The B-17 he was piloting had lost two of its four engines to enemy fire, and as Si Spiegel looked out over the ruined landscape, he had a thought: We have to get behind the Russian front.
As part of the Allied raid on Berlin, his bomber had dropped its cargo on the German capital, but he had been hit by artillery and he almost certainly would not make it back to base in England. No pilot wanted to be shot down over Nazi Germany, least of all a Jewish pilot.
Spiegel had managed to get into the cockpit like a skinny teenager from Greenwich Village, trusting him to pick it up as he went along. This was no different. He told his crew that they were headed for Poland; they could prepare their parachutes, but they were not to jump unless he gave the order. They would attempt an emergency landing.
Si Spiegel is one of the last World War II bomber pilots still with us. I met him on a windy December morning in 2019. I overheard him talking about Eleanor Roosevelt's love of aviation in front of her sculpture on Riverside Drive. I couldn't help butting in: I was writing a biography of Mrs. Roosevelt's great friend, Amelia Earhart. He seemed wary of my enthusiasm, however, when he saw the Lower East Side address on my business card, he smiled. She had inherited my grandparents' old apartment in one of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union buildings, the same address where her unionist parents had lived.
She invited me out for coffee that week. What started as a form of research for my book—after all, there aren't many aviators alive from that era—turned into a series of conversations over weeks and then months. His considerable charm and sharp memory were matched by his stamina: he was willing to talk for hours, but only if it didn't conflict with his regular gym workouts.
But then he was 95 years old (now 97), and it was clear that he needed an audience for his stories. Within the first hour of our first meeting, I learned that he had flown dozens of critical and dangerous missions during the war, that he had saved his crew by successfully landing a huge bomber in no man's land, and that he had later helped orchestrate a daring escape.
Perhaps most notable: Spiegel is improbably best known as "the king of the artificial Christmas tree."
Si Spiegel was born in New York in 1924, the first year of the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade and the last year Ellis Island served as an immigration station. It was the Jazz Age, and if he wore buttoned underwear. He remembers his first zipper fly and when his family got his first phone. They crowded around the radio, especially when the president was giving a speech. "Roosevelt," he said, "he was our hero."
He was tuning in to the radio the day Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific. And when Pearl Harbor was attacked, Si was 17 years old and living near his father's manual laundry in Greenwich Village.
After graduating from Textile High School, he went to work in a mechanical workshop, but he wanted to fight against the Nazis. So, without telling his parents, Spiegel enlisted in the army shortly after his 18th birthday. He was a young man with a withdrawn appearance, 1.70 meters tall and weighing 68 kilos. In basic training, seeing his skills in the machine shop, they sent him to aircraft mechanic school at Roosevelt Field on Long Island. He was discouraged.
He remembers that he thought, "How am I going to fight Hitler with a wrench?"
A sympathetic officer in the hangar suggested he go to Mitchell Field, just a couple of miles away by bus. Perhaps they would accept him as a pilot. Unlike the recruiting office in Times Square, the one in Mitchell Field was deserted. That made his life take a different course.
"I signed up at an unusual place already in uniform, and that day there were only two of us," Spiegel recalled. “The other one failed his vision test. I had perfect vision.”
He was accepted into pilot training, which took him to Nashville, then to California, and then, as a cadet, to Hobbs, New Mexico, where he would learn to fly a B-17, the massive bomber known as the Flying Fortress.
Many military men were chain smokers when not on duty, but Spiegel, still in his teens, never smoked or drank heavily or frequented brothels. "Maybe he had a lot of opportunities as a new driver, but he was too timid to recognize or take advantage of them."
Hobbs had an interest, a girl named Frankie Marie Smith. She was only 17 years old and she was a beauty. In high school, Si Spiegel would never have thought that he had a chance with a girl like that. But he was now a handsome lieutenant piloting a B-17.
Within weeks, they were married in Lovington, New Mexico. "His father insisted that we get married in an evangelical church, the Church of God," Spiegel said. When they parted ways, Frankie Marie gave him a photo that she carried on missions. He then left New Mexico and went to join his crew, a motley collection of "leftovers."
"We had five Catholics and two Jews," she said. “Catholics weren't treated too well either. We also had a Mormon.” Spiegel said the only white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant was a ball-turret gunner who had gotten into trouble with the law in Chicago. “And a judge told him: 'You have two options. You can go to jail or join the army,'” he recalled.
Spiegel has outlived all of his crew members, but he still remembers his stories. His bombardier and his first friend in his service, Danny Shapiro, was later shot down in another plane and held as a prisoner of war for a year. Dale Tyler was the Mormon tail gunner from Utah who came from a family of 13. “Harold Bennett was my top turret gunner, from Massachusetts. He died in a training accident on another plane. His parachute never opened.”
They were assigned to the US Eighth Air Force, and their base of operations was in an English town called Eye, near the coast about 100 miles northeast of London.
Spiegel's first formation flight, aged 20, was a brief mission over Belgium as the Germans were retreating. “We were bombing them to avoid blowing up a bridge,” he said. It was what airmen would call "delivering milk," a low-risk mission. "I thought, oh, this is great!"
Over the next year, Spiegel would carry out 35 missions, all of them in daylight, which conferred a strategic advantage but often resulted in heavy casualties.
His chances of survival were dire. More than 50,000 American airmen lost their lives in World War II, most of them on B-17s and B-24s. Eighth Air Force suffered 40 percent of all air war casualties.
Mission 33 is what he often relives when he reflects on his war years.
It was an early morning sortie on Saturday, February 3, 1945, a best-effort campaign now studied by military historians as the Berlin Mission. An overwhelming force of 1,437 bombers and 948 fighters took off from the English countryside to attack the headquarters of the Third Reich's Luftwaffe.
“They said we were going to bomb the Berlin headquarters,” Spiegel recalls. In his previous missions, he said, he had never given much thought to where the bombs fell. But as he got closer to Berlin, he realized that this was not a precision raid on a military facility. “With 2,000 planes, and it was full blown bombing,” he said, “we were bombing civilians. But our command wanted to end the war.”
Over the years, he's thought about it a lot. With what he thought then, he agrees now: “Whatever it takes to stop this evil. We went on a mission, dropped bombs, and came back. As for other bombers, I've been to a lot of meetings and I've never heard any regrets."
The plane had an engine failure early in the flight, which is not unusual for a B-17. But on the target in Berlin, he lost the second engine to anti-aircraft artillery, and fuel was leaking.
Spiegel said that he could keep up with the training with one engine off. With two, it was impossible. To get back to England, they would have to fly into a headwind and come back through an area with anti-aircraft artillery. "We would lose altitude, which meant they could shoot at us from the ground."
By this point in the war, German forces had withdrawn into Germany, and the US-allied Soviets were moving through Poland. Spiegel knew from radio broadcasts that the Soviets had taken Warsaw. He asked his navigator, Ray Patulski, to give him a heading to Warsaw. Spiegel thought they would be safe if they got past the Russian lines. He told his crew to drop things from the plane as they lost altitude: flak suits, extra ammunition, anything heavy.
The radio operator contacted England and relayed his situation: no one hurt, two engines off, trying to land in Warsaw. The British said they would notify the Yankee authorities. That was the last that was heard of the plane for weeks.
The nine men arrived in Warsaw at 1:30 pm The city was in ruins. A bridge lay torn and twisted across the frozen Vistula River. Looking for a place to land, they headed downriver until they spotted a single-engine plane with the red Soviet star. It was about 60 meters from the ground.
Spiegel partially lowered the wheels and fired flares, a friendly gesture. The Soviet pilot flapped his wings to indicate "Follow me" and led them over the woods, a treacherous flight path for such a large plane. Finally, they landed in a frozen potato field in the town of Reczyn. No one was injured, although the plane never flew again.
The Nazis had held much of Poland at one point, and Spiegel did not know if there were still any Germans there. He and his co-pilot, Bill Hole, went out the hatch to be greeted by the villagers.
“Amerikansky!” Spiegel yelled. Some of the gathered villagers also shouted. “Benzine! Benzine!” They wanted the gasoline - the benzine - that was leaking from the plane and they ran towards them with buckets to collect the fuel. The crew left them.
The Americans were soon taken to Plock, a small town north of the Vistula, where they were housed in apartments taken over by the Russians from the locals—and treated like heroes by the Soviets after the successful raid on Berlin. They were then transferred to the Polish city of Torun, where the Red Army had seized an abandoned German airfield. There they met another American crew whose plane had landed in Torun. They expected to stay until a rescue plane arrived, a week at most.
The Americans were not prisoners, but they were not allowed to leave until Moscow approved it, and they had no means of leaving anyway. Spiegel met the other pilot, a fierce Illinois officer named George Ruckman, whose plane had lost an engine to flak and blew out a tire on landing.
Despite the lockdown, Americans largely did what they wanted. For the next few weeks, the crews went down the Vistula and spent the day shooting targets with rifles borrowed from the Russians. But life in Torun was mostly about waiting. They stopped waiting for the C-47 transport plane. The official status of those flying B-17 43-38150 during the Berlin Mission was missing in action.
The other pilot soon came up with a wild escape plan. They would send a team to Spiegel's crashed plane, 112 kilometers away, and have them collect a spare engine and tire and return to Torun. It would require stealth, courage and bribery.
Both American crews made exchanges with the Soviet soldiers. Several revolvers and a $10 fountain pen paid for gas for their secret flight; a $75 wristwatch given to a Russian officer secured a Ford tractor to transport the second engine back. According to war logs, with the $30 Ruckman had in his own wallet, he bribed Russian parliamentarians to overlook cutting down two telephone poles they needed for supports.
While using tools that were abandoned by the Nazis, the crews worked in full view of the other Russians, who seemed more concerned about random artillery fire and the possibility that German snipers were still in the area. However, the Americans feared drawing too much attention, and Spiegel made sure to drink with the Russian officers in Torun, toasting Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill, the day Ruckman had the villagers hoist the plane into the potato field.
It was early, on St. Patrick's Day 1945, when the Americans boarded the plane and began rolling across the frozen ground. A single Soviet guard frantically gestured for them to stop. But the Russians never gave chase as they ran across the field and took off. "Maybe they were relieved that they didn't have to feed us," Spiegel said.
Determined to avoid German anti-aircraft guns in their precarious plane, the 19 men headed south, landing eight hours later at a US airbase in Foggia, Italy.
There, the Red Cross threw a party for the crew, giving them much-needed candy, cookies, and toiletries; they hadn't brushed their teeth since the bombing of Berlin. US Army personnel checked the exhaust plane and other than a few loose screws, it was fine.
After months of fearing that Spiegel had been killed in action, his family in New York received a telegram from Italy shortly before April 3, 1945, the birthday of Spiegel's younger brother and Spiegel's father. he shared. “I am safe and well. I will send letters. Happy Birthday. Love,” the communication said.
Spiegel led two more missions after returning to England, although since he was presumed dead, his belongings had already been shipped to New York.
He returned home on August 31, 1945.
He was greeted like a hero at his home on West 11th Street. Times Square had become an all-night party and the military were gods. However, despite his 35 missions and multiple awards for his bravery and exemplary behavior, Spiegel went to war as a first lieutenant and returned with the same rank.
Looking back after talking to other Jewish soldiers, he believes many were denied promotions because of anti-Semitism. He has some thorny memories: Many Army Air Corps heroes joined the commercial airline industry after the war, which was then headquartered in New York. But Spiegel says that he too faced discrimination there. "They didn't accept Jews after World War II," he recalled. "They were cheeky."
Frankie Marie Spiegel was with him in New York for several months before returning to New Mexico. Spiegel got a job there as a radio host on a country and western show. (It was called Muddy Boots). But the marriage soon grew apart. They had no children, and he decided to separate, returning east.
It was a vibrant time in Greenwich Village, and after the war he joined Pete Seeger's Good Neighbor Choir and made new friends. In the mid-summer of 1949, he went to Camp Unity, a left-wing camp in Wingdale, New York.
Within hours he met a young woman named Motoko Ikeda. She was an artistic girl who wore pigtails and he was fascinated by her. Ikeda was candid about her time in an internment camp during the war. That was eye-opening for Spiegel.
She told him that her parents were born in Japan and all six of her family members were forcibly transferred from Los Angeles to a camp in Wyoming. At 14, she was kept behind barbed wire and watched by armed guards. After the war, many Japanese Americans held in the camps returned to California. Ikeda bought a one-way ticket to New York.
"Motoko was like a post-divorce refresher," says Spiegel. “I liked her because she was pretty, bright, patient and a good person. I wanted to know more about her."
They were married in the municipal building around Thanksgiving in 1950, and a daughter, Kazuko, the first of her three children, was born in 1951. Her blended family was accepted wholeheartedly by her parents. “Motoko prepared better Jewish food than my mother. She could cook in any language."
Since he had not returned to aviation, Spiegel went to vocational school and found a job as a machinist at a brush factory in Mount Vernon where he was paid $1.80 an hour.
It was in that factory in Westchester where he changed his luck.
A strange design fad hit the country in the late 1950s: Store designers were using millions of tiny multi-colored brushes, which when assembled in department store windows looked like, in their words, "miniature pastel waves." ”. American Brush Machinery, where Spiegel worked, made machines to make those brushes, and the devices could sell for $12,000 each. It was good money, but the fashion is over.
His bosses decided to reuse the machines: they could make Christmas trees. The first ones they produced, green polyvinyl chloride plastic, didn't look much like Scotch pines. Business was slow. In the mid-20th century, people in America liked futuristic aluminum trees illuminated by color wheels, and few people owned fake trees. Spiegel, by then a high-level machinist, was sent to shut down the factory, but reported that he could make a lot of money. One boss thought he was crazy, but another manager gave him his own division, called American Tree and Wreath.
Determined to improve his product, Spiegel brought real trees to study. He tinkered with his machines to speed up the process, and soon he was selling quickly made, perfectly shaped fakes.
In the mid-1970s, Spiegel's company, American Tree and Wreath, was producing about 800,000 trees a year, one rolling off the assembly line every four minutes.
After expanding and starting his own artificial tree company, he eventually sold that business and retired in 1993 as a billionaire.
He had been a workaholic and now he wanted to travel with Motoko and enjoy life. She had become an accomplished painter and was inspired by new places, from Paris to Japan. But after her sudden death in 2000, Spiegel found himself strongly drawn to military reunions and the company of other veterans.
He became involved in a couple of historic Army Air Corps associations, enjoying the camaraderie of airmen who understood her night terrors and late-diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. These meetings continued to be held, with fewer and fewer members, until around 2012. Now, as far as he knows, he is the only member from World War II.
Finally, his daughter Kazuko Spiegel introduced his father to the woman who would become his third wife, JoAnn Bastis, a real estate agent he had met in Westchester social circles. They would be married just a few years before she died in 2018, although the pair have traveled to Europe together twice, including a visit to
Reczyn, the small town where he landed in 1945.
Now, Spiegel lives in a large apartment building with a doorman and a magnificent view of Central Park. Although artificial trees descending from Spiegel's designs are found in about three-quarters of American homes that put up Christmas trees, he doesn't have a tree himself.
He raised his children to be proud of his Japanese-Jewish heritage, and still makes Hanukkah latkes for his grandchildren. But when his children were little they always had a tree, first a real one and then the best of his creations. “Do you think Christmas trees were really a religious symbol? They were pagan symbols. My kids liked them."
When I asked him what he would like his legacy to be, artificial trees or military heroism, he closed his eyes.
The war, he admits, was probably the most exciting time of his life. However, with whom can you talk about it?
“I can tell you this,” he finally said. “We fight against fascism. We fight against Hitler's desire to have a master race."
He is surrounded by pictures of his children and grandchildren, and is concerned about growing racism. "I never thought that fascism could be a threat to our nation's democracy until now," Spiegel said. "Right now, though, I'm focused on trying to keep living."