Traveler, writer, reviewer, all-round observer. I like anything cool & fast, but occasionally sit at a cafe watching the world go by.
Developed in the 1930’s, Boeing’s B-17 was a result of a bidding competition over a military contract to build a heavy bomber. Despite the prototype’s crash during its initial flight and losing the contract, the Army was impressed by it outperforming the competition, and having exceeded expectations. When it was introduced, the B-17 aptly gained the nicknames the ‘Flying Porcupine’ due to all the protective guns sticking out from its skin, and the more well known ‘Flying Fortress’ because it left no opening for any would-be attacker.
One can only imagine the reaction of a 19-year-old laying eyes on his Flying Fortress for the first time. After a year of training, Martin Weinstein arrived at his base in Foggia, Italy in 1944 to join the 817 Bomber Squadron of the 483rd Bomb Group in the 15th Air Force. “When I first got to the base, it was just the typical army tents lined up row after row. The interesting thing was, there were stacks of clothes piled up next to several of those tents. They looked like laundry to me, so I asked, ‘what are those?'” He paused for a moment, reflecting and remembering the image from his past. “Those belonged to the guys that didn’t make it back the day before. When someone didn’t make it, they recycled some of their belongings, but the personal items were sent back home to their families.”
In the 5 months 1st Lieutenant Weinstein flew as a Navigator, he survived 47 missions. “The missions are always in three parts. The first part is getting ready up in the air, gathering all the planes together by meeting up with others as the air raid group itself gets larger and larger. Then the third part of coming back. And in between, there’s 20 minutes of activity, when your life’s in danger. Most of the time you’re flying over your own territory, but the difficulty is during those 20 minutes, when you hit that initial point where you turn toward the target. That’s when flak comes up.”
The crew named their B-17 ‘Flak Magnet’ as it seemed a great majority of their missions attracted every flak gun the Nazis had. “It was one of our gunners that came up with that name. Our plane had so many patches from those missions. The crew chief even complained about the number of holes we came back with.
Flak is where Hollywood never gets it right. You see, flak is silent. You don’t hear anything. You don’t hear the boom from the bursting shells. It’s just puffs of black smoke. And it looks beautiful. You look at them and think to yourself, ‘what a beautiful sight’ not realizing all those pieces of hot metal flying at you – shrapnel that tears, kills, and destroys. You don’t see that. But you do see occasionally the tail coming off a B-17, and when one spirals down to the ground, or parachutes coming out of the plane.”
Watching Martin admiringly from nearby was his lovely second wife, Judie. “Tell him about the souvenir.” Laughing, Martin recalled one of the close calls he and his crew encountered. “Mike, our pilot, actually kept a souvenir from a mission. Flak burst from under our plane, throwing shrapnel up and a piece of metal lodged in Mike’s seat. It didn’t break his skin, but it hit him! He felt it under him all the way back. When he took it out, he kept it as a souvenir.” I asked Martin how big it was. “It was a good size. Not very large, maybe about this long.” He held his hands out about a foot apart. “If it did break through by another inch, it would’ve been horrible. We were lucky. We had plenty of close calls.”
Stationed near his bomber base were the famous Tuskegee Airmen -the first African-American military air group originally formed in Tuskegee, Alabama despite protests of prejudice and ignorance. When I asked Martin about them, his response was immediate, “They were terrific! Really great, great group of men.”
He went on to tell me about the mischievous antics. “One day while we were just relaxing between missions, just sitting there having coffee, playing cards, they flew right over heads, inverted 15 feet off the ground, blowing away the tents, spilling our drinks, everything went flying everywhere!” Martin started laughing remembering it like it was yesterday. “We got back at them, though. We flew over their base and knocked over their chimneys. The Colonel put a stop to it right after that. He issued an order and exclaimed ‘Anyone caught will be in big trouble!’ Those guys were a great bunch.”
Knowing about the heroism and flight skills of the Tuskegee Airmen, as well as Martin’s 483rd Bomber Group, I asked if they ever flew together. He told me about their return from one harrowing mission over Germany. “We had lost an engine, and we couldn’t keep up with our group so we started to fall behind. Our airspeed just wasn’t fast enough. Out of nowhere, two FW 190 German fighters began attacking us. We were on our own, trying to fend them off, getting shot up. While I was tuned in to the air-to-air frequency on the radio, I heard 2 distinct voices, ‘Look at that big ass bird up there getting shot by all those Germans. You think we should help?’ And the other guy says, ‘You earn the same flight pay as me. Let’s go!’ So up they came and attacked the two FW’s that were hitting us. After knocking one of them down, the other one took off for home. Then the two Tuskegee’s escorted us back over the Adriatic until we were able to land. That was, that was something else…” He faded off in thought.
“It was two weeks later, while on a 10-day leave in Capri when we saw them standing there at a bar. We gave them drinks throughout the night.” Six years after the war, Martin found one of the Tuskegee Airmen. Becoming fast friends, they would visit each other for dinner on many occasions. “Eventually though, he moved to France and I lost track of him.” Seeing his admiration for them, I asked if he knew about the American Airpower Museum’s display dedicated to the Tuskegee Airmen. With surprise, he shook his head. When I explained where it was, and that this might be the only aviation museum in the Northeast to have one, Martin and Judie couldn’t wait to see it. So off they went to the hangar, hoping to perhaps see familiar faces of old friends, read more of their tales, and recall more memories.
A few weeks after this interview, I had the honor of an invitation to his home in Roslyn, NY and saw some of his photos as well as documents he had kept since the war. During that visit, I had the pleasure to hear more stories of his experiences in WWII, and of his personal life. Stay tuned for my home interview with 1st Lt. Martin Weinstein.
For more information about Martin Weinstein, the 15th Air Force, the 483rd Bomber Group, and his 817 Bomber Squadron, as well as the Tuskegee Airmen, see the following links: