To anyone who grew up in Detroit during the Sixties and Seventies, Sonny Eliot is legendary.  To those who understand the sacrifice he made during World War II, he is equally, the stuff of legends.

Born Marvin Schlossberg, Eliot enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, banking on some rudimentary flying lessons he’d won in a contest to be his ticket to the Air Force.  It was, and Eliot was trained to pilot a B-24 (the so-called ‘Liberator’, an American heavy bomber) and sent on missions over Nazi-controlled Europe.  An able pilot, Lieutenant Schlossberg led crews of ten men on fifteen bombing runs in a plane they named ‘Dumbo’ until, on February 24, 1943, sent to destroy the Messerschmitt factory in Gotha, Germany, he found himself facing an on-coming Focke-Wulf Fw 190, the most feared enemy fighter in the Nazi arsenal. 

As Eliot tells it, “He came at us head-on, firing.  First engines one and two went out, then three and four.  At fifteen thousand feet, we bailed out, all ten of us.  As pilot, I went out last because part of my job was to keep the B-24 stable while the others parachuted.  I assure you, such experiences are not habit-forming.”

Eliot came down in a farmer’s field north of Berlin, and was immediately set upon by the property owner armed with a .22 rifle.  To this day, is glad that he failed to strap on his side-arm .45 that morning.   “I suppose I would have shot the fellow,” he admits. “It was war, this was the enemy.  In doing so, I would have certainly bought myself a death sentence.  As it was, I was taken to a Frankfort prison and interrogated. I was trained to offer up nothing beyond name, rank and serial number, which sufficiently angered them that I was placed in solitary confinement for the next few weeks.”

Solitary confinement, Eliot attests, is among the worst experiences a prisoner of war can undergo.  “Not knowing what’s coming next?  That’s mental torture on a scale that’s hard to describe.”

Transferred to Stalagluft 1, a camp in Barth, Germany which held nearly nine thousand Allied prisoners throughout the war, Eliot experienced the second phase of physical deprivation which plagued him and his fellow airmen: Hunger.  “There was never enough, never.  The photos we took show a table full of food; that was taken after we were liberated.  I can tell you without question that the old saying is true: you haven’t eaten until you’ve starved.”

The liberation came at the hands of Russian soldiers who’d fought all the way from Stalingrad and stormed the camp in 1945.  Eliot describes them as, “a rugged group who pounded into the camp on horseback, dragging field kitchens behind them.  They offered us some moldy rye bread, and believe me, we were glad to get it.”

At the war’s end, Eliot experienced first-hand the suffering at concentration camps he visited.  As a Jewish American, it may have had a special significance, but as a human, he remains haunted to this day by the sights, sounds and smells of that particular nightmare.  “I’ve tried to forget it, push it out of my mind, but somehow, I can’t.”

The Eliot persona that we’ve loved since he first graced the airwaves, and which is still heard daily on WJR, is contained within a complex individual who has as many deep thoughts and strong opinions as he does one-liners.  Like many veterans, he’s somewhat reluctant to re-live war memories, days, which he insists, he does not miss.  “I don’t know anyone who loves war,” he says.  “Do you?”




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