Since I posted Roland Rakow’s story to this site on July 30, 2008, I’ve gained access to additional information about the crash and outcomes for the crew of Roland’s B-25 bomber.
The plane was shot down on September 1, 1942 over North Africa. Roland, who served as the radio operator and lower turret gunner on the plane, was eventually interned in Camp 59.
November 2011, I heard from Jurine Biers, the widow of 2nd Lt. Irving Biers, co-pilot of the plane. Irving Biers passed away in 1996 at the age of 78.
When Jurine learned through the post on this site that Roland was still living, she contacted him. She and her grandson have has since visited him at his home in Florida.
On the 2008 post, Roland explained, “… as our B-25 was returning from its second completed mission—dropping its bomb load on tanks, trucks, and troops on the front line at El Alamein—it was struck by a German anti-aircraft 88 mm shell on the left side of the aircraft, adjacent to the top turret gun position. The shell made a gaping hole, which caused the aircraft to break open and go into a 30-or 40-degree dive.
“The bombardier, navigator, and the top turret gunner were unable to leave the aircraft. The pilot, co-pilot, and I (the radio operator) parachuted to the ground. We sustained wounds and injuries.
“… After the aircraft was hit, I looked for a way of escape and found the gaping hole where the shell had hit. After some effort, since the aircraft was in a dive, I bailed out at the hole. Before exiting, I looked for Sergeant Andersen. He should have been adjacent to the hole, as this was the location of the top turret gun. I could only conjecture that he had been blown out of the aircraft when the shell hit.”
Jurine told me that although the plane had been hit by anti-aircraft fire, on its way down it had a mid-air collision with another Allied plane. The other plane was an A-20A South African bomber. Roland had believed for nearly 70 years that enemy fire alone was involved in the crash.
“I was sitting right next to where that 88 mm shell came though the plane,” he told Jurine. “And I jumped out of the hole it made.”
“The pilots could not get out when the plane first started going down.” Jurine told me. “They were held back in their seats by the centrifugal force, but after it hit a South African plane, their B-25 went into an inverted outside spin which pushed them forward.”
They were then able to exit.
“Weeks later, the Germans collected Allied POWs in order to take them to prison camps in Germany,” Jurine said. “Irving was a truck at that time—a truck with sides on the back of it. He got to talking with another guy, who was South African, and the fellow said, ‘That was my plane you hit.’
“He cursed Irving and said, ‘That was to be my last mission—I was supposed to be going home after that!’”
Irving had told Jurine that when the bombers did their runs, South African fighters would be on their wingtips as they went in to make the drop. As soon as they dropped the bombs, the fighters hightailed it back to the base. The bombers slowly made their way back, exposed to flack from Rommel’s forces.
Irving parachuted before the plane hit the ground. He had shrapnel wounds, and he was dazed, but he was able to get clear of his parachute. He saw men running toward him, and at first he thought he had made it back and they were Montgomery’s people. But as they got closer he saw big ostrich plumes on their helmets and he realized they were the Italians.
The Italians took him back to their little hut, Jurine told me. They opened a bottle of wine and in pigeon English said, “Love Americana.” One said he had a cousin in “chinchinatti” [Cincinnati, Ohio]. They were having a good time with him. Irving told Jurine that the Italians didn’t want to fight.
Irving was with the Italians for about half an hour, when suddenly the door was kicked open and the first thing Irving saw were knee-high shining boots. He was taken from the Italians by a German feldwebel, who said to him, “You’re American. Would you like a cigarette?” Irving took a cigarette and lit it. The German said, “You are about to meet the greatest general that ever existed—that ever was. General Rommel heard an American flyer came down. He’s never seen one, and he wants to meet you.”
“They put him on a half-track and drove him back to Rommel’s headquarters,” Jurine said. “On the way they talked about Rommel like he was God. Irving said these young men are blond-haired, blue-eyed, smoking cigarettes. They were saying things like, ‘We’re brothers. We should be fighting together. We should be fighting against those Mongols and those Jew bastards on Wall Street.’
“That’s when Irving came out of his shock and realized he had an ‘H’ on his dog tags—for Hebrew.
“He did meet Rommel. But Rommel said nothing to Irving—he just looked him over and left.”
From Rommel’s headquarters, the Germans took Irving to their field hospital. There were people with arms blown off and it was a horrible scene. They took him in ahead of those who were waiting, dressed his wounds, and interrogated him.
“From there they turned me over to another group.” Irving explained. “It was on a half-track. I didn’t know where they were taking me, but they took me—and there was no officer there—they took me to the crash site. Now, the A-20 that we had crashed into, I remember it had crashed and I remember seeing fire and it burned. Our plane had not burned, but the Germans dug shallow graves. They were only a foot deep. The bombardier and navigator were killed in the crash, and they were mincemeat. It was so gory.
“As I said, I was wounded and in shock. They gave me a shovel, and I had to pull out these bodies. I dragged them into the grave and started putting dirt over them because that is what they were wanting me to do. Then I think I sort of buckled up in the knees and collapsed. They took me back to the half-track and they finished burying them.”
Irving’s conjecture was that the Germans ordered him to bury his fallen comrads out of respect. They were according him an honor, because for them the ultimate respect was to bury a fallen comrade.
“Since I talked to Roland I’ve been going through videos I have of Irving,” Jurine said. “I found a half-an-hour tape of him talking to my son. Irving said it was a horrific experience, because it was just pieces of bodies that he was having to bury. Irving thought later maybe Rommel gave the order for him to be sent to bury his comrades. But who knows.”
Then Irving was taken to prison camp in Germany. It was on the way to camp that he again saw Captain Croteau. Irving was interned in Stalag Luft III for the remainder of the war.
I asked Jurine how Irving kept the Germans from discovering he was Jewish. She said Irving buried his dog tags in the sand.
“Montgomery and the Americans were bombing the hell out of Rommel’s force there. So Irving was able to get his dog tags off and bury them.”
Jurine told me Irving’s family was in show business. At Stalag Luft III the Germans let the prisoners build a theater in one of the barracks. Irving wrote, directed, and starred in productions.
Jurine said, “I have some pictures, about 2 x 3 inches large, that have holes around the edges where they had been sewn into letters sent home to family. I understand the photos were taken by the German guards and given to the prisoners to send home so America could see how ‘good’ the prisoners were being treated.
“A picture taken in the camp is famous for being in Life magazine on May 31, 1943. In it, American POWs are pictured outside their barracks. [See the photo at the end of this post.]
“At the end of ’44 or the beginning of ’45, the guys did a production—more like vaudeville than a play—with different acts, including a whole spoof on Hitler. The German officers came to see all the productions, and they laughed with everybody else. They were doing Hitler like he was Charlie Chaplin. The German officers thought it was really funny.
“There exist pictures of them building the theater and pictures of them on stage.
“The other thing that Irving said about the German officers was that in the beginning of the war they treated the Allies as if they were soldiers. They just happened to be on the opposite side. There wasn’t any cruelty. They would steal their Red Cross packages, but they weren’t beating them and killing them.”
Shortly after my contact with Jurine, I heard from Stephen P. Johnson, a historian with the World War II Division of the U.S. Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office in Washington, D.C.
“I just finished reading Mr. Rakow’s account of his experiences.” Dr. Johnson wrote. “At the end he notes that Captain Croteau died in Seattle, ‘not long after the war.’ You might care to let him know that this is incorrect. Hubert P. Croteau passed away in Eugene, Oregon, on 24 March 2006, at the age of 87.”
Dr. Johnson sent me a link to an obituary for Captain Croteau.
He went on to explain, “As you probably know, this agency (DPMO) tries to locate and identify the missing from past conflicts. My division responds to Congressional inquiries, and questions forwarded through the various service casualty offices. I’m researching such an inquiry at the time, and it concerns S/Sgt Rakow’s aircrew.
“The remains of McPartlin, Archer, and Anderson have never been recorded. The 83rd Bomb Squadron did not accomplish the required Missing Air Crew Report (MACR), and the unit records that did survive the war and make their way into the National Archives are sparse (fully understandable as they were busy fighting a war, but inconvenient for the historian trying to find the missing from the war).”
Four years ago, in March 2009, I heard from Bob McPartlin, the nephew of 2nd Lt. Robert J. McPartlin, navigator of the downed plane.
At the time, I was able to put Bob in contact with Roland Rakow, whom he visited that same month in Florida. Bob also later made contact with Jurine Biers.
Below is a photocopy of the page from Life magazine with the featured American POWs.
“Irving is on the right sitting down with gloves on,” she explained.
The caption beneath the photo reads:
“Captured American fliers pose for a snapshot in a prison camp somewhere in Gemany. Second Lieut. A. L. Graham Jr. of the Air Forces, who was shot down over Europe on Nov. 9, 1942, sent this picture to his mother, Mrs. Pearl Graham of Floyd, Va., stitched to the inside of a letter. Graham sits third from left with his back against a building. His letter, dated January 19, follows: ‘Dear Mother, Just a few lines to let you know I am well and getting along fine. Attached to this letter is a picture of a group of us Americans taken outside of our barracks. I am learning to ice skate on an ice-skating rink we have fixed up inside our compound. Ice skating, attending a few lectures, and sleeping, just about dominated our time here in camp. Mama, is my allotment still coming in every month? If so, how much do I have in the bank now? You can send a food parcel every three weeks; send such things as oatmeal, cocoa, chocolate bars, tinned meat and stuff to make puddings. In clothing parcel send me a pair of pants, shirt, socks, undershirts and shorts, toothpaste and brush. Contact the post office and they will give you information on sending parcels. Love, A. L. Graham Jr, 2nd Lt. U.S.A.A.F.’ As officer-prisoners, Lieut. Graham and companions cannot be required to work under international law.”
Additional Notes from Roland Rakow
This month, Roland himself asked me to share this information on the site:
“This addendum is intended to correct certain statements on—and add information to—my narrative that I did not know at the time of the writing.
“The information was given by Lieutenant Irving Biers to his wife, Jurine Biers, before his death in 1996 during recorded interviews.”
1. “The dates for the bombing mission of my group (83rd Squadron, 12 Bomb Group of the U.S. Army Air Force) at the Battle of Alam el Halfa, near El Alamein, were roughly August 25 through September 5, 1942” Roland said. “The mission has since become known as the Battle of El Alamein. My plane’s first mission, on August 31, was successful. But our second mission, on September 1, ended in tragedy for three of our crew.
2. “In the years since the war, I had never tried to contact any of the remaining members of my crew. But Jurine Biers, after her husband’s death, discovered through this website that I was still living, and she contacted me.”
Shortly afterward Jurine and her grandson Jason—who is a Marine veteran of the Iraq war and an Army veteran of the war in Afghanistan—were going to be in Florida. Jurine and Jason visited Roland during that Florida trip.
3. Roland would like the record to be clear regarding what happened to the crew at the time of the crash. Jurine Biers provided this description from Irving’s recorded interview:
“We were in four echelons of nine planes each. And in each of them there were six-three, three South African A-20As. And then we were the three B-25s. The flak was very intensive. The Germans had these 88 millimeters that were very accurate. And this time we were hit returning from dropping our bombs. I knew we were hit because I had flak—my right arm. We were hit on that side. The main hit of flak was on the tail because we lost control. There was no control. There was nothing. And the plane just on its own started going. It went off to the side.
“There was another echelon of South African planes below us. We tried to control our plane using the engines. We were going so fast. I saw it coming. But it was too late, because we went into it a way. It wasn’t in front of us—it was underneath us. It was a tremendous crash and everything was falling down. I think we were probably at an altitude of 4,000 or 5,000 feet when this happened. And evidently the radio came down and knocked me out. I was the co-pilot. I don’t know how long I was out, but it couldn’t have been very long. But I sort of came to. It was like the noise, the wind—and I was being pushed forward in my seat. And my first reaction was to open the hatch-and I remember turning and seeing the bombardier and navigator were in the compartment behind me. They were being bounced back all over the place like ping-pong balls. I couldn’t even reach the lever—the centrifugal force was so strong. Later on I figured what happened was that we were in an inverted outside spin, which is very unusual. Usually in a spin you’re being forced back. This, we were being tossed forward because it was inverted spinning.
“Then all of a sudden I looked and there was a hatch up on the top that was open. The pilot wasn’t there. This is all in a fraction of a second. He had evidently pulled the hatch and went out. The hatch up on top was never meant to be used for flying. So I went up and got caught in the hatch because the centrifugal force was so great. I don’t remember pulling the ripcord, but I must have because the parachute opened and there was barely 500 feet to the ground. In a matter of a second and a half I would been killed.”
Staff Sergeant Anderson, the top turret gunner, was not found and was assumed killed.
Irving said that he did not see Roland bail out of the plane and assumed he was killed. The South African Air Force pilot Irving encountered later told Irving that someone had taken a picture of Roland bailing out of the hit B-25, but since the war Roland has not been able to verify that the photo was taken.
3. “A correction should be made concerning Captain Croteau and Irving,” Roland said. “Both were wounded. Captain Croteau suffered a broken leg and Irving was hit by shrapnel to the right arm and upper body. They were captured separately. Irving didn’t see Captain Croteau again until they were both on their way to Germany to prison camp.”
Irving Biers died of lung cancer in Marin County, California, on June 2, 1996. Irving had lived in Coral Gables, Florida, in the 1970s—at the same time Roland was living there—but they were unaware of it and never met again.
Pingback: A Missing Man: Major Milton Joel, Fighter Pilot, 38th Fighter Squadron, 55th Fighter Group, 8th Air Force: IX – The Major, Still Missing – Excursions in Jewish Military History and Jewish Genealogy
Irving Biers was a very close friend of our family. As a boy, he was like an uncle to me, and I called him “Uncle Irving.” He told me stories of him being in the war, but later, when I was in my early 20’s, he asked me to tape-record his story, which I did on cassette tape. He told the entire story of his flying life (learning to fly in North Carolina) and lying about is age to join the Army Air Corps. He recounted all of the events that Roland has so faithfully provided here. I went to Air University at the Montgomery, AL Air Base where military records were kept. They were able to provide me with the original “Missing Air Crew” report and other documents that corroborated Irv’s story. Irv even told the story of his liberation at the stalag, by Gen. Patton’s tank brigade. It’s a remarkable, riveting story, especially how he was able to conceal the fact that he was Jewish during his long captivity.
It’s worth noting that in General Erwin Rommel’s memoir, he describes the Allied bombing of El-Alamein in early September of 1942 as the fiercest and most effective against his troops of the war, and marks it as a turning point for the Third Reich.
Irv was a wonderful, fun-loving man—he called my parents up frequently when I was a kid, bellowing, “Come over for lobsters and ice cream!” and we would go to his apartment have a great time. I have pictures of him playing with my sons when they were little, at my Mom and Dad’s house.
I researched Roland Rakow and found him—driving just five minutes from my house in Miami. We got together for lunch a couple of times, and he filled in some gaps of the story, including the amazing story of his own liberation at the end of the war.
RIP Irving—thank your bravery and service, and for being such a great Uncle to me.