• Spielberg, Arnold
  • Links to Oral History Sessions: Spielberg, Arnold (May 12, 2006)
  • Conflict(s): World War II
  • Military Branch & Unit: Army Air Forces
  • Theater(s): CBI


Arnold Spielberg was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1917. In the interview, he traces his family's background, his upbringing, and his military service as a radio mechanic in a B-25 bomb group in the China-Burma-India Theater during World War II.

Born in Kamenets-Podolski, Ukraine, his father Samuel was orphaned at a young age and raised by an uncle. His mother Rebecca grew up in nearby Sudilkov. Samuel and Rebecca met and got married in Ukraine. After being conscripted into the Russian Army, his father immigrated to the U.S. in 1904 and, following a family member, settled in Cincinnati. His mother came to Cincinnati a few years later.

Arnold Spielberg grew up in the Walnut Hills and Avondale neighborhoods of Cincinnati, where his father worked in the dry goods business. He chronicles his education in public schools and Hebrew school and interest in electricity. He learned Morse Code and became a ham radio operator as a teenager. During the infamous Ohio River flood of 1937, he recalls relaying messages on his radio asking for relief. He graduated from high school in 1934, in the midst the Great Depression. With his parents unable to afford college tuition, he went to work at the Lerman Brothers department store, owned by his cousin, in Cynthiana, Kentucky.

Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, he enlisted in the Signal Corps and was stationed at New Orleans Army Air Force Base, where he was assigned to a signal company attached to a bomb squadron. In May 1942, he traveled overseas on the Santa Paula, a Grace Lines troopship. He describes the journey in a convoy across the Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope under the constant threat of German submarine attack.

After disembarking in Karachi, he briefly worked at a classification depot. There, he was able to obtain sixteen-millimeter motion picture film. With the help of a friend who had a camera, he filmed himself while on duty and off duty in Karachi, film that he passed down to his son, renowned filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

He served as a radio operator and communications chief in the 490th Bomb Squadron in India, first in Malir, then Ondal and later in Kurmitola. The squadron, nicknamed the "Burma Bridge Busters," targeted bridges and rail lines to disrupt the Japanese military in Burma. He traces developments in military tactics, such as his group perfecting "skip and dive" bombing of bridges, and communications, particularly his use of code transmissions, as opposed to voice transmissions, to best connect with faraway aircraft. He delves into different facets of his service: witnessing high casualty rates of air crews, suffering through malaria, witnessing famine in Calcutta, riding in the turret of a B-25 bomber, traveling by train through India, experiencing weather ranging from monsoons to extreme heat, interacting with local populations and other servicemembers, and mobilizing reinforcements during the Japanese invasion of Imphal.

After the war, he married Leah Posner, and they had four children. He studied electrical engineering at the University of Cincinnati and spent his career working as a computer engineer. 

In 2006, the Rutgers Living History Society (RLHS) awarded the Stephen E. Ambrose Oral History Award to filmmaker Steven Spielberg. His father Arnold accepted the award on his behalf on May 12, 2006 at the RLHS Annual Meeting. Following the event, Shaun Illingworth, now the ROHA Director, and Sandra Stewart Holyoak, former ROHA director, interviewed Arnold Spielberg.

Photo: Arnold Spielberg (left) accepts the Stephen E. Ambrose Oral History Award from then Rutgers University President Richard McCormick at the Rutgers Living History Society Annual Meeting in 2006.  (Photo courtsey of Steve Goodman Photography)