Stateside: The men with the bomber planes and the man with the camera

Nov 12, 2012

Flying bomber planes over German and Japanese terrain, Bill Rosnyai and Murray Cotter spent much of World War II in the air.

In observation of Veterans Day, Stateside spoke with Rosnyai, a former navigator on a B-17 in Europe and Cotter, a former bombardier on a B-24 in the Pacific.

Joining them was Brad Ziegler, a freelance photographer who has been photographing Michigan’s World War II veterans, particularly as the vets took special “Honor Flights” to visit the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.

Both Rosnyai and Cotter entered the Armed Forces and quickly realized they would rather fly bomber planes than fight on the ground.

“I was 18. I got through the training when I was 19 and after I finished the navigation school, they sent me to Texas and I met my B-17 crew. Then we went to Nebraska and they gave us a brand new plane and said, ‘I want you to take it to England,’” said Rosnyai.

“I joined in 1942. I didn’t want to be a walking soldier; I enlisted in the Army Air Corps. I was a bombardier. Our missions were long, over water. We bombed a Japanese compound,” said Cotter.

Rosnyai braved 35 missions and was once shot down over Germany.

“We went to a small town call Marsberg. At that time we had destroyed most of the German oil refineries, so they had to come up with a concept of building gasoline from coal. This town was producing 30% of the synthetic oil and was heavily defended. As we approached the field, two of our engines were hit and we had to turn around and head west. We got to a point where the pilot said, ‘If you’re going to bail out, you better bail out now.’ Nobody bailed out because we didn’t want to be caught by the civilians. Luckily for us we crash-landed in a former German airfield that the Americans had just taken over,” said Rosnyai.

Ziegler captures these veterans’ stories through the lens of his camera. Through his photos Ziegler hopes to initiate a conversation between younger generations and the country’s veterans. Doing so, says Ziegler, will hopefully eliminate many of the misconceptions people have about World War II and the men and women who fought in it.

“Younger generations are seeing a skewed version of the war. They see it through video games and movies instead of hearing and seeing it for themselves. It’s a difficult history to send out to the masses without it being diffused. I found it fascinating to hear about the war because it was the most recent time when you could have an effect as one individual. Growing up, I knew about my own grandfather’s history but he didn’t speak about it much. By communicating to younger generations while we still have our World War II vets, I found it important to try to start a conversation between them,” said Ziegler.

Both men showed deep appreciation of Ziegler’s efforts.

“We were just a small group of elderly guys sitting together talking about our war experiences until Brad joined us and then everything exploded. He gave us the chance to ride that restored B-17, he has taken all kinds of portraits of us,” said Rosnyai.

Ziegler’s portraits function for him in multiple ways. On a larger scale, they invite conversation between disparate generations. But more personally, for Ziegler, his photos are an act of patriotism, of documenting the veterans in an enduring format.

“I get a sense of closure. It was a very important time in my life. I was on the roof of the Trade Center on September 10th. The next day was my generation’s Pearl Harbor. I never joined the military; this was my way of serving. It allowed me to deal with my own stress from being in New York during the attacks and find my own sense of comradery through these men. I would hope that younger generations can view photographs and realize we can learn so much from them. Have an honest conversation with them. Once you forget that relationship you can appreciate them not just as veterans but as citizens,” said Ziegler.

-Cameron Stewart

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