Chronicling My Father's WWII Experiences
Note: The following piece was published in The Pioneer Press in 1999. With the author's permission, we've republished it here. There are lots of things I know about my dad. That he loves the Cubs. That he can multiply huge numbers in his head. That he does not have an enemy in the world. That it was important to raise us as Jews.
I know that he’s not too macho to tell his kids he loves them and that he has always been there for me all of my 47 years.
I have always known, too, just a little about my dad and World War II. That he flew bombing missions in Europe and had a box of maps from the war that as kids we were not supposed to touch. That he would not get on an airplane for at least 10 years after the war. That he looked really young and handsome in his uniform.
But mostly I knew he didn’t want to talk about any of that.
Recently my dad and I talked about his experiences in the war. We not only finally talked about it, but we went through maps of bombing missions and just about every slip of paper the War Department issued him.
So now there’s something else I know about my dad. That he’s a hero. Of course, he has always been my hero, but now I see him as a hero in the truest sense. He makes me proud to be an American and so proud to be his daughter.
Sheldon Sternberg, 76 and a former Wilmette resident, grew up in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, the son of Isadore and Ann and the brother of Betty. Life was fairly typical for my dad. He worked after school, rode the el to the baseball games, was a good student and had lots of friends.
In 1942 he was in his second year of college at DePaul University in Chicago when the Air Force came to DePaul to recruit. In June of that year, he enlisted. He was 19 years old.
My dad went through basic training at Kessler Feld in Biloxi, Mississippi and wound up at Dickenson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The Air Force had taken over Dickinson and it was there that he spent the summer of 1943 in flight training, living in old barracks from the Civil War.
He remembers spending 10 hours in a Piper Cub with a woman instructor Helen Johnson.
“The first flight; I was scared to death,” my dad said.
I was surprised that he remembered his instructor’s name, but it all made sense after he told me what she said to him after the flight training was finished: “If you ever become a pilot, I'll eat this plane.”
My dad did not become a pilot, he became a navigator.
He was sent to Selman Field in Monroe, Louisiana in September of 1943 for navigation training and finished in May 1944. He was assigned to a bombing crew for training in Pyote, Texas, near El Paso. They had target practice over wastelands in New Mexico.
I asked him if they dropped real bombs in New Mexico and my dad said he thought so. I also wanted to know if he was homesick. He said:
“When you’re in a war like this there’s no time to be homesick. Becoming a navigator was like going to college. We were busy morning, noon and night."
In June 1944, my dad’s bombing crew was sent to Kearney, Nebraska to be assigned for combat. He received specialized training from June to December of 1944 to become a radar navigator, or as they say in the Air Force a “Mickey operator”. When he finished there were orders to go overseas.
My dad was sent to Savannah, Georgia and assigned a plane to take him overseas. The winter of 1944 was so brutal that it took 30 days to reach Europe. They were delayed in New Jersey and Maine, and in Goosebay, Labrador and Reykjavik, Iceland. They finally landed in Wales on January 20, 1944.
One month later he received his orders to go with the 390th bombardment squadron. They took the train to London, arrived late at night and stayed at the Great Northern Hotel in London.
“I remember I was wearing a trench coat with my 45 caliber gun,” he said, explaining that U.S. servicemen were routinely issued firearms. “I checked my coat, and the guy who took it looked at the gun. I joked that it’s OK; I'm from Chicago. Everyone knew Chicago because of Al Capone.”
I sat looking at my dad, trying to imagine him with a gun. Trying to imagine all of it. The war for me, up until now, was something I studied in school. I knew of the horrors of the Holocaust and I saw “Saving Private Ryan,” but it was still unimaginable. Until now.
After the treat of a great dinner in the London hotel, the next morning my dad was assigned to a crew with the 390th Bomb Group. His commanding officer was Joseph A. Moeller who was from Winnetka. My dad knew no one.
He was first trained to navigate a weather plane. Their job was to go out ahead of the bombers and report back. My dad recalls the first flight.
“It was about four in the morning. As you were flying you could see the Eighth Air Force forming their bombing mission. The planes formed in groups of 36. There were 1,500 planes, about 40 groups of 36. I was in awe...to see the sun coming up and seeing all those planes all over the sky. I thought, here it is, a war zone.”
My dad flew his first bombing mission on March 17, 1945. The target was Ruhland, Germany.
“I was terrified — there is no feeling like it. I was so nervous I forgot the belt for my pants. We made it back and I never wore a belt again. It became a superstition.”
After every mission, the Air Force issued each man two shots of whiskey. My dad flew seven more bombing missions: on March 22, 1945 over Ahlhorn-Oldenburg, Germany; March 24, 1945 over Ziegenhain, Germany; March 28, 1945 over Hannover, Germany; April 5, 1945 over Nurnberg, Germany; April 7, 1945 over Neumunster, Germany; April 10, 1945 over Burg, Germany; and April 16, 1945 over Royan, France.
On April 15, 1945, my dad was promoted to 1st Lieutenant.
He told me about the German jet fighter, the ME262, which was extremely fast and one day came flying through his squadron. “That plane had seven minutes of jet fuel and could come through any squadron and do a lot of damage. I remember it shooting some of our planes down.”
I asked him, looking back, what it felt like. He told me that every bombing mission he knew he might not survive.
“But for the grace of God, it could have been me. All the young men I knew who never came back. When you see other planes on fire and men parachuting out, how could you ever believe you’re going to come back?”
He started to tell me about a buddy, Stanley Spatz, of Far Rockaway, New York who was killed on a mission, then stopped halfway through and said, “I can’t talk about it.”
My dad told me that at the end of the war, the American bombing groups were so overwhelmingly strong that the Germans didn’t have a chance. He talked of shooting down other planes but even now, more than 50 years later, couldn’t say the words.
Instead, he said, “They got taken care of by our fighter pilots.”
The last three missions my dad flew were humanitarian missions. May 1, 1945 over Valkenburg, Holland; May 3, 1945 over Vogelenzang, Holland; and May 6, 1945 over Utrecht Holland. “Chow Hound” was the code name for these food drops to the Dutch, who were starving.
“I remember we looked down after the food drop and they had written ‘Thank you boys’ in tulips.”
In a book entitled “The Story of the 390 Bombardment Group,” the Chow Hound missions are described: “It was the final irony of the war. Together with a series of missions in which the planes brought back liberated prisoners of war from deep in Germany and France, the airplanes which had been designed as instruments of destruction ended their careers as agents of good will.”
The 390th Bomb Group was in England for 21 months. The group had flown 301 combat missions. There were 714 killed in action, 1,378 missing in action and 161 wounded. From Aug 8, 1943 to April 20, 1945 the 390th Bomb group was officially credited with the destruction of 377 enemy aircraft.
After the war ended it was many years before my dad would fly. I remember when I was little, he would take the train to California on business.
But he doesn’t think of himself as a hero.
“The true heroes were the mothers and fathers waiting at home, not knowing what was happening,” he said.
My dad survived a war in which 41,786 bomber men were missing or killed in action and 1,890 were seriously wounded. He was awarded an Air Medal and four bronze stars.
I call that a hero.