Rosie's Riveters

By Sgt Saul Levitt

England — For newspapers, bigger victories in this war are a simple problem — you just use bigger type on page one. Like the American daylights raids on Berlin. In somebody's 20-volume history of the second World War, to be written in 1955, an aging crew chief like J E Woodard and a tail-gunner like Bill DeBlasio will find the Berlin raids rating a paragraph or two on page 963. For the men concerned with them only yesterday, they meant another evening return of tired, living men — or another ship sloping down to the limbo of "missing in action."

Sometimes even a working airfield gets a sense of something special and enormous. On one field the crews had this feeling about the Berlin raids, when a certain plane came swinging low over the tower, home from Berlin, one late afternoon.

The plane was Capt Robert Rosenthal's — Rosie's Riveters. Her crew came home to a sudden, unrestrained, crazy holiday greeting. It was a private party; nobody else was invited. It was their own hunk of bitter victory — for many were lost over Berlin, taking part of the Luftwaffe with them.

But Rosie, the pilot, had completed his tour of duty. The sky was filled with flares — the armament men had given them two extra boxes before takeoff that morning. They threw the Fourth of July up at the cold gray sky; and the control tower, which is a grave and dignified institution at an airfield — something like the Supreme Court — came back with more flares.

The crew's request to the pilot that morning, when they learned it was to be Berlin, had been for a "beautiful buzz job" coming in. The pilot gave it to them with his low swoop over the tower. It is said — though J E Woodard, the husky crew chief denies it — that big tears rolled down his face when Rosie's Riveters showed at last over the tower. Then the crew rode off in great style to the interrogation, each man on a jeep. All except T/Sgt Michael V Bocuzzi, the radio operator; he rode on the rear of a proud MP's motorcycle.

Capt (then Lt) Rosenthal and his crew came overseas quietly enough last September. They brought with them their own crew name, to be duly inscribed on the nose of a Fort by some weary Joe who has seen all kinds of names tagged on to B-17s that can't answer back.

The pilot was a quiet, inconspicuous young man of 26, who wore his visor cap clamped down on his head and walked with the shambling gait of a countryman, although he hailed from the Flatbush farmlands of Brooklyn, NY. With him was one of those typical American "mongrel" crews that the Army arranges so well — as if in conscious answer to the "racial unity" armies of Nazi Germany. Their backgrounds were German, Irish, Scotch, Italian and others, and their home places were scattered from the Eastern seaboard to the Far West.

In Dyersburg, TN, Rosie had quietly canvassed his crew to find out how they felt about combat. No one backed out. Yet no one could possibly have wanted the combat they got in their first three days of flying in this theater. As S/Sgt Ray H Robinson, the ball-turret gunner from Arkansas City, KS, put it, "the first night after Bremen we were too scared to sleep, the second night after Marienburg we were too tired. The third night after Munster we were bushed — finished."

Bremen was bad. On that one, the squadron lead crew, piloted by Capt (now Maj) Everett E Blakely, had hell smashed out of it. On the Operations blackboard Sgt Jennings wrote after all the plane numbers "severe battle damage." Marienburg, with only a few hours' sleep intervening, was one of the longest flights ever undertaken in this theater. And then came Munster, the very next morning.

The haggard, griping crew of Rosie's Riveters went down to the Munster briefing that morning in the company of experienced crews — men who had been on the first Regensburg shuttle raid to Africa and on the "longest flight in the ETO," to Trondheim.

Late that afternoon, as fog settled over East Anglia, Rosie's Riveters came back alone — the drone of its two engines a mournful elegy for those men who had been to Regensburg and Trondheim. Careful landing procedure for formation was unnecessary. There was only the one plane coming in— actually half a plane — with two of its engines out. Thirteen planes had failed to return. The interrogation was very exclusive, like a consultation with a private physician. There was only the evidence of the dazed, battered men of Rosie's Riveters.

It had been a ferocious and concentrated attack. One by one the planes of the group had gone down. Left alone, Lt Rosenthal had decided to go on with the bombing run.

"Shall I drop them now, Rosie?" the bombardier kept asking,

"Not yet."

"Now?"

"No."

"We're over Munster," Lt C J Milburn, the bombardier, finally said.

"Now," said Lt Rosenthal.

Then they fought their way back from Munster to the French coast, enemy fighters queueing up on them. S/Sgt L F Darling of Sioux City, Iowa, crept up to the nose to help Lt Ronald C Bailey, the navigator, spot the landing field. At last came the landing.

Rosie came down through the bomb bay to look over his crew. Darling was wounded and so was the other waist-gunner, S/Sgt J H Shaffer. As Rosie stepped out and went along in the ambulance with his wounded, he got a glimpse of something new — the torn-down skin of the right wing where a rocket shell looping from above had plowed between empty gas tanks, cutting a hole a foot across.

Mike Bocuzzi, tumbling out white-faced, yelled: "I'm through flying these things. That's enough."

"CJ," the bombardier, round-faced and amiable, a little quieter than Mike, didn't say anything but he thought: "'Well, if this is the way it is, they must get you sooner or later, but I'll go along until it catches up with me."

Young Bill DeBlasio, the tail-gunner, wrote in his battle diary: "By the grace of God we were the only ship to come back. Our pilot brought us home safely."

That was Munster, and it was five months more until Berlin.

Mike Bocuzzi, who had yelled that he was going to quit, griped that way many more times — and never quit. T/Sgt C C Hall of Perry, FL, a pleasant guy with a sour puss, went on shooting down fighters that he was reluctant to claim. And Rosie, the pilot, went on making his laconic reports to interrogation officers when they tried to pump him.

"The flak was meager," he would say, "We landed with our flaps out."

"Flaps out? Were you hit?"

"A little bit. But if you get back it's a milk run."

They flew to Bremen, Rostock, Brunswick. On the second Regensburg, the target area was snow-covered. Lt Bailey, the navigator, gave the crew a little running lecture on European history and geography. Here were the Alps. Over that way was Switzerland. Those long, wide lanes below were the "six-laned highways built by the Germans for this war." And here was where the Germans had broken through in an earlier war with France, in 1870.

Before Rostock, Bocuzzi was tired and jumpy. Rosie came down to the line, put his arms around Mike's shoulders and said: "What's the matter, Mike? We' re all nervous. I'm always scared myself. What s the matter?"

"Nothing," said Mike. In his battle diary, DeBlasio wrote darkly: "They better give us a rest and a few short raids. I am very tired now."

The pep talks had mounted. "By this time we'd had 102 since Dyersburg," says Ray Robinson. "I counted them. Rosie always gave us a pep talk before a mission. After that he never spoke on a raid, except when he had to."

For Berlin, the briefing was like all the others. But it was for Berlin, the "Big B," to be hit in daylight. Last August, as a gag, someone had put up the red ribbon across to Berlin, and no return route was indicated. Now it was no gag, and there was a return route. Through the briefing room came the shuffle of heavy boots. Cigarettes were lighted. As the pointer touched Berlin, Bocuzzi said to somebody: "Who got drunk last night and dreamed this one up?"

They went down to the line. Behind them were more than 20 raids. They dived into the ground crew's kitty of cigarettes in the tent. Bocuzzi borrowed a pencil from the ground crew. "No 12, this is, I owe you 12 pencils," Mike said.

It was a cloudy day. Berlin could always be postponed, couldn't it? Couldn't it wait for tomorrow? They looked toward the tower where the flare might go up announcing "mission scrubbed." There was no flare, only the dull gray sky.

A new navigator was along. Instead of Lt Bailey, riding the bike and looking like a professor with his navigator's brief case under his arm, there was a new man who had to be put at ease by Rosie.

The co-pilot, Lt Winfrey (Pappy) Lewis of Houston, TX, came down and did his pre-mission job of checking equipment. Then he dived for the cot in the tent — a regular thing with him, this sack time before a mission. S/Sgt Marion J (Junior) Sheldon of Arkansas, who had replaced Darling, carefully hung his two rag dolls, "Blood" and "Guts," to the receiver of his gun. All the little things had been done, and pep talk No 103 took place — with Rosie's usual delivery: "You worry about your guns and let me worry about the plane."

The only changes this time were that they got into the plane a little earlier than usual and the silence over the interphone after the take-off was greater than usual. Interphone discipline had always been strict, but this was quieter than it had ever been. "We were a shipload of nerves," says Ray Robinson.

As they came over the German coast the clouds began to lighten. Moving into Germany, things were getting clearer. Pappy Lewis, the "bald eagle," looked over toward Rosie, beginning to sweat.

"It was only 30 below," says Mike. "Not too cold."

They got over the "Big B." It was clear below them, although smoke was already billowing high in the air. Flak was thick about them — "but not worse than Bremen," says DeBlasio. Nervousness disappeared with the first fighters.

"On this one," says Mike, "we didn't want them to get in close. The bombardier got one and so did the top turret. Rosie's Riveters made their turn past the target.

Now the enemy coast was behind them. Over the interphone Rosie said: "Interphone discipline is now a sack of something." Voices broke in a frenzy of babbling, laughing noises. There was a hell of a squabble in the waist, and DeBlasio was refereeing between S/Sgt Jimmy Mack and Junior Sheldon.

England again, after Munster, Bremen, Brunswick, Rostock, Stettin — and Berlin. After. unloading bombs on the map of Germany. After 103 pep talks by Capt Robert Rosenthal of Brooklyn and Brooklyn College.

They buzzed the field. Down below were friends. Maj Blakely, the CO, was waving. The flares went up. It was private victory, but in this roaring excitement there was the knowledge of men who had not come back. In four raids on the "Big B," American bombers had dished it out, but they had taken it, too.

At the interrogation Capt F E Callahan asked his questions, and the answers were, as usual, laconic. "We never get anything out of you," said Capt Callahan gloomily. The new navigator told most of the story. Somebody was always pushing over to shake Rosie's hand, and the navigator said complainingly: "I wish this guy weren't so popular, so we could get through."

Lt Col Kidd and Col Harding pulled Rosie aside to find out things. They found out little, and after he had downed a Scotch, Rosie asked politely: "Would it be all right if we had a couple of bottles of Scotch tonight at the barracks?"

It seemed very much OK.

One evening, a week later, they went to get decorations at the Officers' Club. There were Capt Rosenthal, Bill DeBlasio, Ray Robinson and Mike Bocuzzi. They sat quietly shoulder to shoulder dressed in Class As. Lt Gen Spaatz and Maj Gen Doolittle spoke. It was brief and to the point about the war. Jimmy Doolittle, answering a question, said in his resonant voice: "After all, it's not a matter of you and me going out, it's a question of winning the war."

Rosie went out and walked down toward his hut in the dark. Capt. Putnam, a close and good friend, had gone down a few weeks before. This Berlin raid was a thing of the past; let its history be written elsewhere. And tomorrow was another day, another raid.

At the Aero Club some mechanic got to the piano and played boogie woogie, and boys with '"Berlin" inscribed on their jackets tapped their feet to the music, standing around the piano.

Over in the BOQ Ray Robinson found Rosie in the midst of a lot of clothes, with his B-4 bag open. Robinson shook his head and said pityingly: "Someone always has to pack your stuff. How on earth do you ever expect to get off on that leave tomorrow?"

He packed Rosie's stuff carefully into the bag. "You won't need that," he said, throwing an extra suit of underwear to one side, after counting out the number he thought Rosie should need for the leave. And then he zipped the bag shut. "

Thanks, Ray," said Rosie.

"What train are you taking?"

"Early one, I guess."

"It's at 8 o'clock, so you better get out of the sack early — or do I have to come over and get you up? Good-night, Rosie."

"Good-night, Ray," said Capt Rosenthal, settling into his sack.

This story originally appeared in YANK, the Army weekly.
This version was sourced from The Best From YANK The Army Weekly, selected by the editors of YANK, published by E P Dutton & Co, Inc; ©1945 by Franklin S Forsberg; pp 85-88.
The PDF of this article includes a captioned group portrait of the crew of Rosie's Riveters.