Yes Spiegel, war hero who modernized Christmas trees, dies at 99

Before he was known as the father of artificial Christmas trees, Si Spiegel was a brave army aviator. In the final days of World War II, he flew his B-17 Flying Fortress as part of an armada of 1,500 Allied bombers that struck Berlin. Hit by flak, two of the plane’s four engines lost power as Mr. Spiegel reversed course to return to England.

Rather than flee Germany and risk capture as a prisoner of war – especially since he was Jewish – Mr. Spiegel managed to crash land in Soviet-occupied Poland. After being stuck there for weeks, he improvised a daring escape: using parts of his own plane to rig another B-17 that had crashed nearby, then flying to a U.S. base in Italy.

Mr. Spiegel, who died at age 99 on Jan. 21 at his home in Manhattan, was one of the last surviving American B-17 pilots of World War II, his granddaughter Maya Ono said. But Mr. Spiegel, a machinist by training, has another legacy: He was considered a pioneer of the mass-produced artificial Christmas tree.

The son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, he grew up in a religious neighborhood in Brooklyn and never had a Christmas tree, natural or artificial, as a child.

“I don’t necessarily think my grandfather associated himself with trees and Christmas as much as with the machines he built to make the trees,” Ms. Ono said, “and later in his life the systems he created to make trees.” building a successful business and the relationships I have cultivated.

For Mr. Spiegel, becoming the king of artificial Christmas trees was a fluke, but his religion played a role. After the war, he applied to become a commercial pilot, but was told he had the wrong subject.

“They talked about it openly,” he said in an interview with New York State Military Museum in 2010. “It’s not that they gave you an excuse. They told you: “We don’t hire Jews. »

He briefly enrolled at the City College of New York to become an engineer, but after his wartime he found the academic routine unsettling and mind-numbing. After a short stint as a radio host in New Mexico, he returned to New York.

Capitalizing on his early military training, he was hired as a machinist but was unable to maintain regular employment due to his role as organizer for the United Electrical Workers Union, which had been qualified by its Congress of Industrial Organizations as being riddled with communists. (Mr. Spiegel was later president of the Machinists’ Union Local 1709, which belonged to the AFL-CIO)

In 1954, he finally landed a permanent position with the American Brush Machinery Company, based in Mount Vernon, New York. It operates machines that make brushes from wire and other materials for various industrial functions, including cleaning and scrubbing wood and finishing metals.

Artificial Christmas trees had been made for decades – originally from the same animal hair used for toilet brushes, then from aluminum and finally from different forms of plastic.

After American Brush entered the Christmas tree business unsuccessfully, Mr. Spiegel, then a senior machinist, was tasked with closing the artificial tree factory. Instead, he began studying natural conifers, refining brush-making machines to imitate real trees, and patenting new production techniques.

He left the American Tree and Wreath Company in 1979 and two years later founded the Hudson Valley Tree Company, which began mass-producing 80,000 trees a year on an assembly line that produced one every four minutes .

By the late 1980s, his company had annual sales of $54 million and employed 800 workers in Newburgh, New York, and Evansville, Indiana. He sold the Hudson Valley Tree Company in 1993, retired as a multimillionaire and turned his attention to culture, education. and philanthropy for social justice.

Yes Spiegel was born on May 28, 1924 in Manhattan. His mother, Massia (Perlman) Spiegel, a Bessarabian-born seamstress and suffragette, named him after Issai (or Isaiah), the biblical prophet who expressed the utopian dream that “they shall learn war no more.” His Ukrainian-born father, David, owned a laundry in Greenwich Village.

After graduating from Straubenmuller Textile High School in Manhattan in May 1942, he worked for four months operating grinding machines for an industrial equipment manufacturer, then enlisted in the Army.

He graduated from the aviation mechanics school at Roosevelt Field on Long Island, but he was frustrated: he wanted to fly plans, not fix them.

“How could I fight Hitler with a wrench? he said in an interview with The New York Times in 2021.

He was sent to Mitchel Field, two miles away, where he became an aviation cadet. During his training, he married Frankie Marie Smith in New Mexico; After the war, they divorced.

It was deployed to Eye, England, near the North Sea, where its diverse crew consisted of one other Jew, five Catholics, a Mormon, and a criminal who was given the choice of going in prison or join the army.

Returning from his 33rd mission, the massive Feb. 3, 1945, air raid on Berlin, Mr. Spiegel managed to land on his belly on a frozen potato field in Reczyn, Poland. While the crews’ families were informed that their loved ones were missing in action, they were detained by Russian troops.

Not knowing what to do with their putative allies, the Russians awaited orders from their superiors. But instead of staying put, Mr. Spiegel and his fellow officers quietly removed an engine and tire from their own plane to repair another hobbled B-17 that had crashed nearby. They bartered for fuel, and on March 17 the combined crews fled to Foggia, Italy, where they were able to inform their families back home that they had survived.

Mr. Spiegel led two more missions, then returned home to New York on August 31, 1945, but he would return to England and Poland for reunions of his crew from the 849th Bomb Squadron of the 490th Bomb Group.

Mr. Spiegel joined Pete Seeger’s Good Neighbor Chorus and in 1949 attended Camp Unity, a communist-affiliated summer camp in Wingdale, New York, where he met Motoko Ikeda, the daughter of Japanese immigrants settled in California. During the war, she and her family had been incarcerated in an internment camp in Wyoming; Then her parents moved back to California and she went to New York. She and Mr. Spiegel were married in 1950. Ms. Spiegel, who became an artist, died in 2000.

Since then, Mr. Spiegel has lived alone on the Upper West Side, not far from his birthplace.

He is survived by his daughter, Sura Kazuko Ono; two sons, Ray Spiegel and Tamio Spiegel; his brother, Lee; and five granddaughters.

Mr. Spiegel celebrated the Jewish holidays with his children, but when they were young, a Christmas tree was a winter holiday staple — first a real one, then the best of his fake ones.

“They were pagan symbols,” the Times said. “My kids loved them.”

His wife, too, defended a cultural brand that was not part of his upbringing: “Motoko was better than my mother at Jewish cooking,” he said. “She could cook in any language.”