johns, blue flannel underwear wired for connection to the plane's electrical
system, O.D. wool pants and shirt, low-cut brown oxford shoes, black wool
tie. Over this, my flying coveralls. Over everything, fleece-lined boots,
leather fleece-lined pants, jacket, and a hat. I picked up my navigation
kit, two bags, one like a briefcase and one like a zippered notebook. Just
to make sure Ernie Warsaw hadn't borrowed anything I looked inside: E6B
computer, Weems plotter, two triangles, pencils, eraser, a collection of
U.K. maps, plotting charts, my logbook. Check. After checking the clip to
make sure it was loaded, I strapped on my .45 revolver. 'Carry it always,'
we were told.
The briefcase. Yep. Five #10 grocery sacks, just about how many I would need when I got airsick and vomited…Okay. Ready for the blue.
From “A Wing
and a Prayer” by Harry H. Crosby, 100th Bombardment Group.
The navigator shared the nose of the aircraft with the bombardier and was responsible for keeping track of where the plane was and what heading the pilot needed to fly to reach the next waypoint on the mission. A bomb group would have a lead navigator that flew in the lead aircraft that actually navigated for the entire group. The navigators in the rest of the group would keep track of their position just in case their aircraft had to drop out of formation and find their way home on their own.
Lead navigators used a number of methods to navigate. It is here where the term "Ships of the Air” probably was most descriptive. The navigator of a B-17 could, and often did, navigate by the sun and stars. Above his position was a small Plexiglas dome where the navigator could take readings from these heavenly bodies. This was most commonly used when bomber crews made their way from the states to England via Iceland and not many visual landmarks existed. During combat, however, most navigators used a combination of pilotage (using visual landmarks to gauge ground speed and location), radio triangulation, or just dead reckoning (the idea that flying at a certain speed, with a certain wind, on a certain heading, mathematically a plane should be in a certain spot) to find their way to and from the target. The radio operator would assist the navigator in his duties by providing periodic radio “fixs” from know radio stations or transmitters. With the horrible weather encountered in Europe, sometimes navigating became more of an art, sprinkled with a lot of luck, rather than science and skill. Later in the war with the development of sophisticated navigation aids such as Gee, navigation became a bit easier.
The navigator also recorded a mission log much like the radio operators. They would record what time they reached their waypoints, where along the route enemy activity (either fighters or flak) were encountered, when fighter escort would appear and when they left, when and where friendly aircraft were seen to go down and how many chutes were seen to come from the aircraft, as well as any other important events along the route. When it came to enemy activity, they would record not just when and where, but also the number of enemy engaged (when it came to fighters), their skill (either expert pilots or accurate, very accurate flak), and the intensity (fighters pressed home attacks until last minute, flak was moderate, light or heavy). Lead navigators also would radio their position back to England about every fifteen minutes or so enabling the brass to track the progress of the mission.
In the event that a bomber had to fall out of formation and go it alone back to base, it was up to the navigator to find the way home. Navigators would have charts and maps that not only showed the terrain, but would also show areas of known flak installations and fighter bases. They usually tried to avoid such areas when flying alone but sometimes battle damage or wounded would necessitate the quickest route home regardless of enemy activity. Many times navigators who showed a talent for true navigation by getting a crew home safely on their own found themselves being trained to be a lead navigator for the group. Since the enemy knew that the lead ship held the groups best bombardier and that he was doing the aiming for the group, enemy fighters tended to concentrate on the lead ships leading to a very short life span for lead navigators and their lead crews.
Just like the rest of the crew, the navigator was also responsible for protecting the aircraft. Usually he would man one, if not both, of the cheek guns located on either side of the nose. On B-17s up to and including the "F" model, the left cheek gun was the navigator's primary weapon while the bombardier/toggler covered the nose guns and right Cheek gun. However, once the "G" model introduced the nose turret the bombardier/togglers usually stuck to the nose turret controls and let the navigator man both cheek guns because of their limited fields of fire.
The navigator, like the pilots and bombardier, was a commissioned officer usually with a starting rank of 1st Lieutenant.