On Veterans Day, Recalling The Navigator

Even Six Decades Later, Aviator Still Knew How To Get Home

Comrades in Arms: Lt. Philip Weiner, center, with members of the British Expeditionary Force in Rome in 1945.
courtesy of rex weiner
Comrades in Arms: Lt. Philip Weiner, center, with members of the British Expeditionary Force in Rome in 1945.

By Rex Weiner

Published November 11, 2011.
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My 84-year-old dad has gone around the corner to get a newspaper and hasn’t come back. Two hours he’s missing now, my mom is telling me over the phone, and she’s worried. Her voice comes in wheezing gulps, the Flatbush accent deepening as it does at times when she’s anxious.

He’s wandering the flat grid of the Fairfax District under the haze of the late Los Angeles afternoon, a long way from the Brooklyn streets where he once played stickball and ringolevio. He can’t see very well, his hearing is shot, and he walks painfully with the aid of a cane. He ventures out on these mysterious missions and gets angry if asked where he’s going. I tried once, but my father clammed up, staring into space, confronting me with the same tense distance I used to feel as a boy.

“He’s forgetting things,” says mom. The doctors prescribed medication that he’s taking, he’s gotten MRI scans, and he wears dog tags around his neck providing emergency information. But she can’t watch him every minute and it seems that each time he slips away he’s gone on longer and longer runs. Now he’s taken off again and my mom is upset. She’s afraid he’s lost.

Philip Weiner
courtesy of rex weiner
Philip Weiner

In fact, he first took off more than sixty years ago on a spring day in 1945, in a B-25 Mitchell from a base in Ghisonnacia. With the rocky coast of Corsica falling behind, the pilot lifted the aircraft into the sky and the bombardier sat with his finger on the trigger while the 25-year-old navigator from Brooklyn plotted the course north on his instruments.

The squadron flew in a tight formation, five bombers over the Gulf of Genoa, just a short blue stretch before skimming the high top of Italy’s boot, where the Allies had the Nazis on the run. Shore defenses raked the big plane’s silver belly with flak as soon as the planes were caught in their sights. Yet, the squadron escaped harm, soaring untouched over the peaks and valleys of the Apennines.

The navigator watched it all from 10,000 feet, peering down through the clouds, working his slide rule, keeping an eye on his compass and the map coordinates as they descended into the green Po River valley. There was a flash below, smoke vomiting skyward and the radio crackled. One of the other planes had dropped its payload. The navigator heard the bombardier announce he was readying the bomb bay doors. Eight 500-pounders lay stacked in the hold to deliver a killing blow.

Philip Weiner, later in life
courtesy of rex weiner
Philip Weiner, later in life

But something wasn’t right. The navigator looked at his compass, worked his slide rule, checked the map, re-checked their orders – he told the bombardier to hold on. They had not reached their target yet.

Now flak rattled like angry bees against the plane’s skin as they flew perilously lower. The bombardier cursed, bending over his Norden bombsite, and said he was going to drop the load and let’s get the hell out of here. The navigator told him no – their mission was to hit a bridge over the Po River where the retreating Nazis were dug in and holding off pursuing Allies troops. Damn it, they were going to hit that bridge. The bombardier with an itchy trigger finger commented loudly about the Brooklyn boy not knowing where in the hell he was.

Pipe down, the pilot ordered. The navigator says keep going, we keep going on. The pilot radioed the rest of the squadron to follow him. Everyone in the cabin fell silent. Only the prop roar, hammering flak and young men’s sweat filled the air. The navigator watched and waited and soon the curve of the river below hove into view, the streets of a small village and the toy-like shape of a bridge. He gave the signal. Deadly puffs of smoke billowed from anti-aircraft guns on the ground as the bombardier hollered, “Bombs away!”


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