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Recalling The Navigator

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

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 Image by courtesy of rex 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 Image by courtesy of rex weiner

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!”

The plane bucked, relieved of its load, and executing a gut-wrenching turn to evade enemy fire, the pilot banked into the clouds. The rest of the squadron tailing behind, they headed home. Without a single plane lost, the squadron touched down on the Corsican landing field, the smell of the blooming maquis greeting the flyers as they stepped down from the hatch.

The commander of the 57th Bomber Wing called the navigator into his office a few days later. The pilot had informed him about how they’d nearly failed the mission except for the one crewman who’d said to keep going. “You were right,” the commander said. “You got your squadron to the target, completed your mission, and you got them home.” He said he was recommending him for the Air Force’s highest award. When the war was over the navigator wore the Distinguished Flying Cross, as well the Air Medal with six oak leaf clusters, marking 60 missions.

Through the rest of his life there were other victories, large and small. Each time he set out, it seemed, someone was out there trying to shoot him down. Over the long haul, though, he kept going and he did all right. No one could say he didn’t. But to his own mind, nothing ever quite equaled that one feat accomplished that day back in 1945 when he flew with his comrades to the brink of death and he brought them home safely.

World at War: Lt. Philip Weiner, center, in the Canary Islands with members of his flight crew. Image by courtesy of rex weiner

Now there’s the phone again. My mom says it’s getting dark and he’s still not back. She followed him one time, just to see where he was going. She shadowed him to Melrose where he boarded an eastbound bus. She sat a few seats behind him as he nodded and slept. A few blocks past Western, he jerked awake and disembarked. He seemed puzzled and confused. He stopped a passerby on the sidewalk but the man spoke only Spanish. She went to him and took his arm. Where did he want to go? He shrugged and couldn’t say. So she guided him gently across the street to the bus stop going west. They returned to their apartment where he sat and said nothing. But every few days, he disappears, and each time she fears the worst.

My phone chirped once more, and it was mom, her trembling voice telling me that he was back, thank God. Of course—what did she expect, I said. The navigator always knows the way.

But soon, one bright spring day, my dad took off on one more mission. Without his slide rule, compass or maps, and against the wishes of doubting comrades, he charted a course that we cannot follow. Across a distance I’ve never been able to fathom, and none of us ever will, finally he found his way home.

Philip Weiner, the father of the Forward’s West Coast correspondent, died in Los Angeles on May 8, 2005.

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