On February 3, 1945, Lt. Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal led a force of more than 1,000 Allied bombers on a mission over Berlin, part of an attack meant to push the Third Reich closer to surrender in World War II.
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Civilian population centers had not been a prime target for Allied air raids, but by early 1945 strategists believed the war could be ended soon by an all-out strike that would destroy government offices in the heart of Berlin and railway stations that served the German public while creating general chaos and despair.
So depleted was the Luftwaffe by then that Germany was unable to mount a significant air defense. Of the 2,000 or so Allied planes that bombed Berlin and Magdeburg (130 kilometers west, where a synthetic oil plant was located) that day, only 36 were shot down.
One of those 36 planes was piloted by Rosenthal, 27, from Flatbush, Brooklyn. As an undergraduate at Brooklyn College, before going on to get his law degree at Brooklyn Law School, Rosenthal had been captain of the football and the baseball teams. On December 8, 1941, the day after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into the war, Rosenthal, who was then working at a Manhattan law firm, volunteered for the U.S. Army. He asked for a combat assignment.
Rosenthal was trained as a pilot and assigned to fly a B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber with the 8th Air Force 100th Bomb Group, which was stationed in East Anglia, England. By early 1945, Rosenthal had extended his overseas service once, been shot down once and had made a forced landing another time. Radioman Saul Levitt later described to an interviewer the “Rosenthal legend,” which he said was “made up of the following ingredients: that he could have stopped flying and he couldn’t get killed.”
Although a rumor circulated that Rosenthal had family in the Nazi concentration camps, he later told the writer Donald L. Miller that was “hooey,” that all his relatives lived in New York. He did what he did not for personal reasons, he said, but because he was convinced that “Hitler was a menace to decent people everywhere.”
On February 3, 1945, Rosenthal was in command of a force of 1,000 B-17s. As his plane neared Berlin, it was hit by German anti-aircraft fire. Two crew members died instantly, but Rosenthal ordered subordinates to continue to their target and turned over command of the raid to the deputy lead ship. After the plane released its bombs and reached the Oder River, where friendly Soviet troops were stationed, he instructed the crew to bail out. The plane was hit a second time. Rosenthal ejected just before it exploded and was picked up by Russian troops. He made his way back to England, by way of Poland, Moscow, Kiev, Tehran, Cairo, Greece and Naples.
When the war ended, Rosenthal was training to fly B-29s for assignment in the Pacific. He flew 52 missions in Europe and was awarded 16 decorations. In 1946, he volunteered for the prosecutorial team in the Nuremberg war trials in Germany. His duties there included interviewing Hermann Goering, Hitler’s chief deputy, and army chief Wilhelm Keitel. On the ocean voyage to Europe, he met his future wife, Phillis Heller, a Navy lawyer who was also headed to Nuremberg.
After Nuremberg, Rosenthal returned to New York to practice law. He died on April 20, 2007, in White Plains, New York, at the age of 89.