Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal ’41 Featured in Spielberg’s WWII Drama “Masters of the Air”

Robert Rosenthal

By Teresa Novellino

The heroics of Lt. Col. Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal ’41, who flew 52 missions over Germany as a World War II Army Air Corps bomber pilot and survived after his plane was shot down twice, will be among the tales featured in the Apple TV+ war drama series, Masters of the Air, which drops its first two episodes Friday, Jan. 26.

Rosenthal, a lawyer who had never flown a plane before, enlisted in the U.S. Army the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked, eager to help stop the spread of Nazism. He went on to win 16 military decorations, including the Distinguished Service Cross for “extraordinary heroism.” His daring aerial tactics alongside others in the “Bloody Hundredth” the nickname for the 100th Bomb Group in the Eighth Air Force, will be featured in the long-awaited Masters of the Air series, which was produced by Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Gary Goetzman, the trio behind the WWII series Band of Brothers and The Pacific.

Robert’s son, Dan Rosenthal, who attended the premiere in Los Angeles earlier this month, helped provide details of his late father’s life for filmmakers, who have spent a decade putting together the series. Much is known about the D-Day invasion, but Masters of the Air explores the lesser-known air battles that laid the framework for the Allies’ massive land, air, and sea invasion on June 6, 1944, which is considered a turning point in defeating Nazi Germany.

“The Eighth Air Force was really the offense before D-Day,” said Dan Rosenthal, former president of the 100th Bomb Group Foundation, which his father co-founded. “In fact, complete and utter airspace command had to be achieved before D-Day happened, and the series shows the tremendous sacrifices and losses that occurred while fighting in the air during that time. It brings to light what these young airmen went about doing for the survival of democracy. This tiny group of men and these air bases suffered more losses than the entire Marine Corps did in the Pacific.”

On March 7 at 12:45 p.m., Brooklyn Law School will host a screening event for Masters of the Air in the Student Lounge, and Dan Rosenthal will sit down for a Q&A with President and Joseph Crea Dean David D. Meyer. His father’s stunning bravery as a pilot was not the end of the story. Indeed, Robert Rosenthal returned to Europe after the war to prosecute Nazis, serving as an assistant to the U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, Robert H. Jackson, for which his duties included interrogating convicted Nazi leader Hermann Goering, a decorated fighter pilot for the Nazis.

After the Kristallnacht pogrom of Nov. 9, 1938, which was orchestrated by his colleague Joseph Goebbels, it was Goering who fined the Jewish community a billion marks and ordered the elimination of Jews from the German economy. The violence of Kristallnacht was one of the incidents that deeply disturbed Robert Rosenthal before he joined the military, as he explains in a series of video interviews called “From Brooklyn to Berlin” which were produced after he was inducted into the Jewish-American Hall of Fame in 2005. 

Rosie’s Story

Robert Rosenthal, who shared his life story in that video, explains that his family values drove him “to be honest, loyal, and hardworking.” Born and raised in Brooklyn, he put himself through Brooklyn College while working jobs in the cafeteria and as a “soda jerk,” operating a drugstore soda fountain. During the Depression years and after Adolph Hitler came into power, he was disturbed by the violence and rise of antisemitism, including the Kristallnacht pogrom, but felt helpless to do anything at the time. He took a constitutional law class that perked his interest in the law and enrolled at Brooklyn Law School when it was part of Saint Lawrence University, taking law classes at night and working at a Manhattan law firm Diamond, Rabin, Botein and MacKay during the day.

“I never had time to take notes on the cases that I would learn. I had to memorize everything,” Rosenthal recalled in Brooklyn to Berlin. “It enhanced my ability later on, my memory improved, I was able to grasp facts and retain information.”

When he was sent for flight training, Rosenthal loved the feel of flying and feared that he would not be good enough to go into combat, and that he would “wash out,” as he put it. Instead, he was assigned to the 100th and stationed in East Anglia in England, flying nearly twice as many sorties as the military required, right up until the end of the war, picking up the nickname “Rosie” and flying a plane named “Rosie’s Riveters.”

One of the most harrowing missions happened in Münster, when his B-17 Flying Fortress was the only plane in his group of 13 to return to base after they were attacked by 200 German fighter planes. The plane dropped its bombs, but lost two engines, and had a massive hole in one wing and three injured gunners. Evasive maneuvers that he learned in dogfights during his Florida training stint helped Rosenthal get the plane back to base.

After the war, Robert returned to Brooklyn and resumed his legal work. Although he worked on some important cases, he “began to think they were humdrum because of what he had just been through, and things really began to unravel for him,” his son said. “For him, justice had not been done yet.”

So, when he spotted an ad in the local paper the Herald Tribune which indicated that assistant prosecutors were needed to help prosecute Nazi leaders as war criminals, he quickly applied and was accepted. When he arrived at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for a ship to take him overseas, the ship was delayed, and a passenger pulled in late.

“This woman drives up on her Jeep and of her belongings were placed on top of the cargo crates because the gangplank had already been lifted,” Dan Rosenthal said. “She was the most beautiful woman my dad had ever seen, and she was hoisted up on the ship. And that was my mom.”

Her name was Phillis Heller, and she was also on the prosecutorial team. They fell in love aboard the ship and ended up getting married in Nuremberg and honeymooning at the “Eagle’s Nest,” Adolph Hitler’s notorious Alpine retreat. After Nuremberg, the two returned to New York City and started a family.

Although Robert Rosenthal died of multiple myeloma in 2007, fellow members of the 100th Bomb Group were at the Masters of the Air premiere.

Spielberg’s own father, who also served in the Army Air Corps during the war, had urged his son to make a film about the airmen ever since Band of Brothers and The Pacific came out, and the creators decided to do so after discovering terrific fodder in a 2007 book, “Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany” written by Donald L. Miller.  Some of the 100th Bomb Group airmen featured in the film were at the L.A. premiere.

“We had a nice contingent out there, including four of our veterans, and that was most important to me,” Dan Rosenthal said. “They got to do some hobnobbing with the actors, and I made sure that when I saw Steven Spielberg that they were introduced, and they got a beautiful photo of all of them.”

Photos courtesy of Apple TV+ (movie image); Brooklyn Law School library (student image), and 100th Bomb Group Foundation (Nuremberg and military images)