A Tribute to My Father: Rolf A. Mitchel

By Leonard “Hobie” Mitchel

He was born Rolf Achiem Michelbacher, Sept. 16, 1924, in Berlin, Germany. He would never have siblings, which may have been a blessing because of what the future would unfold for him and his family. My father is Jewish and during his childhood he and his family were devoted to their faith, which would be tested beyond all measure. 

The next 15 years would, by any standards, prove daunting. When the Nazis burned the Berlin Temple, he and others rescued the scrolls from the burning building. He would never forget. By the end of the war, he would lose every relative he knew, from every generation that lived in Europe. 

His father was a World War I pilot, August Michelbacher, fighting in the elite squadron of Baron Manfred von Richthofen, consisting of 12 pilots. When Hitler came to power, my grandfather warned the Allies of what was to come with Hitler, but his words fell on deaf ears. For this reason, he was later arrested, tried and later died in prison even though he had such a distinguished career. My father was able to see him one last time before he left for America.  He escaped Nazi Germany in January, 1940 through Belgium by ship arriving in New York Harbor. He then traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, the place of my eventual birth. After arriving his last name was changed to Mitchel.  

He was fortunate to live with a distant cousin who by chance was a renowned ear nose and throat doctor. He became a second father to him. He treated the likes of Dizzy Dean, a pitcher with the St. Louis Cardinals, who in turn taught my father how to pitch. He said when he first met my father “that he pitched like a girl.” That soon changed and eventually he became a part-time practice pitcher for the Cardinals and of all things struck out Enos Slaughter at one practice on three straight pitches, one of his claims to fame.

My father had a photographic memory. I suspect that was a great asset to him, but it also can bring back unforgettable vivid memories. When he became of age he wanted to go back to Germany as an Allied soldier, 19 years old. To get Nazis, not Germans. There is a distinct difference. 

As policy would have it, because he was German, he could not go to the European Theater unless the President of the United States authorized it, which was generally unheard of. But my father, as he has a way with words, both written and verbal, wrote an eloquent letter to President Roosevelt pleading his case. A short time later he received word that Roosevelt, gave approval.

After basic training he was found to have an incredible talent as a marksman on all types of guns, but, in particular, was deadly accurate with a 75mm tank gun and was subsequently attached to the Fourth Armored Division on the Sherman Tank. After training in the U.S., he was transferred to London as a private.

After first arriving, it was found that his extensive knowledge of Berlin would prove invaluable for an allied bombing of a factory in Berlin. The military asked for soldiers who were intimately familiar with Berlin and he volunteered his services. While sitting in a briefing on that bombing raid, he made it known that the aerial picture of Berlin being shown on the screen was backward and upside down and mentioned it. He was very familiar with that part of Berlin where the target was. After thorough questioning by his superiors on the extent of his knowledge, he volunteered to be on the lead plane on a bombing mission that consisted of a cadre of many B-17 bombers. He directed the pilot and then the bombardier to the target, which was a factory that had escaped bombing in previous missions. This mission proved different and the factory was successfully destroyed. My father later found that the target they destroyed was a chemical plant that manufactured, among other things, the gas used in the concentration camps. He received the first of many medals for being an integral part of that bombing mission.

He advanced in rank quickly and his unit, the Fourth Armored Division, became part of the Normandy Coast Invasion landing at Utah Beach. From that day on, it was about the liberation of Europe. In those battles, the loss of soldiers and friends was extensive, but the relentless pursuit for revenge against tyranny was foremost on his mind. 

He fought throughout France and into Belgium. His last battle was the Battle of the Bulge to relieve the American Army in Bastogne. He was the first tank column to enter Bastogne. I now know one of the reasons why he is what he is: from fighting those battles and from the loss of lives in World War II. He became a favorite of Patton. Patton knew of his many battle successes and commendations. After the Battle of the Bulge, Patton had sent him home until the end of the war in Europe; he had been through enough. He spent the rest of the war training soldiers at Fort Knox. After the war, he was transferred back to Berlin, where he became part of the Military Police unit whose mission was to locate Nazis. Ironically, he was stationed in the old neighborhood he grew up in. He re-acquainted himself with my mother. The rest is history.  

My mother, who went through a lot herself, became his rock and helped him to find peace. When immigrating to the U.S. to be with my father, she ran into difficulties because of a slight medical issue. My father was livid. As he does, to get around red tape, he wrote to President Truman and when Truman was informed of the problem, he quickly resolved the issue and my mother was allowed into the U.S. Like I said before, my father was good at communicating—written or verbal. 

When I was 10 years old our family met Harry Truman at his presidential library in Independence, Missouri. Truman still had the letter and recalled to my mother that is was the worst ass-chewing he ever received. 

During the next chapter of life my father discovered he had an incredible aptitude for computer programming. We moved from St. Louis in 1963 to the Washington, D.C. area in Alexandria, Virginia. He worked at Fort Lee and Cameron Station in Virginia. He was part of the programing team that developed the program which now is a part of our daily lives, UPC scan codes.

Growing up as an only child was not easy in my house. Our household had a very disciplined environment, with a focus on service, accuracy, results and no acceptance of the status quo.  Find solutions. As a child and a young man, I couldn’t understand those things, but later in life the light bulb would go off.

My father was an adventurer as well as pragmatic, and his example of service has had a great impact on my life.  He later became a pilot like his father.  He was a scoutmaster, a Lt. Colonial in the Civil Air Patrol coordinating search and rescue missions, a member of an airport authority, coordinated many community events where he lived and advised many political bodies wherever at their request. He walked the walk. 

But above all he preached to me and others that prejudice is not acceptable in any form.  Service is a responsibility. Truth is the only message no matter the consequences. 

One of his last words of wisdom to me was “you must learn to forgive, but never forget.”  He was a disciplined man and he gave you his all. He found Love hard to give but when he chose to give it, it was all the more meaningful. 

He and my Mother wrote a book Challenges and TriumphsThe Memoirs of Rolf and Edith Mitchel,” an amazing story of their life growing up and then together. Their stories are forever etched in stone. They make for an incredible read and are such a gift to my family and for future generations. 

I am so grateful that he was my father, I am so grateful to have learned so many life lessons from him, some more difficult than others, especially growing up. He was not perfect – but he was my father and I loved him. He passed away on this past Christmas Day. Ironic he would choose that day – the birth of Christ. I find it necessary to tell you some of my father’s stories. He was a dynamic individual, who gave of himself for the benefit of others. 

  • My tribute to him is to honor him. 
  • My tribute to him is to share his sacrifices and of those who gave of themselves from that “Greatest Generation.” 

Peace be with you my father. 

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 12 at Colonial Funeral Home of Leesburg.

One thought on “A Tribute to My Father: Rolf A. Mitchel

  • 2019-12-31 at 1:39 pm
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    Wonderful story and Rolf was an amazing man. As was his father and mother. I had the honor of talking with Rolf about his story at Leisure World in 2016 and gave him a kippah as gift. I saw a photo of August on the wall with other German flying aces. in that picture, was Hermann Goehring, who was Hitler’s top henchman — who helped build the most evil regime in history. So, the Hitler regime and Goehring turned on one of their own veterans because they were Jews who refused to participate in their genocidal efforts. As I heard Rolf tell in detail how badly the Nazis treated his father for refusing to help the Luftwaffe in the 30s, it reminded how evil totalitarianism is and how precious it is we have freedoms and heroes like August, willing to die for his principles and religion, and Rolf so eager to fight for those rights. May his memory be for a blessing. Baruch Dayan HaEmet

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