Veteran recalls WWII experiences


As a Jewish member of the armed forces during World War II, Sidney Rosen had an interesting vantage point, serving close to, and even in, the Jewish Homeland, and witnessing what he sees as a critical moment for what would become the State of Israel.

Rosen, 91, lives now with his wife of 61 years, Sylvia (“the most wonderful woman in the world” he says), in their Covenant House apartment, and he tells the story of his wartime experiences with captivating detail and, even after many years, raw emotion.

“In 1941 they had the draft, and that’s when I got lucky. My number was picked close to the first,” Rosen said. “I made up my mind. If they are going to get me, I’m going into the service in what I want to do.”

At 5’2″ and 115 lbs, friends chided him that he was so small, the service wouldn’t take him. But a trip to an army recruitment office in Clayton proved them wrong. On Dec. 23, 1941, Rosen enlisted in what was then the U.S. Army Air Corps.

By June, 1942, Rosen and his unit found themselves on a month-long sea voyage, departing from New York City, and traveling to Dakar, Senegal, and then around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope to Durban, South Africa. From there, they traveled to the Red Sea, ending in July 1942 in a port outside of Cairo.

Rosen, a member of the 348th Service Squadron of the United States Army 8th Air Force (the same month, the U.S. Army Air Corps’ name was changed to “U.S. Army Air Force”), was among a group of Americans sent to the Middle East.

During his time there, Rosen was able to visit Palestine, which left a lasting impression.

“I fell in love with this place,” he said. While in Lebanon, Rosen convinced his commanders to allow some of the Jewish members of the squad to go to Tel Aviv for Rosh Hashanah.

Since they couldn’t travel after dark, they spent their first night in a kibbutz. “We saw children dancing, singing Hebrew songs,” Rosen recalled. “I saw all of the things that were growing there and I said to myself, ‘If I don’t stay in the United States, I’m coming here.'”

Rosen was eventually dropped off in B’nai Brak, outside of Tel Aviv, where he visited the parents of a friend in St. Louis, Al Zimbalist.

“We went to shul the next morning, the first morning of Rosh Hashanah. It was just a little place, with dirt floors and everything,” he said. “And people were awed at seeing me and they gave me food that night that I knew they didn’t have, but we were very happy to see each other. And I was happy to spend the time with them.”

When Rosen returned to Lebanon, he found that a few days later, his unit was being loaded on to their B-24 bombers and were flying right back to Tel Aviv for two weeks, en route to Egypt to provide air support to the British Eighth Army’s Egypt-Libya Campaign.

That gave him a chance to visit the Zimbalist family again, and to get to know Tel Aviv.

“One Saturday, I was walking on Allenby in Tel Aviv and there was a brand new synagogue with a big dome and I walked in and maybe there were 15, 20 Jews, and they were davening. And they looked and saw me and the davening stopped. They had never seen an American soldier before,” Rosen said.

With time to get to know Palestine, Rosen said it drove home the importance of what the USAAF was doing there. Earlier, Rosen found out how critical the battle in the Egyptian desert would be.

“We had a Jewish colonel who came to us in our tent, and he opened up a cot bed and he said, ‘I want to show you something.’ And he opens up a map and he says, ‘Now this is a map of the shores of Libya and Egypt, and all the way up to Tunis. And this is El Alamein,'” Rosen recalled.

The colonel showed them that if the Axis powers defeated the Allies at El Alamein, just 66 miles from Alexandria, Egypt, they would have a clear route to the oilfields of the Middle East — and would fight their way to overtake Palestine and claim the important seaport of Haifa.

“The Germans are in the midst of killing six million Jews in Europe,” Rosen said. “What would they do with the half-a-million Palestinian Jews that are there? I don’t have to tell you: it would be a second Holocaust.”

That conversation underscored an important lesson for Rosen about the importance of the battles in North Africa for the Jewish Homeland, and more than 60 years after the war, he is on a new mission to make sure that chapter of history is not forgotten.

Although Rosen also worked to support missions in other campaigns in North Africa, Italy, and the low-altitude air raids on the Ploesti oil fields in Romania, it is the battle of El Alamein, where the Allied forces decisively repelled German General Erwin Rommel’s forces, that Rosen wants the Jewish people to understand to be a moment critical to what would become the State of Israel.

To that end, Rosen recorded his wartime experiences on a DVD in January, with the assistance of Marci Rosenberg, and has been interviewed by Channel 9 for an ongoing series about St. Louisans’ experiences during World War II.

The Covenant House plans to screen that DVD for residents on Nov. 11, and the Men’s Club at Rosen’s synagogue, Shaare Zedek, also is planning to show the video.

“It’s important for the Jewish people to know how close they came to going without a homeland,” Rosen said.

“I am not a hero. Believe me, I’m not a hero…The heroes are laying in the graves in North Africa. They are the heroes, whether they be Israelis, Indian, Aussies, New Zealanders, whatever. They won the battle,” he said.

“I’m not doing this for myself. I want people to know this story,” he said.

“You’ve got Guadalcanal in the Pacific, Saipan, the destruction at Pearl Harbor, the Coral Sea. You’ve got the Battle of the Bulge, D-Day, Anzio. There were millions killed in those battles, but what I’m saying is this pertains to the State of Israel,” Rosen said.

“It’s good to teach children religion,” Rosen said. “But you’ve got to teach them history also.”