July 16, 2024
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July 16, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

In Memoriam: Heroes of the Skies

Around Veteran’s Day, it’s appropriate to look back at two of the mostly forgotten members of our family who served with distinction in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. The war took the life of one of these heroes and forever transformed the other. Today, 70 years after the conclusion of hostilities in Europe and the Pacific, the sacrifices of these two Jewish airmen, among many thousands of others, should be recalled in as much detail as we can muster. Their examples serve to remind all of us of their great selflessness and devotion to duty.

Jerome Lesser (Yakov ben Arye Leib z”l) of the Bronx, and Murray Friedenberg (Moshe ben Yosef Yitzchak z”l) of Brooklyn, never met each other. Jerome was born of American-born parents, Alfred and Martha (Spiegel) Lesser, themselves children of German immigrant parents who arrived in America during the 1870s. Murray’s parents, on the other hand, Joseph and Hinda (Chapnik) Friedenberg, came to the U.S. in 1913 and 1920, respectively, from Eastern Poland. Jerome was my wife’s uncle and Murray, mine.

Jerome was born in 1917, the second child in his family. A good-looking, bright and active child, he loved sports and excelled in hand-eye coordination. Among his many achievements was a New York City-wide high school championship in sabre fencing in April 1935. Family legend has it that Jerome had arrived home late on a Saturday evening, gone directly to his room, refusing to answer his parents’ repeated requests as to where and with whom he had been socializing. To his family’s amazement the next morning, there on the front page of the sports section of the New York Times appeared a photo of the Textile High School fencing team with Jerome Lesser listed as the winner of the sabre competition. They were duly impressed.

When the war broke out in Europe and the Pacific, Jerome was drafted into the Army Air Corp which during WWII was still part of the Army. Based on his abilities, he secured an ultimate commission as a 1st Lieutenant in the 5th Air Force, 90th Bomber Group, 400th Bomber Squadron, seeing action in the Pacific theater as a bombardier. Jerome’s unit was assigned to New Guinea where they first saw action in December 1942. His crew took off from Port Moresby on the fateful morning of January 22, 1943, on a solitary daylight reconnaissance mission over the Japanese airbase and headquarters at Wewak and to search for the crew of a previous B-24 aircraft that had gone missing two days before on a similar mission. The last message received from Jerome’s plane was “intercepted by Zeros.” The official record states that Jerome’s plane was shot down by a squad of A6M2 Japanese Zero fighter planes. The following day, two B-24s again flew armed reconnaissance over Wewak and unsuccessfully searched for Jerome’s plane. These planes were themselves attacked by a force of 13 enemy fighters, but were able to return to base after suffering heavy damage. Post-war searches failed to locate Jerome’s remains and he and his crew were presumed dead on January 8, 1946. The entire crew is memorialized on the tablets of the missing at Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines.

His parents, siblings and young fiance were devastated by news of his loss, compounded by the fact that his remains would never be located. In retrospect, the mission that took his life was essentially a “suicide” flight insofar as a single, slower moving B-24 bomber on a daylight reconnaissance mission over a heavily defended Japanese airbase was a “sitting duck” scenario for enemy fighters.

While Jerome Lesser was paying the ultimate price for America in the Pacific on that winter day in early 1943, another young Jewish man from Brooklyn was preparing to enter the Army Air Corp back home. Murray Friedenberg lived in Bensonhurst, the only son of Gerrer Chasidic parents. Murray was brought up in what would be considered today more of a Modern Orthodox home; he attended public school and Talmud Torah, grew up playing sports, especially baseball, and by the age of 18 was more Americanized than his parents ever became. Murray enlisted in the Army Air Corps towards the end of 1943 and found himself assigned after basic training to the 8th Air Force, 2nd Air division, 14th Bomb Wing, 492nd Bomb Group (Heavy). During basic training he excelled at gunnery and, given his relatively smaller size (5’ 5”), made an excellent B-24 tail gunner. In that position in the typical 10-man crew, it was his job to shoot down any enemy aircraft that approached his plane from the rear, a critical task. In addition, he acted as the crew’s “eyes” from his turret position that gave him a unique 180-degree rear view. As luck would have it, Murray’s unit found themselves flying missions out of England and, today, detailed records of all 30 bombing missions he flew, including targets, aircraft used and identity of the flight crews involved are available online. Crews were known by the name of their flight officer or pilot. Murray’s flight officer on almost all his missions was a certain 1st Lt. Arthur Rasmussen. According to the official Air force history, the Rasmussen crew, including Friedenberg, flew 20 missions with the 492nd Bomber Group beginning on June 2, 1944, when, flying from North Pickenham airfield in England, they successfully targeted an airfield in coastal France. On their second mission just four days later, they bombed Caen, France, in support of the historic D-Day invasion. In the course of the rest of June 1944, they bombed five more targets in France and three in Germany. The targets included enemy airfields, oil refineries and railroad bridges.

According to Paul Boos, the navigator on all of Friedenberg’s flights, the worst mission they faced was the June 20, 1944, mission to Politz, Germany. They had one engine shot out and the hydraulic lines cut. Landing back at their English airfield would be extremely difficult without flaps or brakes. Rasmussen, the pilot, made use of a tail skid maneuver to slow the plane down to a stop. On another occasion, the crew’s bomb payload got stuck in the bomb bay and Friedenberg, at significant risk, ventured out on the narrow catwalk above the open bomb bay to manually release the jammed bombs. He received an Oak Leaf cluster citation for that act of bravery.

In the next five weeks the Rasmussen crew completed 11 more missions over the German heartland and France, including the Munich railroad station, the submarine base at Kiel (for which they received a Distinguished Service unit citation) and the aircraft manufacturing center at Brunswick. The official history of the Air force summarized the Rasmussen (and thus Friedenberg’s) crew’s service record succinctly:

“The Rasmussen crew flew and survived some of the Group’s toughest air battles. Their service with the Group was no picnic. It didn’t take too long for them to be considered one of the older crews in the squadron.”

On August 10, 1944, the Rasmussen crew was transferred to the 66th Bomber Squadron of the 44th Bomber group with whom they completed an additional 10 difficult bombing missions, including notable targets in Hamburg and Dortmund. Friedenberg’s combat service concluded with his 30th mission on December 4th, 1944. He had seen significant, often heavy, action for a period from June-December, 1944, with a well-deserved six-week break for rest and recreation in August and September. Upon Friedenberg’s return stateside, he was assigned the task of training recruits in the art of gunnery, not surprising given his extensive track record in the tail turret of a B-24. In sum, Friedenberg spent approximately 300 hours in combat runs during the war when the might of the German war machine defenses were constantly aimed at blowing him from the skies. Of that time at least 240 of those hours were spent crammed in the tail turret of a B-24, wearing an uncomfortable oxygen mask in very cold, unheated conditions. Exemplary service indeed!

Back in America, Murray gradually returned to civilian life forever changed by his wartime experiences. Within four years of the end of the war, at age 26, he had lost both his parents and his direction in life. Though he lived until 1995, when he died at age 73, Murray never married. Growing up I was close to him as he was my only maternal uncle. I was an inquisitive child and when I would examine his war medals and citations and question him about the “war years” he always politely declined to discuss his exploits. “Everyone got medals,” was his stock answer. I guess his memories weren’t pleasant ones and as a result Murray purposely chose not to talk about the war. Jerome sadly couldn’t.

By no design of their own, both Jerome Lesser and Murray Friedenberg left no direct descendants to mourn them. Their wartime service recounted above thus largely defines them in history. That service links them to us forever. May they rest in eternal peace!

Yizkor Elokim et nishmosayhem!

By Joseph Rotenberg

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