Miracle Flight #17
In a B-17G belonging to the 487th Bomb Group on 17 March 1945, an American pilot began his 17th mission. The bomber, piloted by 1st Lt. Alvin S. "Buddy" Rothstein with Lt. John Bogardus in the co-pilot's seat, took off from their base at Lavenham, England as part of a raid on NAZI war production facilities in Ruhland, Germany, south east of Dresden. This was the last time this plane, bearing with no "nose art" would take off, manned by an American crew.
The other members of the crew on that day were Lt. Jerome Abramowitz, Navigator; Sgt. George L. Livers, Tail Gunner; Sgt. Jack Kohl 1, Waist Gunner; Sgt. Sylvester Wojicki, Ball Turret Gunner; Sgt. Joseph Brown, Radio Operator; Sgt. Leroy Genoway, Engineer and Top Gunner; and Sgt. Paul T. Dempsey, Nose Gunner.
There was no "bombardier" aboard. The bombs were to be releases by the toggle in the nose compartment of the plane, in formation sequence begun with the release of the bombs on the target which had been located by the bombardier in the lead plane. Each plane in turn would drop their bomb load when the plane immediately ahead dropped theirs.
Over the target at 28,000 feet, the plane jolted about by the exploding flak, above cloud cover called "scud", the bombs were released when suddenly the right wing of the plane was ripped open by German anti-aircraft fire, the plane twisted into a dangerous flat spin and dropped into the "scud", visibility, zero. Lts. Rothstein and Bogardus fought to regain control of the whirling bomber, not knowing if they were upside down or right side up. All they were certain of is that they were spinning and falling. After a fierce struggle with the controls, they managed to pull the bomber out of the spin and regain control and "normal" flight.
Once out of the clouds they could see a ragged hole in the right wing. The outboard engine was stopped. An anti-aircraft shell fragment had ripped a large hole through the wing tank and gasoline was blowing back across the wing surface into the fuselage. The "flak" fragment had disabled the entire electrical system and there was imminent danger that the gasoline spilling out of the left wing tank would find an electrical short somewhere in the plane causing a catastrophic explosion at any moment. It didn't happen.
The pilots could hear the "kerchunk, kerchunk" as flack tore through the plane. The "intercom" was dead. All the pilots knew was that they were still airborne under control but knew nothing of casualties the crew might have suffered or the damage to the plane behind them.
A white-hot piece of flack had passed through the tail gunner’s position tearing a hole in Sgt. George Livers shoe and sock and scorching his ankle but not drawing any blood.
Radioman, Sgt. Joe Brown in the radio compartment, had his hand resting on a hinged metal table near the radio position when a piece of shrapnel tore through the floor of the plane and through the table. Sgt. Browns’ wrist was scorched by the white hot metal but otherwise he was unscathed. In both cases a difference of an inch or two would have meant serious injury or death.
Lt. Rothstein sized up their predicament and the airworthiness of the plane. He quickly realized that the damage to the plane was so extensive that it could not possibly make it back across Germany, the Western Front and the North Sea to England. Easy "pickins" for the Luftwaffe. Their only chance of survival, risky at best, was to keep the plane airborne as long as possible, fly in an easterly direction and hope they'd reach Russian occupied territory.
With three engines still turning and only the magnetic compass in operation they flew on. The hits had knocked out the electrical and the hydraulic system, none of the cockpit indicator lights and gauges were functioning and the gyrocompass had "tumbled".
On they flew, eastward, guided only by the magnetic compass, not knowing how much fuel remained in the left wing tank. The hole in the right wing told Lt. Rothstein and his co-pilot, Lt. John Bogardus that even the self-sealing gas tank in the right wing was empty.
A check with the navigator, Lt. Gerry Abramowitz, as to where they could land if they made it across the Eastern Front, availed them nothing since he had not brought any maps of Poland or Czechoslovakia. When Lt. Bogardus learned that the navigator had brought only maps of Germany, France and Holland, he became extremely angry.
Flying on, without fuel gauges, the pilots didn't know when the fuel feeding the three operating engines would be exhausted. Finally, a grass airfield was sighted.
Circling the field, they were able to identify the small aircraft parked there. As Lt. Rothstein had hoped, they were Soviet and not German aircraft. They were small aircraft, the type used as artillery spotters and some Soviet fighter planes, the pilot of one of these, the crew was soon to meet.
Lt. Rothstein decided to make a landing on the grassy field, no matter where and how short it was, before the fuel was exhausted and the plane would go down without power.
While Lt. Rothstein circled the field, Lt. Bogardus worked the "Wobble Pump" next to his seat hoping to provide emergency hydraulic pressure to the landing gear and the braking system. His efforts paid off and the landing gear was lowered, perhaps cranked down manually, BUT without the green light on the control panel to indicate that the wheels were down and locked, there was only one way to be sure that the gear was set for landing. Visual examination. As Mr. Rothstein remembers it, with other members of the crew holding his wrists, engineer and top gunner and flight engineer Leroy Genoway was lowered from the bomb bay of the circling plane to check the position of the landing gear. Safely back aboard, he confirmed that the gear was down and locked.
While circling Lt. Rothstein sized up the length of the short grass field. His plan was to touch down as close to the end of the field as possible and immediately drop the tailso that the tail drag would act as a brake. With Rothstein manhandling the controls and Lt. Bogardus frantically working the handle of the "wobble pump", the plane touched down. As soon as he thought it safe, Lt. Rothstein stood on the brake pedals. Miraculously the brakes worked.
The B-17 rolled along the short grass field, rapidly approaching a stone wall at the end of the field. With the plane rolling toward the wall, Lt. Rothstein released the right brake pedal and the plane spun to its left and stopped. They were safely down, all relatively unscathed, but where?
The plane was immediately surrounded by armed Russian troops. The crew had been warned, that even if they landed safely in Russian occupied territory, they still might be shot on the spot by our Russian "allies".
To immediately identify themselves to the armed men outside and so there would be no question as to who the were, before leaving the safety of the plane, the crew practiced what they had been taught to shout, in Russian, if a situation such as this arose, "We're Americans!" and "We're friends!".
From their emergency kits they pulled small paper American flags which each was to display as soon as he emerged from the plane. Side arms were left inside.
As each member of the crew emerged, they started shouting the Russian phrases they had memorized. The words did not elicit a friendly response, so Lt. Rothstein tried a few words in high school French. That failed as well. As a last resort, Lt. Rothstein shouted in Yiddish, a German dialect understood by nearly every Jew in Eastern Europe, "Do you speak Yiddish"?, hoping that one of the Russians might understand Yiddish which would convince the Russians that being a Jew, an officer and the pilot of the plane, he certainly couldn't be German.
To the relief of the crew, the Yiddish brought about a positive reaction from the commander of the Soviet unit who ordered that the "Burp guns" and bayonet-fitted rifles be lowered. Lt. Rothstein's quick thinking no doubt saved their lives. Lt. Rothstein later learned that the unit surrounding his plane had been ordered to shoot all captured prisoners but because the Captain, Boris Pertovich Kasig of the Soviet Air Army, in charge of the unit, was himself Jewish and understood what Lt. Rothstein was shouting. The execution order was not carried out.
Had the unit NOT been under the command of Jewish Captain Kasig, the happy ending to this story might never have happened, the members of the crew would have disappeared forever and this story would not have been written.
A Polish family from the nearby village was displaced and the Americans were ushered into their cottage. Mr. Rothstein remembers that the cottage had a hand-pump to supply water and that the village had a public bath but doesn't know if it were Koscielec or Rudnicki, Poland.
No guards were placed at the door of the cottage and the Americans were free to go wherever they wanted. Their meals, which they ate with the Russians, consisted mainly of boiled beef, black bread, garlic pickles, vodka and at every meal, potatoes cooked in a variety of ways, boiled, fried or mashed and more vodka.
There was a Roman Catholic Church in the village and the nuns would and did laundry for the Russians and the Americans free of charge. They only asked that they be allowed to keep half of the soap.
Using sign language and a few Russian words, Lt. Rothstein found out that the airfield had been used by the Luftwaffe. When the Germans retreated, they had mined the field. The Soviets had removed the mines.
Lt. Rothstein learned that the city of Czestochowa was about fifteen kilometers away from the village where they were housed. Since Lt. Kasig did not know when they would be repatriated, the Americans walked into Czestochowa.
Arriving in Czestochowa wearing bits and pieces of their flying suits, they were immediately recognized as Americans, partly because crewman Paul Dempsey had a painting of "Bugs Bunny" on the back of his jacket. When crowd which had gathered around them, saw "Bugs", they began to shout "Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mouse"!
Lt. Rothstein's flight suit, which in the plane was electrically heated, had an attached electrical plug which puzzled the Polish crowd. Not speaking Polish, Lt. Rothstein could not explain to the crowd its purpose.
The friendly crowd grew larger, thinking that these few Americans were there to liberate Poland, they pressed closer and closer until the Americans were backed against a wall. It was then that mounted Polish police arrived to "rescue" the flyers from the overly friendly crowd.
The Americans were escorted to the Hotel Europa, the front doors were locked and the police dispersed the crowd outside. Off the lobby, was the hotel dining room from which emerged a Soviet officer.
Lt. Rothstein saluted the officer who returned the salute and after figuring out that they were Americans, took Lt. Rothstein by the arm and escorted him and the entire crew into the dining room to join other Russians already there. The Soviet officer ordered the waiter to bring meals for all. The fare consisted of the familiar black bread, garlic pickles, potatoes and vodka. Before the Americans had finished their meals, the Russians got up and left the hotel.
Lt. Rothstein realized that that the bill for the food served to the Americans and to the Russians had not been paid and tried as best as he could, to explain to the hotel manager that none of the Americans had any money of any kind. The hotel manager somehow understood and he crew walked back to their quarters.
There were treated well by the Soviets and only one hostile incident marred their stay. A Russian noticed the "B-17" ring, which Lt. Rothstein wore and he wanted it. Lt. Rothstein had his hand on a table and the Russian pulled out a knife and pressed the point against Lt. Rothstein's ring finger. Lt Rothstein looked at the would-be robber and uttered a stern "Nyet". With that, the Russian put away the knife and the incident was over.
Another Russian indicated that he wanted to exchange hats with Lt. Rothstein but when Lt. Rothstein examined the Russian’s hat, inside it, he saw that it was manufactured in Brooklyn, New York and a "Nyet" ended the transaction.
Their stay in the village wore on. Every day, Lt. Rothstein would ask Air Army Captain Kasig, himself a fighter pilot, in the few Russian words he knew, when they would be repatriated and every day Captain Kasig would answer in Russian with the same words, "Moscow doesn't say."
After more than a week as "guests" of the Russians, an American Air Force DC-3 landed at the airfield. Upon boarding, they were told by the DC-3 pilot that they would take off as soon as a truck, from a nearby village, carrying a downed American B-24 crew arrived.
Both crews boarded, but before the plane, piloted by a Lt. Tierney, from Buffalo, New York, took off, Lt. Rothstein, having heard about the German "Special Operation" units under the command of Otto Skorzeny, where English speaking German troops were causing chaos behind the Western Front and fearing a similar trick, and a one-way flight to Siberia, Lt. Rothstein questioned the pilot, to make sure that he was really an American and not an English speaking Soviet officer.
Once certain that the DC-3 and the pilot belonged to the American Army Air Corps, the plane took off for the joint Soviet-American base at Poltava in the Ukraine.
Mr. Rothstein remembers looking down on the parking areas surrounding the Poltava landing strip and thinking that it looked like a huge "junkyard", littered with the wrecks of many aircraft, Soviet and American, bombers and fighter planes.
Asked if the wrecked planes had been trucked there to be used as salvage, Mr. Rothstein explained that Poltava had been established as the eastern terminus of what was called the "Shuttle Bombing" plan. American and British planes would make their bombing runs from their bases in England but instead of turning around to fly back to England when their bombs had been dropped and be under constant attack on the way "in" and "out", they would continue to fly east to Poltava, where the planes were to be refueled, rearmed, repaired if necessary, any wounded cared for and begin their next bombing run from the east, which they hoped, would add an element of surprise and a small margin of safety.
However the Germans had located the airfield by following some allied planes heading for Poltava. STUKA Dive Bombers hit the unprotected field, decimating the planes parked alongside the landing strip.
One of the wrecked planes was a P-51 Mustang. Its pilot, Andy Innicenzi was at Poltava.
At Poltava, there was a meteorological center under the command of a Major Rubin, and two small hospitals manned by American doctors where Lt. Rothstein was treated for two skin conditions, scabies and ?psitoriasis? and Sgt. Joseph Brown for a nearly fatal case of dysentery.
The base supply center was run by an American Sgt., who asked Lt. Rothstein if he were Jewish and when the response was affirmative, he invited Lt. Rothstein to a Seder supper, the traditional meal which begins the Jewish holiday of Passover.
Some of the Jewish men at the base had managed to requisition the needed food items for the Seder. The Russian cook at the base was himself Jewish and had been a restauranteur before the war. He was more than glad to prepare the food in the proper way.
He was, of course, invited to attend the Seder but he, as were several guards of the Jewish faith at the base, but all were ordered by their government not to attend.
"Ta’anit Bechorot evev Pesach", the "Eve of the Passsover" fell on the 14th of Nisan, 5705 on the Jewish calendar, Wednesday, 28 March 1945.
From Poltava, Lt. Rothstein and his crew were flown back to England, via Teheran, Cairo, Athens, Naples, Marseilles, and London. Lt. Rothstein was then given leave to return to the United States where he married his fiancée before returning to England for B-29 training. But while on his honeymoon, he heard that the war was at last over.
World War II in Europe ended on May 8th 1945 but this was not the end of Lt. Rothstein’s World War II story. Over the years, Mr. Rothstein wondered what had happened to Boris Pertovich Kasig, the man who had saved him and his crew from execution but had no way, he thought, of ever finding out until 40 years after their meeting in Poland.
In 1994, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Mr. Rothstein’s son Dan, was working for a New York law firm and because he spoke Russian, Dan was sent on assignment to Moscow.
Mr. Rothstein, still pondering the fate of Mr. Kasig, asked Dan if there were any way to learn if Mr. Kasig were still alive and if so, his whereabouts.
Dan asked someone in his Moscow office if and how this could be done and after some discouraging replies, was advised that a small newsletter was circulated throughout Russia by people still searching for friends and relatives separated during World War II.
Dan located the publication, added the name "Boris Kasig" to the list, a brief sketch of the incident in March of 1945 and a Moscow phone number for anyone to call who had information about Mr. Kasig. A week or so later, Boris Kasig himself called Dan and remembered vividly his encounter with Dan’s father 40 years earlier. Dan learned that Mr. Kasig was living in his hometown near of Odessa in the Ukraine and made arrangements for a meeting.
Dan journeyed to Odessa to meet Mr. Kasig and further arrangements were made for Mr. Rothstein, who had planned to visit Dan in Moscow, to also visit Mr. Kasig.
Sad to say, before these two World War II pilots, who had met in Poland under such strange circumstances in 1945, Dan received a phone call from Mr. Kasig’s grandson, informing Dan that his grandfather had died.
But even this is not the end of the story. When part of this story appeared on the 8th Air Force web site, a researcher in Poland informed us that Lt. Rothstein’s B-17did not remain at the Rudniki nor had it been scrapped. Rather, in 2002, AirTime Publishing Company published the translation of a story by a Russian author which told how the Soviet Air Army had repaired the B-17 and incorporated it into the Soviet Air Army service. The article included photos of Lt. Rothstein’s B-17 completely refurbished with Soviet markings and a photo of its soviet crew.
In all, Lt. Rothstein survived four forced landings, one in France, one in Belgium where he was able to land badly damaged B-17 at allied held airfields where they were repaired and flown back to Lavenham. On his last two missions, #16 ended in the North Sea and #17 in Poland.
1Sgt. Jack Kohl had completed the required 30 combat missions, volunteered for additional missions as part of Lt. Rothstein’s crew. He replaced Sgt. Robert Young who was lost when Lt. Rothstein’s previous severely damaged B-17, crashed into the North Sea on 3 February 1945. All other members of the crew survived the North Sea crash and were miraculously rescued by an American PBY Catalina "Flying Boat" on a training flight, piloted by the courageous Lieutenants Donald E. Combs and Edward A. Chipkevich. But that, as they say, is another story.
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