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Legacy of heroes: Son of ‘Rosie’ Rosenthal shares father’s war stories

Lt Col. Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal was a legendary pilot who was assigned to the 418th Bomb Squadron from September 1943 to September 1944 at Thorpe Abbots, England. Rosie flew 52 missions, rather than the average 25. Rosenthal is part of the 100th Air Refueling Wing heritage as the 100th Operations Group auditorium was renamed the “Rosenthal Auditorium” in May 2012. The pilot’s son, Dan, visited RAF Mildenhall and former World War II bases in East Anglia May 8 to 13 during a visit from members of the 100th Bomb Group Foundation. (Photo courtesy of the 100th Bombardment Group Foundation website, Ernest Havecker, Eileen Rosenthal and Jodi Womack.)

Lt Col. Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal was a legendary pilot who was assigned to the 418th Bomb Squadron from September 1943 to September 1944 at Thorpe Abbots, England. Rosie flew 52 missions, rather than the average 25. Rosenthal is part of the 100th Air Refueling Wing heritage as the 100th Operations Group auditorium was renamed the “Rosenthal Auditorium” in May 2012. The pilot’s son, Dan, visited RAF Mildenhall and former World War II bases in East Anglia May 8 to 13 during a visit from members of the 100th Bomb Group Foundation. (Photo courtesy of the 100th Bombardment Group Foundation website, Ernest Havecker, Eileen Rosenthal and Jodi Womack.)

Lt Col. Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal (second from right, standing) and his crew pose for a photo March 8, 1944, at Thorpe Abbots after a Berlin mission which completed a tour for the crew. Rosie went on to fly 27 more missions with the 100th Bombardment Group, and led every one of the 52 missions he flew from Thorpe Abbots. (Photo courtesy of 100th Bombardment Group Foundation website)

Lt Col. Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal (second from right, standing) and his crew pose for a photo March 8, 1944, at Thorpe Abbots after a Berlin mission which completed a tour for the crew. Rosie went on to fly 27 more missions with the 100th Bombardment Group, and led every one of the 52 missions he flew from Thorpe Abbots. (Photo courtesy of 100th Bombardment Group Foundation website)

RAF MILDENHALL, England -- Lt. Col. Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal is one of the most well-known pilots from the 100th Bombardment Group, famous for flying many more missions than most, taking care of his men and leading “Rosie’s Riveters.” The many awards he earned include the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star with Cluster, Distinguished Flying Cross (both American and British), Purple Heart with Cluster and the Croix de Guerre.

His son Dan visited RAF Mildenhall May 8 to 13, as part of a 100th Bomb Group Foundation visit with two 100th BG veterans and children of other veterans. They were here celebrating the 75th anniversary of the 100th BG and 25th anniversary of the 100th Air Refueling Wing, and visiting former World War II bases around East Anglia, including Thorpe Abbots, where Dan Rosenthal’s father was stationed.

“First and foremost, he was my dad and my best friend and although people would want to hear stories about him, he was more interested in learning about you and hearing about your stories and what you’ve done,” said Dan, describing just some of the qualities of his father.

“That was what it was about. As far as he was concerned, it wasn’t about him – he already knew what he was about. He was always fascinated in history and learning, and that’s what both drove him and endeared him.

Prior to the war, Robert Rosenthal was an attorney working for one of the largest law firms in New York City.

“He was playing basketball with his best friend in the park on Dec. 7, 1941 – the day Pearl Harbor was attacked,” recalled Dan. “The next day he signed up. Prior to that he was itching for our country to get involved; he knew what was going on and he’d heard the stories of all the atrocities – it upset him terribly, so he was ready to go.”

Rosenthal’s son told how his dad asked to join the Air Force and to be a bomber pilot was because he felt that was the best way of causing the greatest amount of damage to the enemy.

“He didn’t know you weren’t supposed to ask for what you wanted, but he asked for it and he was able to go to the training program,” said Dan.

Rosenthal senior started his Air Force career as a lieutenant, and eventually worked his way up to lieutenant colonel. After training, he was sent to England and became part of the Eighth Air Force and the 100th BG. He was also one of the oldest there, already having been to law school.

“He was over here to do a job and he knew that when he was up (in the air), he wasn’t only putting his crew in danger, but others. He wanted to complete the mission, wherever it was, otherwise they were just putting themselves in harm’s way, and he hated that – he wanted and had a need to be successful. He set a very high standard for his crew, and did it in a way where people would listen and follow. It wasn’t just my father who achieved these missions, it was everyone on the plane and everyone in the squadron, and that was his belief.

“I think the lesson that the men in the Eighth Air Force, including my father, left was don’t think of yourselves as heroes – it was your job and he wanted to do his job at an exceedingly high level, and wanted others to do so in order to achieve the goals. When he visited with the 100th Air Refueling Wing, he was so pleased and so proud. He wanted all of us to come visit and share his stories, and just to have the continuing legacy from the past and present Air Force – that meant the world to him.”

Dan previously visited RAF Mildenhall May 8, 2012, when the 100th Operations Group held a ceremony renaming its auditorium after his legendary father. Now officially known as the “Rosenthal Auditorium” to all those who’ve since been stationed here since, it bears framed photos and the history of Rosie Rosenthal for all to see.

“My father would have been deeply embarrassed and honored by this recognition,” said Dan. “I’m as proud a son as one could be for the recognition of my dad, and more importantly, what the 100th stood for. When my dad is honored, I think of it not as my dad but as the group, and I think that’s how he would want to be remembered.”

Dan remarked that back in World War II, the bombers were just coming into superiority and ending trench warfare from World War I.

“What they wound up doing was taking the trench warfare and putting it in the sky, and what these guys endured, before the fighter support happened, was horrific. Those achievements and their perseverance of having to endure day after day of going out there was so heroic. To get up in the air and do their jobs, knowing the cost of what it was mentally doing to them, is something that needs to be recognized and preserved because at that time they were the offense of the Allies. They were enduring such losses and such heartache that it almost ended the daylight missions.”

Dan recalled how his dad was shot down over Munster, Germany, on his third mission and said it was when Rosenthal was stationed in Florida – before being assigned to the Eighth Air Force in England -- that he really learned how to fly.

“On his off days in Florida they did dogfighting, and that’s what saved his life in the Munster mission,” he remarked.

A letter on the 100th BG Foundation website sent to Rosie by Bill DeBlasio, tail gunner on Rosie’s crew on that Munster mission, described the horrors they encountered. The tail gunner had given a copy of the letter to Michael Faley, 100th BGF photo archives historian, on the condition that the details of his account of that nightmare mission weren’t posted until the event of his death. DeBlasio passed away in 2001.

Twelve of the 100th BG’s 13 aircraft were shot down, either before bombs away or shortly after, leaving the Royal Flush alone. Rosenthal and his crew tried to attach themselves to the 95th Bomb Group for protection, but because one engine on the left and one on the right had both been destroyed by flak, it was impossible for them to keep up with any of the formations.

That’s when the fighter attacks got worse; in his letter, DeBlasio described how they came in waves of four abreast, and only fired when they were roughly 800 yards away, as did he from his tail gunner position. As the gunner had the number two aircraft in his sight, he fired three short bursts. The left wing flew off the enemy aircraft and crashed into the plane on the outside – both went down in flames. He then fired on the German inside plane on the right, forcing the pilot to eject after smoke started pouring out. Just as DeBlassio turned his gun on the last plane, it peeled in another direction.

Minutes later, more enemy aircraft started attacking, firing eight rockets in one minute at Rosie’s aircraft – luckily, all missed.

Rosenthal came back with three engines gone, and right before he landed the fourth engine failed. There were rocket holes all over the aircraft.

“On my dad’s ship a few were killed and many were wounded – it was horrific,” said Dan. “He had to feather the engines, more than just once or twice as the German fighters were coming after him. The gunmen on his ship were saying, ‘Rosie – hold a stable platform so we can shoot them!’ My father said, ‘So we can shoot them? Uh … (no)!’ Then he did some violent manoeuvres, and the Germans eventually just left him alone. That was how he was able to make it back alive. When they finally landed, people were falling out of the plane and kissing it before upchucking because of what they’d seen on that flight.”

That mission took place Oct. 10, 1943. Of the 10 aircraft launched by the 100th BG that day, only Rosie’s aircraft, “Royal Flush” returned.

As a result of the Munster mission, Rosie was sent on leave for one week. He pleaded to stay on duty, but to no avail.

“He felt horrible,” exclaimed Dan, explaining how much his father had protested, because he was embarrassed that he’d been put on leave status after only three missions. “Normally leave was only granted after between eight and 12 missions. He knew he needed to get back up in the air immediately. After what he saw and what he endured, the longer he delayed the more time he had to think about what had just occurred, and his crew who had survived needed to get up right away.

“It’s like falling off a horse, you want to get back on,” he added. “His nerves were frayed to no end by the time he got back from leave and to get in the air again took every ounce of everything that he had.”

During World War II, the average number of missions from a pilot and aircrew was 25. Rosie did 52 missions.

“It was really 53, but he didn’t get any recognition for the last one because he flew to Austria and picked up some French (prisoners of war) and flew them back to France,” said Dan. “My father told me he remembered these skeletons coming on board as they were covered in lime because of the lice and whatever else they might have picked up. He just wanted to do something terrific for them when they got into Paris, so he flew around the Eiffel tower and made an announcement – every single one of them threw up!”

On returning to the States after his last mission, Rosenthal went back to his old law firm, but when the opportunity arose to join the team prosecuting Nazis in Nuremburg, he took it without hesitation.

In July 1946, he headed to Germany by ship, and on that voyage, met a Navy lawyer, Phillis Heller, who was also joining the American legal team in Nuremburg. Ten days later, they were engaged, and married Sept. 14, 1946.

“My mother wore lederhosen, and they honeymooned on top of Hitler’s lair,” exclaimed Dan.

“Wolf’s Lair” was Adolf Hitler’s primary command headquarters on the Eastern Front during World War II.

He added that during his time working as part of his duties during the trials, his father interrogated Wilhelm Keitel, the top German general; Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, and Hermann Goering, commander of the German air force and the second-highest-ranked Nazi during most of the war.

“My mother did an investigation on I. G. Farben – a Nazi-controlled conglomerate which used concentration-camp labor. They performed torturous medical experiments on those in the camp,” he said. “People didn’t understand what they were fighting, but it was ongoing.”

While in Germany, Dan’s mother became pregnant and once the war trials were over, Robert and Phillis returned home to New York. They eventually had three children, Steven, Peggy and Dan.

Rosenthal died April 20, 2007, aged 89.

Dan continues to play a major role in the 100th Bomb Group Foundation and share his father’s stories, while Rosenthal’s legacy lives on in the 100th ARW and its heritage at Thorpe Abbots, where the legendary pilot served.