The other day I returned a call from a 90 year old US Air Corps WW II Navigator. Jim Eisenstock had read the article on my work in the local paper and wanted to visit and share his stories. At 2PM, right on time, in walked a spritely figure holding his photo album. We sat at the table by my easel and talked. Or rather I listened intently to him talk about his life in the war.
Like most men who joined the Air Corps, Jim had dreams of becoming a pilot but with quotas full, the options were: bombardier, navigator or gunners. In 1942 he passed the navigation exam, the 80th candidate (out of 80) from a pool of 350 men.
Jim’s plane was a B-24 Liberator bomber named “Southern Gal”, first stationed in North Africa and later moved north, as the war progressed, to Italy. As with most men I’ve talked with about their war experiences, nothing was said about the horrors. Jim mentioned in passing, a stint in the hospital. My only question to him was: “Was it war-related?” “Yes,” he said and dropped it. I mentioned another bomb crew member’s comment to me: “I wasn’t a hero” to Jim. “None of us were,” he said, acknowledging the truth of that simple remark.
However he did regale me with many funny stories. After a night of excess, their tail gunner went on their mission in pretty rough shape. As “Southern Gal” was returning to base, a check-in with the tail gunner got no response. A waist gunner was sent back to check on him. When his physical state was relayed to the pilot, a call was made for a fire truck to meet them on the runway. “No ambulance?” they asked. “Just the fire truck.” When the bomber came to a stop, the gunner was hauled out and both he and his position were hosed off. The poor guy had been sitting in bodily fluids excreted from both ends.
The pilot, a devout Catholic from Chicago, never drank or swore, as far as Jim could recall. On bombing runs when the bombardier took over the controls from the pilot on the final run, he would don his metal helmet and flack vest and leaning on the yoke (controls) would work his prayer beads. This was his routine. One morning he announced that he was too sick to fly. That was rare for him. It turned out he’d contracted gonorrhea, he maintained “from the air”.
The connections to war buddies for all veterans run deep. Many years after the war, Jim told me about cleaning up his home office when suddenly the bookcase fell over. His war photo album crashed to the floor, opening up to a photo of him with two of his crew members. “I picked it up and stared at that picture,” he said. “Suddenly the phone rang. It was Ray, one of the men in the picture.”
As Jim was getting ready to leave, he told me that he hadn’t talked about the war in ages. He had been widowed for three years. He apologized for taking up too much of my time. I only got thirty minutes of painting in that day. It was one of the richest days since arriving in Amherst.