The real Robert Rosenthal: who was Rosie in Masters of the Air?
A WW2 bomber boy who later became a lawyer prosecuting Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials, Robert ‘Rosie’ Rosenthal was one of Bloody Hundredth’s most decorated pilots – completing 52 missions over the course of the war
Arriving mid-way through the series is Robert ‘Rosie’ Rosenthal (played by Nate Mann), one of the many new airmen deployed into the unit to replace the horrendous losses suffered by the bomb group. Alongside Gale Cleven (Austin Butler) and John Egan (Callum Turner), he is one of the series’ main characters.
It was meeting Rosenthal in real life that inspired historian Donald L Miller to write the book on which Masters of the Air is based.
Rosenthal would become one the units’ most highly-regarded pilots, completing 52 missions during the war.
“When he was asked about it,” Miller told us in this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast, “he said ‘As long as Hitler lives, I fly. And it's not because I'm a Jew, it's because I'm a human being, and what he's doing to humanity.’”
Who was the real Robert Rosenthal?
Robert Rosenthal, nicknamed ‘Rosie’, was not only a pilot of B-17 Flying Fortresses in the US Eighth Air Force's 100th Bomb Group: among the heroic figures of the ‘Bloody 100th’ in the Second World War, he arguably stands at the top. He flew more than double the number of required missions, earned numerous decorations, and then served as a lawyer at the Nuremberg Trials.
The Jewish New Yorker, born on 11 June 1917, had only recently graduated from law school and joined a large firm in Manhattan when the Japanese launched their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.
The next day, he signed up and requested to be a bomber pilot as he believed that would cause the greatest damage to the Nazi regime.
At the Army Air Forces Flight School, he learned to fly in a number of aircraft, including the PT-17, BT-13, AT-6, AT-9 and AT-17, before spending 1943 in combat training with the 19th Bomb Group.
It was there that he got to grips with the B-17, a heavy bomber that flew at high altitudes and carried a crew of ten men.
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What did Robert Rosenthal do during the Second World War?
In August 1943, Rosenthal joined the 100th at their English base Thorpe Abbotts, Norfolk, as flight commander of the 418th bomb squadron.
“I couldn’t wait to get over there,” he recalled. “When I finally arrived, I thought I was at the centre of the world, the place where the democracies were gathering to defeat the Nazis. I was right where I wanted to be.”
Rosenthal, an older man in the youthful 100th, quickly proved himself a natural leader. He had been captain of both his football and baseball teams at college.
He expected a lot from his crew, and took the responsibility of their safety as a deep personal commitment; one that would be put to the test.
One of the 100th’s most disastrous days – confirming its status as the ‘Bloody Hundredth’ – was 10 October 1943, when 13 planes joined a raid on the city of Munster. Hundreds of enemy fighters and heavy flak caused havoc.
Rosenthal’s B-17, Royal Flush, had two dead engines, a hole in the wing, a damaged oxygen system, and three injured crewmen, yet he stayed on the bomb run and managed to pilot back to England, using violent evasive manoeuvres to escape relentless attacks. Royal Flush was the only plane from the 100th to return that day, for which Rosenthal was awarded the Silver Star.
A B-17 crew had to fly 25 missions to complete their service, which Rosenthal achieved by March 1944. Instead of heading back to the US, he stayed and, aboard his plane Rosie’s Riveters, carried on flying missions over Europe. He was promoted to major and made squadron commander of the 350th, a position once held by Gale ‘Buck’ Cleven before he was shot down.
Rosenthal was shot down himself, twice. The first came over France on 10 September 1944, during which he broke his arm but evaded capture.
Then after returning as squadron commander of the 418th – previously led by John ‘Bucky’ Egan – he was shot down again on 3 February 1945 over Berlin. He broke the same arm, and again fell into friendly hands. He returned to England via the Soviet Union, then Poland, Iran, Egypt, Greece and Italy.
Rosenthal wanted to return to flight operations even then, but was refused. In all, he flew 52 combat missions and was awarded 16 decorations, including the Croix de Guerre from the French and Distinguished Flying Cross from the British.
After VE Day, he volunteered for the Pacific theatre, and was training on B-29 bombers when the war ended.
What happened to Robert Rosenthal after the war?
Honourably discharged as a lieutenant colonel, Rosenthal returned to his law firm in New York. It would not be long before he returned to Europe, though, as part of the prosecution team for the Nuremberg Trials, bringing captured Nazi leaders to justice.
On the boat journey across the Atlantic in 1946, he met a fellow lawyer, Phyllis Heller, and they were engaged ten days later.
Married in September, they enjoyed a honeymoon of sorts at the Wolf’s Lair, Adolf Hitler’s headquarters on the Eastern Front. At Nuremberg, Rosenthal interrogated the field marshal Wilhelm Keitel and the inner circle Nazi leader, Hermann Goring.
“Seeing these strutting conquerors after they were sentenced – powerless, pathetic and preparing for the hangman – was the closure I needed,” he later said. “Justice had overtaken evil. My war was over.”
How did Robert Rosenthal die?
Rosenthal was preparing to have his first child with Phyllis while still in Germany. By the time of his death on 20 April 2007, just over a month before his 90th birthday, he was three-times a father, four-times a grandfather and two-times a great-grandfather.
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Masters of the Air is available to stream on Apple TV+ from 26 January, with new episodes airing weekly until 25 March.
Find out more about Gale Cleven and the real Masters of the Air in an exclusive interview with Donald L Miller, author a non-fiction book of the same name on which show is based, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast
Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.