Originally written on October 2002 this piece appeared in “The Big Orange Dog and Other Stories.”
Before me on the kitchen table are two photographs, one in color, one in black and white. Publicity photos of Eighth Air Force crews and their B=24s. taken some time during the fall of 1943.
The black and white photo is familiar; I first saw it when I was a child. It shows the crew my father trained with and with whom he went to war. The photographer framed ten men in two rows, five squatting, five standing. Behind them, their bomber, a B-24H their pilot named Miss America.
My father stands closest to the airplane, left hand on his hip, his overseas cap tilted left. Twenty-two years old, he wears a confident smile. He is a Second Lieutenant, the navigator. The others are Marfia-pilot, Bonder-co-pilot, Moor-bombardier, Brown-radio operator, DiSimone-assistant radio operator, Sekavec-engineer, Emerson-assistant engineer, Cunningham and Simpson-gunners.
I knew that my father alone survived the war. I learned this from mu mother and later, as an adult, from him,
In October of 2002, John Sr. traveled from Florida to Greece with a layover in New York. I agreed to meet him by the Delta baggage claim at LaGuardia Airport. He was 82, traveling alone on a flight that began in Melbourne, FL at 5:30 am with a connection in Atlanta.
I watch him as he descends the stairs and comes to me. He looks spry and energenic. I collect him and take his carry-on bag, Amazingly, this is his only bag for a week-long European trip.
I am taking him to lunch before driving him to the Delta Terminal at JFK. I pick a diner on Northern Boulevard in Douglaston just off the Cross Island Parkway, convenient to our route to JFK. He orders Pastrami on rye. Good for him. I stick with grilled chicken and two Heinekens round out our order.
John, the father, brings items from the past folr me, part of his legacy. A curious collection, but I understand. Things a father would think important. His service records, drawings of the B-24H and a washed out color photograph of a B-24 and its crew.
I look at the photo then at him. I have never seen it before, I look at my father and ask, “Where did you get these?”
“At a reunion,” he casually replies. I look at the photograph, again. The six enlisted men squat, the four officers stand. The name of the airplane is not visible and only the officers are identified. From left to right, Wyatt-navigator, Slipp-co-pilot, Colburn-bombardier and Gonseth-pilot, Wyatt has his hands clasped behind his back. His shearling lined leather jacket is half-zippered open. He is hatless.
The caption reads:
“On 13 November 1943, Gonseth’s crew was elevated to Lead Crew and Delach joined them as Lead Navigator. R. Wyatt was transferred to Mafia’s (sic) crew replacing Delach as Navigator for Miss America.”
“Both crews 13 November, target Bremen, Germany. Miss America attacked by ME 109s received extensive damage and ditched in the North Sea.”
I know most of these facts. I knew my father returned safely to base. I know he completed his tour, returned for a second tour and finished with a total of 47 missions. I know Miss America was last seen disappearing into the Borth Sea cloud cover.
But who in hell is R. Wyatt? I have never a mention of his name. Why now? Why did my father give me this photo now? Did he even know Wyatt?
But these thoughts come later, long after I drop him off at the Delta terminal. They come as I look at the two photos before me on the kitchen table over a glass of Irish whiskey.
Wyatt died that day in place of my father! Two crews, two photographs two navigators and two destinies.
I wrote that story the day after I saw my father for what turned out to be the last time, He returned home early feeling poorly. I spoke to him several times by telephone and remarked about the second photo. I deliberately addressed my remarks in a such a way that it would open him to wanting to talk about Wyatt. He chose not to respond to my questions so I didn’t pursue it.
I told my friend, Dick Sullivan all of this. “I feel it is his call. He gave me the photo for a reason. I believe I have planted the seeds. I believe he will tell me when he is ready. ” Sully agreed.
It did not. That physical problem turned out to be an aggressive cancer. After a brief hospital stay, he returned home to hospice care. He died in his sleep on December 12, 2002, three days after his 83rd birthday. RIP COlnel.