Note:  Milt's Memoirs are published here with the kind permission of Mr. Zack.  The views expressed in the story are those of the Author.  [The Webmaster]



Back at Selman Field, LA again in September, 1943, sort of dťjŗ vu, but this time we knew we would be there for three months. We received our barracks assignments and a couple of days later we got our classroom assignments. Each classroom held 30-40 students, each with their own office sized metal desk. Mine was by a window, which was a blessing since it was hot in Louisiana and I could open the window and catch a breeze. As it turned out this was a mixed blessing, which Iíll explain later.

We were all issued a navigatorís kit full of strange and interesting things. There was a pair of dividers, which is an instrument that looks like a pencil compass and is used to measure distances on a map. Also, a flashlight, a wristwatch, a pocket watch, and a stopwatch. On all of the watches, when you pulled out the stem the second hand stopped, as well as the hour and minute hands. This way we all could synchronize the time exactly. Each day someone would be sent to the master clock in the field to set his watch, then come back to the classroom so everyone could set theirs together. And there was a thing, I forget what it was called, which looked like a clear plastic ruler with a half a compass rose on the top in the center of one side. This was used for arriving at proper compass directions.

There was also a device called a computer, which is nothing like what we call a computer today. It was referred to by its part number, which was E6B, but we called it the E6B "confuser". This was a clear plastic wheel on a base, with all sorts of markings on the wheel and base, kind of a circular slide rule for those of you old enough to remember slide rules. With this you could enter certain variables like compass direction, aircraft speed, wind direction and velocity, and "compute" your true compass direction. Our instructor told us that this would be to us the same as an infantrymanís rifle was to him, our best friend in the field. Without it we would be lost, so we should treat it like our wife or girlfriend.

We also got what we called an aircraft octant for some reason, but was really the same as the sextant used in the Navy. This was our second most important piece of equipment, next to the E6B, and we treated it like a baby. We carried it around in its padded wooden box, and we would recalibrate it prior to taking it on a celestial navigation flight.

Finally we were given 18 books, all with the stars we would use for celestial navigation. Nine of them covered 10į increments latitude North, and nine covered 10į increments latitude South. Also of critical importance to celestial navigation was an almanac, which had tables for star positions for each day and time of day, plus tons of other information.

We started off with classroom work, with classes from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM. We were allowed to come and go during class time so we could go out for a coke or bring back a snack, so it wasnít solid drudgery. For exercises we were given large blank Mercator charts, which covered almost the entire top of the desk. These had the longitude and latitude markings on them, but they were not numbered. There were also several compass roses printed on them. These were used for class work and for tests. We had a four-hour exam every Saturday, and every third Saturday it was a full day. We learned the basics of the various types of navigation, which were dead reckoning, pilotage, radio navigation, and celestial navigation. I donít want to try to teach you all to be navigators, so I wonít go into technical details on how itís done. (I do actually remember quite a bit.) But I will give you a brief description of what is involved in each type of navigation.

Dead reckoning was plotting a course on a blank chart using only onboard instruments, which consisted of a compass, an air speed indicator, a temperature gauge and a drift meter. No maps or other aids, like looking down to the ground, were allowed. We would first plot the longitude and latitude of Selman, which was a constant as that was where we always took off from. Then we would compute with the E6B the compass heading according destination, wind direction and velocity and other variables, which were given to us.

Pilotage was using a map with landmarks shown, such as railroads, towns, waterways, highways and so forth. For radio navigation, we were given the longitude and latitude of radio beacons covering the area we were to fly in, and we used an instrument called a radio compass to pick up signals. This compass could be dialed 360į and you knew you were lined up when the needle on the compass didnít waver too much.

Celestial navigation was by far my favorite. Our instructor introduced this aspect of navigation by saying that he assumed none of us really believed that it was possible to navigate using the stars, but it had been done for thousands of years without aids so we should be able to do it with the tools we had. We learned the 20-30 stars that would be used for navigation, and were wakened many nights around 2:00 AM to report to the area outside the classroom for practice. To plot a course using stars, we had to "shoot" three stars, using the sextant. Then these had to be plotted on a chart using the almanac and books, then lines drawn between them to form a triangle. The center point of the triangle should be Selman. A good triangle was a quarter inch on each side. We started off with one-inch lines, but if Selman wound up in the middle it was OK. I remember the instructor drew a circle representing the globe on the blackboard, and told us we should imagine we were in the center of a triangle on this circle, which he called an astronomical triangle, to help us visualize why we were doing certain things when plotting stars. I just couldnít get it and night after night I would go back to the classroom and draw circles and close my eyes but I just couldnít get myself into the center of that triangle. One of the other students saw that I was having some problems and explained it to me in a different way and all of a sudden I got it.

I did very well in all the navigation class work, with marks in the top 10% of the class, and really enjoyed it. It was not easy, but I liked the math and logic behind it all. But theoretical class work was far easier than trying to apply this knowledge in a moving aircraft.

When we started to navigate on an actual flight, there were three student positions set up in the aircraft. The first position was called the first navigator position and the student would navigate by dead reckoning, using a smaller Mercator chart than the ones used in the classroom. The second position was called (you guessed it) second navigator, and he was doing the same thing except using the adjusted true compass heading the first navigator gave the pilot, rather than the original plotted course. The third position navigator had a map and used the pilotage method to see if the first navigator was on course. He would measure and time from each town, city or other reference point, and get the true course and ground speed of the plane, ground speed of course being different than air speed.

These flying missions started out simply flying from here to there and back again and lasted a couple of hours. On the return, the navigator positions were changed for variation. These were strictly training missions, and were not scored. Eventually we flew longer missions, some for training and some for score. These would take us to another airfield, where we would refuel and then return to Selman. A good score was coming in within five miles left or right, and within three to five minutes of ETA. During these flights the student navigators had to keep a flight log, making an entry every five minutes of airspeed, compass and temperature readings, time, true course and compass course. And every half-hour we had to enter a longitude and latitude position report. This kept us very busy. We also had some night flight missions doing the same type navigation as the daylight missions.


Navigation Training Plane

On one of our daylight missions, we were refueling at our destination location and were going to take off again in five or ten minutes. I was listening to the tower on the radio to pass the time, and I heard a B26 request permission to land. Permission was granted and we watched him start his landing pattern. But he came in too fast, couldnít stop the plane and immediately gunned it and took off. He was granted permission to come back a second time and the same thing happened on the second attempt. He requested permission a third time and the tower advised him this would be his last attempt. If he didnít make it the field would be closed to him. He started his landing pattern, and fortunately started to land at the correct end of the runway. We could see smoke pouring from his brakes as he hit them, but he did manage a safe landing that time. This was not an unusual problem with the B26, since the wing length compared to body size was quite small it made them cumbersome to fly. It was called a flying prostitute because it had no visible means of support. For the first time since flunking out of pilot training I was glad I wasnít a pilot, at least not on that ship.

For the celestial navigation training flights we picked out the three stars we wanted to use once we were in the air, and were told to shoot each star for two minutes. The reason for this was that someone had figured out that within two minutes a plane would pitch, yaw and tilt, then come back to position. So we would use the sextant and make holes with the pushpin each time we had the star centered, then take the average reading of the angles. This was quite different than our on ground exercises where we would shoot, then go into the classroom and plot. It took about ten minutes to shoot one star, including locating it, reading it for two minutes (the second navigator timed the two minutes). All this was done standing and looking through a Plexiglas bubble where you could get a sight with the sextant. So shooting all three stars was about a thirty minute process, and all this had to be taken in account when plotting, because the first star you shot was not in the same position it was thirty minutes later. Exact times were critical in celestial navigation, since as little as four seconds off in time could result in a mile off course in 60 miles of flight.

On one of our celestial navigation training flights we had an instructor who was a navigator recently returned from Europe. He seemed a bit nervous and uptight which was probably a result of his combat duties. At the briefing, he kept asking us who the best navigator was. Of course we all thought we were. He apparently wanted to make sure the best navigator was in the first navigator position both coming and going.

The week before this we had flown a radio mission and for some reason I had not thrown my chart away as we usually did, but had put it in my briefcase. I was in the first navigator position on the way back from wherever we had gone. During the return we ran into an undercast so we couldnít see the ground at all, and at the same time an overcast which obscured all the stars. We were literally flying blind, and the instructor became a real nervous wreck. He grabbed the radio dial and started frantically twisting it trying to find a signal, which wouldnít have done him any good anyway without a chart. I managed to get control of the radio dial from him and pulled out that chart I hadnít thrown away with the radio coordinates plotted on it, and got a good fix on a signal and plotted it. Then the overcast momentarily opened up and I grabbed my sextant, found a star, shot it and plotted it with the radio bearing. From this I gave the pilot a course home.

Meanwhile, the instructor was still going crazy dialing the radio compass.

We managed to get back to Selman Field and landed safely. During the critique, which was always held right after landing, the instructor asked how I had managed to get us back. When I told him that I had crossed a radio signal and a star fix, he turned just white and walked away. But I didnít really need any congratulations for my ingenuity, being safely back on ground where we belonged was reward enough.

For the last two or three weeks of training we were instructed by navigators who had returned from combat duty. We were given maps of Europe on the assumption that most of us would be going to the European theater. We were given navigation problems to solve using these maps and it turned out to be a crazy two or three weeks. The maps were made in England of German territory, and looked very different than the ones we were accustomed to. We were confused by the strange markings, the instructors all seemed a little nuts, and one of them would flash the lights on and off and yell and pound on the desk as we worked, presumably to simulate the distractions of combat conditions. But it was during this time that we were told about a new technology called radar, which none of us had heard about before. We were a bit surprised that there was a way you could see other planes miles away, and maybe a bit skeptical.

We did get a very handy tip from one of these instructors. He said that some day there will be a time when you are completely lost, and that will be the time the pilot calls and asks for you current location. According to the instructor, the best thing to do in that case is to grab a map, any map will do, take it up to the pilot and put you hand on the map (the bigger the hand the better) and say with conviction in your voice, "We are here." This usually satisfies the pilot, at least for the moment. I used a modification of this once after graduation while flying in a B25 one night. I had no idea where we were and the pilot did, indeed, call back and ask "Hey, Milt. Where are we?" I looked out the window and saw a bunch of lights, grabbed the map and looked for the first good sized town, and called him back and told him "That city over there isÖÖÖ" However, I did call him later and asked him to go on the radio and follow the beacon.

After the final course with the returned navigators, we had our final exam on the ground. This lasted the entire day on the Saturday before graduation. The exam covered everything we had been taught and I was relatively confident since I always did better in the classroom than in the plane. However, as you recall, in the classroom my desk was by a window, which I had open during the exam. During the celestial section of the exam, a lovely breeze came through and flipped a page in my almanac. I was completely unaware of this and finished the exam, double checked my figures, and turned in my test. The next day I was called into the instructorís office, shown my answers and asked how I had arrived at my figures. My answers showed the correct result but the figures were all wrong. It was not said but I got the distinct feeling they thought I had cheated in some way. It drove me crazy that I couldnít explain where those figures had come from and I was backtracking when I checked the almanac again and discovered I had used figures from the wrong day. I took it into the instructors to show them what had happened, and they passed me on my final exam.

In fact, we had all passed the Advanced Navigator program and were to become 2nd Lieutenants. We were given $150.00 toward the purchase of the officerís uniforms and off we went to the tailors. It was the first time in my life I had been measured for tailored clothes, and these men were excellent. When the garments arrived, there were little or no alterations required. The actual uniforms came from Hart, Shaffner and Marx, and were by far the best clothes I have ever owned. We had forest green, khaki and "pink" trousers. (The pink was sort of a mauveish tan color.) There were shirts of the same colors, but the blouses were only dark green. An officer could wear any combination of these clothes, except for the khaki pants with the green blouse. Khaki pants were strictly for summer wear without a blouse. We were also to purchase all our decorations, but I didnít buy the 2nd Lieutenant bars. Being the eternal pessimist, I was sure something was going to happen and I wouldnít make it.

The night before graduation we were allowed to wear the officerís uniforms without any insignia. That night we were to be technically discharged from the Army so we could be re-enlisted as officers the next day at graduation. We could not stay on base that night because we were actually not Army, so we had to go into town and find lodging there. However, we were not going to be given our discharge papers until the next day, since they had had experiences in the past where someone would take their discharge papers and disappear. So now Iím in a bind. Graduation the next day and I have no 2nd Lieutenant bars for my uniform. The PX was sold out of them so I had to beg and plead with some guys to loan me their spares so I would have something to put on my uniform.

At graduation, we were handed our discharge as Aviation Cadets, and were sworn in again as 2nd Lieutenants and handed our commissions. Then we were told there would be so many going for B17 training and others for B24s, and for the first time we were allowed to state a preference as to base. The names were put into a hat for a particular base, and were pulled out until the allotment for that location was reached. I had tried for one in Massachusetts, but didnít get pulled out of the hat.

Then we were told that names would be pulled again, and those selected could apply for Bombardier training. If we passed that training, we would become Navigator/Bombardiers, a new classification, and would be assigned to B29 bombers that were just coming off the assembly lines. These new B29s would have two Navigator/Bombardiers assigned to each plane rather than one of each. My name did get pulled for this, so my next stop would be Roswell, NM for bombardier training.

 Milt's War - Index

Chapter 1

The Cadet
Preflight Training

Flight Training

Aerial Gunner

Advanced Navigation

Chapter 2


Bombardier Training

B-25 Training

Chapter 3

Getting There
Getting Settled
Getting Into It
Getting Captured

Chapter 4

Prisoner of War
Temporary Quarters
A New Home

Chapter 5


The Beginning of The End
War Stories
Waiting for Liberation
Heading Home

Chapter 6

Recuperation &  Vacation
The VA
Sharing Our Stories

Old Friends and New

Returns to Main Index

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