Famed TV writer and producer Norman Lear passed away on December 5, 2023, at age 101. While most celebrations of his life have focused on Lear’s contributions to popular culture, few have had much to say about his service in World War II.
Lear was 19 years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and he was eager to join the war effort, particularly against Germany. Though not a religiously observant Jew, he felt a keen sense of his identity and insisted seeing combat. “That was a result of the need to prove myself as a full American and as a minority,” he later claimed in an interview.
Lear dropped out of Emerson College in Boston and enlisted in the Army Air Force, becoming a radio operator in the Fifteenth Air Force’s 463rd Bomb Group. On his very first combat mission, Lear watched in horror as German fighters swarmed the B-17 Flying Fortress carrying one of his buddies, Jimmy Edwards. Lear rushed to the aircraft after the mission, only to find that Jimmy had been killed.
Lear lost more friends during his tour of duty, and not all of them were fellow airmen. In February 1945, the 463rd assigned the crew an aircraft over which they would have priority whenever they flew a mission. The enlisted men put their heads together and came up with the name Umbriago, a word their favorite comedian, Jimmy Durante, would often exclaim during his radio show. The officers endorsed the moniker, and the crewmen had the name painted in red on the nose of the ship.
Umbriago lasted less than a month before she was lost in battle while under the care of a different crew. Within a few days, the men were surprised to learn that they had been assigned a replacement, and an enlisted man who rushed to the flight line to check over the bird was pleased to find a smiling crew chief fawning over the new arrival. He had already had Umbriago II painted in red along the nose.
The crew put Umbriago II through her paces and formed a tight bond with the aircraft, just as they had done with her predecessor. The day before their final mission of the war, the men were off flight status, and a newly arrived replacement crew took Umbriago II on an orientation flight of the local area. A strong crosswind blew, and the green pilot approached the field too low and without enough airspeed. He banked sharply for final approach, and the Fortress started to yaw. The pilot firewalled the engines, but Umbriago II plunged nose- and left-wing-first into the ground. All aboard were lost.
That night, Lear learned the crew was listed to fly the next day, 25 April. A few days after Jimmy’s death the previous November, when Lear had gotten the news of an imminent mission, “a light breeze of fear began wafting through my chest, a mixture of apprehension and excitement.” He recounted in his memoir, Even This I Get to Experience,
Since childhood, the culture had instructed us to believe that being male and facing danger came with good cheer and a touch of bravura. Add a little peer pressure and there we were, having rushed to the board to learn with cheers and yelps that we were posted to fly. It wasn’t until I was under my bedcovers, alone in my thoughts, that apprehension began to gain ground on excitement. By morning and our wake-up call . . . the apprehension had turned into fear.
On 25 April 1945, Lear and five thousand other young Americans were sent to destroy rail targets in Linz, Austria—the town that Adolf Hitler claimed as home. German anti-aircraft fire was ferocious, and fifteen heavy bombers went down. Many more, including Lear’s B-17, were severely damaged, and 28 Americans lost their lives.
The raid devastated the target, and Linz fell to Patton’s Third Army days later. Lear and his crewmates hosted a party for the ages in their tent to celebrate Victory-in-Europe Day, doling out the whisky ration that they had been stockpiling for months for just this occasion. Lear had survived 33 combat missions without a scratch.
Lear wrestled with his conscience after the war, as many veterans do. In the days and weeks after the war in Europe ended, he volunteered to help ferry men and supplies around the Fifteenth Air Force’s area of operations while waiting for orders sending him home. He wrote in Even This I Get to Experience,
“Flying over Europe on a clear day and, for the first time in hundreds of hours, with no body armor, no deadly puffs of black exploding around us, no enemy planes streaking toward us, no chance of being shot out of the sky, I was experiencing PEACE—in capital letters, underlined, and in neon. I lay on my belly in the glass nose of our plane, drunk on the sensation of the universe in my embrace.”
On the long return flight to America, though, Lear began to face the demons that many airmen confronted in later years. Sitting alone in the radio room, all the experiences of the past few years—good and bad—came flooding back.
What troubled Lear the most was his attitude about civilian casualties. Many years later, he recalled watching his aircraft’s deadly payload on its death ride to earth and feeling elated with the destruction it wrought. He told People magazine,
“I’d see the bombs going down and see the damage they were doing on the ground, not knowing who they might have been killing, and feel elated. It’s very hard to reconcile that this was the same me. I can’t imagine that I held those feelings.”
“Would I have signed a piece of paper that said, ‘Okay, I don’t give a shit if it hits a farmhouse?’ I want to believe with all my heart that I would never have signed it.”
Norman Lear’s wartime experiences undoubtedly shaped the man who would go on to leave an indelible mark on American culture. His service is worthy of remembrance.
For more on Norman Lear’s service and his role in the 25 April 1945 raid on Linz, check out Bombing Hitler's Hometown, available in March 2024 wherever books are sold.
Rob Eshman, “Norman Lear on Race in America, Judaism, World War II and his Bright Future,” Jewish Journal, 17 December 2014.
Daniel P. Carroll, Crew Umbriago, 1986.
Mike Croissant, Bombing Hitler’s Hometown: The Untold Story of the Last Mass Bomber Raid of WWII in Europe, forthcoming in 2024 from Citadel Press.
Pam Lambert, “The War That Was,” People, 7 August 1995.