The Homestead Rodef Shalom Congregation Bomber?!

Pittsburgh District Zionist Bomber, c. 1943. The Pittsburgh Jewish Criterion announced on 4/2/1942 that "funds had been collected to purchase a bomber which would bear the inscription, 'Pittsburgh Zionist Bomber'...Hadassah Chapters have been informed that the Treasury Department will name a medium bomber for the organization for every $175,000 worth of 'E' bonds sold by its members. For every $300,000 sold a heavy bomber will be inscribed with Hadassah's name.")

“Pittsburgh District Zionist Bomber” dedication ceremony, c. 1943. The Pittsburgh Jewish Criterion announced on 4/2/1943 that “funds had been collected to purchase a bomber which would bear the inscription, ‘Pittsburgh Zionist Bomber’…Hadassah Chapters have been informed that the Treasury Department will name a medium bomber for the organization for every $175,000 worth of ‘E’ bonds sold by its members. For every $300,000 sold a heavy bomber will be inscribed with Hadassah’s name.” (Source: Rauh Jewish Archives, MSP 389)

In the synagogue’s Board of Directors meeting from December 3, 1944, I came upon mention of a surprising letter the board received from my great-aunt, “Mrs. Sam W. Hepps, stating that the Rodef Sholom Sisterhood and the B’nai B’rith have sold $47,750.00 of war bonds for the 5th war bond campaign, and this amount will be added towards the purchase of a Bomber, and the next Bomber will be named Homestead Rodef Shalom Congregation.  The dedication of the Bomber will take place at the Synagogue on Sunday Dec 17th 1944.  All are invited” (p. 299).1

Bomber?!  Whoa.

The remainder of this article has two parts.  First are the newspaper clippings that fill in some details about the dedication ceremonies.  Notice they include no specifics about the bomber itself.  What kind of plane was it?  What action did it see?  What happened to it after the war?  Are any of its crew still alive?  What did they think about flying a bomber named after a synagogue?!  The second part of this article addresses the surprising reason why we may never be able know more.

1942 government poster

1942 government poster

Homestead Hebrew Congregation
Bomber Dedication Announced

Dedication services for a bomber, bought by the Homestead Jewish community through the sale of War Bonds, will be held Sunday, December 17, at 8 p.m., in the Rodef Sholom Synagogue at 10th and McClure Streets, Homestead. The sponsors for this affair are the Rodef Sholom Congregation, Rodef Sholom Sisterhood, B’nai B’rith Lodge No. 1445 and the Women’s Auxiliary of B’nai B’rith.

Mrs. Frances P. Tarnapowicz, associate State Administrator, U.S. Treasury, and chairman of the Nationality groups in 19 counties, has planned the program. She is also the originator of the Nationality groups in promotion of War Bond Sales.

Mrs. Samuel W. Hepps is the chairman of the Rodef Sholom Bomber drive and also of the Nationality booth in Homestead.

Refreshments will be served. The public is cordially invited to attend. Mrs. I. Schwadron is in charge of publicity.

— The Pittsburgh Jewish Criterion, 12/15/1944

(A nearly identical article appeared in the The American Jewish Outlook, p.7, on 12/15/1944.)

Ceremonies Here Dedicate Bomber

“Even though the enemy is destroyed, there will be no peace, util the philosophy of the enemy is destroyed,” said Judge Benjamin Lencher speaking at the dedication of a bomber, the “Rodef Shalom Congregation” at ceremonies held last evening in the synagogue, Tenth Avenue and McClure Street.

“Although this traditionally is a season for peace for Hebrews and Christians alike we must purchase items of war, so the enemy can be met and civilization restored. There can be no restoration of real peace however, until Hitlerism, and all the little Hitlers in occupied territory are destroyed, and their philosophies replace by tolerance,” Judge Lencher concluded.

Judge Lencher was the special guest speaker at last night’s exercise for the dedication of a bomber purchased through $581,000 worth of bond subscriptions of members of the congregation.

Other brief addresses were made by Mrs. Samuel W. Hepps, mistress of ceremonies; Joseph Frank, president of B’Nai B’Rith; Mrs. J. Lembersky, president of B’Nai B’Rith Sisterhood and Mrs. Francis P. Tarnapowicz, associate state administrator of the U.S. Treasury Department and chairman of the Nationalities groups of Western Pennsylvania.

— The Homestead Daily Messenger, 12/18/1944


The Homestead Chapter of the B’nai B’rith will hold its regular meeting on Tuesday evening, December 11, in the vestry rooms of the Rodef Shalom Synagogue in the form of a Chanukah party with cards and mah-jong.

Guest speaker for the evening will be Mrs. Francis P. Tarnapowicz who will present a picture of the bomber, “Rodef Shalom Congregation.”

Mrs. I. Grossman is program chairman. The Hostesses for the evening are Mesdames J. Burechson, Jack Stern, S. Trachtenburg, I. Grossman and Melvin Frank. Mrs. S. W. Hepps will preside.

— The Pittsburgh Jewish Criterion, 11/30/1945


Tracking down Our Bomber

I have corresponded with a few experts on these war bond drives and the planes involved.  The good news is, they are an amazingly friendly and helpful group!  The bad news is that they quickly dispelled the notion I had in my head that finding our plane would be as easy as consulting some government file somewhere listing all the war bond planes with their tail numbers  Prof. James J. Kimble, author of Mobilizing the Home Front:  War Bonds and Domestic Propaganda, advised me that to pursue this research, I’d need “to spend a few weeks with the wartime Treasury papers at the national archives in College Park.  Having worked with them extensively, I would describe it as near futile.”  He summed up, “in all probability, [the Treasury papers are] not worth worth your time.”  Dr. Jeremy R. Kinney, Curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum for American Military Aviation, 1919-1945 concurred, “Your investigation is not likely to be successful…During WWII there were more than 12,000 B-17 aircraft produced and more than 18,000 B-24 aircraft. Each of those aircraft likely had a number of names, defined by various crews, which were not formally cataloged.”

Moreover, these two men and the other experts question whether there was ever an actual plane named after the congregation.  Prof. Kimble summarized the issues for me.  “The bad news _might_ be that the plane in question was not genuine.  Supposedly, the Treasury eventually received so many dedicated requests like this that they became overwhelmed and so decided to work with Boeing (or another manufacturer) to paint names over and over again on the same craft, taking pictures each time for the specific donors.”  2

From Prof. Kimble and Dr. Kinney I turned to two gentlemen who are experts in the planes and the men who flew them.  The first is Ray Bowden, who maintains the USAAF Nose Art Research Project, an online database of War Bond plane.  His website explains:

America’s war effort demanded millions upon millions of dollars of funding and one way to raise these funds was through the sale of War Loan Stamps and War Bonds. These were used to expand facilities and their subsequent production of every item of war from liberty ships to tanks and jeeps and of course aircraft. The Buy-a-Bomber campaigns were devised to enable communities and groups to contribute to the purchase of an individual aircraft which would be named, according to certain criteria, by those communities, be they States, Counties, Cities, Townships, Societies, even schools and businesses. The amount of money raised through the sales of War Bonds or Stamps determined the type of aircraft which would be “purchased.”

Initially $275,000 would enable to community group to have a heavy bomber named (a B-17 or B-24), lesser funds could “purchase” a twin engined B-25 (approximately $110,000) or a pursuit fighter or even a tiny liaison plane converted for medivac duties. In the early months of conflict, the aircraft was flown to a local airfield and naming ceremony was carried out with full publicity but as the pressures of the war increased this became impossible so the aircraft was painted up as it left the factory or modification facility and a photograph was sent to the community representatives or local newspapers. Many of these aircraft seem to have disappeared from history and little is known of what became of many of them in the war effort. Some remained in the USA as training ships and some flew combat missions bearing this original name but others were promptly re-named by combat crews overseas with a sexier or more relevant title or artwork.

He elaborated in an email to me:

The timing of the naming of the [Homestead] plane would suggest to me that, at that late date in the war (Dec 44), the chances were that this was one of those War Bond planes that the War Dept “spoofed up”, ie doctored a standard photo with a title rather than actually painted up an plane. (however, never say never!) Early in the war naming ceremonies were held and dignitaries invited to a local airfield to witness the unveiling. When this occurred there was almost always newspaper coverage – a report with picture…As the war progressed there simply was not time to continue the naming ceremonies that had been set up earlier although a few still did take place. Aircraft and crews rolled off the lines and out of the training courses to be despatched to combat zones immediately. The manufacturer North American which made the B25 Mitchell medium bomber has confirmed that its photo dept did doctor photos rather than actually paint up real aircraft. It is likely (but unconfirmed) that other manufacturers also did this bit of trickery.

County Of Tarrant, a B-24D funded by the citizens of Tarrant County, Texas (source: USAAF Nose Art Research Project)

County Of Tarrant, a B-24D funded by the citizens of Tarrant County, Texas (source: USAAF Nose Art Research Project)

Although the vast majority of War Bond plane photos have still to be located (by me, that is!) it is significant that those which do not seem to have been taken at naming ceremonies are taken in such a way that one can never see the serial number of the plane which appeared on the tail fin. Thus, it is impossible to trace their service histories even if they did exist except in very rare occasions. Also, a number of aircraft of all types were used for training purposes and never left the USA to enter a combat zone and the UK, by 1945, there was huge numbers of brand new replacement aircraft which were simply stock piled at depots to replace losses which were, by then, thankfully reducing. Many of those returned after hostilities to be scrapped as obsolete.

He suggests that $581,000 would have been enough to purchase a B29 Superfortress, which would also fit with the date the plane was purchased.  These bombers remained in service through the Korean War in 1950.  And at the moment, that’s the best guess we have.  For what it’s worth, he added our plane to the war bond plane database he maintains, so at least in that way the memory of its existence will be preserved.

As the above quotes suggest, rallying a community around raising money for war materiel was common in WWII.  My father’s shul, B’nai Israel, had a PT boat named after it, Pittsburgh’s chapter of NCJW also had a heavy bomber named after it, and apparently there was a P-51 called the “Brandeis AZA No. 533 of B’nai B’rith.”  That should put the fear of G-d into the enemy!

This leads us to the bigger question about whether the plane could have actually been named after Rodef Shalom Congregation.  Leaving aside the inherent humor in naming a plane “The Pursuer of Peace Bomber” (to quote a friend, I sure hope this plane was beaten into a plowshare after the war ended!), would they have dared to fly such a plane against the Nazis?  Peter Randall, who maintains Little Friends, a site dedicated to all those who flew and served in the US 8th Army Air Force Fighter Command during WWII, relates a number of interesting anecdotes on this very subject and offers a different opinion on the subject of the doctored photos:

The question of presentation aircraft is an interesting one and you are not alone in your frustration of trying to identify a particular one. As you will appreciate, my “expertise” rests solely with the fighters and even with these, it is not always possible for me to identify presentation ones! For example, it took me a long while before I found out that the P-51 named “The Bengal Lancer” was in fact presented by Bloomfield High School, NJ and named for their basketball team “The Bengals”. In the same unit, Lt. Gilbert Cohen, God rest his soul, wanted to name his assigned P-51 “Hebe’s Heap” but he told me that the CO, Col. John Henry, who vetted all proposed names, turned it down on the grounds that if he were to be shot down or force-landed in enemy territory, the name would mark him out as being a Jew. Gillie answered that the name Cohen on his dog tags was even more of a giveaway but Henry was adamant, and Gillie chose to name it “Growing Gripe” to show his dissatisfaction!

This leads me to think that a name referring to a synagogue congregation applied to a bomber would not have gone down terribly well with the crew, for the same reason that Col. Henry was worried about. Another Jewish pilot friend, Lt. Bill Lyons tells me that he was aware of atrocities at that stage of the war, but was so incensed with Nazis in general that he really did not worry about it.

ScarsdaleAs far as I can make out, there seems to be no permanent list of presentation aircraft, although I don’t subscribe to the theory that names were airbrushed on to photos or that the same plane was used time and again; at least, certainly not in the fighters. Attached is a photo of a shield awarded to the village of Scarsdale, NY by the Republic Aviation Corporation, for them funding 65 P-47 Thunderbolts. Now each and every one of those 65 apparently bore the name Scarsdale in its presentation name. A photo of Scarsdale Scout appears on my site and I know also of Scarsdale Avenger and Scarsdale Legionnaire but even the Scarsdale municipality does not have a record of all 65.

Certainly in December 1944 all aircraft coming off the production lines would have been in natural metal finish, so any presentation details would have been stencilled or painted directly on to the aluminium for the presentation ceremony, even if it was only a photo sent to those subscribing the funds.

(For what it’s worth, the post about the Brandeis P-51 I linked to earlier does say the name was painted on the port side of the plane (with the name “Yahooskin” on the other), and a tail number was given as well, which suggests two things:  (1)  Presentation names, even when painted on, weren’t what pilots called their planes, and (2) Not sure how identifiably Jewish “Brandeis,” “AZA,” or “B’nai B’rith” would have been to the Nazis, but if this post is right, there was at least one fighter in WWII with the names of Jewish organizations painted on its side.)

Anyway, at this point, it doesn’t seem fruitful for me to continue researching this plane 3, but high on my wish list is for the photo of our bomber, whether doctored or real, to miraculously reappear. So, please, if you know anything at all about this bomber, email me at once!

  1. Later I read in the January 2, 1945 minutes of the Sisterhood, “A report of the dedication services of the Bomber purchased by the Homestead Jewish Community was given by Mrs. S.W. Hepps, the cost being 375,000.00.”  

  2. Were the plane real, this article about a different community’s bomber gives a sense of what kind of information I had hoped we’d be able to find.  

  3. For completeness’ sake:  The few leads they left me with are to try the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell AFB, Alabama; the Boeing Archives, where they might have photographs of the B29s they presented; and to contact David Pfeiffer at NARA for more insight into the Treasury records. Also, there is a book called the B-17 Nose Art Directory by Wallace R. Forman which is unlikely to have a picture of our plane, but would be interesting for context.  

  2 comments for “The Homestead Rodef Shalom Congregation Bomber?!

  1. iris Nahemow
    December 30, 2014 at 8:35 pm

    You gave me a real hearty laugh with the notion of a Pursuer of Peace Bomber.

    On a more serious note, raising half a million in war bonds shows both the affluence and the patriotism of the community. That was real money when $5,000/yr was considered a good salary.

  2. HL Patronne
    June 14, 2015 at 10:33 pm

    I am interested in any information, or photos relating to the fate of the 65 Grumman Thunderbolt aircraft purchased during War. I am also interested in the source of your photo of the plaque awarded to the Village of Scarsdale for raising the money for 65 aircraft.

    Any help is appreciated.

    HL Patronne,
    Scarsdale, NY

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