a steadier and more exciting financial future. He had always been interested in airplanes and yearned for the chance to fly, and in late 1940, he spoke to an Army recruiter in Manhattan about the Army Air Corps. The sergeant told Arthur that a college education was not mandatory for aviation cadets so long as they had graduated from a good high school. The recruiter added that once Arthur completed basic training, he “could transfer to the Air Corps if he passed the physical and mental examinations.”

Filled with excitement, Arthur, who had never traveled beyond New York and New Jersey, signed a one-year enlistment paper on January 8, 1941. He was formally inducted at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and was soon on his way to basic infantry training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Once he completed basic, Arthur made two requests to his com- manding officer: a pass to attend Seymour’s Bar Mitzvah in New York and the application to transfer to the Army Air Corps. The officer turned down the Bar Mitzvah pass brusquely and then set Private Meyerowitz straight regarding aviation training—Arthur had signed up for one year, and the Army did not allow such enlistees to waste its time and money in flight school. The recruiting sergeant had lied to him, and Arthur, furious but trapped, started counting the days until January 8, 1942, when his assignment would be complete. Meanwhile, he sent Seymour one month’s Army wages as a Bar Mitzvah present. He earned stellar reviews from his superiors first as a rifleman and then as a .50-caliber machine gunner.

On December 7, 1941, about a month before his enlistment was up, Arthur was stunned by the news of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s strike against Pearl Harbor. He immediately signed up for three more years, out of patriotism, out of the certainty that he would be drafted anyway, and out of hope that he could now transfer to the Air Cor...

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