(News-Press.com) - In late 1942, Ira Weis waited in line for a vision test with young men anxious to serve. The 19-year-old from Brooklyn wanted to be a pilot but had already flunked one exam for being colorblind.
His second choice: a radio operator for the U.S. Army Air Force.
Weis knew this test would be like the first. The shapes of numerals were embedded in patches of colors. He asked a guy behind him for help. He was from the Bronx and a bit taller than Weis' own 6-foot stature.
"Look at the numbers and write 'em on my back with your fingers."
"That looks like a…" Weis began.
He felt a finger tracing a 2.
And so they went for 50 numbers.
Weis enlisted and ended up flying 25 missions in Europe on a B-17 Flying Fortress named the Tuxedo Tomie during World War II. He survived heavy enemy fire and close calls, earning him a Distinguished Flying Cross and a certificate that named him to the Lucky Bastards Club for "bringing to Hitler and his cronies tons of bombs … in the interest of liberty loving people everywhere."
His service taught him how to deal with people, preparing him for a 40-year career in insurance before moving to Southwest Florida around 1990. His wife, Dorothy, died in 2006. Working, along with caring for their Shih Tzu, keeps his mind occupied. At 90 years old, the San Carlos Park resident works each weekday doing collections and administrative work for Diamond Security & Sound in south Fort Myers.
"The reason why I don't want to retire is because the mind is still alert and most people who retire, dry up and they're gone," said Weis. "If my mind still works, why not have a job and perform?"
He enjoys the work and his Social Security is not enough. His 49-year-old daughter, Jan Baillargeon, has never heard him complain about having a job. She admires his resolve and sees how it lends purpose to his life.
"I just hope to not have that gene," she said, of his desire to work at age 90.
She attributes his sharp mind to a lifetime of doing crossword puzzles and avid reading. He's also positive. He looks for funny in the bleak. Yet, he insists his secret to longevity is a glass of red wine each night since 1988. He also maintains an interest in history. Sometimes, he'll read his notes detailing his missions in World War II while stationed in England. They draw his memory to a time when youth dulled fear of an abbreviated life.
Mission No. 1
Dec. 30, 1943
We made a 360 degree turn and dropped 32 bombs. … Coming back from target, our oxygen supply began to run out. … When we left formation everyone's oxygen regulator… read zero.
For each mission that followed, Weis would pull out paper and detail the results in his barracks or at the recreation hall. He didn't have a girlfriend to write. He would learn later how his uniform could make women swoon.
Mission No. 2
Jan. 7, 1944
The wing was vibrating something terrible. ... The pilot gave orders to prepare to bail out. ... All of a sudden hell broke loose. For the next four minutes, we rode through a very accurate and concentrated flak barrage. Due to the pilot's evasive flying, we got through in one piece, with no injuries to the crew, but plenty of holes. Result of mission: Ludwigshafen [Germany] wiped out; it was a sea of flame.
The plane crash-landed at a Royal Air Force base to have an engine repaired before flying to its own base in England.
Mission No. 7
Feb. 10, 1944
We realized we were just bait. … Our premonitions came true as enemy fighters attacked us. There were at least 400 of them all over the sky …We saw numerous B-17's, which had straggled for some unknown reason being attacked mercilessly by swarms of Nazis….There were parachutes all over the sky…All the guns were freezing up due to the extreme cold.
Mission No. 18
April 27, 1944
Harry Young was hit in the elbow.… Just as I finished ripping Harry's sleeve open a burst hit the waist breaking the oxygen regulator and cutting his oxygen off. I fortunately missed being hit, although not a foot from the burst. … We landed safely at our base and our injured boys will be okay in about two weeks!
Mission No. 23
June 6, 1944
Today was that long awaited day that the whole world had been dreaming of. Our group put up 48 planes, all we could get in the air…
Evening mission: We got to our base in darkness and missed being hit by other returning planes, which were all over the sky.
After each mission, crew members were given a shot of Johnnie Walker Black to calm their nerves. The ritual cultivated a lifelong taste for scotch in Weis.
Weis would like to cede his mission notes to a museum. In the meantime, he has shared them with family and friends, like Ben Siegel, who is engaged to his daughter.
The accounts resonated with Siegel, as did his future father-in-law's passion for serving the country.
"This guy was flying around in airplanes and he's a 19-year-old kid and he's doing this for our freedom," said Siegel, 49. "There's people like that all around us. They're heroes."