By: Ch Maj Elie Estrin, USAFR
The numbers are astounding. 16,112,566 Americans served in the United States Armed Forces during World War II, with 405,399 killed and 671,278 wounded. 130,201 Americans were taken prisoners of war; of whom 116,129 returned home after the war. Of those numbers, how many were shot down over enemy territory and returned to tell the tale? Certainly scant few. But of all remarkable stories of WWII, and there is no end to them, The Lost Airman scores high by any measure.
SSgt Arthur Meyerowitz was a top-tier gunner on a B-24 Liberator when he was shot down – on just his second mission – over occupied France, on December 31, 1943. It wasn’t until June 16, 1944 that he would finally set foot back in Allied territory. His incredible – and miraculous – story was one of thousands that would have been lost to history, if not for his grandson Seth’s providential review of his debriefing documents, and his subsequent mission to find any and all information regarding his grandfather’s remarkable journey.
The plane SSgt Meyerowitz flew the day he was shot down was piloted by 2Lt Phillip Chase. Meyerowitz had noted bullet damage to the engine from previous flights in his pre-flight check. As the flight engineer, Meyerowitz should have had mission go/no go decision making. Yet, Lt Chase bluntly refused to cancel the flight. In addition, when the plane was fatally struck, Chase and his co-pilot abandoned ship first, jumping before the crew had the chance to escape, resulting in the death of several crewmembers. Meyerowitz did not include these details in his eventual debriefing; telling them only to his wife and brother. He was afraid that as an Enlisted Airman, his word would not be considered against that of an officer. This is truly a travesty, as Chase certainly deserved to be court-martialed on both accounts.
But Meyerowitz survived, being providentially found by friendly locals. Over the next year and a half, he was safeguarded, disguised and surreptitiously moved towards freedom by French Resistance members, including most notably Marcel Taillandier, founder and commander of the successful – and ruthless – Morhange Resistance Network. Meyerowitz slowly made his way through Vichy France disguised as a deaf-mute, trekked across the towering Pyrenees with an escaped British pilot, and slipped through Spain, making for all the action and intrigue of The Great Escape on an individual level.
Cloak and dagger, murder and betrayal, and heart-stopping close calls all the way through make this book one for the ages. But as a Chaplain, I tend to look at things a little differently. If I met SSgt Meyerowitz (who unfortunately died in March, 1971), what would I tell him? While all conversations and counseling sessions must be tailored to each individual, there are certainly key ideas that I believe are overarching enough to be applied to his story, for the purpose of reminding ourselves of those key ideas; each of us in our own lives and struggles.
According to the authors of this book, Meyerowitz was tormented by the guilt that his debrief did not hold Lt Chase accountable for his abominable actions as pilot. That pain, I am certain, was real, raw and completely understandable. But as a chaplain, perhaps I would tell SSgt Meyerowitz of the following idea: Justice, in its human form, is inherently limited. We do our best by applying rules to human behavior, but ultimately, our view is simply linear. But we bless G-d as “the true Judge”, for G-d is truly infinite, sees things as they truly are. The best we can do, both mentally and spiritually, is recognize that no matter the results that we see on the ground, G-d Himself will hold all to account.
However, when we focus too much on our own lost opportunities, even when they are of glaring and painful reality, we miss so much to celebrate: the deep appreciation that we were guided along our escape routes; and the knowledge that G-d placed our steps one after the other, bringing us to safe haven. Pain of the past is natural and true, but we have to endeavor, as best as we possibly can, not to allow that pain to direct our lives, but to live our lives completely and gratefully.
Let the joy of escape and thanks for G-d’s Providence drown out the pain of human treachery and betrayal. And may SSgt Arthur Meyerowitz, a true Jewish-American hero, be remembered for the good.
Originally published in the Chanukah 2020 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.