Traveler, writer, reviewer, all-round observer. I like anything cool & fast, but occasionally sit at a cafe watching the world go by.
The year was 1944 when the young 19 year-old Martin Weinstein joined his B-17 air crew in Foggia, Italy. Tactically positioned, the 817 Bomber Squadron of the 483rd Bomb Group, 15th Air Force were able to reach the Nazi forces and hit them where it hurts -military factories and bases, oil refineries, and any other strategic targets. Those missions weren’t easy though.
Aside from the occasional mechanical problems, the two dangers they faced were flak and enemy fighters. Despite those dangers, Martin survived those 5 long months, conducted 47 missions as a navigator, and came back home. 70 years later, I have the pleasure and honor of sitting down with 1st Lt. Martin Weinstein and his wife Judy at their home in Long Island, NY to hear his tales and share it with you…
Martin Weinstein: Our pilot, Mike Raffel (Lt. Col. Maurice Raffel), was in the insurance business before he went into the army. He returned to that business, and he had two sons. One of them, Martin, is very involved in Jewish affairs. About a year ago, Judy noticed the name Raffel, which is an unusual name. So, we made a call and discovered that Martin Raffel is Mike Raffel’s son and was keeping a whole record of his father’s activities.
He was delighted to hear from me, since I am the sole survivor of all those 10 men –I’m the last one. And so we got together and had a wonderful time when he came out to Long Island with his family. It was really a lovely reunion.
Martin: Well, during the war, it was a funny thing to find a fellow Jewish buddy, so to speak. It was wonderful flying with him, because at the end of a mission, when things were pretty hot, he could get on the intercom with me and say something in Yiddish, which always gave me a kitsel – a joke. It was a laugh.
Judy: Marty told you his story about the Tuskegee Airmen saving their lives. Well, the crew did not always fly together all the time. They flew with other crews. So, Mike Raffel also had several incidences with those pilots saving his life, because that’s what they did as they patrolled or escorted the bombers. Mike’s son, Martin, contacted the Tuskegee Airmen’s association and found a living veteran. He and his family went down there to meet him and took pictures of him celebrating his birthday.
<Stationed next to Martin’s air base were the famous Tuskegee Airmen -the first African-American military air group originally formed in Tuskegee, Alabama. A great many pilots and soldiers can thank them for being alive because of their heroics>
Aki: How and who came up with your aircraft name, Flak Magnet?
Martin: Because it was beaten up any number of times, the crew chiefs were always complaining that we came back with too many holes. One of us looked at the plane and said, “This thing is constantly coming back with holes all over the place, so what do we call it?” And finally, one of the gunners – I believe it was Richardson, I’m not sure – named it Flack Magnet. And in fact, Mike has a piece of flack as a souvenir.
Aki: Did you ever put up nose art on your aircraft? The name “Flack Magnet” or any kind of picture?
Martin: No, we just painted the bombs. You know how they did that –they put a picture of a bomb and paint over it. That’s it. Just the bombs.
<Martin eyed at what looked like a manuscript on the table and handed it to me. A short non-fiction story he’s written about his very last mission before going home. He aptly titled it “50 And Home”>
Aki: Wow, this is really great – your last mission. Why do you call it “50 and Home”? Was it the 50th mission?
Martin: The fact of the matter is, I didn’t know it at the time, I thought I was going to continue on to 50. But the sergeant in charge of these things met me when we returned from my 47th mission, shouting as I was coming back on the truck from our aircraft, “You’re finished!” I replied, “What do you mean?” He said, “You don’t have to fly 50. They decided that it’s too dangerous and they’re changing it from 50 to 35. Since you’ve already passed 35, you’re finished. You’re going home!” I fell in the mud with relief. In this story I’ve written, I really tell what it’s like to go on a mission which happened to be my last.
Aki: That must’ve been some feeling.
Martin: They asked me, “Do you want to fly home or do you want to go by ship?” I said, “I’m not flying. Give me the ship!”
Aki: Did you come in one of those Liberty Ships?
Martin: No, it was a really nice one. An ocean liner. A real beautiful ship that they had converted into a troop carrier. Four men were assigned to a cabin: Myself; A B-24 pilot from Brooklyn who became a good friend of mine; One of the Tuskegee Airman, Walter Palmer; And this boy from Delaware who had married one of the DuPont sisters -he was very funny.
He kept saying to the three of us, “You’ve never been on a ship, and I came back over on a ship.” He was in the invasion of Sicily. “Well, I’ll tell you what to do when we get into heavy swells over the ocean.” He was the only one of us four who got sick. So, every morning, we’d greet him like this…” <Martin covered his mouth and made a gagging motion> “He’d go flying back to the head!”
Aki: After the ocean trip back home, did the 4 of you keep in touch? What did you do when you came home?
Martin: I got married as soon as I came back in December of ’44, and the Army gave us all a 10 day-leave after the marriage. So the 8 of us, my wife and I, Gene Steinberg and his wife, Alex and his DuPont wife, and Walter Palmer and his wife, went everywhere in Atlantic City. But Atlantic City is not the Atlantic City that it is today.
Aki: No casinos back then. Just resorts, hotels, and a beach.
Martin: It was a beautiful area and we were in a very fancy hotel where the cleaning staff kept complaining, “You guys keep pushing the beds together. We have to push the beds apart.” It was a big problem for them trying to clean the rooms. But we had a wonderful 10-day R&R.
On one of those days though, we decided to go out bowling. We were kids with no real experience in life, and nobody from a particularly wealthy family, so we went bowling. When we got there, we were about to put on our bowling shoes when the proprietor says, “He can’t bowl here.” He was pointing at Walter. And I said, “Why?” “‘Cause he’s black. And he can’t bowl here.”
Aki: It’s a real shame that happened, especially to soldiers coming back home after risking their lives for this country!
Martin: This is 1945. In New Jersey for heaven’s sake where we haven’t even heard about segregation. We just turned around and left. We turned over all his chairs in the place on our way out. That was a terrible experience. But we had a bond and stayed together -they were good friends.
Stay tuned for part II…