Finding The Way
by Irv Pliskin
Gunnery School ended the same time the year did, approximately. By the end of 1943, I was a graduated aerial gunner. I had flown in a multi-engine airplane and fired guns at a twenty-five foot long cloth target that was trailing hundreds of feet behind another airplane. Our task was to hit the target.
We tried, of course. Sometimes we succeeded, and sometimes in our exuberance, we even hit the airplane dragging the target.
I had leaned a lot. I could field strip a fifty caliber machine gun, which means that I could take it apart, clean it, assemble it, and with any luck put it back together and fire a stream of tracer bullets well enough to hit an oncoming airplane and knock it out of the sky.
We even managed to field strip it blindfolded. We could use the gun all right, but hit a plane moving toward us at 400 mph: the very idea was scary.
We were awarded gunner’s wings, but no increase or change in rank. Had we not been slated to go to advanced schools - Navigation or Bombardier training, we would have been given the rank of sergeant, probably, and sent to a crew for a pre-combat assignment.
Instead, we boarded a train for Navigation School. Why, you may wonder, do I remember a simple troop movement like that? Because of the weather. We were on our way to Monroe, Louisiana, and Selman Field, one of the many Navigation Schools in the Army Air Corps system. (Actually, Selman field was the largest of the navigation schools. The others were smaller and probably more comfortable. There was one at Coral Gables, Florida that was supposed to be almost a country club.) When the troop train we were on arrived in New Orleans, we were hit with one of the most vicious storms the area had experienced in years. We had rain, snow, sleet and a heavy coating of ice. It was so bad that the train had to stop to wait it out.
We sat on the tracks, not even a siding, for at least twenty-four hours, over the New Year’s Eve and into the next few days. Eventually we were able to move, and by the time we got to Selman Field, which is up in the north central section of Louisiana, the weather had cleared and we were enrolled in the new navigation class. Our graduation date was to be the end of April, early May.
Many of my memories of that time frame were more social than academic. We had time off, and although I don’t remember how I did it, I met at least two nice young women. One was named Opal--I was always impressed with the exotic quality of her name, and the other was Charla. Opal was the more spectacular of the two, but she was endowed with a slightly more than room temperature IQ.
Charla, on the other hand, was quick, bright and very dedicated to overcoming a backwoods background by going to nursing school. At one point during our friendship, we managed to go to her family home in the bayou. She lived about fifteen miles from Monroe, due south in a little cabin on a stream. They raised pigs in the yard that surrounded the house. The house had unfinished walls, and dirt floors. Livestock roamed in it freely.
For me it was a revelation: in my naiveté I never thought that people actually lived like that in the United States. I am not being a cad here. Neither relationship went very far. Some kissing, I think. Some hugging and fondling and some thwarted efforts that never went beyond that.
Experiences such as those were also part of a soldier’s life and in l944, part of a teen ager's growing up.
Learning to be an aerial navigator is an intellectual pursuit. Unlike piloting it is not particularly physical. You have to be able to understand simple math and trigonometry. You learn about winds and what they do to an airplane and how to interpret them. Just as the marine navigator learns the effect of the ocean currents, we had to understand how the winds impacted on our airplanes. We learned to do celestial navigation: hours were spent flying at night using the stars as a guide and a sextant to measure position. Ever since that training I’ve wondered why. We didn’t even carry a sextant in combat, and we never flew bombing missions at night. But we learned celestial navigation, andI spent many hours on my feet in the nose of a twin engine Beechcraft gazing through the clear Plexiglas dome at the sky, I shot sun lines and star lines. I learned to read the sextant and the navigation charts and books to find out where we had been. Bowditch became an obsession, not only with me, but with all of the navigation cadets.
Our basic navigation course was dead reckoning. We would start at a known place or location, and then using what we knew of the winds--determined by reading the plane movement on the ground through an instrument called a drift meter---the compass and the plane’s air speed determine a location and heading to get where we wanted or needed to be. As a sort of joke, if the reckoning wasn’t right, a guy could be very
And I am sure that happened, more than we would like to admit. Step two was pilotage. We would fly with visual reference to the ground. Our maps--we called them charts--showed all the ground details: towns and villages and cities, rivers, roads, railroads, even hills.
We would consult the maps to find a ground feature, and charting that on our course plan, we would determine what direction to fly to get to the next position. Once you were able to understand the ground features and read the map, Pilotage was a snap, most of the time.
But, of course, you had to have a clear view, or some view of the ground, and you had to be able to interpret what you saw. From above things looked different. Roads take on aspects that are strange, rivers and streams do too. So you had to be able to ‘read’ what you saw on the ground. Without reference to the ground, pilotage was of no value at all. If you were over large bodies of water, like oceans, or the English Channel, pilotage didn’t help you much.
Accordingly we learned to navigate planes when the ground was obscured by clouds, and we were above them. In the United States, at least, and in friendly areas, we could use radio signals. We would find radio beacons that sent out consistent signals. If one knew where the beacon was located, or the sending station, and they too were on the map, then we could chart the directions of two or three, preferably three, radio beacons and lay them on the map, the point of intersection of all three beacons was the location of the aircraft. Our radio direction instrument would tell us the direction of the sending radio station or beacon. That technology is still used in aviation today, I believe. That is, it was the location you were at ten minutes earlier, if it took that long to find and triangulate the beacons. (Thanks to GPS all of these techniques are antiquated: if you can get to the satellite, It can tell you precisely where you are. Quite an improvement.)
Learning all of this, and learning it first on the ground and then translating our knowledge to airplanes took months.
We flew in little twin engine Beechcraft's AT 7’s. The pilot and the instructor in the front of the plane, the student/cadets, usually four or five, in the back, doing our thing. We learned to use our instruments, the compass, air speed indicator, the drift meter, and surprising in retrospect an instrument we called an E6B Computer. This was not an electronic marvel, it was a sophisticated slide rule that we used to compute distance, air speed and other information.
Despite the rigours of academic study and the trauma one could experience navigating a plane in bad weather we still did the soldier thing. Physical training, learning discipline, obedience plus the yes sir and no sir of Army life.
There were some events of interest, of course. The classrooms for ground training were self standing individual buildings. If memory serves, no more that twenty men were assigned to a class room. Each cadet had a desk and a chair assigned to him. The desks were the sort that are still used in schools today. The top is slanted slightly, and the top is hinged over a storage box for papers, books and other necessities, such as pens and inks, pencils. As difficult as it may seem, we had no ball point pens in those years: writing instruments were the fountain pen--a hazard at altitude because it would leak due to pressure changes, the mechanical pencil or the wood pencil that needed constant sharpening. We also had the ink bottle and the pen with the removable nib, but I am not sure we used that a lot. Certainly not while flying, and certainly not during high altitude flying. It was cold, bitter cold inside a heavy bomber, Ink bottles would have frozen solid.(As a matter of history, for those of you who don’t believe we were so deprived, Milton Reynolds marketed the first ball point pen in l946, as the pen that would write under water. It came in a fancy cellophane cylinder and cost about $12.50, a fortune in those days when an average salary was perhaps $50 a week.)
As an American youth, I was something of an anomaly. I was almost a pariah because I did not smoke. Despite the pressures, the constant advertising, the fact that everyone did, I did not. There were very sound reasons for this. My mom was an inveterate smoker. She smoked at least three packs of cigarettes a day, and had for years. Every family decision was enveloped in blue cigarette smoke. I rebelled, and had never had a cigarette in my mouth. not even one made of candy.
One afternoon, during lunch, our empty class room caught fire. The source of the fire, it was determined, was the waste paper basket alongside my desk. I was accused of having carelessly put a smoldering cigarette butt in the basket full of paper, and was almost washed out. It was a chore convincing the officers that I could not be responsible. I never smoked.
I suspect they checked to see if I was lying about smoking, and found out that my story was was correct: I had to be innocent. But for me, it had a deleterious effect anyhow. All of my notes and notations, all of my study and reference materials were destroyed. That was a blow, because I needed many of them to stay abreast of the work and the program. Regardless, I seemed to muddle through, although my class room grades suffered somewhat. But, in the air, my grades were spectacular, it was as if I had been born to navigate an airplane that was flying.
I remember too the Saturday afternoon, I was lolling around the barracks. No work to do, no pass either so I was in the barracks for the day. The charge of quarters came in and called my name. I was in fatigues, he looked at me and said. “Get dressed in your uniform, Mister and report to the flight line in twenty minutes. See Lieutenant Jones.”
Holly molly, what had I done? Heart pounding I shaved, dressed and got to the flight line. I found Lt. Jones. He was drinking coffee with another lieutenant, my older brother, Bob., who had flown a navigation mission to Selman field. Bob was an instructor at Hondo, a navigation school in Texas. We spent the day together, and I remember that he was not happy with me because I really didn’t know of any good places in Monroe to eat--there may not have been any, by the way--and as a Lieutenant, and a navigation instructor, because in my hasty shaving I had missed a tuft of hair under my chin. I'd appreciate it.
Irv Pliskin is a retired advertising agency owner. He is a combat veteran of World War II and an Ex Prisoner of War of the Germans. Married, with three kids, and four grandchildren he devotes his time to writing flash fiction. He hopes, that someday, he may become the Grandma Moses of flash fiction. He lives with his wife of 57 years in Cherry Hill,NJ.