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How a World War II Bomber Pilot Became ‘the King of Artificial Trees’

Within weeks, they were married in Lovington, N.M. “Her father insisted we get married in an Evangelical church, the Church of God,” Mr. Spiegel said. When they parted, Frankie Marie gave him a photo he would carry during missions. Then he left New Mexico and went to meet his crew, a motley collection of “leftovers.”

“We had five Catholics, two Jews,” he said. “Catholics weren’t treated too well, either. We had a Mormon, too.” Mr. Spiegel said the only WASP was a ball-turret gunner who had gotten into trouble with the law in Chicago. “And a judge said, ‘You have two choices,’” he recalled. “‘You can go to jail or join the Army.’”

Mr. Spiegel has outlived all of his crew members but still holds their stories. His bombardier and first real friend in the service, Danny Shapiro, was later shot down on 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. Killed in a training accident on another plane. His chute never opened.”

They were assigned to the U.S. Eighth Air Force, and their base of operations would be in an English town called Eye, near the coast about 100 miles northeast of London.

Mr. Spiegel’s first flight in formation, at the age of 20, was a short mission over Belgium when the Germans were retreating. “We were bombing them to prevent blowing up a bridge,” he said. It was what airmen would call a “milk run” — a mission with little danger. “I thought, oh, this is great!”

Over the next year, Mr. Spiegel would carry out 35 missions, all of them in daylight, which conferred a strategic advantage but often resulted in significant casualties.

Their odds of survival were terrible. Over 50,000 American airmen lost their lives in World War II, mostly on B-17s and B-24s. The Eighth Air Force suffered 40 percent of all casualties in the air war.

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