A collection of newpaper columns, stories and other debris from the slightly warped mind of award-winning journalist Gary Greenberg.
Story by Gary Greenberg
Photo by Mike Price
Irwin Stovroff: The Lucky Bombardier
Irwin Stovroff has a collection of war mementos in the office of his Boca
Raton home – pictures, documents, medals – but none more striking than a framed
photograph of his glass-nosed bomber being shot down behind enemy lines.
Snapped by a crew member of another plane, the picture shows Stovroff’s
B-24 Liberator trailing smoke from its two starboard engines as it heads into a
nosedive, while far below, the tiny white dots of ten parachutes flutter to earth.
“As I floated down, I thought, ‘What the hell is going to happen to me
now?’” recalls the former bombardier. “We landed right in the German front lines.
“Being Jewish, I threw my dog tags away immediately, a good thing
because we were all rounded up in no time. They marched us into a cemetery, but
the commanding officer wouldn’t let them shoot us. Why? I still don’t know.”
Instead, they were taken to an interrogation center, held in isolation and
“After a few days, this SS officer comes in and says he knows everything
about me: who my father is and mother’s maiden name, the street where I live, my
elementary school, the girl I dated in high school…” Stovroff says. “I asked how
he knew so much and he replied, ‘I once lived a few blocks away from you. You
used to be my paperboy. I’ll do what I can to help you.’”
Stovroff’s former neighbor in Buffalo, N.Y., had moved back to Germany
before the war broke out. And he might have saved his old paperboy’s life by
putting a question mark next to Stovroff’s identification as a Jew on his prisoner of
war ID document.
Instead of a concentration camp, Lieutenant Stovroff wound up at a
German stalag for officers, still no picnic. “We would have starved if not for the
American Red Cross,” he notes. He spent about a year there before being
liberated by Russian Cossacks, who rode into the prison camp on horseback with
Stovroff has a lot of stories, and he tells them with enthusiasm, humor and
just a touch of pathos – like the time his squadron was attacked by newfangled
German jets over the Baltic Sea.
“These things without props came out of nowhere and shot down fifteen of
our planes,” he says, shaking his head. “No one had ever seen anything like it. One
hundred and fifty men...all lost.
“After we completed our mission, I decided that I wasn’t going back up no
matter what they did to me. But they gave us a couple days off and we went to
London and got drunk and chased girls. By the time the two days were up, we
came back saying, ‘Ah, what the heck.’”
Stovroff went on to fly thirty-five missions, ironically being shot down on
the one that was scheduled to be his last.
“We had our bags packed to go home and were envisioning parades,” he
now says with a chuckle. “Instead we ended up in a prison camp.”
After his long overdue return home, Stovroff married, had three kids and
spent forty years working for Thomasville Furniture, advancing to international
sales manager. The outgoing, energetic, natural-born salesman was still going
strong at 75 when, much to his chagrin, the company retired him.
Now 80, Stovroff occupies a lot of his time helping those who can’t help
themselves as the national service officer for American Ex-Prisoners of War. He
volunteers three times a week at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in West
Palm Beach, helping ex-POWs fill out paperwork for pension, medical care and
Last year, he was belatedly awarded a prestigious Distinguished Flying
Cross, which was pinned on his chest by a fellow ex-POW, Senator John McCain.
Like a lot of World War II vets, Irwin Stovroff says his military experience gave
him a perspective of life that has helped him succeed as a civilian.
“After being a POW, you figure what worse can happen?” he says. “It
changes your whole attitude. No matter what happens, you’ve already hit bottom.
There’s no place to go but up.”
Next: Ralph Shear
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